How Can China Assure Its Peaceful Rise – OpEd


In his book Beyond the Age of Innocence — Kishore Mahabubani, a former Singaporean diplomat and renowned scholar, has made a stirring remark on U.S. – Vietnam Relations.

According to Mahabubani, America dropped over 7 million tons of bombs in Vietnam while during World War II, it was only 2 million. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese were killed in brutal war and when the War was ended in 1975, there should have huge reservoir of hate among the Vietnamese against the Americans. Instead, “almost from the first day after the war ended, Americans could walk safely on the streets of Vietnam. . . Despite having fought a brutal war in Vietnam, America has left behind in Vietnam a huge reservoir of good will”.

There are numerous other examples in the world where countries engaged in a – fight to finish, have turned most trusted friends and allies. However, when we come to Asia especially in East Asia – the relations between the second and the third largest economies of the World- China and Japan, is quite unnerving.

We have seen how Chinese President Xi Jinping is trying to gather support from neighbors and world leaders to condemn Japan for the second Sino-Japanese war that was fought 77 years ago. However, during his visit to Germany in March this year, Xi was clearly told the host country’s displeasure against China’s efforts to drag them in its dispute against Japan, (Zachary Keck, The Diplomat, and March 29, 2014). Similarly, China is trying to unite South Korea and Taiwan against Japan for some war crimes committed by Japanese soldiers during the war fought decades ago.

Japan was one of the countries that suffered worst during the World War II – and especially at the hands of America, but today Japan has become the closest friend of the United States.

Even after fighting a most horrible war, America and Japan have become closest strategic partners cemented by bilateral alliances. America and Vietnam are trusted friends – even after an unparallel brutal war, but in East Asia, the war fought decades ago is impeding better relations between and among them.

Japan and South Korea are two successful democracies and two most successful economies too. Their markets are closely connected too. But, they have problems in their political relations – not experienced between any other two successful democracies – for war time atrocities Koreans suffered during Sino-Japan war in 1937. According to a official South Korean publication – Do Not Forget Me – a life story of a victim of military sexual slavery (January 2014), Korea was used as a “ logistical base to accelerate Chinese continental invasion” for Japanese troops. Even South Korea has developed –Teaching Learning Materials on the Issue of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan for elementary and secondary students.

Leading China through Internal and External Challenges

A country with the size of China – with its economy, military power, geography, and population –  deserves every right to claim for a leadership in the region and in the world. It is even in the best interest of global economic and political stability, but leadership cannot be demanded or commanded, but is to be earned while building confidence among neighbors and other nations – offering strong commitments to respect and protect their rights and vital interests. That would ultimately help the respective country to advance its own national interests in the long term.

One example is enough to elaborate this. There are many countries in the world, which take America as their ultimate savior, and with every new news and books published describing American decline; they feel a deep sense of their insecurity followed by political instability in the region they belong.

Leadership, demands a greater acceptability from its neighbors and other major powers. It grows in a natural way, based on the policies governing the political, economic and security regime of neighboring countries and major global powers.

China’s economic rise and its cheap products from clothes to electronic goods, has become a great boon to people worldwide – living under poverty and low income. Naturally, the size of its economy, demands a stronger military capability to protect its economic interests that are indispensible to maintain its internal peace and stability.

Nevertheless, China’s rise instead of promoting confidence and pride in its neighborhood has increased apprehensions among its neighbors. Territorial disputes with them have become more tensed. There are some indications of China’s involvement in the internal affairs of its neighbors – a long time foreign policy taboos of China. Including cross strait political complications, China’s sensitivity towards the unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang and their political linkage across the border has become an unending strategic challenge for China. Latent discontents in Hong Kong and other coastal areas for more substantive political reforms have been hounding Chinese leadership.

Systemic malfunctioning is another challenge. According to Wall Street Journal, just before stepping down in favor of Li Keqiang, China’s former Premier Wen Jiabao remarked that without political reform – “historical tragedies as the Cultural Revolution may happen again.” But, political reforms in a country that owns the world’s most powerful but second largest economy, is the hardest job.

