Debating China’s ‘peaceful rise’

Michael Vatikiotis – The International Herald Tribune

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
SINGAPORE Recent Chinese statements on its critical relationship with the United States have tried to deflect perceptions of a brewing confrontation by projecting China as a “force for peace.” Such statements highlight the carefully woven rhetoric that has accompanied China’s emergence as a global superpower. Although it is often dismissed as shallow propaganda, silver-tongued diplomats in Beijing have skillfully used this diplomatic lexicon to create the illusion that China is the polar opposite of a superpower that acts unilaterally and uses military power to achieve its goals.
Here in Asia, the illusion is captured by two of the most common terms of diplomatic endearment heard in Chinese official circles. The first is that China is embarked on a “peaceful rise” and that it’s engagement with the rest of the world is on a “win-win” basis.
The notion of China’s peaceful rise was nurtured by Zheng Bijian, a Communist Party scholar close to President Hu Jintao. The idea behind the term “peaceful rise” was to allay regional and international concerns about the rapidity of China’s economic growth and the inevitable flexing of its political and military muscle.
Zheng anticipated, correctly, the spread of “China threat theory.” The U.S. Congress appeared to be working off the China threat song sheet when it objected to a competitive bid from the China National Offshore Oil Corporation for the purchase of the U.S.-based Unocal Corp. In recent months the defense establishments of Japan and the United States have characterized the growth in China’s military strength as a threat to regional security.
The idea of “peaceful rise” reached its apogee in the first two years of Hu’s new administration and was applied with skillful effect to relations with other Asian countries. It lulled regional governments into a sense of confidence that China meant well and was not a threat, even as its growing economy drew away investment and capital from the rest of Asia, or as ballistic missiles were deployed off the coast of Fujian and aimed at Taiwan.
In almost the same breath, China likes to argue that the basis for all of its dealings with the outside world is “win-win.” Chinese officials brandish World Trade Organization membership and volubly vow to stick to international agreements – implying that other countries don’t. When smaller neighbors like Thailand complain that free trade in fruit and vegetables is putting its farmers out of business, China insists that it is prepared to lose so that they can gain. In reality, such gestures are often symbolic and of little cost to China.
Now that the focus of concern is on China’s voracious energy appetite, Beijing officials are deploying the win-win weapon to head off fears of potential conflict over scarce energy sources. “China has no intention to scramble for world energy supply with other countries,” said a senior foreign ministry official ahead of Hu’s now postponed U.S. visit. China is willing to achieve “mutually beneficial and win-win through cooperation on a equal footing.”
But in reality, it will be hard for China to continue using platitudes and soft words to mask the wielding of hard power. China’s economy is not a level playing field for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Its energy needs are strategic so it is hard to imagine Beijing being unprepared to defend lines of supply aggressively. And though China’s four-million-man army has been cut to a little over two, technological advances are fast honing its offensive capability.
In a recent article for Foreign Affairs magazine, Zheng Bijian reiterated his idea of “peaceful rise.” But the idea has lost currency in Chinese scholarly circles. For one thing, there are those in the Chinese military unhappy with attaching the unambiguous notion of peace to China’s rise, because it makes justifying military action over Taiwan or disputed islands in the East China Sea all that much harder.
There is grumbling about the notion of China’s rise, which some cautious Chinese diplomats argue sounds too menacing – like the rise of an empire. Then there are those concerned about the implication that somehow China has fallen flat and needs to get up again. “I prefer using the term ‘peaceful development,”‘ commented a retired army major general, Zhan Maohai, who now runs a strategic studies think tank in Beijing.
No doubt Beijing will project the manner in which it has reached agreement with the European Union over thorny textile quotas as an example of “win-win” and “peaceful development.” The problem for China’s neat rhetorical equation of power is that Washington’s instinctive reaction on trade and security issues is to contain and sanction China.
Copyright ? 2005 the International Herald Tribune All rights reserved

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