Which direction will the Superpower that is China take in 2011?
An answer to this question, lies in the Chinese press, in particular in the analyses/comments published in China during the last few weeks.
The past year has been marked by a hardening of China’s foreign policy in several sectors and by a deterioration inBeijing’s relations with its proximate neighbours, whether it is Japan, Korea, India, the Mekong countries or closer allies like Kazakhstan (The Hindu reported that China's dams in Xinjiang region have triggered great concern in Kazakhstan).
In this context, The International Herald Leader, a Xinhua newspaper focused on international relations, published an interview with Yan Xuetong, a well-known scholar specialized in international relations. Yan is the Dean of the Institute of Contemporary International Relations of Tsinghua University.
The scholar believes that in 2011, Beijing’s foreign policy should reflect China’s status as the ‘number two power in the world’. Early in 2010, he had predicted that the Sino-US relationship would be ‘more one of enemies than friends’. He affirms now that the events of the year have corroborated his observation.
Yan contends that in economics and culture, China and the US have many common or complementary interests, but in politics and security, the two superpowers are bound to have several open conflicts of interest: “Because of opposing interests in these areas, it is hard for them to develop cooperative strategies. Competition will be the main theme [of their future relations]”.
He explained that the two powers are bound to have confrontational relations: “This [type of] relationship started at the end of the Cold War and will continue indefinitely. The G2 competition between the USSR and the US during the Cold War was about military struggle. [Now], the G2 competition between China and the US is economic”. Tomorrow, it will remain competitive in nature.
His main argument is that China’s Foreign Policy does not reflect its present international status. The events of 2010 have shown that “China’s neighbors have asked the US to intervene in Asia and have wanted the US to lead Asia to counter China’s rise.”
Yan continues, explaining that though “China’s foreign policy with regard to these countries didn’t change, their ‘feelings’ toward China changed… In the past, China’s neighbors felt comfortable with China’s ‘smiling’ foreign policy, because China was not that strong. But now China is strong. Continuing the same ‘smiling’ policies will make them question China’s intention. Before China became the leader in East Asia, its neighbors felt it was natural to compete with China, but now they view competition from China as a threat.”
That is why China needs to change its foreign policy.
In line with this new development, he suggests three adjustments in foreign policy: “First, China’s foreign diplomacy should shift its focus from economic development to achieving national rejuvenation. National rejuvenation is our government’s long-term political goal”. What exactly is this ‘rejuvenation’ is not explicit.
Yan second point is: “China should take charge as a great, responsible power instead of maintaining a low profile. …Being a responsible great power does not mean just increasing its responsibilities, but also its power. …Continuing low profile-type policies will bring more harm than benefit to China.”
Deng Xiaoping’s theory was that until China becomes a major power, it should keep a low profile in foreign policy. The time has come for China to be more proactive on the world scene and fully participate as ‘world power no 2’, states Yan.
Though the Tsinghua University Professor does not give concrete examples, Beijing has been doing just that; one can cite the recent increase of its holdings in some European Union countries' debt. Spain, Greece and other European countries in the midst of the euro-zone crisis, increasingly see China as a source of capital (Beijing’s foreign-exchange reserves are estimated at $2.7 trillion).
Gao Hucheng, the Chinese Commerce Vice-Minister who is accompanying Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang on a visit to Spain and other European countries, affirmed: "We will continue to buy debt and work together with Spain, [though] the exact amount of bonds China will buy depends on the timing and volume of issuances by the Spanish government." Clearly China is now ready to ‘take its responsibility’.
Yan’s third point is “number two in the world, China should have the power to have other countries listen to China”. Though quite frightening for its neighbours, he says that today this is more important to China than its overseas economic interests. Yan also speaks of ‘China’s international strategic reputation’ which is “based on two pillars: punishing those outside activities that harm our national interests and rewarding those that benefit our national interests”.
He concludes: “Without sufficient military power, China can’t protect the other Asian countries. Therefore, China must speed up its military development. Before China’s defense capability reaches such a level, China should emphasize preventive security cooperation with its neighbors.”
In another article in The People’s Daily on December 29, 2010, Liang Guanglie, China’s Defense Minister declared: ‘Wars Are Unlikely, but Military Friction Can't Be Excluded”.
Liang Guanglie added: “Looking at the current world situation, a full-scale war is unlikely, but we cannot exclude the possibility that, in some local areas, unexpected events may occur, or military friction may take place due to a misfire.”
The Defence Minister made another interesting remark. While the army is on the decline, the navy, air force, and second artillery corps represent a large and growing percentage of the Chinese defence forces.
Will India take note of this and adapt accordingly its doctrine?
This innocuous remark demonstrates that China will increasingly project its newly-found economic power outside its territory.
Liang Guanglie also pointed out the deep societal changes in the Chinese armed forces: today 80% of the officers have a college degree. It is far from the peasant Army of Mao coming wave after wave into the Korean peninsula in the 1950’s.
This new affirmation of power has already taken a concrete shape. Just ahead of the visit of the US defence secretary to Beijing, pictures of a fifth generation fighter plane appeared on several Internet defence fora. The pictures showed the J-20 taxiing on an airfield in southwestern China. This prototype, the first known Chinese stealth fighter, surprised US experts and sent shivers down the Pentagon, though the Chinese engineers will take some time to develop a proper engine. It however clearly demonstrates that the Chinese are on the job.
The China Defence Blog told its readers: “Contrary to the naysayers, the theory of ‘It-is-just-a-full-scale-wooden-mock-up’ is now ruled out.”
A Japanese expert told the AFP: “China plans to begin test flights of the J-20 as soon as this month, with plans to deploy the jet as early as 2017. …The fighter will be equipped with large missiles and could reach Guam [US base] with aerial refuelling, although it would take 10 to 15 more years to develop technology on par with that of the US F-22 stealth jet.”
Around the same time The PLA Daily published an article suggesting that China should focus on its national security strategic chain, composed of strategic resources, strategic industries, and strategic capabilities: “Our military capability is the backbone of our national strategic capabilities… It is critical to have our military capability reflect our national strategic status and interests." A veiled threat was added: “International cooperation is the best way to obtain a supply of stable strategic resources, but we should never give up the option of using abnormal means to safeguard the security of our strategic resources.”
Strategists can start scratching their heads: what abnormal means?
On Christmas Eve, The International Herald Leader reported a discussion at The Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Science on the future direction of China's Foreign Policy.
The report, Evaluation of China's Security Situation explained: “In 2010, China faced intensified security pressure from its neighboring countries and deteriorating relationships with its neighbors.”
Whether the ‘intensified security pressure’ is of its own making has obviously not been discussed, but the mere fact that the issue was debated on by several government think tanks proves that there is no unanimity in China: should the nation continue with its aggressive foreign policy or return to a more peaceful rise of China.
The forum of the The Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies talked about the issue and apparently two opposing views emerged:
- China should learn how to reduce it neighbours' fears and worries concerning China’s rise. In other words, make more friends and create zero or few enemies.
- China should learn from Russia. It initially took a soft foreign policy approach, but the Western world’s continued interaction with its neighbors became a threat. After Russia showed its determination to safeguard its interests [by sending troops to Georgia], the situation stabilized.