A Rising China and Its Smaller Neighbors: Continuities, Changes, and Contradictions

A Rising China and Its Smaller Neighbors: Continuities, Changes, and Contradictions

By Selina Ho – Senior Research Fellow at the Centre on Asia and Globalisation, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore

(Do not cite without author’s permission)

Chinese Sailors on Visit to Portsmouth(UK Ministry of Defence)
Chinese Sailors on Visit to Portsmouth (Photo Credit: UK Ministry of Defence@Flickr CC BY 2.0 https://goo.gl/F0BAFR)

Some scholars have argued that the narrative surrounding China’s “new assertiveness” since 2008 has been misleading and not borne out by a historical understanding of Chinese behavior.(1) Others, in particular the media and those who work closely with the policy-making establishment, have pointed to Chinese hubris in government meetings, “bullying” in the East and South China Seas, establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), and displays of “coercive diplomacy”(2) as evidence of a more aggressive bend in Chinese foreign policy. While it is quite evident by now that there has been a qualitative change in Chinese foreign policy, “aggression” is not an accurate depiction of Chinese behavior. Instead, it is more accurate to describe Chinese foreign policy as having taken the form of greater activism to reshape the rules of the game. This activism is most clearly seen in diplomacy and economics, but there are also signs that China wants a greater role in determining the future of the East Asia security architecture. China has been mostly inclusive rather than exclusive in its approach thus far.

Chinese leaders are aware that regional countries do not accept China as the sole power in the region, preferring a balance of power. Moreover, China has benefited from and recognizes the value of multilateralism, and is thus unlikely to change this approach in the future, even as it seeks to reform the regional order to its advantage.

Continuities and Changes

An examination of Chinese rhetoric towards its smaller neighbors shows a remarkable level of continuity and consistency since the 1990s, when China began to re-emerge from its diplomatic isolation following the Tiananmen Incident. Chinese rhetoric emphasizes good neighborliness, its peaceful rise, and common prosperity for all arising from China’s economic

growth. All these have their roots in the “Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence” promulgated in 1954. These “Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence” were re-encapsulated in the “New Security Concept,” which China has touted since 1997. The “New Security Concept” seeks to shift away from the Cold War security architecture to a security arrangement based on mutual trust and benefits, and economic growth.(3) It was also around the late 1990s that Chinese intellectual circles began to discuss China’s rise in response to concerns about its behavior in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. This effort culminated in Chinese Political Theorist Zheng Bijian’s “China’s Peaceful Rise,” first presented at the 2003 Boao Forum. “Peaceful rise” was gradually replaced by “peaceful development” as the Chinese term for peaceful rise, jueqi, was considered too militaristic in tone.

More recently, China has put forth its vision of a “new type of great power relations” with the United States during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington, D.C. in 2012. To smaller countries around its periphery, China has launched the concept of “peripheral diplomacy” as well as proposed establishing a “maritime silk road” in October 2013. Xi also struck a reassuring note during his speech at a work conference on foreign affairs in late November 2014, emphasizing China’s soft power and diplomacy, and the importance of multilateralism, communication and inclusiveness. China has also proposed the establishment of the BRICS Development Bank and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to give greater voice to developing countries.

These concepts that the Chinese have advocated since the late 1990s are highly consistent in their message – peaceful co-development focusing on economic growth. In addition, it is interesting to note the timing of these concepts – China chose to unveil them each time in reaction to spikes in regional concerns about its “bullying” behavior. The “New Security Concept” made its first appearance in the aftermath of the Mischief Reef Incident in 1994/1995 and the 1995/1996 Taiwan Strait Missile Crises. Similarly, “China’s Peaceful Rise/Development” was in reaction to the growth of the “China Threat” theory. “New type of great power relations”, “peripheral diplomacy”, “maritime silk road,” and most recently, “Asia-Pacific dream” at the APEC meeting in November were touted following increased tensions in the East and South China Seas. Clearly, the choice of timing for launching these broad concepts shows that the aim is to assuage regional concerns.

