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China's ascent as a global power is certainly a major geopolitical development but the imports and impacts of the process seems not fully mapped and grasped.[i] Different countries perceive the phenomenon from their own vantage points – many are anxious, some admire, and a few are apprehensive. Above all, the fundamental question raised is 'what kind of power China would become'? Will China's rise strengthen or disrupt the global order in vogue?

 

If International Relations Theory is any guide, there has been only one kind of great power and great power tradition, mainly driven by endemic security and economic competition. As a nation becomes more economically powerful, it normally adopts ambitious strategic agenda and asserts itself globally. Among various attributes of a global power, mainly two determine considerably the degree of its globalness. First, how effectively it insulates its own backyard from external intervention; and second, how promptly it ensures other regions of the world not being dominated by any other power. For this to be achieved, an aspiring great power needs to have the capability to be present in every corner of the world at any point of time; in other words, the capacity to become a stakeholder in issues arising out of every part of the world. Generally, this is achieved either through resorting to strategic partnerships/ alliances formation or through setting up of military bases in strategic locations. This has been the case with the process of emergence US as a global power. Will China merely follow US footsteps or is it mapping out altogether a different path to powerdom?

 

At the first glance, it appears that China is poised to become a serious geostrategic competitor to the hegemonic power US – potentially globally, but most immediately in Asia. In pursuit of insulating its backyard from external powers, China is bound to confront the US in the Indo-Pacific periphery as Washington has been dominantly present for long here. Probably for the first time, the US' core objective in Asia – to prevent domination by any indigenous power controlling the region's resources and eventually threatening its local allies – will sufficiently be threatened by China. The PLA's modernisation drive, initially perceived as a reaction to the US' easy access to the Asian periphery to aid Taiwan, is in fact a strategy to maintain a substantial maritime zone of influence spanning some one thousand nautical miles from Chinese shores. China now seems to challenge the role of the US as the most significant player in the Indian Ocean region for the last several years. China's deployment of Jin class submarines near Sanya in the South China Sea and its "String of Pearls" strategy of bases indicate its foray in the Indian Ocean as a maritime power.

 

However, the Chinese challenge to US hegemony has so far been subtle because of its own current strategic priorities. China's primary interest is to maintain its growing pace of economic development within the liberal structural context, which in fact is built and sustained by American hegemony. But, will China recognise the importance of, and benefits accrued out of, the current global liberal order and integrate smoothly into it?

 

To visualise this, one need to analyse to what extent China conforms to the norms set by the West for functioning of the global order. On one hand, Beijing has cultivated relations with some of the world's odious regimes; used force in a number of its border disputes; known for poor global citizenship for its industrial espionage, violations of intellectual property rights, and hostile acts in cyberspace. On the other hand, China's purchase of US$ 50 billion bond from the IMF, its agreement with Japan for a joint hydrocarbon project in disputed waterways and another with Vietnam over the maritime boundary in the Gulf of Tonkin, its backing-off of its vocal opposition to American missile defence plans, its cooperation for Container Security Initiative (CSI), and working in tandem with the US to resolve the nuclear weapons-related challenges posed by Iran and North Korea, give the impression that China is gradually becoming a responsible stakeholder in international system. So far, China has exercised impressive social and strategic control. But this trend will likely be tested subsequently by the approaches through which China resolves the disputes over its claims to the South China Sea, the border issues with India, and its aid and assistance programmes for betterment of others.

 

China's rapid economic rise and military modernisation have enabled it to command increasing influence in the Asia-Pacific region, Europe, Central Asia, Africa, and overall in the international fora. However, it has been castigated for its poor record in matters of human rights and democratic political values. While liberals find China's rise as ideologically incompatible for a world system that has long embraced the Western values, the small neighbouring states especially in East Asia would increasingly view its unremitting defence modernisation with apprehension and welcome a balancer. In South Asia, all countries find rising China solely as an opportunity except India which finds it both a challenge and an opportunity. In the Middle East, China's main priority is to maintain the current balance of power to further its economic interests in context of the relative decline of US influence in the region. China's inroad into Africa, though more mercantilist in nature, is bound to affect the balance of power in the continent dominated by US and European powers. Same is the case in regard to Central Asia where China's advantages are growing especially in terms of acquiring energy resources in competition with Russia and India.

