“If one day China should change her colour and turn into a superpower, if she too should play the tyrant in the world, and everywhere subject others to her bullying, aggression and exploitation, the people of the world should identify her as social-imperialism, expose it, oppose it and work together with the Chinese people to overthrow it.”
Deng Xiaoping, then Vice-Premier, in a speech delivered during a Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly in 1974.
China has been increasingly assertive in its immediate neighbourhood. From exerting increased pressure over Hong Kong and Taiwan to territorial disputes with its Southeast Asian neighbours. Why is China behaving the way it is behaving today? The IAS Gazette explores five possible reasons:
South China Sea and ASEAN: More Than Just A Territorial Dispute?
The South China Sea is strategically important to China. Dr Collin Koh, a research fellow at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), believes that the South China Sea (SCS) acts as a springboard for Beijing to rectify the issue of the Malacca Dilemma. The Strait of Malacca is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and it is also where China’s oil purchases transit from the Middle East. However, the Strait is also surrounded by countries friendly to the United States (US). In the event of a conflict, America could easily disrupt China’s oil supplies with a blockade. If the Chinese secure the SCS as part of its territory, they will be able to safeguard the Strait of Malacca, thereby securing its energy needs.
Dr Koh also acknowledged that China needs the SCS for its Ballistic Missile Submarine Bastion (SSBN). The SCS have more outlets as compared to the Bohai Gulf and would improve the survivability of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy submarine fleet. The existing PLA Navy submarine base in San Ya, Hainan Island, will also complement its operations in the SCS.
The Middle Kingdom views the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a potential strategic rival in this dispute. ASEAN has always been a proponent of “freedom of navigation” and resolving the territorial dispute of the SCS in accordance with international law. In contrast, China may not adhere to international law because it sees international law as a Western construct. A disunited ASEAN is thus advantageous for China.
For instance, Cambodia has blocked the grouping’s joint communique on the SCS dispute twice, first in 2012 and most recently in 2016. The blocking of the 2012 joint communique was the first time in the organisation’s history that a joint statement could not be agreed upon by its member states. Cambodia is one of China’s closest allies within ASEAN and depends heavily on China for its economic growth. Cambodia’s Ministry of Commerce announced that bilateral trade between the two countries increased by 19.7 per cent to US$3 billion (S$4.06 billion) during the first four months of 2021. Furthermore, exports to China increased by 42 per cent to US$424 million (S$574.48 million), while imports increased by 16.7 per cent to US$2.58 billion (S$3.49 billion). Increased economic ties between Beijing and Phnom Penh was also evident when Cambodia signed a free trade agreement with China in October 2020, with negotiations lasting just under a year.
China also needs to ensure that the Southeast Asian grouping does not side with the US concerning this issue. Although China may have leverage and influence over ASEAN through Cambodia, Beijing must play its cards well. Failure to maintain an amicable relationship could lead to ASEAN being inclined to side with the Western powers. ASEAN could transform from a strategic partner to a strategic adversary vis-à-vis the SCS.
India: Ancient Cultural Ally, Modern Economic And Political Rival
An increasingly assertive India would prove to be a considerable concern for the Middle Kingdom. The border clashes in June 2020 with India that killed 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese soldiers have shown China that India is not to be trifled with. Although both China and India are members of the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) economic bloc, New Delhi has shown it will do what it must, to protect its sovereignty and territory.
Yet, the bilateral relationship between these two giants was not always this adversarial. There were Buddhist cultural exchanges between them in their long but commonly forgotten shared past. Famous Chinese monks such as Xuanzang and I-Ching visited India and studied at the Nalanda University in Bihar. The world-famous Shaolin monastery was founded by an Indian-born monk. Fast forward to the modern era, Sino-India relations have become increasingly antagonistic; one more resembling rivals than allies.
India has the immense potential to become a colossal manufacturing competitor to its industrious Chinese neighbour. In a Mckinsey article published on Oct 30, 2020, India’s manufacturing sector alone has the potential to increase its current Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of US$2.59 trillion (S$3.42 trillion) by another US$300 billion (S$397 billion). Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s launch of the “Made In India” campaign to attract foreign investors is India’s attempt to meet that potential, and it has already begun to chip away the Chinese competitive advantage in manufacturing. A successful India can become a powerful economic rival to China.