Chinese proposals for the establishment of the BRICS Development Bank and the AIIB are both part of a long-term trend as well as an indication of a significant change from the past. Chinese moves to establish these two banks are not unexpected, given its long-term frustration that Western-dominated international institutions do not accord it the rights and status that should accompany its size and economic strength. What is significant, however, is that with these proposals, China has begun to transform its rhetoric and criticisms into action. It will no longer wait for international institutions to accommodate its rising status. Instead, it will now propose alternative institutions which it will lead, commensurate with its status and power today. We are now beginning to see greater Chinese activism on the world stage. What has changed is that the Chinese are now willing to go to greater lengths to qualitatively reshape the rules of the game. Chinese initiatives at the recent APEC, East Asia Summit, and G20 meetings are signals that it is ready to take on the leadership of a reformed global and regional economic order.

With respect to the South China Sea, Chinese behavior is a reflection of its frustration with what it saw as the smaller claimant states “nibbling” away at its territory; since the Mischief Reef Incident in 1995, the behavior of claimant states has been described as “creeping annexation.” China sees itself as merely reacting to “provocations” by the Philippines and Vietnam. However, China’s stance in the maritime disputes has become more hardline in the past few years. This is because China now has the means to concretize its claims in the disputes. The Chinese military, fueled by a growing economy, is far stronger than it was in the early 1990s. Its modernization efforts have focused on enhancing its power projection and maritime warfare capabilities by importing sophisticated weapons technology and developing its own indigenous military technology. The economic and military strides it has made translate into more actively defending and promoting its interests in territorial disputes and in international institutions. Its actions are thus a natural outcome of its increased economic and military capacities.

Chinese attitude towards maritime disputes contrasts with its attitude towards land border disputes with its neighbors, which have been more or less resolved. This is because the maritime routes are seen as strategically vital to China’s economic and security interests. Chinese perception of US intervention on behalf of the smaller claimant states in the South China Sea dispute also accounts for China’s more strident behavior. In addition, its willingness to resolve land disputes as opposed to maritime disputes is partly because of its greater confidence in defending its land borders compared to its coastal lines; China has historically been a land power and is now only an emerging naval power. As a result of these factors, there has been a qualitative change in Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea.

There are also signs that China is interested in shaping the discourse on the East Asia security architecture. The inroads that China has made thus far in the security realm are concentrated in Central and West Asia, most prominently, in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It has also shown interest in enlarging the role of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building in Asia (CICA), which last met in Shanghai in May 2014. CICA is currently a mechanism and not a full-fledged organization like the SCO. China is able to dominate these settings as the United States and its allies are not participants in them. This contrasts with the smaller footprints it has made in the East Asia security architecture, which falls under the sphere of influence of the United States and its partners. Nevertheless, China wants to reshape the East Asia security architecture as well. China’s repeated rolling out of the “New Security Concept” is an example. It also recently upgraded the Xiangshan Forum to 1.5 track; some analysts have suggested that China’s intention is to replace the Shangrila Dialogue with the Xiangshan Forum,(4) but it is still too soon to determine Chinese intentions. China will find it easier to reshape the regional economic architecture than the security architecture in Asia, given suspicions of China’s intentions and the various security dilemmas in the region, a case in point being India’s refusal to grant China full membership in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. China has also since dropped its earlier reference to “Asia for Asians,” which has evoked memories of Japan’s World War Two “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” in the region.

In numerous ways, Chinese actions today represent a continuation of its historical view of the world. China’s worldview has not changed whether during its “charm offensive” period, roughly from 1997 to 2008, or now that is criticized as a “bully.” Then Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s remark to then Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is a fact” during an ASEAN meeting in 2010 is revealing of a common sentiment among Chinese officials. Other Chinese officials lower down the rank have repeated similar remarks to Singapore officials.(5) Despite its apparent embrace of the Westphalian equality of states and its acknowledgement that it has benefited from the current international system, China continues to see the world in hierarchical terms. To the Chinese, the status of a country is dependent on its size and strength. The various concepts for peaceful co-development that China has rolled out is very much in line with this view – China is the locus of growth and power, and it will treat the smaller states in its periphery with benevolence as long as they recognize Chinese cultural, economic, political, and military superiority. Peace and stability prevail when this hierarchical system is maintained.(6)

Explaining Contradictions

There is the perception among China-watchers that the Chinese are not playing their game right, as there seems to be huge contradictions in Chinese policy and behavior. With the recent more strident tone in its foreign policy, China appears to have wasted the cache of goodwill it has stored up during its “charm offensive” and displays of “soft power” in the early 2000s. This perception arises because of the dichotomy between the region’s attraction to Chinese economic power and its fears of China’s growing military strength.

