x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

It's China's time, but is it asking for too much?

China expects neighbouring countries and allies to give priority to its interests and not make any decisions that may negatively impact them.

After decades of watching China follow Deng Xiaoping's dictum of taoguang yanghui - usually translated as "bide our time and build up our capabilities" - observers may be forgiven for thinking that China has decided that its time has come. 

China has acted in an arrogant manner, snubbing the US president Barack Obama in Copenhagen by sending junior officials to negotiate with him, demanding that Japan apologise for the seizure of a Chinese vessel and fulminating against the Nobel Committee for turning the Peace Prize into "a political tool that serves an anti-China purpose" by giving the award to a political dissident.

China's new assertiveness stems from a combination of factors: rising nationalism, the global financial crisis that suddenly elevated China's status, and a perception that a new world order is in the making, with the United States in inexorable decline.

The rise in Chinese nationalism was probably inevitable. After all, China has been the world's fastest growing economy, having grown an average of 10 per cent for the past 30 years. The highly successful Beijing Olympics, at which China for the first time harvested more gold medals than the United States, added to the nation's sense of confidence.

When China first shifted from Maoist class struggle to economic development, it was prepared to learn at the feet of American gurus, but never to accept a subordinate status. After the financial crisis erupted in 2008, China has viewed the United States through a much more critical lens and does not hesitate to lecture its former teacher. The lectures encompass climate change, human rights, steering clear of China's disputes with other countries - and economics in particular.

The global economic crisis marked a turning point in China's relations with the West. In June 2008, Zhou Xiaochuan, the governor of the People's Bank of China, said pointedly at a meeting of the US-China Strategic Economic Dialogue that China was no longer learning positive lessons from the United States, instead learning from its mistakes. And despite the crisis, the Chinese economy continued to grow at 9 per cent in 2009, as the US experienced a 2.9 per cent contraction.

China's emergence as the major creditor to the United States also had an effect on the national psyche, especially when the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton pleaded with Beijing to continue buying US Treasury bonds and announced before her first official visit in 2009 that she would not emphasise human rights. This reversal, with the US seemingly dependent on China, has had an effect on many Chinese government officials, military officers and academics who believe that a new world order is underway and China needs to be treated with greater respect.

An early manifestation of this was when the Obama administration announced a $6.4 billion arms package for Taiwan in January 2009. Instead of going through the motions of objecting and then going back to business as usual, Beijing's response was vociferous. It not only suspended military-to-military relations with Washington, but also threatened to punish companies that sell weapons to Taiwan - something it had never done before.

The US secretary of defence Robert Gates was bewildered, pointing out that arms sales to Taiwan "are nothing new" and "spanned multiple American administrations". True, but the two countries did sign an agreement in 1982 in which the US promised that its arms sales to Taiwan "will not exceed, either in qualitative or in quantitative terms, the level of those supplied in recent years ... and that it intends to reduce gradually its arms sales to Taiwan, leading over a period of time to a final resolution".

It is difficult to reconcile that pledge with Washington's behaviour since. For instance, it sold 150 F-16s to Taiwan in 1992. Of course, the US can point to changes on the ground, such as China's missile buildup across from Taiwan, necessitating stronger defensive measures.

There are divisions within China's leadership about its policies towards the US and its own political system. The Chinese premier Wen Jiabao has repeatedly spoken about reform, but his remarks are censored within China. Despite China's occasional pledges not to mix economic and political issues, officials are prepared to use all of what they call their comprehensive national power - military, economic and even soft power - when engaged with an adversary, such as withholding the sale of rare earths. But while change is underway, a new world order is still a work in progress and China is far from being king of the hill.

Given these new circumstances, what implications does China's rise have for its Asian neighbours and the West? Some astute observers believe that China is reviving the tributary system that marked several thousand years of imperial rule, with countries on its periphery acknowledging Chinese supremacy albeit with no treaties spelling out the relationship. In an article titled China's Second Rise: Implications for Global and Regional Order, James C Hsiung of New York University writes about the regional implications "under Pax Sinica".

"The regions as they exist today will most likely survive, but under the influence of geo-economics," he writes. "In the Pacific Asian region, China will probably feel most comfortable playing the role of the exalted suzerain."

This means that China expects neighbouring countries to give priority to its interests and not make any decisions that may negatively impact them. China comes first and its neighbours second. China's neighbours, especially US allies such as Japan and South Korea, but also the countries of Southeast Asia, must ask themselves: Is this the future that we want for ourselves?


Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and writer. His book, Ancestors: 900 Years in the Life of a Chinese Family, was recently republished in paperback

© Yale Center for the Study of Globalization