New Delhi also has the potential of turning into an ideological rival of Beijing. India is the largest liberal democracy in the world with more than 900 million registered voters. The country is a federal parliamentary republic where representatives are democratically elected into power, with room for opposing perspectives. In contrast, China is a single-party unitary socialist republic with the Communist Party of China (CPC) being the vanguard party. Its legislature is completely dominated by the CPC as it is at the apex of the political hierarchy. There are no elections on a national level. These differences in political structures could drive confrontational foreign policies relative to one another, as history has shown us before. The Cold War was a result of stark ideological differences between the US and the former Soviet Union. New Delhi could likely become another ideological foe of Beijing, other than the US.
India’s relationship with the Western powers, especially with the US, remains cordial. The two powers share many common areas of interest, notably with regards to India emerging as a leading global power and a crucial partner in ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific, a term China was initially wary of embracing.
Given India’s assertiveness in protecting its sovereignty, its fast-growing economy, completely contrasting political system, and its cordial relationship with the West, India poses a security and economic concern for China.
Taiwan: The Two Thorns In The Flesh
China must confront the issues in relation to Hong Kong and Taiwan. Both entities, albeit not internationally recognised sovereign states in their own right, have robust pro-democracy and pro-independence movements. These movements threaten the legitimacy of the CPC and its vision of a “prosperous and strong” China under the rule of the party.
The pro-democracy protests of 2014 in Hong Kong were provoked by the decision of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of China (NPCSC) to elect the Chief Executive of Hong Kong in 2017. The NPCSC ruled that a nominating committee would be formed to nominate two to three candidates. Each candidate must receive the support of more than half of the members of the nominating committee. After a popular election of the nominated candidates, the winner must be appointed by the Central People’s Government of China. This was widely seen as an interference in the elections by Beijing.
The 2019-20 protests, which paralysed the city since early 2019, were triggered by the extradition bill put forth by Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo). Critics of the bill feared the bill would undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy, as the bill allowed for the extradition of fugitives to mainland China. In the subsequent District Council elections, pro-democracy candidates won a landslide victory and captured 389 of 452 elected seats. This was an increase from only 124, while support for pro-Beijing candidates collapsed and only clinched 58 seats, down from 300.
These recent protests have demonstrated that even after more than two decades since the handover to China under the principle of ‘One Country Two Systems’, Hong Kong remains the ‘naughty child’ of China.
On the other side of the Taiwan Strait, Taiwanese voters elected Tsai Ing-Wen as President for two consecutive terms. Under Tsai, who hails from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Taipei has sought closer relations with the US, both economically and militarily in the face of increasing pressure from China. In addition, Tsai believes that Taiwan is already independent and thus no need for the island to declare independence, further angering Beijing.
Taiwan will undoubtedly be a perpetual bane for China, as long as it is not under Chinese rule. Beijing has always regarded Taiwan as a breakaway province that has to be reunified with the mainland. Additionally, Taiwan’s official name — Republic of China, Taiwan — is severely at odds with the official Chinese policy of only one China.
If Hong Kong is the “naughty child” then Taiwan is the “estranged sibling” that has no desire to return home.
These pro-independence and pro-democracy movements threaten the legitimacy of the CPC. Although the National Security Law has been enacted in Hong Kong, China is unable to directly intervene in the affairs of Taiwan, bar a military invasion of the island. The CPC has always regarded itself as the vanguard party of China, and the only rightful political party to lead China into the future after emerging victorious in the civil war with the Nationalists. With the alarming rise of pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong and pro-independence sentiments in Taiwan, these two entities will always be the two thorns in the flesh of the CPC.
Korea: A Dilemma Of Division Or Reunification
The reunification of the Koreas is a predicament in which China has to possibly face. Beijing has considerable strategic interests in the Korean Peninsula, one small misstep and the consequences would be catastrophic for its interests.
A unified Korea could become a major threat to China. Economically, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) massively outperforms its northern counterpart. South Korea has a GDP of US$1.63 trillion (S$2.2 trillion) compared to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) of just US$33.5 billion in 2019 (S$45.38 billion). A combination of the South’s industrial prowess and the North’s resource abundance could make a unified Korea an economic powerhouse in East Asia.
