On January 11, as Asia braced itself for the next four years under U.S. President Donald Trump, China released a new white paper outlining its vision for the region’s security (See: “What Will Donald Trump’s Asia Policy Look Like?”).
More simplistic readings cast the document as either a notable win for China’s quest for regional hegemony or another boilerplate vision from Beijing that deserved little attention. In reality, the white paper captures the more dynamic struggle China faces in selling its neighbors a benign vision that many of them are still having trouble buying.
China: Asia’s “Shaper and Maker?”
Over the past three decades, China’s rising economic capabilities have begun to translate into a growing security role and a greater comfort in articulating its own ambitions as well as its vision for the region.
As a result, rather than just accepting and participating in existing arrangements and institutions, China is now questioning some old practices – such as respect for U.S. alliances or adherence to certain interpretations of international laws – and in some cases inventing its own bodies, like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) or the Belt and Road Initiative (OBOR). As one Chinese interlocutor put it to me at the Xiangshan Forum last October, when it comes to the regional architecture, “China is more and more not just a taker, but [a] shaper and even [a] maker.”
Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, a more capable and confident China has become clearer in articulating exactly what this shaping and making looks like. Xi himself articulated what he called the “New Asian Security Concept” at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) back in May 2014. And Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin laid out a five-point vision at the 2016 Xiangshan Forum, which was fleshed out even further in the latest white paper (See: “Can China Shape Asia’s Security Architecture?”).
The white paper’s six main points can be condensed into five key principles that have undergirded China’s previous articulations of its vision for the region’s security architecture: 1) promoting common development and prosperity; 2) building partnerships rather than Cold War-era alliances; 3) strengthening the existing regional multilateral framework; 4) adhering to international and regional norms, including the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence and the ASEAN Way; 5) advancing cooperation while setting aside disputes. China’s vision also includes its new security concept, which advocates common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security.
Distilling these five principles, China’s regional vision, at its core, stresses economic prosperity as a foundation for relationships; emphasizes selective cooperation while setting aside disputes; and prioritizes both regional as well as international norms. Put more simply, it is an economics-first, cooperation-first, and Asia-first vision. Such a vision makes sense for a regional power like China: it buys it time to build up its capabilities, stabilize its periphery, and strengthen its hold on Asia while keeping other actors like the United States out. Convincing its neighbors to buy into this, however, is the real challenge.
Beijing’s Asia Conundrum
Many of China’s neighbors, for their part, have been cautious as the Asian giant unveils its grand designs. Part of this is a natural consequence of China’s rising capabilities, which can cause concern as Beijing exerts a stronger economic gravitational pull, flexes its growing military muscle, and expands its sense of its interests and goals. This is not unique to China – these dynamics have been evident in the rise of major powers dating back to the Peloponnesian War.
Yet China’s words and deeds have also contributed to this caution. With respect to words, for instance, one sentence in the new white paper warns rather forebodingly that “small and medium-sized countries need not and should not take sides among big countries.”
For China’s smaller neighbors, such statements make them think back to variants they have heard publicly and privately over the years that make Beijing sound much less benign. When the media reported in July 2010 that then-Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi had told his Singaporean counterpart George Yeo that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact,” it was a further confirmation of a mentality that many regional observers had already suspected China of having.
More substantively, Southeast Asian states in particular will be nervous about China’s attempts to “improve the existing regional multilateral mechanisms,” as the white paper politely puts it, for fear that it might undermine ASEAN’s much-prized centrality. Over the past few years, ASEAN has been in the driver’s seat in shaping the Asia’s institutional architecture, in no small part due to the fierce rivalries that persist in Northeast Asia.
But that is a role which ASEAN can only sustain through a delicate balancing act between integrating major powers into institutions, managing potential tensions among them, and preserving the unity among its member states. Yet as much as Southeast Asian states would like for things to stay this way lest an ASEAN project become hijacked by major powers, China’s attempts at institutional change will inevitably rub up against ASEAN’s quest to preserve tradition.
Then there’s the things China does, and the gap between these actions Beijing’s neighbors experience and the words that they hear. China’s maritime assertiveness in the East and South China Seas, economic coercion against its Asian brethren, and veiled attempts to divide ASEAN, have all made Beijing seem more like a malign than a benign hegemon-to-be (See: “What Really Happened at the ASEAN-China Special Kunming Meeting”).
Of course, China is hardly the only major power to engage in hypocrisy in its foreign policy, and it may contest any one of these claims on various grounds. But the larger point is that cumulatively, Beijing’s past and present actions only amplify existing concerns among its neighbors about how it will act in the future when it is even more powerful.
More specifically, in the economic realm, how can Asia be expected to have faith in the logic of win-win cooperation when China has shown the propensity to use its neighbors’ growing dependence on it against them further down the line? Examples abound, whether it is Beijing’s halting of rare earth exports to Japan in 2010, the ban on Philippine banana imports in 2012 (now lifted under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte), or the turning of the screws on South Korean businesses over THAAD deployment that we are seeing now (See: “Interview: Thomas Byrne on the Future of the US-ROK Alliance”). This is a point missed by those keen to highlight only the sunny side of growing economic cooperation between China and its neighbors.
Similarly, in the security sphere, what guarantee do Asian states have that if they set aside disputes for now, an even more militarily capable and potentially more ambitious, nationalistic, and insecure China won’t simply settle them on its own terms at a later date? For countries that actually have a stake in these disputes, they may simply be postponing the inevitable.
Add all of this up, and it presents China with an Asian conundrum. Put simply, Beijing is trying to sell Asia a benign vision at present, but most of the region isn’t buying it.
Softening the Hard Edges?
Chinese policymakers, for their part, are aware of and attuned to these concerns among China’s neighbors. And to their credit, there is evidence that they have at least acknowledged and tried to address them.
For instance, some observers, myself included, voiced concerns about Liu’s vision as outlined at last year’s Xiangshan Forum on several counts, including the lack of integration of other major powers, insufficient deference to the existing ASEAN-centric architecture, and the incongruence between China’s words and its actions on the regional and international stage.
The white paper does get at some of these anxieties, dwelling at length on China’s interactions with major powers, delving more into Beijing’s efforts to strengthen existing ASEAN-centric institutions, and stating China’s preferred approach to dealing with lingering disputes, albeit without crossing familiar lines (for instance, the section on the South China Sea begins predictably by reaffirming its “indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha [Spratly] Islands and their adjacent waters”).
Chinese interlocutors have also said that Beijing is thinking hard about how it can contribute more constructively, not just in the economic realm but increasingly in the security sphere too, in areas ranging from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to law enforcement (See: “Trust Deficit Remains as China Boosts Security Role”). To be sure, in many of these areas, China is a newcomer relatively speaking. And sometimes, the extent to which Beijing seems to be motivated by competition with the United States – despite its protestations – is troubling. Nonetheless, it does suggest a certain malleability with respect to China’s role in the region that at least partly responds to the feedback it receives.
Yet, at the same time, there is no reason why this conciliatory note about short-term tactical adjustments cannot coexist with Beijing’s avowed confidence in its long-term approach. China’s neighbors are no doubt wary of the long-run scenario where they may become increasingly dependent on an even more confident and capable Beijing more willing to exert its growing leverage to get what it wants. Indeed, for some of Beijing’s more bullish policymakers, China’s Asia conundrum becomes much more manageable when viewed from a longer time horizon, where time is on its side.
Prashanth Parameswaran is Associate Editor at The Diplomat magazine based in Washington, D.C., where he writes mostly on Southeast Asia, Asian security affairs and U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific.