China’s Geopolitical Adventurism And Perception Of The West

Some see a threat in China’s rise because of historical reasons. China was deliberately isolated from world politics during the Cold War and was not given membership in the UN till 1971. It was an insult to a previous superpower which would adopt retributive policies once it rises to superpower status again.

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The proposed Chinese investment of $3.4 billion in Turkey to jointly manufacture a sophisticated missile defense system has been abandoned by the latter due to strong opposition from its NATO allies. While China seeks to forge close relationship with the countries like Turkey that are connected along the Silk Road more than a thousand years ago by land and sea borne trade, the rising western perception is that China’s economic diplomacy under the rubric of ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) initiative is not immune from its strategy of military engagement.

Although the West has not objected to China’s economic diplomacy in principle it seems not to buy the argument that the Chinese aspirations are confined only to building of roads, ports and energy corridors free from military ambitions. It is not illogical to think that as China’s economic engagement in various regions grows, its military involvement will grow. But what has really bothered the west is the exclusive role that the Chinese state has assumed in both economic and military undertakings. In Turkey, for example, the NATO members expressed their fears regarding the leaks of military secrets to the Chinese government if Chinese technology were incorporated into Turkish air defenses because the Turkey’s partner was to be a state-backed Chinese company. Similarly, the west believes that the failure of the Chinese government to maintain international standards on intellectual property rights within its territory has led to an increase in cases of duplication and piracy resulting in huge losses for multinational companies. It is argued that within China, the foreign companies are made to reveal many secrets regarding their production process as a condition to operate in the biggest market of the world. This kind of industrial espionage has helped China get updated technology and therefore make quick progress.

Recently, China has adopted its first counter-terrorism law. The expressed American concerns are limited to the technology provisions in the law making it mandatory for all the telecommunication companies and internet service providers including the American ones to disclose their data encryption methods to the Chinese government. From the American viewpoints this will violate the Chinese citizens’ freedoms of speech, expression, association and assembly.

However, the US also fears violation of intellectual property rights of its companies and more tellingly the law also allows the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to participate in counter-terror missions overseas which is likely to bother the western leaders more. In the recent past, some members of the US Congress had expressed their concerns over the alleged Chinese attempt to establish a military presence in Djibouti to the Obama Administration even though the US has a sizable military presence in the country and has a base at Camp Lemonnier and despite the Chinese assurance that naval base would be a logistics and supply center. Beijing has made significant economic penetration into Djibouti in so far as it has made enormous investments in infrastructure which include an airport, a rail link to Ethiopia and port facilities in contrast to the American presence which is primarily military. The American concerns seem to stem from the fact that increased Chinese presence in Djibouti would push the country into the Chinese sphere of influence. Contrary to the Chinese claims that its interest in gaining access to port facilities in the Indian Ocean is purely commercial in nature, many countries see a military design taking shape in the form of ‘string of pearls’ strategy.

Ever since China has shown consistent economic growth and continued military modernization, it has called for closer scrutiny of its actions by the west and this has also led to a serious debate in the international community primarily in the west as to whether China will be an assertive player or an important stakeholder. The western perception on China has been built on many factors. While many scholars and political leaders in the US saw a threat in China’s rise, Chinese scholars tried to portray China’s rise as ‘peaceful rise’. Chinese political leaders like Hu Jintao are even more cautious to point out the negative implications associated with China’s rise and therefore, replaced the idea of China’s ‘peaceful rise’ with China’s ‘peaceful development’.

The western scholars and political leaders who doubt China’s peaceful rise and argue that there is every possibility of China becoming an assertive player base their argument in Chinese indifference to international law, organisations, and norms. They argue that China has not contributed enough towards international peace and security though it derives advantages from it. It made a free-ride on the US military operations in Afghanistan although later on involved itself in peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban in order to protect and promote its ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative. They point to China’s failure to take the crisis situations elsewhere in the world seriously and raise the question why the Tsunami affected states and the earthquake in Haiti did not invite serious Chinese attention. It is also argued that China has contributed fewer troops to UN Peace-keeping operations compared to less developed states like India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. However, in response to the allegation of China’s less troop contribution to the UN peace-keeping, China argues that it is more interested in non-combat role in peace-keeping and therefore is concentrating on despatching technical teams of engineers, doctors and unarmed police forces. The White Paper on China’s National Defence issued in 2010 emphasised such kind of role in peace-keeping and highlighted the achievements of China’s peace-keepers in UN operations in non-combat role.