It is tough task to understand the internal political dynamics of a closed society like China and therefore, when political heavyweights like Bo Xilai and General Xu Caihou – one of the most powerful political and military official an ex-Politburo member and former vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission are purged or punished rumor rules.

China’s President Xi Jinping has exhibited unusual political nerves against corruption and abuse of authority and has made the legal procedure take its course against senior most former officials of the party and government. Among those as mentioned above included a retired top general of the world’s largest Army and Zhou Yongkang, one of the most powerful person in China – also a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, until retired in 2012 as the head of China’s internal security.

Giving reference to China’s Communist Party disciplinary commission CNN has said that only in 2013, some 182,000 officials were disciplined while courts nationwide tried 23,000 corruption cases.

As CNN reported in a statement released recently after Politburo meeting, President Xi and other Chinese leaders reiterated their “zero tolerance” for corruption in the government and military. Xi and other Politburo did not ignore the political implications of such actions that would be ‘ongoing, complex, and formidable’.

Few Friends but More Rivals

After China established an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea in November last year, it prompted new series of strategic resetting in East Asia and South East Asia.

Simply with this declaration China wanted to increase strategic pressure on Japan in its disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, over which the ADIZ extends.

In return, Japan went through a rigorous policy homework and strategic calculation and in the first day of this month, Japan’s cabinet announced the reinterpretation of its constitution claiming the “Development of Seamless Security Legislation to Ensure Japan’s Survival and Protect its People”. The announcement is intended address the fundamentally transformed and complex security environment surrounding Japan and the region it confronts in maintaining its survival, peace and national security challenges.

The document is also focused on government’s responsibility “to create a stable and predictable international environment and prevent the emergence of threats by advancing vibrant diplomacy with sufficient institutional capabilities . . . develop, maintain and operate Japan’s own defense capability, strengthen mutual cooperation with the United States . . . and deepen trust and cooperative relations with other partners both within and outside the region.”

The basic logic the reinterpretation spells is to “avoid armed conflicts before they materialize and prevent threats from reaching Japan by further elevating the effectiveness of the Japan – United States security arrangements and enhancing the deterrence of the Japan- United States Alliance for the security of Japan and peace and stability of the region”.

One week after Japan announced the reinterpretation, marking the World War II Anniversary, Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a stern warning against Japan, and claimed, “It’s a pity that a small minority of people still ignore iron-clad history and the fact that tens of millions of innocent people lost their lives in the war. . .” Further he said, “This minority has repeatedly denied or even beautified the history of aggression, undermining mutual trust among states and creating regional tensions…” and “Anyone who intends to deny, distort or beautify the history of aggression will never be tolerated by Chinese people and people of all other countries.”

And according to Shannon Tiezzi of The Diplomat, there are obvious parallels with modern China, where nationalism and anti-Japanese sentiment are carefully stoked by the leaders to promote national unity among China’s various ethnic groups and social classes, including “compatriots” in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Indubitably, China is a great power and wants to grow greater and greater. A country of its size, economy, population, strategic location, and military power rightfully deserves it, but for such a great country, it is quite surprising that in East and South East Asia, almost all countries in the region have problems with their relations with China. With some of them, it has serious territorial disputes over small patches of land.

From Vietnam and the Philippines to Indonesia, Australia and from Japan and South Korea to India and America, China does have very few friends but more rivals. However, the size of its economy and its integration with major world economies- give China a large say in the life and sustainability of global economy. Therefore, China although not loved is not ignored or undermined, but engaged in all global decision making policies.

China has earned many more admirers for its unparallel economic success, but a lot more questions are there in the mind of people – whether China’s political system can manage its economy that is marching towards to become number one any time during the next decade. Will a likely economic super power – that will ultimately develop its military might proportionately during the next one or two decades, can sustain without any comparatively stronger but dependable and close allies in its immediate neighborhood.