However, the ability of a state to deal with its challenges does not only rely on economic and military capacities. A critical form of state capacity is the ability to govern. China’s governance capacity appears to have suffered as its institutions are not growing or reforming quickly enough to deal with the plethora of demands coming from an increasingly complex political, economic, social, and military system. China suffers from the twin problems of centralization and decentralization. It has a strong central government with the ability to extract and redistribute, while at the same time, decentralization over the past three decades has greatly increased the power and autonomy of local governments and bureaucracies further down the line. A relatively small body at the apex, made up of top Chinese leaders, the Politburo, leading groups, and ministry headquarters, has to manage a much larger body made up of four lower levels of government, local ministry branches, and an increasingly vocal and nationalistic Chinese population. As a result, coherent decision-making and policy implementation are compromised, although not impaired. In the foreign policy apparatus, the Chinese foreign ministry and Chinese military appear not to be well coordinated, leading to contradictions in policies at times.

Chinese leaders also have to deal with a range of conflicting goals. Many of these goals are aimed at shoring up the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Xi Jinping’s personal mandate, but because they are not always congruent with one another, contradictions in policies can result. Some of these contradictions include: to strengthen the CCP, Xi has launched the most thorough-going anti-corruption campaign to date which has to potential to tear apart the party; to strengthen the economy, Xi emphasizes the free market but is reluctant to relinquish the state’s grip on the economy; Xi’s attempts to address some of Chinese society’s most pressing concerns co-exist with measures to clamp down on the growth of civil society; and the desire to boost Chinese sovereignty by presenting a muscular policy towards territorial disputes runs up against aims to ameliorate regional worries about its rise and create a stable external environment for economic growth. These conflicting goals show that Chinese leaders may be trying to do too much, generating a great amount of instability in the process.

Regional Reactions

Countries in the region have not reacted to China’s behavior in the same manner. For countries most directly involved in the maritime disputes, namely, the Philippines and Vietnam, reactions have been much stronger. The Philippines has played up the image of a big Chinese bully. It has sought international arbitration and has leveraged on the United States, drawing international attention to Chinese behavior. Vietnam has played an astute game of diplomacy thus far. Given that China is its largest trading partner, the Vietnamese government has worked to put its relations with China on an even keel by continuing with high level meetings, despite the oil rig crisis in mid-2014. At the same time, Vietnam seeks to strengthen ties with Japan and India as counterweights to China. India became Vietnam’s third strategic partner in 2007, after Russia and Japan in 2001 and 2006, respectively, and before China in 2008. India has provided Vietnam with $100 million in loans to buy patrol boats to protect Indian-operated oilfields off the Vietnamese coast. Vietnam has also signed an agreement giving Indian naval ships base facilities at its ports. It is also negotiating with India to acquire Brahmos short-range cruise missiles.

Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore have taken a quieter stance on Chinese activities in the South China Sea. In the case of Malaysia, when Chinese vessels stopped at the James Shoal in March 2013 to reinforce China’s claim, the incident did not stir much emotions. Malaysian attention has been much more focused on its domestic politics and economic issues. Singapore is not a party to the South China Sea dispute but has significant stakes in freedom of navigation, and has therefore maintained the need for claimants to resolve the issue according to international law. It also conducts an equidistant policy towards the United States, China, and India. Indonesia’s and China’s overlapping claims on the Natuna Islands have not flared up. President Joko Widodo has announced a more muscular maritime policy to establish Indonesia as a “fulcrum” between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. Indonesia has set itself up as a mediator in the maritime disputes.

Cambodia, which is not a claimant in the dispute, appears to have caved in to Chinese pressure to take its side. During the ASEAN meeting in Phnom Penh in 2012, ASEAN was unable to issue a joint communiqué for the first time in 45 years, because they could not agree on references to the South China Sea dispute in the text. Phnom Penh, as chair that year, was apparently pressured by Beijing to block any references to the dispute. China’s economic sway over Cambodia explains its behavior – China is Cambodia’s largest donor, trade partner, and foreign investor. Such differences among ASEAN members, as well as differences between ASEAN countries and China, have stalled negotiations on a code of conduct on the South China Sea.

