As the world anxiously waits to see which direction the Chinese Communist Party will take amid rising tensions pitting China against its neighbors and the US, some commentators appear to be bending over backward to try to explain away Beijing’s behavior, which, for those of us in Asia, has all the appearance of belligerence.
From claims that the West is “inventing the China threat” to the argument that Chinese leaders have displayed “more self-control when it comes to sovereignty issues than their counterparts in Japan, Russia, South Korea and Taiwan,” some pundits are proposing that China’s recent patterns of behavior have been solely in reaction to an increasingly hostile environment.
As usual, it is the US, with its neoconservatives, military industrial complex and fear-mongering media, that shares the largest part of the blame for China’s anxiety.
Or so we are told. Having “defeated” the Soviet Union, Washington had to “invent” a new enemy (global terrorism apparently was not enough) and embarked on a program to surround and contain it by “pivoting” to Asia, “re-opening” air force bases and coming up with esoteric concepts like Air-Sea Battle.
That is all fine and well, and there is no doubt that with elections approaching, the US polity has entered a period where the “red scare” probably has more traction than it usually would (one need only look at the trailer for the recent Death by China documentary to get a taste of how extreme the rhetoric can get).
However, to claim that Chinese behavior played no role in the growing sense of crisis, or that its recent assertiveness was purely in reaction to insecurity, rather than the cause, stretches the imagination.
For one, China’s military buildup began years before the current situation in the East and South China seas arose. That expansion, both in budgetary terms and in the type of equipment the People’s Liberation Army is deploying, therefore cannot have been the result of supposed troublemaking by Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Chinese state-owned media, as well as military pundits, have also adopted an undeniably nationalistic and belligerent tone, while protests over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) have called for Tokyo to be “washed in blood” and for the South China Sea to be turned into a “sea of fire.”
Although it is fair to say that editorials and demonstrations do not necessarily reflect Beijing’s policy, China is nevertheless the only country in the region that has resorted to such rhetoric and Chinese leaders appear to have done little, if anything, to temper it.
It is also hard to see how building an air force base at Shuimen in Fujian Province, complete with multirole combat aircraft that can reach the Diaoyutais within 12 minutes, is more restrained than, say, Taipei’s call for an East China Sea peace initiative.
The whole notion that the US is re-engaging the region with an imperial agenda and to prevent China’s rise is also ludicrous. Knowing it was seriously outgunned by China, the Philippines turned to the US for assistance. As did Vietnam, whose painful history of entanglement with the US and long tradition of independence hardly makes it amenable to a greater US role in the region. That Hanoi would call upon its old adversary for help speaks volumes about the sense of anxiety that has developed within the region as China becomes more assertive.
Compounding all this is the fact that the world’s No. 2 economy, which is rapidly building one of the most modern armed forces on the planet, is run by an authoritarian regime that has not hesitated to use force against its own people. Such behavior, added to the possibility that it could be replicated in China’s foreign policy, understandably puts other countries on edge.
The “China threat” is no invention. It is a reality that must be addressed realistically and, if the situation calls for it, with firmness. Ignoring it will not make it go away.
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