For two decades, Chinese diplomacy has been guided by the concept of the country’s “peaceful rise.” Today, however, China needs a new strategic doctrine, because the most remarkable aspect of Sri Lanka’s recent victory over the Tamil Tigers is not its overwhelming nature, but that China provided Sri Lankan 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 hotspots 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 in the wake of the global recession, China’s government finds insecurity in neighboring territories more threatening than ever. Stabilizing its neighborhood is one reason why China embraces the six-party talks with North Korea, has become 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 from detention of Burmese opposition leader Daw 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 the North Korean and Burmese regimes, suggests that this calculus has quietly become central to the government’s thinking.
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 first seen at last year’s 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.
At this year’s just-concluded SCO summit, the pattern continued. The brief appearance of disputed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may have made all the headlines, but China’s announcement of a US$10 billion fund to support the budgets of financially distressed ex-Soviet states, which followed hard on a US$3 billion investment in Turkmenistan and a US$10 billion investment in Kazakhstan, provides more evidence that China now wants to shape events across Eurasia.