China’s “Peaceful Rise”: Implications and Challenges

The peaceful rise of China is not a forgone conclusion. The country is still grappling with a complex mix of military, economic and political dilemmas. This was the key message in LKYSPP Visiting Professor Huang Jing’s seminar on “China’s Peaceful Rise: Implications and Challenges” held on March 29th.

Professor Huang laid out how these dilemmas have shifted China’s perspective towards greater integration in the existing international system. This strategy has resulted in a list of positive implications to China as well as to the outside world, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. But he also outlined the challenges that lie ahead, including geopolitical realities and difficult diplomatic, economic and military challenges that could be triggered by factors from beyond its borders and undermining China’s political stability and peaceful development.

China’s Rise and its Fundamental Dilemmas

Both China’s growing economic and military dexterity and vulnerability were exposed during the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis (AFC), the May 1999 bombardment of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, and the April 2001 Hainan Island incident. During the peak of the AFC, China’s economy still managed to achieve growth and helped to haul the economic downspin of the region. Such action supported the notion that China’s development had to be conducive for the East Asian region. But the 1999 bombardment of the Chinese Embassy, which provoked massive anti-US demonstrations, revealed China’s vulnerability to both external military threats and internal nationalistic sentiment. The 2001 Hainan Island incident, in which the Chinese military detained a US surveillance aircraft and its crew following an emergency landing, demonstrated Beijing’s growing military confidence but raised questions whether China could afford a massive standoff with the US.

Professor Huang outlined three fundamental dilemmas facing a rising China: a) the country’s lack of global military capability; b) avoiding confrontation with the US; and c) external triggers to domestic issues. Despite its fast build-up, the Chinese military has not developed viable global military capability – a precondition for any aspiring global superpower. With limited “hard power,” how China can effectively protect its increasing worldwide “vital interests” remains unanswered. China’s leaders must also grapple with the threat of external factors such as the glare from international media and human rights organizations, which could have an impact on domestic issues and undermine the country’s political stability.

China’s New Diplomatic Strategy

In response to these dilemmas, China’s peaceful rise can be achieved through a new strategy of integration with the existing international economic and political system. Professor Huang says China would seek to integrate into the existing international system by adjusting to the established rules and principals in international affairs. This multilateralism approach would herald positive implications for the world, especially the Asia Pacific region.

Professor Huang further outlined how China would engage the world community. To enable its “peaceful rise,” a stable US relationship still remains the linchpin of China’s foreign policy. China has recognized that the Sino-US relationship is not just a bilateral affair, but also one with global implications. China would no longer see the US as anti-hegemonic and strive to achieve a “strategic common ground.”

Demonstrating its commitment to multilateralism, China would also engage with other major powers to strike a strategic balance and avoid zero-sum games. Towards its neighboring Asian countries, China would accommodate solving territorial disputes and strive for a win-win solution in economic exchanges. China would gradually develop into a status quo power and would oppose attempts that would undermine the stability of the existing international system.

Around the region, Japan is regarded as an Asian neighbor and no longer viewed as a US ally. China has since taken steps to improve the Sino-Japanese relationship. For neighboring North Korea, China is replacing its “peace and stability” approach with a “nuclear free” Korean peninsula. Meanwhile, Beijing would strive to maintain “peaceful development” across the Taiwan Straits. Engagement with ASEAN nations and the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization would likewise remain cordial.

Challenges Ahead: Political, Economic and Security

An emergent China, according to the Professor Huang’s analysis, would increasingly take a leading role in international affairs. As a large stakeholder in the global economy, it would continue to assert its influence to change the rules and share power together with the world’s largest economies. It could not be denied that China has become the dynamic center in Asian politics, economy and diplomacy. It has achieved policy effectiveness through soft authoritarian and a centralized political system. China’s market economy is developing in a flexible “bird cage” where the collective good is placed ahead of individual rights.

However, China’s current political, economic and security systems could also pose serious challenges for the world order. With big power credibility at stake, China’s current political system, especially on fundamental issues such as policy transparency, rule of law and human rights, remains incompatible with the world order. And this has become an essential source of conflict between China and the rest of the world. This problem has cast doubts where and how China should play a leading role in world politics.

China’s financial mercantilism and strong government intervention in the economy raise new challenges to the norms of the world economic order. In its current form of a socialist market economy, there is almost a state monopoly of the financial system, state-direction in major exports and investments with cheap money supply. The government has also monopolized all the backbone industries and all the “strategic” policy-guidance in economic development.

Finally, China is facing a security crossroad. Should the country establish its own global (or at least regional) security framework or continue to align its concerns with the current US-led arrangement? With the Chinese military’s rapid and tremendous build-up, there is a risk that the military may outgrow Beijing’s international security strategy. On the domestic front, the country’s rising nationalism could easily spill over to regional territorial disputes. These transnational conflicts would force China’s leaders to appear firm and leave them little room to maneuver.

Conclusion

In this lecture, Professor Huang discussed how the remarkable development of China’s market reforms has brought about positive economic, political and security implications for the region and the world. This could be seen in its support for multilateralism and the existing international system. However, there are still unresolved domestic economic and political issues that could force Beijing to rethink its current strategy, thus leaving China’s “peaceful rise” anything but certain.

— by Bernard ‘Berno’ Oh (MPP 09/11)

[NB: Please do not quote the speaker without obtaining written permission.]

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