For two decades, Chinese diplomacy has been guided by the concept of the country’s “peaceful rise.”
Today, China needs a new strategic doctrine, because the most remarkable aspect of Sri Lanka’s recent victory over the Tamil Tigers was not its overwhelming nature, but the fact that China provided President Mahinda Rajapaksa with both the military supplies and diplomatic cover he needed to prosecute the war.
Without that Chinese backing, Rajapaksa’s government would have had neither the wherewithal nor the will to ignore world opinion in its offensive against the Tigers. So, not only has China become central to every aspect of the global financial and economic system, it has now demonstrated its strategic effectiveness in a region traditionally outside its orbit. On Sri Lanka’s beachfront battlefields, China’s “peaceful rise” was completed.
What will this change mean in practice in the world’s hot spots like North Korea, Pakistan and Central Asia?
Before the global financial crisis hit, China benefited mightily from the long boom along its eastern and southern rim, with only Burma and North Korea causing instability. China’s west and south, however, have become sources of increasing worry.
Given economic insecurity within China following the financial crisis and global recession, the government finds instability in neighboring territories more threatening than ever. Stabilizing its neighborhood is one reason why China embraced the Six Party Talks with North Korea; became a big investor in Pakistan (while exploring ways to cooperate with US President Barack Obama’s special representative, Richard Holbrooke); signed on to a joint Asia/Europe summit declaration calling for the release of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi; and intervened to help end Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war.
The calculus behind China’s emerging national security strategy is simple. Without peace and prosperity around China’s long borders, there can be no peace, prosperity and unity at home. China’s intervention in Sri Lanka and its visibly mounting displeasure with North Korea and Myanmar suggest that this calculus has quietly become central to the government’s thinking.
This calculus is also being applied to China’s regional rivals. For example, though China said little in public about Russia’s invasion and dismemberment of Georgia last summer, Russia is making a strategic mistake if it equates China’s public silence with tacit acquiescence in the Kremlin’s claim to “privileged” influence in the post-Soviet countries to China’s west.
Proof of China’s displeasure was seen at the last summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional grouping that includes former Soviet countries that share borders with China and Russia.
Russian President Dmitri Medvedev pushed the SCO to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But the SCO balked. The group’s Central Asian members — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — would not have stood up to the Kremlin without China’s support.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin famously described the break-up of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.
From China’s standpoint, however, the Soviet collapse was the greatest strategic gain imaginable. At a stroke, the empire that gobbled up Chinese territories for centuries vanished. The Soviet military threat — once so severe that Chairman Mao Zedong (毛澤東) invited US president Richard Nixon to China to change the Cold War balance of power — was eliminated. China’s new assertiveness suggests that it will not allow Russia to forge a de facto Soviet Reunion and thus undo the post-Cold War settlement, under which China’s economy flourished and security increased.
So far, China’s rulers have regarded emerging strategic competition with India, Japan, Russia and the US as a jostling for influence in Central and South Asia. China’s strategic imperatives in this competition are twofold: to ensure that no rival acquires a dangerous “privileged influence” in any of its border regions and to promote stability so that trade and the sea lanes through which it passes is protected (hence China’s interest in Sri Lanka and in combating Somali pirates).
In the 1990s, China sought to mask its “peaceful rise” behind a policy of “smile diplomacy” designed to make certain that its neighbors did not fear it. China lowered trade barriers and offered soft loans and investments to help its southern neighbors.
Today, China’s government seeks to shape the diplomatic agenda in order to increase its options, while constricting those of potential adversaries.
Instead of remaining diplomatically aloof, China is forging more relationships with its neighbors than any of its rivals. This informal web is being engineered not only to keep its rivals from coalescing or gaining privileged influence, but also to restrain the actions of China’s local partners to dampen tension anywhere it might flare up.
China’s newfound assertiveness, rather than creating fear, should be seen as establishing the necessary conditions for comprehensive negotiations about the very basis of peaceful coexistence and stability in Asia: respect for all sides’ vital interests.
In recent years, such an approach ran counter to Washington’s foreign policy predisposition of favoring universalist doctrines over a careful balancing of national interests. With the Obama administration embracing realism as its diplomatic lodestar, China may have found a willing interlocutor.
Wen Liao is chairwoman of Longford Advisors, a political, economic and business consultancy.
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