The latest China Security Report published by Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies (NIDS) in February aims to analyze China’s military and security affairs from a mid- to long-term perspective. It assesses the development of China’s foreign and security policy towards the United States and vice versa, and the overall China-US relationship in East Asia.
Unfortunately, the NIDS report falls short in taking account of the emerging reality, such as the expansive breadth of the Indo-Pacific and the way its importance has re-imaged Asia’s map with great power and regional re-alignments.
While the report concludes by arguing that any conflict leading to war between China and the US is undesirable for the US and for the Asia-Pacific as a whole, it does not discuss the determinants, or the dependent and independent variables, in the specific context of the larger Indo-Pacific region.
From Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific
The idea of the Asia-Pacific that seemed apt as a framework for the late 20th-century regional order now finds itself significantly broadened in geographic scope, with major strategic implications. The Indo-Pacific today extends from the eastern coast of Africa through the Indian Ocean and on to the Western Pacific. It remains critical to the regional construct, with maritime Asia at its core.
Moreover, the Indian Ocean is growing in importance as a geopolitical and geo-economic nerve center. It has largely displaced the Atlantic and become the world’s busiest and strategically most significant maritime corridor, adding to its primacy.
To a large extent, the emergence of the Indo-Pacific as a regional assembly has taken place coincidental to the emergence of China as an Asian power exhibiting revisionist tendencies. The speed and scale with which China has risen and transformed Asia’s geostrategic map remain the political, military, and economic mega-story of our times.
Among the never-ending coinage of phrases used to describe its rise—including “China effect,” “China century,” “China threat,” and nowadays “Chinese arrogance”—the phrases that stand out are “peaceful rise” and “development.” This can be attributed primarily to their having assumed shape as part of the official policy of the People’s Republic of China.
Those terms apart, whether Beijing will rise does not—and should not—remain a matter of debate any longer. The re-emergence of China as an economic, political, and military power to reckon with is no longer a matter of speculation, especially within Asia.
China’s Political Journey
Subscribers to the theory of China’s rise and development argue that Beijing today appears to be in a much stronger political and military position than it was even during 1870s, when the Qing dynasty was in its prime. In their analysis, China is rather unlikely to descend into another century-long human and economic catastrophe and would thus end up emerging and asserting itself far more distinctly within Asia and beyond.
China currently is going through perhaps the greatest of its political journeys. Xi Jinping will likely steer his country at least until 2035, when he reaches 82 years old and China expects to reach its stated objective of becoming a topmost innovative nation, and possibly beyond that to 2050, by which time China plans to be a nation with global influence.
Perception of Peaceful Rise
Since the Chinese government pitched the concept of Zhongguo heping jueqi—China’s phrase for “peaceful rise”—during the Bo’ao Asia Forum in 2003, tracing the terminology has caught the imagination of observers both inside China and globally.
Although Beijing sought to quell the so-called “China threat” debate by propounding the concept of its “peaceful rise,” the geo-strategic and geopolitical activity undertaken by China for more than a decade since tells a completely different story.
Politically, an introduction of the term “peaceful rise” was interpreted as a signal towards a significant upgrade of the goal to build a so-called moderately well-off society by the year 2020—analogous to what Jiang Zemin announced at the 16th Party Congress in 2002.
Militarily, the modernization of the Chinese armed forces continues to proceed faster than many expected. The benchmarks have clearly been outlined by Xi Jinping—be it China’s air-to-air missile developments or achieving mechanization and what the PLA refers to as “informationization” by the year 2020.
Calculated Risks in Asia
China’s authoritarian political system and the role and stature of the Party appear to have aided China in its revisionist endeavor to defend national identity and its idea of cultural construct. The most recent illustration of this comes in the form of the constitutional amendment clearing the way for Xi Jinping to remain President eternally, beyond 2023.
There is a vast chasm that exists within the Indo-Pacific, between democratic and communist political systems, ideological principles and systemic processes. Clearly, China was in fact taking decisive risks as it calculated its interests across Asia. China’s rise in power over the past few decades needs to be gauged in terms of the responses of the international system to its ascent. Noticeable is the failure of the region’s democratic stakeholders, especially America, to check and challenge China’s moves.
G7’s Weak Defense
The G7 remains a case in point. For example, although the East China Sea and the South China Sea find mention in successive G7 statements, the way the G7 statements address the issue of the South China Sea has been steadily weakening. While the 2015 statement called for “no land reclamation,” in 2016 the G7 went on in to state, “no militarization.” In the most recent 2017 statement, they backed off further, asking only for “demilitarization of disputed features.”
By relenting to China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, the US and other regional players have ended up handing over greater space to Beijing, which the latter uses to showcase its strategic prowess. This leads to the question: where is the balance of power heading within Asia?
The larger picture emerging today is that of a rising China, which is growing ever more revisionist, expansionist, and combative—be it the standoff with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal, with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, or with India over Doklam in the Himalayan borderland. The question of whether China is on the road to disruptively challenging the international system looms large against the backdrop of visible complexities of how to engage, constrain, or contain it.
Mao’s Just War
China’s history is relevant when considering its future. The archives document well that Chairman Mao was fully in favor of launching a so-called just war, if it contributed towards ensuring pre-dominance of the Communist Party and injecting national morale inside China.
As China’s comprehensive national power grows, the pragmatic tendencies which constitute the root of Chinese strategic culture and conceptions will shape Chinese foreign and security policies. If read carefully, the official list of China’s core interests seems to be growing longer, with new additions being made every few years.
The list began with only three core interests, namely Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang, but now includes the South China Sea and the Belt and Road project. The pragmatism of the Chinese State could propel its leadership to begin taking advantage of the power differentials to pursue what they consider to be China’s rightful national interests.
Pitfalls in China’s Quest
Modern revisionist China appears on course to pursue becoming the Middle Kingdom geographically, strategically, and politically. To reach this end, Xi Jinping likely will employ tools of Chinese statecraft, including Beijing’s selective historical amnesia and cartographic subjectivity. This shall lead to an extended period of political and security instability in the Indo-Pacific, as it gapes into the face of what is fast becoming a China-centric Asia.
Still, the domestic conditions underlying China’s rise—including the nature of its regime, questions of its stability and legitimacy, corruption, repression, and other interlinked socio-political and socio-economic issues—present a tall order for the Chinese leadership to wrestle with. The international and domestic challenges against which China seeks to propel itself to great-power status—including its growing middle class, prospering coastal areas, and fledgling civil society—increasingly point towards its own greater struggle to maintain order internally.
It will be vital for the regional players to deconstruct the major impacts of China’s rise as they draft their collective and individual responses to its growing economic and strategic power. China aims to be a great power by the mid-century—precisely, the year 2049, when the PRC celebrates 100 years as a nation-state.
For India and Japan, though, the story shall continue to be one of Beijing’s traditional strategy of hedging them both through its regional policies.
Dr. Monika Chansoria is a senior visiting fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo. Her latest book is China, Japan and Senkaku Islands: Conflict in the East China Sea amid an American Shadow. Follow her on Twitter @MonikaChansoria.