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.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has over the past few months continued to escalate its hegemonic rhetoric and increase its incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. The US, in turn, has finally realized how its “strategic ambiguity” is increasingly wearing thin. Similarly, any hopes the US had that the PRC would be a responsible stakeholder and economic player have diminished, if not been abandoned. Taiwan, of course, remains as the same de facto independent, democratic nation that the PRC covets. As a result, the US needs to reconsider not only the amount, but also the type of arms
Taking advantage of my Taipei Times editors’ forbearance, I thought I would go with a change of pace by offering a few observations on an interesting nature topic, the many varieties of snakes in Taiwan. I will be drawing on my experiences living in Taiwan five times, from my teenage years in Kaohsiung back in the early sixties, to my last assignment as American Institute in Taiwan Director in 2006-9. Taiwan, with its semitropical climate, is a perfect setting for serpents. Indeed, one might say serpents are an integral part of the island’s ecosystem. Taiwan is warm, humid, with lots of
China constantly seeks out ways to complain about perceived slights and provocations as pretexts for its own aggressive behavior. It is both victimization paranoia and a form of information warfare that keeps the West on the defensive. True to form, China objected even to the innocuous reference to Taiwan at April 16’s summit meeting between US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Neither leader’s prepared remarks even mentioned Taiwan, out of deference to the Japanese side. Biden’s opening statement was modest: “Prime Minister Suga and I affirmed our ironclad support for US-Japanese alliance and for our shared security.
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