The early and middle parts of the past decade witnessed the emergence of an expression which could be heard bouncing off the walls of China-centered policy and academic institutions. This expression, examined at length by some academics (Robert Sutter, for example), was used by Chinese policymakers to calm concerns about China’s growing international profile. The “peaceful rise of China” or “China’s peaceful rise,” whichever way one chooses to translate it, was thrown around so often that it was almost accepted as a given (in his 2005 book China’s Rise in Asia: Promises and Perils, Sutter does not assume the rise to be peaceful).
However, recent events and especially this year (which, incidentally, marks the beginning of a new decade), have forced scholars to revisit the idea of China’s rise being peaceful. Repeated incidents on the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea, ever more strident Chinese protests regarding US arms sales to Taiwan and the continuous — and by some reports accelerating — military buildup across the Taiwan Strait despite “warming relations” with Taiwan, episodes in the East China Sea with Japan, and the recent debacle regarding Chinese protests which kept a US governor from visiting Taiwan, just to name a few, have, some would say rightfully, brought the “peaceful rise” concept under the microscope.
Some have discounted the idea of a “peaceful rise” as preposterous, citing numerous examples from history in which rising powers have challenged, usually with force, the established order.
Others believe it possible, depending on Chinese dispositions, the international environment and the ability of China’s political system to “reform” (and by reform, these writers, usually Western academics, mean democratic reform).
In this context, few of these academics and writers look beyond the near-to-medium term in order to address the idea of an international environment in which China has already become “top dog.”
Although this may be far in the future (if it occurs at all), responsible professionals, before they begin formulating their conclusions on the immediate future, should first attempt to consider a system in which China would be accepted as the global leader. From a geopolitical perspective, this is difficult to imagine.
First, as an engine of Asian economic growth, China has over the past three decades made a statement internationally. Whether that statement is positive or negative will be left for future historians to analyze. What is clear, however, is that to most democratic nations, China will continue to be considered a developing nation, not a developed nation. Such a situation will forever leave China, global leader or not, with an inferiority complex. The sense from most nations, as China hails another successful space mission or another trip to the bottom of the ocean, of “been there, done that [and long ago]” will always overshadow such Chinese accomplishments.
This brings me to my next point: If China is to be accepted by the global community as not just “a” but “the” leader, it needs to do something new. This does not downplay Chinese accomplishments, it simply begs the question: If China is to follow through on its promises to nations resenting US supremacy, it has to be able to offer them something different to the US.