Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, is reportedly of the view that the 21st century belongs to China, considering that its economic output is projected to far outstrip that of the US by about 2030 at US$42 trillion for China to US$24 trillion for the US.
Whether or not this will eventuate is difficult to say, as there are a number of variables.
However, there is no doubt that under Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), who has been anointed the country’s supreme leader for an indefinite period, China has decided to march forward to what it might consider is its destiny as the old Middle Kingdom.
Its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative appears to interconnect the world with and from China in all directions, while Beijing has virtually served notice that the South China Sea is its own private lake.
It is true that the US is challenging this by occasional naval and aerial patrols, but China is in actual control of the sea, with a wide array of military facilities and weaponry.
Some countries with their own sovereignty claims over some of the South China Sea islands even seem to be adjusting to the realities of the situation, but are not happy with the situation.
Malaysia, under its new government, is a case in point. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has sought to express this by dissociating himself from his predecessor, who cozied up to China. He has done this on two levels.
First, he has suspended multibillion-US dollar projects to be built with Chinese assistance, apparently as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The projects included two energy pipelines and a rail project along the peninsula of Malaysia’s east coast.
Malaysia is not keen to get into a debt trap.
At another level, Mahathir has urged Beijing to respect the free movement of ships throughout the South China Sea and has cautioned against further militarizing the contested waters.
“We are all for ships, even warships, passing through, but not stationed here [in the South China Sea],” Mahathir said. “It is a warning to everyone. Don’t create tension unnecessarily.”
Mahathir is not alone. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, under whom the country has made peace with China by going quiet on its sovereignty claims despite a ruling in its favor by an international tribunal, has also expressed concerns about Beijing’s activities.
In a recent speech he reportedly said that China’s claim to airspace above newly built islands and surrounding waters in the disputed South China Sea “is wrong.”
“They [China] have to rethink that, because that would be a flashpoint some day — you cannot create an island, it’s man made, and you say that the air above these artificial islands is yours,” Duterte said.
“That is wrong because those waters are what we consider international sea [where] the right of innocent passage is guaranteed,” he added. “It does not need any permission to sail through the open seas.”
He said he hoped that “China would temper … its behavior” lest “one of these days a hothead commander there will just press a trigger.”
Mahathir and Duterte have been careful not to confront China. Indeed, both have sought economic cooperation with China. Duterte has praised China for its readiness to provide help, apparently referring to economic assistance. Mahathir has been visiting China to explore avenues for economic cooperation.
However, by being critical of China in some ways, they seem to have broken a regional taboo.
China is reported to have transformed seven disputed reefs into islands using dredged sand and is claiming sovereignty over surrounding waters and space, and Philippine patrols have been warned off the area for “endangering the security of the Chinese reef.”
A Philippine Air Force plane was told to “leave immediately and to keep off to avoid misunderstanding.”
Even when China is emerging as the pre-eminent regional power, with tremendous economic and military clout to punish regional neighbors that might create trouble, it is not a good sign that two of them, Malaysia and the Philippines, have publicly voiced their concern.
If this gathers momentum, China might need to consider if it has overreached in its policy to turn the South China Sea into its private lake.
At home, China is facing difficulties resulting from its large domestic economic debt, estimated to be 250 percent of its GDP, and pressures from the tit-for-tat tariffs between it and the US.
Politically too, an online essay by Xu Zhangrun (許章潤), a law professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, has delivered a critical broadside about the country’s direction.
“People nationwide, including the entire bureaucratic elite, feel once more lost in uncertainty about the direction of the country and about their own personal security, and the rising anxiety has spread into a degree of panic throughout society,” Xu reportedly wrote.
Xu, who is a visiting senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Asian Law Centre, reportedly urged Chinese lawmakers to reverse the vote in March that abolished a two-term limit on Xi’s presidency.
At the same time, China is facing international criticism over its treatment of the Uighur population in the Xinjiang region. It has rejected allegations raised by a UN panel that as many as 1 million Uighurs could be held in internment camps there.
To add to all of this, the much promoted Belt and Road Initiative is likely to run into problems, with recipient countries owing huge debts that they might not be able to service, resulting in China acquiring all those problematic foreign assets.
Could it be that China is doing too many things at the same time and creating more problems than solutions?
Sushil Seth is a commentator based in Australia.
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