China In the World: Ruling Without a Blueprint

27.12.14 Publication:

The Western world’s
bookshelves are groaning under the weight of tomes pondering “What
Does China Think?” (Mark Leonard, 2008) or what will happen “When
China Rules the World” (Martin Jacques, 2009), along with similar
questions. Yet such pondering obscures a vital point. This is that it
is the combination of China’s size, history, complexity and
rapidity of change that poses the greatest challenge to the old world
order, in ways that even the Chinese authorities cannot always get
their minds around. The only certainty is that life is going to be –
indeed for many, already is – uncomfortable.

Things would be so much
easier if there existed somewhere in Beijing a plan, a blueprint for
how China wants the world to change in order to accommodate its needs
and its desires. At least other countries’ intelligence services
could then get to work stealing a copy of that plan, or finding
agents who would tell them what it contained. But if there ever were
such a plan, it wouldn’t be worth the paper it was written on. For
it would keep on needing to be superseded by a newer version.

That is inevitable in a
country whose economy has been doubling in size every seven years or
so for the past three decades, and whose engagement with the world,
through trade, capital flows, overseas investments, environmental
issues and much more keeps on not just increasing but evolving too.
Hence China’s needs and desires keep changing, and will carry on
doing so.

The closest thing to a
plan that can be detected is the pattern that is revealed by China’s
recent actions. This is a pattern not of specific requirements or
ambitions but rather one of a particular attitude. The attitude that
can be seen is, strange though it may sound, one that can be
interpreted as meaning that China sees itself as what international
relations scholars call “a status quo power”. But China’s
definition of the status quo differs from the normal one. Its
attitude reveals that it has an older status quo in mind.

This has been shown most
clearly by its approach to its neighbours and to territorial issues
in East and South-East Asia. Ever since its latest war with Vietnam
in 1979, China has shown no sign of wanting to fight any of its
neighbours. Nor, since its seizure of Tibet in 1950 has it actively
sought further expansion. Even its victorious border war with India
in 1962 left India with a bloody nose but its frontiers unchanged.

the exception of the border with India, China has over the past 20
years settled all the territorial disputes on its land borders. But
it has not settled disputes out at sea. These exceptions are
significant: for while the fine detail of China’s land border with
Myanmar, for example, is seen as merely a technical matter, the huge
border in the Himalayas with India has strategic importance. That
importance may be fading with time. But that is not true of “borders”
out at sea. In fact, those are becoming more and more important as
China’s navy itself becomes more important.

the light of that, along with the associated fact that if China were
ever to be threatened militarily it would likely be from the sea or
the air, not the land, what China has sought is to increase its
maritime control and its strategic freedom of manoeuvre. Such control
and freedom of manoeuvre are, in its view, simply the conditions that
will be fitting for a great power of its size and history, and
military vulnerability.

is the logic of the now notorious “nine-dashed line”, the map
that in effect lays claim to the entire South China Sea, brushing
aside claims to islands and rocks in that sea made by the other
littoral states. First drawn in 1947 by Chiang Kai-Shek’s
Kuomintang government, it has remained since then a stock part of
Chinese foreign policy, although not one that was stressed until
quite recently – which made neighbours hope it had been superseded.
It certainly has not been.

In principle, the
nine-dashed line violates the international status quo, which is also
true of China’s longstanding claim to the Japanese islands in the
East China Sea north of Taiwan, known in Japan as the Senkakus and in
China as the Diaoyu. But China believes in a status quo that dates
back far longer, to before the country’s decline and semi-collapse.

In May 2014, your author
was at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue of defence and security
officials that the International Institute for Strategic Studies
hosts every year in Singapore. There, a senior Chinese military
official was challenged publicly about the basis for the nine-dashed
line. Jaws dropped when he justified this claim not with any
reference to international law or modern conventions, nor even to the
sort of historical documentation of 18th
or 19th
trading and settlement activity that is the standard fare in
territorial disputes, but rather to the history of China’s Han
Dynasty, more than 2,000 years ago. It was as if a modern Italian
were to lay claim to control of the Mediterranean based on the
history of the Roman empire.

