Regional Hegemony or Peaceful Rise? China’s New Silk Roads and the Asia-Pacific

Based on a presentation made at a conference on The US Rebalance and Asia Pacific Region, organized by the Centre for Public Policy Research, Kochi, Kerala, 7 March 2015.

The questions asked of China about whether it is engaged in a regional hegemony project in the Asia-Pacific are deeply problematic. For one, there is a great deal of ignorance about China and so the starting assumptions are underlined by misinformation or lack of knowledge of China’s internal political dynamics, its external concerns as well as of its policy processes. For another, similar questions are not asked of the United States. Is the United States engaged in hegemony or is it a power that maintains peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific? Or is it both? Can the responsibility to maintain regional or global peace be separated from the need to also be hegemonic in order to actually successfully carry out that role? These are big questions but the more interesting one from an Indian point of view is why this question today is asked more of China than of the United States.

Be that as it may, the purpose here to is outline what China is doing in the Asia-Pacific region and it would appear that China’s regional ambitions do tend toward hegemony that is both similar to and different from the role that the United States currently plays in the region.

 

China’s Ambitions

Even the Chinese acknowledge that they are seen as a threat by many countries in their neighbourhood, and this is why they place great emphasis on both rhetoric and action in terms of marketing ‘win-win’ policies as part of their political and economic diplomacy. At the same time, there is certainly an element of competition with the United States which they see as still being in the leading position and the power they need to displace in order to world No.1. However, even as they try to achieve this goal, the Chinese realize that they need to continue to do business with both the United States and the rest of the world, to maintain their own economic growth and domestic political stability, as well as ensure peace and stability in their neighbourhood.

This combination of objectives requires China to both follow international law and seek to undermine it where it is perceived to be going against Chinese interests. China’s assertiveness of recent years in the South China Sea disputes is a case in point. China ostensibly does not obstruct freedom of international navigation in these waters but continues its reclamation activities and attempts to establish and sustain control over the Spratlys and Paracels, even though many of the features do not lend themselves to sovereignty claims and by extension exclusive economic zone claims under international maritime law.

Why then does China do it? Besides wishing to undermine the United States role in Asia, China also seeks respect, status and a return to past glory. This is also a part of the nationalist turn that the Communist Party of China (CPC) has encouraged at home to make up for lost credibility and legitimacy. However, it is important to note that today, Chinese, whether ordinary or elite, including those opposed to the rule of the CPC believe in the need for the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation – even if this means the suppression of its ethnic minorities, for the time being – as well as increasingly, in a version of Chinese exceptionalism. Of course, this is nothing unique to China. One needs only to look across the Himalayas from China to see, similar trends in India, even if there are sometimes remedies in the form of space for dissent, an independent judiciary and regular democratic elections.

One of the big differences separating China from the United States or the Western world (and from India) is that of political ideology. Communism as an ideology and a Stalinist political system are not the only differences. The CPC in its attempt to retain its hold over power at home and to challenge the West abroad has been paying closer attention to China’s own rich legacy of political thought and governing ideologies. Thus abroad, China has over the decades moved from Marxist internationalism to now, a version of Confucian idealism highlighted by such terms as ‘harmonious world’ – harmony being a key Confucian precept. In between, the transition was marked by the use of such terms as ‘peaceful rise’ and ‘peaceful development’ that sought to sell the differences in China’s rise from that of previous global powers in Western terms. Now, China’s greater confidence has allowed it to move from engaging with the world on Western terms to putting forward its own interpretations of political order, global governance and international law and indeed, history.

That this might ultimately be a hegemonic exercise is evident in the ongoing effort within China in the Xi Jinping regime to police Western ideas in academic and intellectual circles. This effort, recalling Maoist-era efforts against ‘spiritual pollution’ from the West has the effect of practically delegitimizing Western thought and concepts as being of relevance to the international order in the Asia-Pacific and elsewhere. Recall, too that ‘harmony’ in the Confucian tradition is deeply invested with ideas of hierarchy.

