Addressing the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on Sunday, Chinese Minister of National Defense General Liang Guanglie (梁光烈) struck all the right notes when he said that China would not become a military threat and would never seek hegemony or military expansion.
While undoubtedly reassuring, that “solemn pledge” by Beijing to the international community was, as is often the case with such proclamations by Chinese officials, more revealing for what it didn’t say.
It is true that China does not have expansionist or imperial designs on its neighbors in the Western understanding of the term. It does not seek to occupy other countries or overthrow governments whose policies it finds disagreeable, nor does it want to impose its own political system on others. In that regard, Beijing has been consistent in its adherence to the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries and Liang’s comments were a reflection of that policy from the military.
What he did not say, however, is that Beijing’s concept of expansionism differs from the way it is normally understood and therein lie the seeds of potential future conflict.
Whereas in the West hegemony uses the state as its reference point, Beijing thinks in terms of civilizational rights. In other words, attempts to recreate an unexpurgated historical China cannot, by definition, constitute expansionism, because that sphere already falls — in Beijing’s view — under its jurisdiction.
It is no secret that the “China” to which Beijing lays claim includes Taiwan, Tibet, parts of the Himalayas, the South China Sea and other areas, all of which are contested by other countries. Just as Liang was soothing the diplomats and security experts gathered in Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam were accusing China of undermining peace and stability over the Spratly Islands (南沙群島).
Despite Liang’s claim that China is 20 years behind the US in military modernization, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has become a force to be reckoned with in the past decade or so, and one that is perfectly capable of deterring, if not defeating, intruders in its backyard.
Once we factor in the PLA’s asymmetrical approach to warfare, as well as the advantage of fighting on its own turf, the idea that China would represent a formidable challenge to the far more advanced US military is no longer so far-fetched.
While it is technically true that China does not threaten military expansion, it nevertheless has the proven capability — and willingness — to strike distant enemies should its “core” interests be threatened by external forces. In other words, while Beijing does not regard its claims on Taiwan as expansionistic, it has all the means to wage war beyond its shores should war break out in the Taiwan Strait, with targets in Japan or in international waters, for example, well within range of a rising number of ballistic missiles.
In Beijing’s eyes, its rise does not constitute expansionism because contested territories all fall under China’s historical jurisdiction, and as long as its neighbors respect those claims, the region will, indeed, be one of “peace and prosperity.” However, given that most countries do not agree with those claims, China will continue to be seen as a rising hegemon and the risk of conflict will remain undiminished.
That’s the fine print in what otherwise sounded like an olive branch from China’s top military officer.
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