Such a claim sounds
preposterous. But China is not Italy. The military man’s claim
needs to be understood not as a statement of scholarship or law, but
rather of Realpolitik. The attitude is that the Han Dynasty was the
sort of great power of its time that felt a need and an ability –
and so a right – to control the South China Sea. And so is modern
China. Thus it must do so, as part of the logic of being China.

Chinese actions in
support of these claims in the South China and East China Seas have
become more assertive in recent years. What they have represented
especially has been a desire to put “facts on the ground”, or
rather on the sea, to borrow an Israeli phrase, often to prevent
others from doing so. Control may not be needed today, but it must
not be lost. Hence the sending of an oil rig to waters disputed with
Vietnam, and the dispatch of flotillas of ships, both military and
merchant, and of aircraft, to sail and fly through Japanese waters
around the Senkakus.

The implication of this
attitude is that there is little or no scope for negotiation, except
over timing. China will not yield in its claims. It sees them as
strategic necessities as well as, in effect, entitlements, now that
it is in the course of restoring its historical status as the
dominant regional power of Asia.

In fact, on the basis of
this attitude, the true disrupter of the status quo is the United
States of America, for it is a parvenu power. Its history of size and
scope, and even existence, is short. Such a potentially anti-American
judgment cannot in truth be seen in the pattern of recent Chinese
actions, but rather two other attitudes: first, that while American
power and interests are a reality at global level that must be lived
with, this does not mean that China should accept American
interference locally in Asia, and specifically in the South China
Sea; and, second, that while China accepts America’s presence and
power globally, it wants to be treated as an equal, not an inferior.

Most probably, and in
line with its attitude in the South China Sea, this means, and will
come even more to mean, that China expects the right to take the same
attitude to international law and institutions that America does.
After all, runs the logic, both are exceptional great powers. They
are not like other countries. It is unlikely that, pace

Martin Jacques, any Chinese leaders or policy thinkers actually
expect to be “ruling the world” any time soon, or indeed ever.
But they do expect to be one of those powers that “rule the world”,
and simple self-respect demands that they should expect in due course
to do so on an equal basis.

One might interject that
Russia, or at least Vladimir Putin, has the same sort of expectation.
America invades countries and changes regimes: so why shouldn’t
Russia also do so when it sees fit? China, to go by its recent
attitudes, would not agree. In its view Russia is a declining power,
and it is not in China’s interests to have lesser, declining powers
taking on such rights and causing chaos.

at least, is the logical way to reconcile China’s longstanding
argument that multilateral institutions and international law are
important and need to be abided by, with its recent assertive
behaviour. For what it seems to mean is an American interpretation:
multilateral rules and institutions need to be followed by others,
but not necessarily or in all cases by China, given the exceptional
status to which it aspires or feels entitled.

this is true – and it probably should be, given China’s
population and economic size, and its history – then the big
questions are, first, to what extent this attitude is compatible with
the hope that China will become, in the words of Robert Zoellick in
2005 when he was US deputy secretary of state, a “responsible
stakeholder”, and, second, whether China’s desire for
America-like status will be accepted willingly by others.

the first question, the answer is likely to be: yes, but we will
define “responsible”, thank you very much, not you. This can be
understood from China’s decision to launch its own new regional
development institution, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, in
effect as a rival to the US- and Japan-led Asia Development Bank, and
to push forward with the “New Development Bank” to be launched
with the other BRICs. We do responsible things, such actions imply,
but we would like to control them ourselves.

on the second? That is where the biggest issues lie. They do also for
America, since its legitimacy as a unilateral actor is certainly not
unquestioned, even among its allies. Over time, China’s legitimacy
may come to be accepted, partly as others become more dependent on it
but also as and when its actions come to be seen as on balance more
well-intentioned than ill-intentioned. That depends on what the
actions are, and how the intentions behind them are interpreted. We
shall see.