The predominantly prevailing western perception is that though China showed seriousness in implementing its commitment under the Protocol of Accession to the WTO, after joining WTO, China adopted policies contradictory to free-trade and principles of the organisation. It is contended by taking advantage of its huge market size which attracted many investors, China accepted few obligations which required the state to substantially reduce its strong hold on the key sectors of the economy. China in order to protect its energy sector tried to insulate it from global markets. The steel sector emerged as an international leader because of supportive measures adopted by the Chinese state. China adopted discriminatory Value Added Tax (VAT) to discourage foreign competitors and encourage key indigenous industries.

However, the Chinese perception is that they have fulfilled most of the obligations under the Protocol of accession to WTO. The Chinese have countered the accusation that China attracts a disproportionate share of FDI by the argument that the Chinese share of FDI is much lower than its contribution to gross world product in PPP terms. On other economic issues like over-consumption of natural resources, Chinese consumption of energy resources is much lower than that of the US and export of Chinese goods has increased along with imports of certain foreign goods.

The apologists of China’s peaceful rise argue that China cooperated considerably with the international community to fight East Asian financial crisis and global financial crisis in 2008. China refused to devalue its currency in mid-1998 when Asian financial crisis was at its peak. If China had done so, it would have aggravated the crisis and possibly 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. They further argue that the disbursement of Chinese aid to developing and underdeveloped countries has increased substantially in recent years and it has been free from conditionalities unlike the developed countries of the West which attach aid with non-economic objectives like democratization, promotion of human rights and good governance.

However, the Chinese arguments in favor of its peaceful rise seem not to have influenced the western perception in a big way. In violation of international law, China has asserted its claim over disputed territories and not hesitated to use force to lay its claim more forcefully. In the western perception, China’s claim over the South China Sea at the expense of the territorial claims of Vietnam, Malaysia and Philippines and assertion of indisputable sovereignty there in order to extract oil and mineral resources points to Chinese assertiveness in its rise to superpower status. China has used limited force, seized fishing boats and arrested sailors from neighboring countries to assert its claim. In response, the US collaborated with its allies in the region like Japan, Australia and Philippines and engaged in joint naval drills to maintain freedom of navigation and independence of the territorial waters of the South China Sea while China alleged that the American role has been to enhance its own military presence in the region.

Many western scholars and political leaders argue that China’s rise is less likely to be peaceful because of a number of reasons. China’s ever-growing expenditure on military modernisation without a palpable threat, lack of transparency in the military strategy, hegemonic policies in the region and specifically towards Taiwan and maintenance of special relationship with rogue regimes in Sudan, Iran (before Obama’s policy of engagement) and North Korea are some of the examples cited by the scholars and leaders to make their argument. Some scholars see danger in China’s increasing demand for energy resources (oil and natural gas) and export of Chinese goods with import regulation. Scholars like Max Boot argue that increasing power is not itself bad. But when an undemocratic country like China assumes more power, there is threat to international community.

Some see a threat in China’s rise because of historical reasons. China was deliberately isolated from world politics during the Cold War and was not given membership in the UN till 1971. It was an insult to a previous superpower which would adopt retributive policies once it rises to superpower status again. Such historical reasons account for the East China territorial dispute between China and Japan. It is argued that anti-Japanese sentiment in China runs very deep fuelled by memories of Japan’s brutal invasion and occupation during the Second World War. According to scholars like John Mearsheimer China’s rise is bound to be hegemonic. He made an historical analysis of the US behaviour as a rising power in the past and then compared it to Chinese behaviour. He argues that If China maintains the current pace of economic growth and military build-up, the US and China are likely to be locked into intense security competition with possibility of military conflict.

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Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra
Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra has a PhD in International Relations from the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad. Currently, he is the program coordinator at the School of International Studies, Ravenshaw University, Odisha, India and he is also a faculty member of the new School at Ravenshaw. He teaches Theories of International Relations and India’s Foreign Policy to MA and MPhil students.

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