Wednesday, April 01, 2009

China's "Peaceful Ascendancy"

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, some international observers have predicted that China would be the next major counter-balance to US power and the only country with the potential to challenge American hegemony on a global scale. But, Chinese officials are now at pains to deny that they have any ambition to reign supreme again in Asia or destabilize the world economically, politically, or militarily. Veteran China watcher Yoichi Funabashi says that although Beijing does hope to quadruple its GDP by 2020, Chinese scholars and government officials are studying the lessons of history to avoid repeating the mistakes that led the USSR and the US into a protracted, dangerous Cold War. Choosing a path of 'peaceful ascendancy', Funabashi says, China's leaders are trying to wisely steer their country to greatness, not planning to make a brash play for power as some critics fear. Whether the government in Beijing is successful in this venture, however, will depend on how well it is able to manage the sentiments and aspirations of its people. - YaleGlobal

China's "Peaceful Ascendancy"

Despite its new found economic and military muscle, China promises to be a good neighbor and global citizen, not a threat

A booming Shanghai (top); Chinese navy ship visits Pearl Harbor: China assures its emergence is peaceful.

TOKYO: There was a time when Chinese leaders described their country as a poor, developing country. It was no false modesty. But in the past two decades China has witnessed prodigious economic growth, with an increase in its military might and attendant political clout. There is no doubt about "the rise of China", but will it, like many a rising power before, disturb the neighborhood and destabilize the world? Beijing now acknowledges that it is a rising power but says China will pursue a "peaceful ascendancy". The future of peace in Asia will to a large extent hang on that promise.

The rise - or rather reemergence - of China promises to be a historic undertaking comparable to or even greater than that of postwar Japan. Beijing's target is to increase its per capita gross domestic product fourfold by 2020, to attain what it calls a state of "relative comfort" (xiaokang). However, its future outlook on the world and foreign policy is uncertain. In what ways China will rise is also unclear.

In international politics, how a country rises often has more drastic consequences for the world than the rise itself. The speed, velocity, ideology, and most significantly, the impact it has on the international balance of power, cause other countries to harbor suspicion, caution, jealousy, and fear, and trigger antipathy among other reactions. The way Germany in the late 19th century and Japan at the beginning of the 20th century made remarkable advances sparked considerable reactions from established powers.

"The rise of China" could also trigger all of the above. Many things in China are regarded as potential forces that could change the status quo and provoke anxiety: the size of its population; low wages; the "great leap forward" in economic growth; environmental destruction; Beijing's insistence on maintaining a one-party system; exclusionary nationalism; and eventual confrontation with the United States.

However, I recently took part in an international conference alongside several Chinese diplomats and researchers and learned that China itself is more aware of these dangers than anyone else. A researcher at a Beijing-based government-affiliated think tank commented: "China aims to grow and advance without upsetting existing orders. We are trying to rise in a way that benefits our neighbors." I was also told that China is pursuing a process of "peaceful ascendancy" (heping jueqi).

As for US relations, China has been faithfully following Deng Xiaoping's advice to Jiang Zemin to "never act haughtily". For now, China is concentrating on domestic economic construction and refraining from projecting its power externally. However, this is because it is still in the development phase. The question is, once it surpasses a state of "relative comfort", will it become "haughty"?

The concept of "peaceful ascendancy" appears to imply a long-term strategy. A member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference said: "How did historic empires and major powers rise and what reactions did they trigger? What should we do so as not to cause excessive wariness? This is what we are currently studying internally".

A researcher at an influential Chinese think tank responded: "We are studying the origin of the US-Soviet Cold War. Why did it happen? Was there no way to prevent it? Some see that a US-China cold war is inevitable, but what can we do to prevent it?"

In addition to containing the "China threat" theory popular in some US political circles, it appears China's "peaceful ascendancy" concept is also aimed at laying the groundwork for its "major power diplomacy", as can be seen in the hosting of the six-party talks over the North Korean nuclear and missile problem.

The November-December issue of Foreign Affairs magazine contains an article by Evan S. Medeiros and M. Taylor Fravel entitled "China's New Diplomacy". It presents the views of experts on Chinese foreign policy that China should overcome its long-held "victim mentality" and adopt a "great power mentality" instead. These experts must be aware that there is no greater threat to the world than the emergence of a major power in possession of a victim mentality

Still, can China readily dispel the humiliation and victim mentality it has harbored since the mid-19th century? The semi-colonization and construction of foreign settlements at Canton, Shanghai, and Qingdao, and the Japanese invasion and establishment of Manchukuo are still sources of acute sensitivity. Against the background of the glorious Tang dynasty, even after 150 years these deep wounds to China's pride may yet need time to heal.

Today, the Internet is so flooded with Chinese public opinion obsessed with xenophobic vengeful thoughts and Sino-centrism that a Chinese intellectual likened it to "Dazibao" (big wall newspaper) during the Cultural Revolution. When I pointed this out, the leader of a Beijing think tank remarked: "China's mainstream is more calm and analyzes the situation objectively. Please don't accept Internet public opinion without question". I certainly hope that's true.

Chinese people give vent to their anti-US sentiments, whereas they tend to keep their antipathy to Japan bottled up. A veteran Chinese diplomat who made reference to such "warped reality" cited an example of business negotiations over the bullet train.

"Even though placing an international order for the construction of a high-speed railway that links Beijing and Shanghai is a purely technical and economic matter that has to do with introducing what kind of technology from which country, when it involves Japan, (in China) the problem tends to become a complex political and emotional issue. It is making a wall that stands between China and Japan".

Similar problems also appear in Sino-US relations and there is particular concern about the Internet, where Anti-American sentiments run high. Anti-US expressions have become a source of considerable unease. For instance, a recent opinion poll reported that 90% of Chinese people believed the CIA planted SARS in China. This and similar conspiratory theories toward the US are now the rule of the day.

Although the Chinese leadership appears to be faithfully enacting Deng Xiaoping's maxim of never acting haughtily towards the US, there are some that suspect they are also sitting pretty according to Mao Tse-tung's "protracted strategy" - waiting patiently for the US to burn out. Even Deng Xiaoping's directive of 1991 advised that China should "hide our capacities and bide our time" (taoguang yanghu).

For China there are two formidable challenges ahead. First, as part of its peaceful ascendancy strategy China must learn to respect and observe the rule of law on the international stage. China also needs to accustom itself to treating others as equals, particularly other Asian countries. These are no longer the days of the Middle Kingdom, to which all others pay obeisance and send gifts.

Second, China needs to tread a careful path in its policy towards the US. China should not present a threat to America, but at the same time Washington also has to accept China's new directive and "peaceful ascendancy strategy".

On these and other matters, China has already begun to take large strides forward. The fact that Chinese intellectuals have come to voice such views so frankly is in itself a major change and an important step in the right direction. Is this not also part of the "peaceful ascendancy" process?

Yoichi Funabashi is a columnist and chief diplomatic correspondent for the Asahi Shimbun. He served as a correspondent in Beijing and Washington.

© 2003 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization