“No matter how far China develops, it will never seek hegemony,” Xi Jin Ping affirmed in his 2018 reform speech. The discussion of the Chinese hegemony has been keeping countries on tenterhooks.
China’s stand on world hegemony was well-established under the late and former President Deng Xiao Ping’s leadership. As China began opening its doors to the international platform, Deng’s foreign policy was always a peaceful one and was especially careful to not claim leadership.
Today, the sheer size of this emerging great power, along with its technological progress with 5G and artificial intelligence, is presenting great opportunities for valuable multilateral partnerships. However, as the reigning global hegemon in Asia, the United States of America will not simply sit idly and risk being marginalised in the region.
China’s Century of Humiliation
The ongoing tussle between the two behemoths has placed countries in the region in an uneasy situation of choosing between China and the US, sometimes with very painful reprisals.
“Don’t forget the national humiliation,” is a recurring national narrative in every Chinese students’ textbook to be memorised, but it is not without a valid reason.
The 19th and 20th century marked significant traumatic memories in the Chinese, even till present. It was an era of utter defeat by British troops who conquered the city of Canton, now known as the city of Guangzhou. The Western colonial power humiliated the nation further by razing the Beijing Summer Palace – the scene of destruction preserved to remind the people how their dignity was trampled on.
The Century of Humiliation was a catastrophic period when Western and Imperial Japanese powers invaded Chinese soil, to which their military had no answer to. It was also the time they witnessed their own civil war between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party of China.
Despite a tumultuous history, China made a solemn promise to a peaceful development doctrine in its pursuit of national progress. Under Deng Xiao Ping’s rule, China enjoyed friendly relations with its neighbours by opening its doors and was looked upon as a responsible big power who wanted regional peace and stability, whilst using soft power. The peaceful development was a strategic behaviour of Deng’s famous philosophy to “keep a low profile and never take the lead.” It bore good intentions as China’s vision for itself is to grow in peace and they have kept that promise.
Since the 1980s, China has not been involved in armed conflicts abroad (apart from the China-India conflict where physical blows were used, and border clashes with Vietnam), a remarkable restraint compared to the other major powers around the world. However, since its success in the region from their economic stimulus programme after the 2008 global financial crisis. China has become overconfident.
With its economic prowess and having Asia’s largest military force, China has started behaving differently with its neighbours. Under President Xi’s call to the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese people”, China has been using quid pro quo negotiations – asking countries to accommodate its interests in exchange for beneficial treatments. Could China be slowly forgetting the crucial lessons learnt from the pre-reform period, and instead be turning to a sense of nationalistic historic triumph?
The Rise of China
Much of China’s rise and growth has had to do with its infrastructural investments. It is astounding how rapidly China has built roads, railways and high-rise buildings in old cities, as well as creating new cities catered to house its expanding industries. With such a momentous growth, China has fast become a great economic power.
In an effort to continue China’s growth, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was born. The BRI, President Xi’s brainchild, would allow China to continue its infrastructural growth abroad, starting with its neighbouring countries like Pakistan, Myanmar, Laos and the Central Asian countries. The initiative is intended to span across Eurasia and the seas towards Africa, making it effectively global.
The BRI has been regarded by many as a geopolitical strategy to extend China’s influence. If peace was simply the absence of violence, this conclusion might be immature. The BRI is ultimately a peace project by China with no intentions of using armed forces to invade or coerce countries to build infrastructure. Southeast Asian countries have an important stake in making sure the BRI comes through, but Xi’s passion for this bold, global project may be unrequited by others in the region.
A project of this size will inevitably see disputes, but some revelations have been uneasy. Malaysia’s call to review the BRI projects and the temporary suspension of the major rail project in 2018 has revealed the unequal treaties that provide more advantages to their Chinese counterpart. This is a precarious sign that China may be approaching partnerships as a client-master relationship with a lack of transparent negotiations and fair project terms with the participating countries. There might also be a possible mismatch in the Chinese idea of economic growth through infrastructure investments in the region.
More Haste Less Speed
The BRI also comes with problems that could potentially undermine the regional peace which the Chinese may not be sufficiently aware of. Instead of investing time and patience into nurturing the local workforce, China has chosen to import their own workers whom they trust to be hardworking and well-trained and comes without a language barrier. This has resulted in a loss of capacity building in participating countries that are less developed and is made worse when they potentially make losses from their infrastructure investments. The lack of capacity building may embitter countries, further exacerbating the existing oppositions against the BRI.