And unfortunately, if Chinese political system fails to sustain and lead its economy – strongly integrated with major world economies, perhaps no country in world except some primitive societies can be saved. If China collapses, under its political burden as Soviet Union did, it will not be limited to the Chinese territory, but will turn into a global economic chaos and catastrophe – not experienced any time in past. China’s disintegration cannot be as peaceful as it was with the Soviet Union.

Prospective political Reforms and Universal Human Values

The global and regional implication of China’s rise is yet to take shape. In Europe, for example – Germany, France and England, could easily buried their centuries long bitter animosities and chose a new path of peace and prosperity that has brought the longest period of peace and prosperity for their people. It became possible because they share common political and social values, but in Asia such common values seems next to impossible.

Next, Europe could also develop a common security alliance led by United States and common security perceptions they developed worked as a cementing factor among them, whereas in Asia, it was almost none existent.

However, in Asia countries like China, India, Japanwith their huge economic, military buildup, have led a paradigm shift, and this will consequently define the twenty-first century. Much power with countries of conflicting political and social values and with countries with territorial disputes is likely to trigger serious conflicts between and among them.

No other parts of the World except in Middle East, Eastern Europe and some few other places, countries do have any territorial disputes, but In Asia major powers like China, Japan, India, South Korea, Vietnam, and Pakistan have serious territorial disputes between and among them.

Maybe China is misunderstood, but it is China’s responsibility to ensure and assure its neighbors about its peaceful rise and no heavy handedness against its neighbors. To make a grand move towards future why cannot China find solutions to its border disputes with India and reset its relations with another Asian power? Why cannot it go to international arbitration in its territorial disputes with its neighbors in East and South East Asia as India and Bangladesh did? Why cannot it say it will never attack its neighbors unless attacked first? If China’s neighbors feel a Chinese threat, they would certainly move towards the United States, India, and Japan to find a strong strategic partnership – if no alliances. Obviously, it is natural; China can growl and grumble about it but can do nothing if such partnership or an alliance comes into existence.

Therefore, China can only gain what it aspires only when it can invest huge stock of trust and confidence its relationship with its neighbors. What should never be forgotten is that history can be a best teacher but never a lifelong partner. A fine line is to be drawn there to ensure that bitter past should not embitter the present and promising future of countries like China – while making best use of national potential available at present.

Free access to all sea routes and a new law on international and regional waters is in the best interests of China’s major economic interests. A major breakthrough on a convention to control climate change and global heating is significantly important for country that has to feed and support world’s largest population. No other countries than China and India have to take its lead.

Besides, China itself can take a lead along with the United States, EU and other major powers on creating global regime against terrorism, water, and food shortages, cyber crime followed by joint and collective investment on advanced technology.

China has grown out of existing international order and therefore China cannot stand outright against the international regime regulated more or less by the UN Agencies, IMF, World Bank and WTOs. But, China can claim more and substantial roles in these bodies while for example speaking for the countries like India, Germany, Japan, Russia, Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa for permanent membership in UN Security Council. This can help China gain a global leadership.

Finally yet importantly, a government directly elected by the people, accountable to them through defined political procedures, independent judiciary, free press, Human Rights, individual freedom and social justice are not mere western values; they are human values and any political system does have no privilege to define them to suit their political interests. System of governance can be developed or based on tradition and culture of any particular country but human values as mentioned above must rule and guide them. If China’s long awaited political reforms is able to absorb those values and develop a political system rooted in its tens of thousands years of history and political culture, the world may welcome China and give way to lead them unabetted.

Keshav Prasad Bhattarai

Keshav Prasad Bhattarai is the former President of Nepal Teachers' Association, Teachers' Union of Nepal and General Secretary of SAARC Teachers' Federation. Currently, he is the Advisor of Nepal Institute for Strategic Affairs (NISS). Mr. Bhattarai has also authored four books -- two of them are about Nepal's Relations with India and one each on educational Issues and Nepal in global Geopolitics.

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