By Guner Ozkan
China has always been an important subject at countless meetings, forums and conferences being held around the world on economic, political, military developments and many other areas. There is every reason to be so in years and decades to come as the fast economic growth and increasing political weight of China are the reality of world affairs. One of such gatherings was held in the capital of South Korea, Seoul, on 11-12 December 2012, organized by Seoul-based ASAN Institute with the participation of around 150 leading academics on China, policy makers and think-tank experts. Under the main topic of “China in Transition” a number of sessions covered many subjects from Chinese economy, public opinion, political reform, defense policy to Beijing’s relations with the US, North and South Koreas, India, Japan, Russia, Central Asia and the Middle East to wider integration and security issues in Asia-Pacific.
As being one of the participants at the China Forum in Seoul, I had the opportunity to express my views on the China-Central Asia-Middle East session, and took the opportunity to discuss wide variety of international and China-related issues with other participants. Alongside many others, there were two main questions at the Forum: how the new Chinese leadership, who took over the power last month, would behave on the abovementioned and many other related issues, and second if the actions of the new Chinese leadership would bring about an opportunity or obstacle for international peace and security. Evidently there was no single answer to these questions, and many different views circulated in the discussions depending on from where the participants were coming from and what positions, governmental or private, they held in their professional life.
Koreas problem and China
At the Forum, surely great attention was paid to the domestic political and economic affairs of China and the impact of the likely actions of the new Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping in the Chinese neighbourhood from the North East Asia to South China Sea on unfolding serious security problems. The Koreas problem is one such urgent issue that requires urgent attention by all parties.
Divided Koreas was one of the problems that both Chinese and other actors such as South Korean, the US and Russian participants expressed their worries by maintaining the positions of their respective governments. For instance, Bark Taeho, the Minister of Trade of South Korea, celebrated the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the diplomatic relations between Seoul and Beijing, and stressed the importance of intensive trade relations between the two parties. As Taeho rightly pointed out, the South Korea-China relationship, the two warring parties in the Korean War, was developed from enmity to something that can be described as economic interdependence for trade volume between the two countries increased from $ 6 billion in 1992 to % 220 billion in 2011. This volume is much more than what the overall trade between South Korea and its most important security ally, the US, which occurred $ 100 billion in 2011.
From the South Korean perspective, expectation is that China as the main supporter of standing North Korean regime should increase its pressure on Pyongyang. However, the Chinese side sees the situation very differently. Although Chinese retired General Pan Zhenqiang from China Reform Forum recognized the significance of the trade relations between Seoul and Beijing, he blames mainly the US ‘hidden’ agenda in the region for the impasse on the North Korean nuclear weapons and missile issues. Zhenqiang insists that South Korea’s position cannot be sustainable because while it relies on the US for its security needs, it deepens economic relations with China as now being the biggest trade partner. For him, it is the South Korean side which must take the lead to resolve the Koreas issue by implying that Seoul has to end the strategic reliance on the US if it wants a permanent peace in the peninsula. Zhenqiang further notes that a solution to the Koreas problem would be provided by engagement with Pyongyang other than excluding it and threatening to use of force. Thus, from the Chinese point of view, as Zhenqiang outlined, it is less likely to see a breakthrough in the resolution of the Koreas issue while the US has been heavily militarily engaged in the region.
An aggressive China in the neighbourhood
The new Chinese leadership will unlikely act on the regional disputes different from its predecessor because both have aimed foremost to make the Chinese economic growth continue and take a restrained position in the territorial disputes unless hard military reactions are required.
However, although China has chosen to avoid a disastrous conflict with the US and any other states with which it has territorial disputes, this may not be prolonged as Pyongyang successfully tested long range missile and sovereignty problem over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Island is getting heated between Beijing and Tokyo. Due to this dispute and threatening missile testing of Pyongyang , Japan, which left military matters to the US after the WWII, has already begun considering to develop national military defense measures against North Korea and China.
As other Chinese experts also admitted during the ASAN China Forum, the new Chinese leadership is expected to react more aggressively on its vital territorial security interest in the region. When the abundance of territorial disputes between China and other states in the region are thought, there seems to be a high risk for conflict in the future. Problems of Taiwan, Senkaku/Diaoyu Island and Spratly Islands (with the Philippines) are now the main challenges that the new Chinese leadership has to face with. Though all sides including Chinese, Japanese and Pilipino in recent fishing boat incidents in the waters of the East and South East Asia warded off deepening the conflicts, this may not be continued so especially rising China has been a reality that has already been frightening those who have territorial dispute with Beijing.
There is also optimism…
There were also views that they were more conciliatory about the rise of China and whose political actions in international arena in the coming five years.
As the next ten years will be the 5th generation of people holding power in Beijing since 1949, the optimists told that half of this time will be the years of transition during which Xi Jinping will consolidate its power. The other five-year is expected to be the real testing time for Xi Jinping if he is able to follow different projections from his predecessor in the Chinese dealings in international arena. So, at least for now, the optimists who are made of mainly the Chinese participants see the Chinese economic rise as an opportunity since it has brought prosperity and stability not only in the Asia-Pacific region but also in the regions as far away as Africa and Central Asia. Also, despite Chinese enormous army, its capacity for war with great powers is thought to be still limited as Beijing has yet been unable to invent cutting-edge war machines. This may push the Xi Jinping leadership stay restrained from any collusion with the US and other states in the Asia-Pacific region.
Overall it is unlikely to witness a big collision such as a war in a large scale in the region because all parties will lose a lot from it. Therefore, as it is today, five to ten years time, at the end of Xi Jinping’s tenure in power in 2022 China is expected to surpass the US in Gross Domestic Product. This Chinese economic growth, if there is not a breakthrough over the disputes between China and others, would create a much more solid balance of power, China on one side and the US and whose allies such as Japan on the other. In the case of this, then, as Chinese retired General Zhenqiang also stressed, current difficulty to define the exact nature of China-US relationship as to whether they are adversaries or partners, may become clearer. It is because China being the biggest economy in ten years may push the US and Chinese politicians to produce a code of conduct in terms of what are acceptable and unacceptable for them both in Asia-Pacific region and international arena in general.
USAK Center for Eurasian Studies