In a perfect world, China’s rise to power would be conducted peacefully and benefit not only itself, but its neighbors and the world at large. Pragmatic thinkers in China would prevail over their hawkish rivals and steer a course of cooperation — not confrontation — with the rest of the world, creating a win-win situation for everyone.
This is what many academics are again hoping for now that former Chinese Communist Party secretary of Chongqing and Cultural Revolution throwback Bo Xilai (薄熙來) has been toppled. They want a return to the good old days when everybody could make money in China and feel safe from Beijing making ridiculous demands on the rest of the world or military threats against its neighbors.
However, even without Bo around to sharpen the rhetoric, it seems unlikely that Beijing will return to an era of cooperation with the rest of the world, as Tamkang University professor Lin Chong-pin (林中斌) predicted in a recent analysis of Chinese diplomacy.
Lin is right that things have not gone so well for China diplomatically since it gave up on its good neighbor policy in 2009 to pursue its nationalist agenda in the region. The Philippines, Vietnam, Australia, the US, India and Japan all seem ready to gang up on China if it continues to throw its weight around in such a bellicose way.
It seems likely that leaders such as Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) and Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) know that, and are ready to put on a good face for a while to push forward China’s agenda without alarming the region.
The military hawks behind the new generation of smiling Chinese leaders will likely go along with this as long as they think it is necessary, or else they would not have allowed Bo to be pulled from his perch.
However, it is doubtful that any of China’s leaders have really given up on their plan to become, if not the world’s, then at least the region’s, most powerful player.
Even China’s more pragmatic leaders seem bent on the idea of taking back what they see as China’s rightful place atop the global power hierarchy. Whatever diplomacy they use is just a backdrop for the ultimate goal of becoming the major power in the region that calls all the shots. It is just a matter of how they will go about doing that and how long it will take.
Bo’s way was not working. China’s bellicosity came too early, and would have caused too many of its neighbors to band together to fight if it continued. The new path of cooperation is much more likely to work for Beijing, just like it did in the past, ever since former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) formulated the stance: “Struggle with rivals, but make sure not to break the relationships.”
China will again attempt to lull its neighbors into complacency through cooperation, and many will fall into that trap because they will be happy to make money off the stable relationships between countries in the region.
However, China has already shown its cards over the past few years, demonstrating that it could easily turn into a regional bully. If anything, that has tipped everybody off to Beijing’s real plan — cooperate just long enough until it has the means to take over the entire region.