Despite these differences, however, there are early signs of a regional coalescing around concerns over Chinese behavior in the region. Southeast Asian countries have reacted in a lukewarm manner to China’s “maritime silk road” proposal, understanding that it could have implications for the disputed claims in the South China Sea. More importantly, Southeast Asian countries among themselves are starting to bring their claims broadly in line with UNCLOS and forming a basis to resolve their disagreements. Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia have settled their seabed claims in the areas where they meet and are working towards delimiting their EEZs.

There is also a growing perception in the region that India could become an important counterweight to China, despite its numerous problems, and the gap between it and China. Apart from stepping up economic ties with the East Asian region through its “Look East” policy, India has also stepped up its military engagement with the region. In 2000, India conducted its first naval exercises in the South China Sea with Vietnam. In 2002, the Indian Navy escorted American ships through the Straits of Malacca as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. In 2004, India participated in joint rescue efforts with the United States, Japan, and Australia, that extended to the South China Sea in the aftermath of a tsunami that swept through South and Southeast Asia. In 2005, an Indian aircraft carrier sailed through the South China Sea, transited in the Straits of Malacca, and made port calls in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. In 2007, India sent three guided-missile destroyers, a missile corvette, and a fleet tanker on a two-month deployment to the Pacific to participate for the first time in trilateral naval drills with the United States and Japan. Two Indian destroyers later conducted a five-day exercise with the PLA Navy off Qingdao, before exercising with the Russian Navy, and with Vietnam and the Philippines on its return.

A rejuvenation of India-Japan ties is also taking place. India’s relations with Japan have gained momentum, while China’s relations with Japan have worsened with fresh standoffs in the East China Sea. From 2000 to 2012, Indo-Japanese trade quadrupled. There have also been exchanges of high-level visits between New Delhi and Tokyo. India and Japan have stepped up military ties, established a defense strategic dialogue, and cooperated in counter-terrorism and humanitarian assistance.

Nevertheless, despite the vitriol and sabre-rattling, talk of an arms race among South China Sea claimant states in the past few years may have been overblown. From 2009 to 2013, the military expenditures of claimants as a percentage of GDP remained at more or less the same level – the expenditures of China, the Philippines, and Vietnam remained constant, those of Brunei and Malaysia dropped, while Indonesia registered a slight increase (see Annex). In addition, Steve Chan’s Enduring Rivalries shows that the number of territorial disputes in East Asia has not changed much between 1990 and 2009.(7) Chan notes that East Asia has been more stable and peaceful now than at any other time in the past century, and that recent tensions in the East and South China Seas are far less likely to escalate to large-scale military conflicts now than three or four decades ago.(8)


There has been a tendency to treat China as a risen power, instead of a rising one, whose place in the world is still subject to continued economic growth and domestic stability. Moreover, China lacks normative power; some Chinese scholars have put forward alternative world views such as the “tianxia” model (9) to the current system, but these models are ambiguous and not acceptable to many. A level-headed approach and an accurate understanding of Chinese behavior are needed to devise good policies to deal with the power shifts in the region. As some scholars have noted, power transition theories deny the criticality of human agency and responsibility. Instability and uncertainties are unavoidable, but it is not cast in stone that a vicious spiral must ensue. Norms for resolving inter-state disputes have been established since the outbreak of the two world wars, and these norms can still help China rise peacefully.

The growth of Chinese activism, however, shows that the window for convincing China that its interest is best served by the current international order is closing; China now has the requisite power to reform parts of the system that it feels constrained by. The international community, particularly the United States and international institutions, needs a comprehensive plan to share power with China, so that China does not see the need to overturn the current system even as it seeks to reform the system. China itself needs to do more to reassure the region of its peaceful intentions as its capabilities grow. For smaller countries in the region, leveraging on a multilateral framework for engaging China, while encouraging other major powers to have long-term sustainable interests in the region not just militarily but also economically, is still the way forward.


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