Just like any partnership, if the hosts are unable to grow together with the economic development of China, they may have no choice but to default on their loans, leaving a distasteful strain on the relationship. Already eight of the 68 participating countries have been identified as “high-risk” of the debt burden. The trouble arises when a member state cannot afford compensation or are so neck-deep in debt that they might have to resort to default it.
The dilemma of China would be to either pressure these countries or write-off the debt altogether. This has caused several relationship problems such as the one between China and Sri Lanka where the latter had to give up 80 per cent of their ownership of the maritime Port of Hambantota. While the economic returns might seem enticing, China needs to be responsible for sharing the risks equally and being mindful of over-lending to avoid potential debt hangovers.
Apart from financial and legal issues, historians who remember the British and French colonial legacies also fear a need for an unintended military intervention. Any spark of a conflict between Chinese workers and an armed opposition could very easily lead to temptation for China to intervene militarily to protect its own interests. The situation may be made worse if other foreign states are required to interfere, and a proxy conflict might very well ensue. China may not have given this forethought sufficient consideration, but in the event China finds themselves becoming a local party in conflict areas, political risks will pose a great threat to peace and security, especially in the countries along the BRI.
What International Law?
Aside from geopolitical and economic risks lies the greatest problem and the source of mistrust towards China. The apparent lack of China’s regard for international laws has garnered scepticism towards their underlying motivations. Where international law benefits them, such as the International Trade Law, China abides by the rules to the letter.
The same cannot be said with the Law of the Sea. China imposed its self-made “historically-based” law that was first published in 1947, or more commonly known now as the “Nine-Dash line”. This undefined demarcation line from China cites historic rights in maritime areas that stretch out as far as 2,000km from the mainland which it reasserted when they submitted a map to include the territorial claims to the UN in 2009. The claim covers almost 80 per cent of the South China Sea and this has caused several disputes with the Philippines and Vietnam.
Despite signing the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982, China has resorted to provocative acts such as having Chinese fishing boats ram into American vessels, harassing ships and blocking access to parts of the sea. China’s increased maritime aggression and inconsistency with international law have made countries like Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia sincerely question China’s intentions as a hegemon.
In lieu of a more recent event, disputes on the Line of Actual Control, a poorly demarcated line that separates India’s territory from the Chinese has caused the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers. Unsurprisingly, both countries have made accusations of the other party’s intrusion of their respective nation’s soil. The point here is – China’s track record of their claims on territories, both on the sea and on land, have not been brilliant.
To provide reassurance to countries in the region, China needs to start upholding the rule-based system and show restraint in making extensive claims to territories that are illegitimate. It is no doubt that multilateral relationships will grow stronger when China starts to sincerely keep to their word without putting pressure on other countries who share close economic ties to state a favourable proposition.
It’s a Balancing Act:
It is important to understand that most member states in the region are not persuaded by naysayers about China’s grand strategy to dominate the world stage and a hegemonic position. In fact, most certainly welcome its rise as they may get to relish in the economic and social growth together with the world’s most populous country. Nevertheless, China needs to balance both its unilateral relationships and economic enthusiasm at the same time.
Firstly, China cannot sideline the importance of having mutual respect for the United States and the BRI-participating countries. Being willing to re-examine their economic relationships will only do more good. The ongoing trade war is simply a product of a long-overdue American trade deficit with China that was never effectively addressed. If China wants to be looked at as a friendly, big player around the block, it could start by developing its own internal market to strengthen the purchasing power of the Chinese people. The new regional reality with the BRI also calls for China to deal with fair contract terms and to ensure that sovereign rights of participating states are not lost. Simultaneously, China needs to open its market more radically to imports from other countries. A more level playing field will not only benefit both countries but also relieve the pressure of allies to take sides.
Furthermore, border agreements are extremely important and beneficial for peace in East Asia. China needs to take the initiative to demilitarise the South China Sea and move towards a more rule-based system.
Together with this, there also needs to be a phaseout of the dangerous idea of national humiliation and the restoration of past glories in China. When students are taught that they have been humiliated and need to re-establish their rightful position in the world, it only fuels aggressive nationalism. China has accomplished great feats and it’s definitely time they can finally start talking about their achievements and focus less intensely on the humiliation of their past. This will reassure countries in the region and it follows that they would see less reason to invite the US to maintain a military presence in the area, thereby securing more security and peace in the region.
China’s role as a hegemon could be nothing more than an argument. However, the fact that China is structurally a big player cannot be denied. It follows then that this is a delicate act China must master. With great power comes great responsibility – if China chooses to rise to the occasion, they could be seen as an enlightened world leader together with the US, granting a more secure regional peace.