Like other rising powers in the past, China has been torn between reality and ambition. Each country pursues its national interests in the international arena and China is no exception.
China has cooperated with or insulated itself from the international system on the basis of its national interests. Nevertheless, the definition of national interest of a particular country changes with a change in the quantum of power that a country wields.
As China began to rise, its national interest was also defined and re-defined. It appeared that in order to realize its national interest, China not only contributed to the international system, it became, at times, militarily assertive to project its enhanced military power and defend its wider economic interests.
As national interest cannot be rationally and objectively conceptualized, defined and executed, a rising power like China was perceived to have behaved irrationally and ambitiously in certain cases. The arguments regarding China’s “peaceful rise” and the perception of China as a threat seemed politically motivated, although they appeared academic in nature.
However, Chinese scholars, political leaders and media tried to assuage the fear of the international community that its quick and consistent rise would not lead to irrational actions. For instance, Zheng Bijian, a Chinese thinker, argued that Beijing’s participation in international institutions increased along with its conformity to international norms in the post-Mao period.
In a similar vein, some Chinese scholars maintained that China was bound to face problems like scarcity of resources, the deterioration of the environment and economic imbalances in its rise, and it needed cooperation from the international community to overcome these problems. Attempts were made to explain how China’s rise was beneficial to the international community as it could contribute to their trade benefits along with its own, and could also contribute more toward international peace.
Guoli Liu, a Chinese scholar, maintained that there has been a symbiotic relationship between China’s internal socio-economic reforms and a peaceful international environment, and therefore successful reforms needed peaceful diplomacy.
Similarly, Bang Quan Zheng argued that China’s peaceful development was based on the stability of current international economic, political and security orders and therefore its rise need not be a threat to the US and the international system.
Some argued that expectations from a rising China were high and therefore invited more criticism of Chinese roles in international affairs. The Chinese decision to increase the number of troops it contributes to peacekeeping operations, its participation in counter-piracy operations in Somalia, and its commitment to sharing intelligence and conducting humanitarian rescue operations in coordination with other countries were cited as examples of Beijing’s role as a responsible stakeholder.
China’s peaceful development was based on the stability of current international economic, political and security orders and therefore its rise need not be a threat to the US and the international system
Furthermore, the Chinese contribution to tackling the East Asian financial crisis and later the global financial crisis was cited as one of a host of other examples of China’s peaceful rise. It is significant that China refused to devalue its currency in mid-1998 when the Asian financial crisis was at its peak. If China had done so, it would have aggravated the crisis and possibly a world recession would have been triggered. Similarly, China was the first country to buy the bonds newly issued by the IMF to help countries to get over the global financial crisis.
The western perception, as well as the perception of many neighboring countries, changed following an era of internal reforms and the cultivation of friendly ties with state actors led by the paramount communist leader Deng Xiaoping. China’s quick economic progress and military modernization were viewed skeptically, and its assertion of indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea at the expense of the territorial claims of Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines was seen as an attempt at gaining control over strategic sea routes.
Chinese President Xi Jinping not only clearly articulated Beijing’s desire for a larger role in global affairs in his announcement that he was going to turn China into a leading nation in terms of national power and global impact by 2050 at the 19th National Congress of the Communist party, his government’s swift implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) caused serious concern in the West as well as among neighbors and was considered a geopolitical coup.
The BRI attracted criticism and warnings from Western powers, a few participant countries, and international financial institutions on the grounds of rising indebtedness among the countries involved without them accruing significant local economic benefits, a lack of transparency, a disregard for an open and inclusive approach, and sustainable financing.
US concerns were also fueled by the rise of China as a geopolitical threat to its global influence and interests. To counter the perception of China as a geopolitical threat, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced $113 million in new technology, energy and infrastructure initiatives in July 2018, with the objective of casting the US as a trustworthy partner in the Indo-Pacific region, and some days later he pledged to provide $300 million in new security funding for the region. This appeared to be a desperate US drive to formulate a “grand strategy” to restore its influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
The perception of the rising China threat coexisted with Beijing’s attempts at building up its image as a peace broker not only by engaging in the Afghan peace process but by offering to play a mediating role in the effort to arrive at a settlement of the Rohingya refugee issue between Bangladesh and Myanmar as well.
With the world’s largest population, China has greatly contributed to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals worldwide, according to a UNDP report. President Xi has also announced a fresh package of aid and loans to more than 50 African leaders visiting Beijing for the Seventh Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) this year.
Corresponding to Chinese growth rates, Xi pledged to contribute 8,000 troops for a UN peacekeeping standby force and has significantly enhanced Beijing’s contribution from 3% in 2013 to 10.25% by 2018 to the UN peacekeeping budget.
But all these Chinese achievements appeared bleaker compared to the perception of China as a threat. In this larger context, Beijing may have to build on the existing arguments regarding its peaceful rise and dispel the concerns of neighbors as well as countries with stakes in the Indo-Pacific region.