China's rise a challenge

Inter-State A range of neighbours have become a target of China's assertive strategy

China's rise a challenge

As tensions continue to mount between India and China over their disputed Himalayan border, ahead of a visit to New Delhi later this month by the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, China’s larger foreign policy behaviour is coming under global scrutiny.

It is not only Delhi that has been the target but a range of neighbours have become part of China’s new strategy of asserting itself in its periphery. China is involved in an increasingly bitter stand-off with Japan over the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China, which lie atop of possibly large energy reserves. According to Japanese media reports, Chinese military planes, mostly fighter jets, made more than 40 flights close to Tokyo-controlled islands on a single day just a few days back. In response, fighter planes from an airbase on the Japanese island of Okinawa scrambled to intercept the Chinese aircraft which flew in waves towards the islands.

China has been virtually occupying Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) since last year after President Benigno Aquino III of the Philippines ordered the withdrawal of the country's vessels following a tense stand-off triggered by the apprehension of Chinese fishermen and seizure of their fishing vessels by the passing Philippine Navy flagship while conducting illegal poaching and illegal fishing activities in the area. Chinese surveillance ships deployed within the Philippines' Panatag Shoal have now started imposing a 15-mile fishing restriction around the contested area.

The Chinese military was forced to admit in March this year that one of its ships did fire at a Vietnamese fishing boat near the disputed Paracel Islands after chasing the vessel, although it insisted that only flares were shot. China also sent a naval flotilla at the southern tip of China’s expansive “nine-dashed line, angering Brunei and Malaysia as they too have claims there.  In response, Southeast Asian nations have stepped up efforts to engage China in talks to resolve maritime tensions, agreeing to meet to try to reach common ground on disputed waters, ahead of planned discussions in Beijing later this year.

Peaceful rise myth

After suggesting that their nation intends to rise peacefully, Chinese political leaders are finding it hard to maintain that pretence. The myth of China’s peaceful rise is being challenged by China’s own actions as it expands its interests and asserts it power in its neighbourhood. Chinese restrictions on exports of crucial ‘rare earth’ minerals, first to Japan and then to the US and Europe in 2010, underscored for its trading partners China’s propensity to use its dominant economic position as a political weapon. Complaints about China’s undervalued currency have only grown louder. China’s lack of democracy is also emerging as a major concern. China is the only non-democratic power of the world’s six biggest powers and that will have profound consequences for the way other powers view China’s rise.

Meanwhile, China’s neighbours are busy rejuvenating old alliances and reaching out to new partners to better defend their interests against the rising great power in their vicinity. Changing perceptions about China’s rise were clearly articulated by Yoichi Funabashi, Japan’s most important foreign affairs commentator, when in a letter sent to his high-ranking friends in China in response to Sino-Japanese tensions in 2010, he suggested that if China continued to undermine its “peaceful rise” doctrine, then “Japan would discard its naïveté, lower its expectations, acquire needed insurance and, in some cases, cut its losses.” In a way, he summed up the fundamental challenge that China’s faces as it continues its ascent in global inter-state hierarchy.

China’s rise in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century is a return to the status it held for most of the past 2000 years, of East Asia’s economic and military giant as well as the centre of high-technology and culture. It should not be surprising then that Beijing has started dictating the boundaries of acceptable behaviour to its neighbours and laid bare the costs of great power politics.

The rise of China is now a structural reality that other states in the international system are trying to come to grips with.For its part, China is merely following in the footsteps of other major global powers who have asserted themselves abroad more forcefully in order to secure their interests as their economic and military capabilities increase.  There is only one kind of great power, and one kind of great power tradition. China is not going to be any different. A superpower is a superpower, and it is time to shed the sophomoric naivety behind the mistaken belief that China’s ascent to power will be any different; power is necessarily expansionist. The sooner the world acknowledges this, the better it will be for global stability.

(The writer is a Reader in International Relations, Department of Defence Studies, King's College London, United Kingdom.)

Forward policy

Sept 7, 1993: Agreement on the maintenance of peace and tranquility along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which is seen as a major breakthrough in India-China relations after the 1962 war. Both countries agreed that the ‘boundary question’ should be resolved through peaceful and friendly consultations and not by force. They also agreed that the LAC would be strictly observed and, if one side crossed the line, they would pull back immediately after being confirmed by other side.

Nov 29, 1996: Agreement on Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) in the military field along the LAC, which envisages reduction of armaments on both sides of the LAC, avoidance of largescale military exercises, exchange of data of military forces and armaments to be reduced.

April 11, 2005: Protocol on modalities for the implementation of CBMs. Agreement on the political parameters and guiding principles for the settlement of the boundary question that marked the end of the first phase of the dialogue between Special Representatives of the two countries – a process started in 2003.

May 31, 2006: MoU for defence cooperation established a mechanism to ensure frequent and regular bilateral exchanges between leaders and officials of the defence ministries and the armed forces, apart from holding regular joint military exercises and training programmes.

Jan 17, 2012: Agreement on the establishment of a working mechanism for senior diplomats of both sides to start consultations to resolve occasional flashpoints along the LAC to prevent escalation of tension.

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