international analysis and commentary

China as a prickly, but pragmatic, revisionist power


A notable and worrisome development in East Asia over the past two years or so is China’s markedly greater assertiveness on geostrategic issues. That development has led to speculation in US foreign policy circles, especially among hawkish types, that Beijing intends to overturn the regional status quo, threaten the interests of US allies, and ultimately challenge America’s dominant position in East Asia. Such fears are excessive, but there is no question that as China’s economic and military strength grows, so does its willingness to assert what Chinese leaders see as the country’s legitimate national interests. Unfortunately, PRC officials have sometimes pursued those interests without the appropriate subtlety.

That trend has been most evident in Beijing’s disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, and other Southeast Asian neighbors over the South China Sea. Not only are China’s territorial claims breathtakingly broad – encompassing nearly 80% of that body of water and its potential oil, gas and mineral resources – but the Chinese government has shown growing impatience with countries who dare to make competing claims. In October 2012, Beijing spurned a proposal from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for negotiations to establish a multilateral “code of conduct” regarding the South China Sea.

China has also exhibited a greater determination to defend its territorial claims by force, if necessary. Chinese naval vessels confronted Vietnamese and Filipino ships in several tense incidents during the spring and early summer of 2012. Beijing also established a military garrison on one of the disputed islands. And in late November, officials in the southern island province of Hunan announced that police would board and search ships that enter what Beijing regards as its territorial waters in the South China Sea.

Tensions have flared to an even greater extent in the East China Sea. During the summer and autumn of 2012, there were several nasty spats between China and Japan over a chain of uninhabited islets (called the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in China). The dispute forced the temporary recall of Japan’s ambassador to China, as well as sparked a series of anti-Japanese riots in several Chinese cities. Beijing has not backed down in the slightest from its position that those islets are historically Chinese territory, even though Japan has controlled them since the mid-1890s and has recently beefed up its military presence in waters surrounding the island chain.

Chinese officials and journalists increasingly vent their wrath at the United States regarding the disputes in both the South China and East China seas. An article published in December by Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, claimed that “the US is the controlling hand behind the scenes on the Diaoyu Islands issue.” It further charged that Washington wants to “use the Diaoyu Islands to distract and interfere with China’s strategic focus in order to deter China’s rise.”

Greater assertiveness on the part of a rising power, combined with growing suspicions by the leaders of that country about the intentions of the incumbent dominant power, is potentially an explosive mixture. But it is important for US and East Asian leaders to view China’s ambitions and behavior in their appropriate context and respond accordingly. China is not an aggressively revisionist power the way that Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, or even Imperial Japan were. Beijing’s goal is not to violently overthrow the status quo and create a new international – or even regional – order in which it is the undisputed hegemon. For one thing, China benefits far too much from the current, relatively peaceful international system that has created unprecedented prosperity for the country. Chinese leaders do not want to overturn the status quo; they merely seek to adjust some provisions to China’s advantage. In that crucial sense, China is a pragmatic, not an aggressive or revolutionary, revisionist power.

As a rising great power, today’s China most closely resembles Wilhelmine Germany (or the United States) in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But the experience with Germany should offer cautionary lessons for both China and the countries that worry about Beijing’s behavior. Britain, France and Europe’s other leading powers handled Germany’s rise about as badly as could be imagined, culminating in the tragedy of World War I. But Germany was also to blame for that outcome. Even when the substance of Berlin’s position on a particular issue was reasonable, the way German leaders asserted that position was sometimes so prickly and abrasive, even threatening, that it alarmed Germany’s neighbors.

In dealing with China’s assertiveness, the United States and the governments of East Asia must be sufficiently accommodating so that they do not foster a siege mentality in Beijing. The Xinhua article is one indicator among many that such paranoia lurks not far beneath the surface. At the same time, Beijing must exercise far greater patience and diplomatic finesse in pressing its territorial claims. And, especially in the case of the South China Sea, it must scale back those claims to more reasonable levels.

Dealing with China’s geostrategic rise does not have to produce the same kind of tragedy as did the rise of Imperial Germany. But avoiding that outcome will require mutual restraint and a willingness by all parties involved to compromise.