 

The New Silk Roads

It is often difficult to say that any country has a grand strategic vision according to which its conducts its foreign policy but China’s new Silk Roads policy might be the closest to such a strategic plan. It is a foreign policy project of a scale and scope unlike any other the country has hitherto undertaken. This policy, announced in 2013 has two major components – the Silk Road Economic Belt (sichouzhilu jingjidai) connecting China with Europe through Central Asia and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Initiative (ershiyi shiji haishang sichouzhilu) connecting China to Southeast Asia, South Asia and Africa; hence, it is also known as the ‘one belt, one road’ (OBOR, yidai yilu) policy. Focused on building connectivity between these regions, Chinese interlocutors view the initiative as going much beyond physical infrastructure links in the form roads and railways and trade links to also encompassing financial connectivity, extensive cultural exchanges and increased people-to-people ties. It is thus far more ambitious than the American New Silk Road initiative announced in 2011 and focused largely on Afghanistan.

China has been holding a series of conferences on the OBOR since its announcement with the view to understanding the views and concerns of the various countries along the new Silk Roads as well as trying to communicate an apparent agenda of peaceful and ‘win-win’ development to these countries. This effort culminated in the release of a policy document, ‘an action plan’ issued by its National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Commerce, under the authority of the State Council The consultations on OBOR undertaken by Beijing while already considerably different from the more hard power methods of the United States, have nevertheless not managed to shake off the feeling of unease among its many neighbours about the eventual goals and results of the OBOR policy.

China’s rapid economic growth since it began its process of reforms and opening up in the late 1970s has created both the economic capacity to support and the justification for its global ambitions today. China’s internal economic troubles, including huge overcapacity and local government debt as well as its ‘new normal’ of about 7% annual rate of GDP growth do not necessarily limit this capacity. The ‘new normal’ is, if anything, an attempt to correct structural imbalances at home and when one considers the rollout of the OBOR and other new initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), there appears to be no slackening in the pace of China’s economic outreach to the world.

The fact that China is usually the largest or one of the largest trading partners of most countries in the Asia-Pacific, has made it easier for Beijing to reformulate its overall global economic outreach policies in the form of the OBOR. No other country comes even close to matching China’s geographical spread and numbers as well as historical influence. This then has laid the foundation for ambitious moves such as trying to improve the standing of the renminbi in the basket of world currencies. The OBOR with its reliance on Chinese money and on Chinese companies to do the heavy lifting of providing infrastructure construction, will also be an opportunity for greater internationalization of the renminbi. The OBOR also helps create opportunities for Chinese cities to rival London, Singapore and Hong Kong as major financial centres.

Speaking of internal dynamics and infrastructure development, it needs to be noted that one of the reasons for the OBOR is overcapacity at home. In other words, the OBOR makes a virtue out of necessity by moving Chinese overcapacity out of the country to meet the demand abroad. Infrastructure connectivity has thus become a major and specific feature of the OBOR with Chinese state-owned enterprises in the road, railways, telecom, and energy sectors ranging far and wide backed by easy credit and a hard-charging style of work and implementation even if the quality of the work might raise a few concerns.

Backing all of these changes and initiatives is a straightforward but crucial element, namely, China’s increasing diplomatic prowess. This supports the other major prong of the OBOR, namely, cultural and people-to-people exchanges. Tourism and Chinese soft power initiatives such as the Confucius Institutes while all ostensibly independent developments are all being brought under the rubric of the OBOR to feed into the larger strategy of tempering anti-China feelings and suspicions as China increases its regional and global footprint.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs plans to increase its strength from about 6,000 at present to 15,000 by 2020 and Chinese leaders, today, have one of the busiest calendars of foreign visits and hosting foreign leaders. It helps that the work is spread out among a much longer roster of leaders. Between President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang on the one hand and the State Councillor Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi on the other, there are other members of the Standing Committee of the CPC Politburo, Vice-President Li Yuanchao as well as some of the ranking members of the Politburo who receive foreign dignitaries and travel abroad representing Chinese interests. All of this is further augmented by China’s expanding military capacity. While China’s military threatens, it is also being pressed into military diplomacy and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief across Asia.

 

Regional Hegemony or Peaceful Rise?

