The Great Reverse – Part II
The Great Reverse – Part II
WASHINGTON: "Let him who tied the bell on the tiger take it off - whoever started the trouble should end it." - That is how China's ambassador to Singapore recently asked his host country to repair the ties damaged by a Singapore leader's visit to Taiwan. Although Singapore has maintained unofficial ties with Taiwan since it normalized relations with Beijing in 1990, the Chinese ambassador said he was "shocked, disappointed, and baffled" by then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's unofficial visit to Taipei. Lee was about to take over as Premier. In the larger scheme of things, this may prove to be a passing cloud, but the incident puts in sharp relief a remarkable transformation of Chinese power in the region. How China will be wielding its newly acquired power in the coming months and years will be keenly watched in Southeast Asia. Will China's rise be as peaceful as Beijing claims, or will it give in to the temptation of throwing its weight around?
Ever since Southeast Asia emerged out of the tumultuous post World War II decades, it has had to deal with problems of development, ethnic strife, and the threat of Maoist insurgency. Yet since the 1980s the region has also emerged as a dynamic economy, and a reform-minded China has grown into an economic dynamo and the region's potential great power.
Over the last fifteen years or so, China's gross domestic product has grown at annual rates of around nine percent, with a large swath of the coast from Hainan to Shanghai producing rates even higher. This, in turn, has supported annual double-digit increases in military expenditures. Growing armed forces budgets have been broadly committed to a program of military modernization and professionalization, with a heavy emphasis on modern technology and personnel sufficiently educated to use it. Expert observers foresee a Chinese military capable of projecting force on a sustained basis beyond China's coastal periphery within 10-20 years. By any measure, China has emerged with startling suddenness as a regional great power still in the early stages of its ascent.
It is an axiom of realpolitik that policy and strategy must be based on the capabilities of other actors – particularly rivals and potential adversaries. While any precise measure of China's national capabilities will be elusive, the trend and the potential are quite clear. China's capabilities are multi-dimensional: economic, military, and increasingly diplomatic and political. The days of rigid, ideologically strident Chinese "diplomacy" have long since been superseded by a cosmopolitan sophistication that would do Zhou Enlai proud. The growth of Chinese power assumes added significance from the fact that for the first time since the height of the Ming Dynasty, China is without any threat from its traditional strategic rivals: Russia and Japan. Beijing has the strategic luxury of exerting power to its south without fearing for the security of its northern, western and eastern borders. Finally, for Southeast Asia, Chinese power has an additional potential dimension – the presence of large (and economically potent) ethnic Chinese populations in almost every major urban center.
Capabilities are one thing; intentions are another. Here the crystal ball suddenly becomes very murky. Chinese officials have been very insistent that China's intentions toward Southeast Asia are entirely benign – nothing other than to join with the region in a common endeavor of economic development and regional peace and security. Beijing has energetically pushed trade and investment ties, including a centerpiece China-ASEAN free trade agreement. Bilateral framework agreements for cooperation on multiple fronts have been negotiated with every Southeast Asian government. Political and diplomatic interactions at all levels have become a regular, even daily, feature of the news. Also Beijing has made clear its desire to extend cooperation into the security sphere. China has become a primary supplier of economic and military assistance to Burma, Cambodia, and Laos. Meanwhile, Chinese officials and scholars seek to allay unease by noting that the traditional tribute system of China's imperial past was, by Western standards, quite benign.
Nevertheless, doubts arise on several grounds.
First, history strongly suggests that when new great powers arise, the implications for smaller or weaker nations on their periphery are not always pleasant. Examples include Germany and Central Europe, Japan and East Asia, Russia and Central Asia and the Caucasus, and the United States and Latin America. It remains to be seen whether China is uniquely immune to the temptations of state power.
Secondly, as Maoism and Marxism have lost their ideological appeal, the Chinese leadership has turned to nationalism to legitimate authoritarian rule. This has included a comprehensive program of state-sponsored patriotism in the schools and mass media nurturing a sense of Chinese victimization ("a hundred years of humiliation") at the hands of the West. In recent years, these powerful emotions have focused on Taiwan and the notion that the US and Japan allegedly stole China's national patrimony.
Territorial irredentism is a potent political force, and there are growing fears that Beijing, against all sane counsel, could actually resort to force against Taiwan. In 1992, the Chinese People's Congress codified in legislation Beijing's claim that the South China Sea is rightfully the sovereign territory of China. Since the flare-up in the Mischief Reef dispute in the mid-1990s, China has soft-pedaled its claims. But it has not disavowed them and continues to strengthen outposts in the Spratley Islands.
Another sign that Beijing is concerned with more than economic growth is the hawkish language used by Chinese academics. Officially sanctioned Chinese scholars characterize US strategic intentions toward China as "encirclement" and "strangulation." They identify Southeast Asia as the weak link in this chain and the point where China can break through and defeat American attempted "containment." In private, Chinese diplomats have been known to use the Churchillian phrase "soft underbelly" to refer to Southeast Asia.
On yet another front, China's ambitious program for harnessing and exploiting the Mekong River will have an important side effect, intended or otherwise: Downstream states, like Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, will be hostage to Chinese decisions concerning water flow. The Mekong is as much the economic life-blood for these nations as the Nile is for Egypt.
Finally, the very agreements and linkages with Southeast Asia that Beijing cites as evidence of benign intent may also be seen as a web designed to tie these states to China. Contemporary Burma comes close to fitting the profile of a Chinese client state. When Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister visited Taiwan, a semi-official commentator from Beijing promised that Singapore would pay "a huge price" for such temerity.
What emerges from this picture is a multifaceted strategic challenge to Southeast Asia. Chinese diplomats have worked assiduously and successfully to portray that challenge as opportunity and not threat. Recent public opinion polling shows clear evidence of their success. China registers favorably with publics throughout most of Southeast Asia. This coincides with a precipitous drop in favorable opinions of the US since the advent of the Iraq war.
The durability of these sentiments is a question. What is certain, however, is that growing Chinese power must be at the center of any regional security strategy formulated by the Southeast Asian states – and by the US.
Marvin Ott is Professor of National Security Policy at the National War College in Washington, DC. The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily those of the United States Department of Defense.