A risen China reaches for powerBy Philip Stephens
Published: December 9 2010 20:22 | Last updated: December 9 2010 20:22
China is in unapologetic mood. Not so long ago Beijing routinely protested its anxiety not to disturb the established international order. But a rising China has now become a risen China. Past inhibitions are being shed. Beijing looks as if it is formulating an east Asian version of America’s Monroe doctrine.
The effort to organise a boycott of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony is a small part of this new assertiveness. During a few days in the Chinese capital I must have been told more than a dozen times that the democracy activist Liu Xiaobo was a common criminal. Awarding him the prize had been a calculated provocation. The Nobel committee, apparently, is no more than a pliant tool of western governments.
There is more to the change in the atmosphere than a burning resentment at the west’s admonitions about universal values. China is drawing sharper distinctions between its own and others’ national interests – something seen in its responses this year to the rising tensions on the Korean peninsula.
Beijing has its own, genuine frustrations with the dangerously unpredictable Kim Jong-il and his country’s nuclear weapons programme. North Korean attacks on the South menace regional peace. Pyongyang’s record as a nuclear proliferator threatens global stability. But to China’s mind, the need for stability trumps all else. Beijing is not willing to see Korea reunited on South Korea’s (and America’s) terms.
My exchanges on this latest trip surprised me. I had become accustomed to being told that China had studied carefully the lessons of history. Foreign affairs experts in the Chinese capital seemed to know more about Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany than most Europeans. Collisions between rising and existing powers had been the stuff of too many wars. China’s “peaceful rise” would avoid such a calamity.
As far as I can tell, such phrases have been quietly dropped from the lexicon. They have been replaced by the frequent observation that US hegemony has come to an end; that multi-polarity is now the organising fact of international life; and that China’s strategic interests have expanded in line with its economic power. Beijing needs to protect those interests – one reason it is now building a powerful navy.
I should enter a couple of caveats here. Almost every conversation with a Chinese policymaker still starts with the domestic – with the overriding priority of sustaining economic growth and preserving the social and political order.
Foreign affairs are an extension of domestic policy. What counts is that China retains access to the oil and other natural resources needed to fuel its economy. Social stability is judged more critical than ever during the transition to a new generation of leaders in 2012.
It is also a mistake to assume that China has a monolithic worldview. There is an active debate within the party on the approach to take to the west in general and to the US in particular. Beijing, like Washington, has its hawks and doves. It also has domestic politics.
I caught sight of some of the competing currents during a fascinating event at the Party School of the Communist Party of China. The school is the Ecole Nationale of the Communist elite, headed as it is by Xi Jinping, the assumed heir to president Hu Jintao. Last week it played host to a unique discussion with a group of Europeans and Americans from the Aspen Italia Institute and the Aspen Strategy Group of the US.
One senior Chinese official told the story of a recent seminar she had attended at the school. Some of her classmates thought Washington the eternal rival, never to be trusted. Others said China’s interest resided in constructive engagement with the US. This was an argument that was not about to go away.
Elsewhere, I caught a glimpse of the differences between the People’s Liberation Army and civilian officials. One of the paradoxes of great power status is that it brings its own vulnerabilities. China’s dependence on foreign raw materials means it has more to lose. This insecurity has empowered the PLA. So has the rising nationalism transmitted from the streets across thousands of internet sites.
There were signs that Beijing might take half a step back. It has become sufficiently nervous about an escalation on the Korean peninsula to try harder to calm Pyongyang. Officials worry that the tensions threaten to cast a pall over Mr Hu’s state visit to the US next month.
They also complain that China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea have been misrepresented. Though some in the PLA would wish it to be so, these waters have not been formally designated as a “core interest” comparable to China’s claims on Taiwan and Tibet.
For all such qualifications, there is a palpable sense that China is impatient to control the seas around its coastline – that it is mapping a maritime zone in which it cannot be challenged by the US.
Angry clashes with Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea, and with Vietnam and others over boundaries in the South China Sea, have coincided with the rapid build-up of the PLA’s navy. A couple of centuries ago President James Monroe asserted US primacy in the western hemisphere. Why, you can hear Beijing asking itself, should not China do the same in east Asia?
Such thoughts have seen several of China’s neighbours – Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia as well as Japan and South Korea – edge closer to the US. South Korea is promising to reward North Korean bellicosity with, well, bellicosity. Washington has been cementing a strategic relationship with India. All this, I heard Chinese officials protest, was a mark of US determination to contain China rather than a response to aggression on the part of Beijing.
I think Washington’s purpose is to constrain rather than to contain: to signal that the US is going to be around in Asia for many decades to come. What strikes me, though, is the potential for miscalculation. But then, there was never anything inevitable about a peaceful rise.
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