To return then to the question of whether China is pursuing regional hegemony or peaceful rise, the more relevant approach might be to look at whether the Chinese will follow the United States’ path to global domination. This author believes that China’s attempt vis-à-vis the United States is not primarily of matching it in the economic or military realms. Rather, China under the CPC seeks political and moral superiority over the United States and this would be true also even if China were under any other kind of political dispensation.

Yes, China needs economic growth and prosperity but that is because it is also about ensuring the prosperity of its vast population – a political matter as well. China also seeks military strength as a matter of course; this is not just because it is seen as a source of power but perhaps more importantly because it is also seen as a currency of prestige. Military modernization was the fourth-ranked in the list of China’s four modernizations and if the military were all powerful and important in China’s political system, then it would not be the site of such ruthless purges by the civilian leadership as it has witnessed in history including the current equally merciless anti-corruption culling. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army might be a crucial player in China’s assertiveness in its territorial disputes, but not as important or decisive perhaps, as the civilian leadership, itself.

Many analysts are right in saying that China has a ‘middle kingdom’ complex in its foreign policy relations but that and Sun Zi’s Art of War-based military strategy form only part of the story. Other analysts who are willing to dig a little deeper into Chinese history note also both Mao Zedong’s and currently, Xi Jinping’s references to Chinese culture and ancient thinkers – and not just Confucius – to explain and justify China’s policies as well as to help chart a course for the future. The reference to ancient Chinese thought and glory are again, only a part of China’s political story. Many tend to forget that despite the glass and chrome of economic growth, China remains a Marxist-Lennist state governed by communist political party. What the CPC and its leaders do currently is to mix their understanding of ancient Chinese thought and statecraft with ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ in order to negotiate the choppy waters of economic growth buffeted with inequality and environmental pollution.

In other words, the domestic situation is a heavy influence on China’s foreign policy. China is unlikely to follow the United States path to global domination. It cannot and it does not want to. But, of course, domination is what any country seeks. The United States has not been particularly concerned about wanting it in a morally – whether defined in a Semitic, Chinese or Indian tradition – appropriate way, China seeks to do that at least in a Chinese-structured way. A ‘Chinese-structured way’ does not necessarily imply that this is going to be parochial in nature. Rather, there is a great deal of learning from the West, including from its mistakes.

‘Peaceful development’, ‘harmonious society’, and the new Silk Roads are all part of this mix of power and morality in China’s quest for domination. Xi Jinping’s OBOR initiative together with his declaration of a new neighbourhood policy in October 2013 at a CPC forum on diplomacy towards China’s periphery and the subsequent creation of institutions such as the AIIB, are a declaration that China wishes to act as a responsible global leader. However, ‘responsible’ itself will be defined by the Chinese themselves and no one else. Thus, it is that China’s respect for international law and norms or its willingness to be a friendly and respectful partner is not always evident to those countries that play by and/or believe in the current international affairs rulebook created and dominated by the West. China has nevertheless, managed to push ahead with new foreign policy initiatives promoting its image as a peaceful power while simultaneously taking a hard line position on territorial disputes and what it says are its ‘core interests’. Essentially, the OBOR creates a situation where China can retain its hard line on issues of sovereignty while slowly, steadily softening or wearing down the resistance of nations by offering them something else in return, namely economic largesse and development. Whether and how China itself and the nations involved will change in the process remains to be seen.

 

India’s Response?

For India, the challenge really is to be able to match this Chinese discourse – economic equivalence and military parity will take time but are not as important as matching China’s political narrative which must be an immediate and ongoing matter of concern. Centrist political dispensations in New Delhi have not seen the Constitution of India, or more precisely its Preamble, as a document of national and international political strategy. The current national ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party – unlike the CPC – has not yet begun to blend references to India’s past glory and traditions, with the realities of the current international situation into a domestically and globally acceptable (as well as rational) political narrative.

Meanwhile, reliance on the soft power of Bollywood, crowing over the United Nations declaring an International Yoga Day or a slow-moving Project Mausam that is designed to emphasize India’s cultural links with the Indian Ocean region are hardly sufficient or substantive Indian measures in the face of the current Chinese political, economic and diplomatic activity in the Asia-Pacific.

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