Militarily, the North has a huge amount of personnel, but most of its equipment is obsolete and lack proper maintenance. In contrast, the South possesses modern military hardware and access to state-of-the-art defence technologies. This year, South Korea increased its defence budget to KRW52.84 trillion (S$62.47 billion) despite an ongoing pandemic. This clearly demonstrates the resilience and strength of the South’s economy. South Korea can also count on the US as a major ally, which already has units stationed within its borders.
It is only sensible for Beijing to assume a unified Korea will be governed by the current institutions in Seoul. This further implies that the unified entity will be aligned with the US. A shared border with an American ally is something China cannot permit. China is already wary of Seoul’s intentions, this is salient in its vehement objection to the deployment of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defence system in South Korea. Beijing is concerned that the radar system used in THAAD might have the ability to track the PLA’s missile forces, which could undermine China’s nuclear deterrence.
These considerations are enough for China to guarantee the survival of North Korea. The latter acts as a critical buffer against the US and its ally in Seoul.
The unlikely collapse of the North Korean dictatorship would also be a humanitarian nightmare for Beijing. In an opinion piece for CNN, an American news outlet, Dr Jennifer Lind wrote that China’s primary concern is the political stability of the Korean Peninsula. The associate professor of government at Dartmouth College believed that the fall of Kim Jong-Un’s regime in Pyongyang would unleash chaos of unprecedented level. China, which shares a land border with North Korea, would bear the brunt of it. The resulting refugee crisis from the North’s collapse is not one that China is keen to handle.
However, a powerful but non-aligned unified Korea can be a critical buffer against the US and Japan. China would not need to worry about US troops and military equipment right at its doorstep. China has many factors to consider when conducting relations in the Korean peninsula.
Japan: No Such Thing As Forgive And Forget
Sino-Japan relations have always been awkward because of past Japanese incursions towards China. Historical grievances such as the Imperial Japanese invasion of China during the Second World War (WWII) and disputes over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands have also made relations between these two great powers a tense one.
The Japanese invasion and the subsequent occupation of China during WWII had left scarring memories deeply etched in the national consciousness of the Chinese people. Most infamously, the Rape of Nanking resulted in some 200,000 to 300,000 civilians being massacred by the Imperial Japanese Army. As if adding salt to an already grievous wound, visits by sitting Japanese Prime Ministers to Yasukuni Shrine have caused uproars amongst the Chinese as there are war criminals enshrined within its controversial grounds.
The ongoing dispute of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea has led to a flare-up of tensions between the two states. On Dec 13, 2012, a Chinese plane from the Chinese State Oceanic Administration flew over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, this led to Tokyo scrambling eight F-15 fighter jets. On June 4, 2021, four Chinese coast guard vessels sailed in the contiguous zone just outside Japanese territorial waters around the islands for a record 112 consecutive days. Japan has also been scrambling interceptors whenever Chinese military aircraft take off from an airbase in Fujian province, under the assumption that they will probe Japanese defences around the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands.
Japan has also grown uneasy over China’s rise. In an interview with The Diplomat, Professor Narushige Michishita from the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS), believed the reason why Japan has been strengthening security cooperation with other countries in the Indo-Pacific is that Japan and the US will have a difficult time competing with China on military spending in the long-term.
Professor Michishita also maintained that balancing China with other great powers is actually in its long-term interests. He used the example of how Japan lost control in the 1930s and started to pursue its imperial ambitions, which culminated in its defeat because no other countries were there to balance Japan at the time.
Sino-Japan relations are still very much turbulent as it is dictated by their shared but bitter history. Much historical baggage has yet to be resolved and it is highly unlikely that these episodes will be in the near future. Japanese atrocities may have been forgiven by China but they will never be forgotten.
Is Ancient Wisdom Still Relevant In A Modern Age?
Across Asia, China faces a multitude of concerns. The dragon could either be a fantastic ally or the common foe. It must now tread carefully on how it conducts its foreign policy relative to all these countries. It must be able to strike a balance between assertiveness and compromising.
There is a transliteration of an old Chinese saying: “There can never be two tigers on a single mountain.” It is eerily familiar to what American political scientist, Graham Allison, coined as the Thucydides Trap. Named after the ancient Greek historian, Thucydides, it means that when an emerging power threatens the incumbent, the outcome is almost inevitably war. Consequently, the Middle Kingdom’s attitude towards these five regional security pressure points and other global concerns will have major ramifications for itself and the world.
China sees a perfect opportunity today to reclaim its position as a great power after the so-called century of humiliation.