THE description of China as truculent but not imperial Japan in a new book by Robert Kaplan titled Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the end to a stable Pacific is true only because China has, up to now, exercised greater patience in a global system that is largely inclusive. But because China has benefited from that system should we conclude it will not want to change it?
Deng Xiaoping had called on China to keep its head down, be patient and just achieve economic success in its peaceful rise. Being patient, however, suggests you want to do something at the end. What? Charitably, China is just agnostic, making hay while the sun shines. Afterwards, China may “Rule the World”, in the words of writer Martin Jacques.
I had said, “up to now”, because the record of recent Chinese recalcitrance is suggestive. We cannot forever be giving China the benefit of the doubt. It is true the West particularly may be jealous and fearful of China’a rise, but with its rise China has assumed attitudes and taken actions which must be judged on their own merits, and not be obscured by China’s sense of self-righteousness, of digging up the past.
China is already very assertive where its interests are involved – particularly sovereignty and the rights of its people. Paradoxically enough, China is fierce in protecting its people abroad even as it violates their rights at home. Perhaps the former assuages the latter. Assertion over sovereignty also serves the people’s right in the near abroad which gives China a regional release.
I have likened this to America’s Monroe doctrine in Latin America from the 19th century in my writings at LSE IDEAS (a point also made by Kaplan). Well, it took the United States over 100 years to graduate from regional to global power, facilitated by two world wars which diminished Europe.
How long will it take China and what would reduce America?
We shall see. That’s the longer term. What we can see now are some good indications, the tea leaves.
Take China’s strong criticism of Malaysia over its crisis management of the lost Malaysia Airlines plane Flight MH370 two-thirds of whose passengers are Chinese nationals. It was asserting its people’s rights in a regional situation. It was responding to internal pressure and giving it expression in an external relationship, unqualified by good bilateral ties.
Such a transfusion from domestic pressure or nationalism to foreign policy and relations has been much in evidence in China’s more belligerent claims in the South China Sea since 2009. Close relations with Malaysia were again not spared when Chinese naval vessels and officers made an uninvited visit to James Shoal off the Sarawak coast well within the country’s exclusive economic zone.
But back to MH370. China also criticised the United States, Boeing and Rolls Royce for good measure. Main point being timeliness of sharing information. This is a bit rich coming from a country not known for its openness, be it about the outbreak of disease, the outcome of disasters or the contamination of food.
In the MH370 situation, all information must be verified. There is nothing worse than giving information subsequently found to be inaccurate. It gives false hopes, raises uncertainties and undermines credibility.
Never mind all that. The Chinese government is more interested in the kudos it would gain from its people by speaking out for China, even if there must have been a sense of frustration and inadequacy.
The last good piece of information on the missing plane came from a US satellite.
Malaysia’s management of the crisis has by no means been flawless, not First World at all. Too many cooks. Early inconsistencies and contradictions. But Malaysia cannot be faulted for the earnestness with which it has stuck to the task in an unprecedented occurrence in aviation history. That should count for something.
But China’s interests come first and come very loudly. There is a complex and complexity in China’s rise. China almost always comes out saying it has been wronged. And then it asserts in fashions which are disturbing, especially if they are a precursor of things to come.
China is not a rogue state of the international system. But it is recalcitrant. And can be petulant. It also has a sense of the near abroad, not quite in the way Russia has in wanting to resurrect the past, but with the notion of wanting to command recognition of its rising power. This could extend beyond the region.
The question of whether or not it would seek to overturn the existing world order is often answered in the negative because of the benefit China derives from that liberal and open global economy.
The interdependence and mutual benefit that have been forged give China a stake in the good and stable order of the system, economic or political. Unlike the Soviet Union in 1945, there is no attempt by China to impose a different order on the world.
It is often argued China has no alliance of or with states to drive a new order. Its singular ally, if it could be called that, is North Korea which it is trying to get in line.
All China wants is recognition, a place at the high table and reform of existing institutions that manage the inter-governmental global order.
There are, however, a few caveats that should be introduced to this sanguine assessment based on the empirical evidence of contemporary history. Chinese self-righteousness must not inhibit a challenge to unreasonable positions it takes. It already has an easy ride in international system maintenance. Should China also be given an easy time to always get its way all through that system?
Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid, chairman of Bank Muamalat and visiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB Asean Research Institute.