 

Therefore, "it is perhaps in the economic and military sphere that the ascendancy of China gives cause for dismay".[ii] As it becomes more economically powerful, China may adopt more ambitious strategic agenda and assert itself across the globe – a trend which all great powers have followed throughout history. Mainly for China's economic clout, its external behaviour like its collaboration with regimes in Iran, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, Liberia, and Chad, North Korea and its internal authoritarian political dispensation has so far been tolerated. Essentially what will pinch the other major powers more is China's "free-rider" attitude of taking advantage of the order and stability maintained in international system by them without contributing or accommodating substantially the global norms in vogue. In course of time, it would certainly strike the US' mind if the expanded liberal global order that it champions, out of which China is reaping more advantage and likely to marginalise US in many other spheres, is worth pursuing.[iii] This may open up the global power rivalry between China and the West even though economic integration between them is likely to persist.

 

China certainly follows a calculated strategy to marginalise American and European influence in different parts of the globe, and at the same time, tries to prevent preponderance of other regional powers. China's strategy towards India and Japan seems to combine a strategy of engagement with deterrence. A trilateral engagement among India, Japan, and US could be the strategy to maintain the balance of power in Asia and to prevent a power shift completely in China's favour. However, China's economic prowess has given it the leverage and propensity to use its dominant economic position as a political weapon. It will use all its levers at its disposal to raise its profile mainly through economic engagements in far flung areas of the world, though not initially as a hegemonic power. Speculatively, China, though it would like to see that the current impasse on Iran, North Korean nuclear issues does not escalate, would also not like to eventually solve those issues, as they in fact are irritants and challenges for US hegemonic stature. Same is the case regarding the Af-Pak issue, where US is entangled with myriad problems. By continuing its alliance with Pakistan and North Korea, China sends signals to both India and Japan about its upper hand in twisting the geopolitics in their respective vicinities.

 

However, has China nothing to worry about while setting out for a bigger geopolitical role? In fact, bigger status is always attached with bigger risks. The China of today is not the China of yester years, and it will not be the same, decades ahead from what it is today. Both internal and external factors will shape its course of action as well as evolution of its relative power status. At the first instance, as China is a large nation, it has many internal problems, in particular the need to shore up legitimacy and ensure the continuing dominance of the Chinese Communist Party. China's leaders are facing complex social and economic issues, many of them typical of developing countries but at a much larger scale. Some of these are leading to pressures for political or governance reform that will keep the future generation leaders on their toes, and therefore in need of a stable external environment.[iv]

Second, Chinese society and polity is gradually becoming more pluralistic. Foreign policy is increasingly influenced by multiple actors and interests. Mining firms, construction companies, oil industry, fishing companies, major manufacturing enterprises and even local governments of China now have important stakes in various countries of Southeast Asia. One consequence of multiple interests and actors may be a breakdown in traditional discipline and respect for authority of the center, leading to unpredictability and inconsistencies in China's positions in various geopolitical issues. However, emergence of more foreign policy actors may mean the gradual need for Beijing to more carefully weigh and balance competing interests in its foreign policy decision-making, which could constrain the influence of, say military hardliners, party conservatives or nationalistic netizens, in favour of those who emphasize regional integration and more pragmatic, cooperative approaches.[v]

 

Third, Chinese public opinion today is undoubtedly nationalistic in orientation, but it can become a double-edged sword that can be directed at the Chinese government as well. The fear is the liberal minded section of the public may susceptible to external propaganda.

 

Fourth, the strategic competition between China vis-à-vis other regional and global powers may lead to 'power gang-up' against China. Small countries can enlarge their influence by coordinating policies and actions among themselves through various institutions, mechanisms and arrangements. Any such directed grouping would affect China's economic growth which is the fulcrum of its ascendance to a great power status.

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.

 


[i]  SD Muni and Tan Tai Yong, eds. A Resurgent China: South Asian Perspectives (New Delhi: Routledge, 2012).

[ii] Tan Tai Yong, “Introduction”, in Muni and Yong, ibid, p. 3.

[iii] Ashley J. Tellis, Travis Tanner, and Jessica Keough, Strategi Asia 2011-12: Asia Responds to its Rising Powers, China and India, The National Bureau of Asian Research, 2012.

[iv] Aileen S.P. Baviera, “Power asymmetry in South China Sea”, Philippine Daily Inquirer, June 26, 2011.

[v]  Ibid.