An exploration of a new Chinese vision of international relations which positions the erstwhile “Middle Kingdom” as the 21st century’s lodestar of global stability and progress.
There are two views of China, broadly speaking, in the United States (US). One, the so-called liberal internationalist view, sees the “rise” of China in terms of the challenges of accommodating to, and possibly jointly managing world order with, this new force. The other, the more hawkish view, returns to a Cold War mindset and reduces China to an Oriental Soviet Union, albeit one that is cash-rich and has figured out how to make things cheaply and well. Both views see the oft-declared decline of the US as premature and overstated; the former because the Chinese have not shown the ability or desire to replace US hegemony with any viable alternatives and the latter because US military power is still far in excess of any other country’s capabilities across all force domains. Both views are currently in need of serious revision.
More than a Match
The event that has changed the prevailing geopolitical calculus is the formation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in October 2014. Intended to be a classic international development bank on the lines of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), the AIIB is, at one level, a response to the pressing need for infrastructure investment in Asia, estimated to be as much as $8 trillion by the ADB. Although the bank will be based in Beijing, the first multilateral discussions about the bank’s structure and functioning took place in Kunming—a suitably symbolic location—capital of Yunnan Province and China’s beachhead into mainland Southeast Asia. Future infrastructure investments in neighbouring Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, North-East India and Thailand will expand and deepen existing corridors for trade and capital flows, tying these regions even closer to Southwest China. In a second important symbolic gesture, the next prep meeting was held in Mumbai.
If the geo-economic benefits of the AIIB are easy enough to see, the geopolitical fallout is where the new bank has the greatest significance. What most shook Washington was the surprise decision by the United Kingdom (UK) to join the AIIB, opening the door for other US allies, including Germany and Australia, to do the same. The only major holdouts, other than the US, are now Canada and Japan. The UK’s reasons for joining the bank appear to be driven primarily by finance, especially the desire to establish the City of London as Europe’s clearing house for the renminbi, even at the risk of threatening their “special relationship” with Washington.
The US reacted furiously to what it perceived as rank betrayal by its closest partner, but the damage was done as, following London, one European state after another scrambled to join the bank as founding members before the deadline passed. China’s bold decision to create the first major and credible alternative to existing international institutions appears to have paid remarkable political dividends.
If the formation of the AIIB represents China’s most direct riposte to the liberals that China can be accommodated within the existing US-led international institutional structure with only minor adjustments, China’s message to the hawks is equally blunt. China’s aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea a year ago when it set up an oil-drilling rig in a disputed part of the Paracel Archipelago visibly demonstrated the other side of China’s rise. Tensions with Vietnam, in particular, escalated. Other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries expressed their concerns and the Philippines decided to refer its long-standing territorial dispute with China to the International Court of Justice.
After two months, the Chinese decided to withdraw the rig, but since then have engaged in other provocative behaviour in the region and beyond. A naval base on Hainan Island, overlooking the South China Sea, is being expanded to serve as a home for a growing fleet of new attack submarines. Recent satellite images show extensive reclamation and building taking place on islands in the Spratly, off the coast of the Philippines, over 1,000 kilometres from China. China and Russia have announced they will conduct joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean in May 2015, their first ever such venture outside the Pacific. US global naval power is still far in excess of anything China can compete with, but in a regional theatre they may soon be more than a match for each other. The perennial question returns: What does China want?
Centre of World Authority
Debates within China do not always provide clear answers. Official pronouncements are, of course, unanimous that China is committed to the formation of a “harmonious” world order and intends to play a constructive role in that regard. A somewhat more complex and less benign view emerges from the writings of the philosopher Zhao Tingyang, a leading proponent of the Tianxia or “All-Under-Heaven” perspective. This view updates the ancient Zhou dynasty strategy of bringing peace and stability to the world through a highly structured and hierarchical ordering of political authority. Zhao Tingyang’s idea of Tianxia transported to contemporary international politics sees a single centre of world authority as the only sensible arrangement of sovereign power, a curious meeting of Plato and Kant that Prasenjit Duara summarises as “order over freedom, elite governance over democracy and the superior political institution over the lower level.”
Zhao is particularly dismissive of democracy and the common people, describing them as “blind followers, selfish, foolish…vulgar.” They are led by people no better suited to rule, namely, “swindlers, petty people, whores, idiots and scoundrels.” William Callahan expands on Zhao’s reconceptualisation of Tianxia (and his corresponding popularity among Chinese elites) by explaining that not only does Tianxia mean the world, the world-governing institution, and the people of the world, but also refers specifically to China. Zhao’s writings, Callahan explains, resonate widely, even if they are flawed intellectually, because they speak directly to a crucial aspect of China’s internal debates about its place in the world, namely, the need to articulate a Chinese approach to world order as a necessary intellectual complement to its still-growing economic and political might.
The search for cultural difference has been a consistent theme of Asian responses to Western hegemony since at least the beginning of the 20th century. As is well known, Indian, Japanese, and Chinese thinkers of various political hues searched for ways of restoring their national self-esteem and sovereignty through privileging the differences between spiritual and harmonious “Asian values” against Western norms of militarism and materialism. With the advent of independent nation states in the mid-20th century, this anxiety reduced in intensity. The most prominent example of Asian accommodation to prevailing international norms was the China–India–Burma declaration of Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, called Panchsheel in India, which sought especially to foreground national sovereignty and external non-interference in domestic affairs.
Panchsheel was in this sense very different from the turn to essentialised visions of Asian cultural difference that began to become prominent in the 1990s in Southeast Asia. What is taking place in China today is closer to that latter moment, and to the zenith of fin de siècle imperialism, as scholars of Guoji Guanxi Xue (international relations) seek to articulate a vision of Chinese hegemony consistent with their international standing.
Old Template, New Print
A distinctly Chinese vision of global hegemony, Tianxia, appears to have been joined by a new willingness to assert Chinese power, hard and soft, in the Xi Jinping era. Even as Xi is systematically consolidating his power at home, the creation of the AIIB and renewed muscle-flexing in the South China Sea would appear to mark the end of an earlier moment characterised by Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of “hide your strength, bide your time.” The time seems to have come to show China’s strength and to be willing to pay the price for international concern and regional unpopularity. Within Southeast Asia at least, long running fears of Chinese dominance are back with a vengeance. The recently concluded ASEAN summit in Malaysia included a statement saying that developments in the South China Sea had eroded “trust and confidence” and could “undermine peace, security, and stability,” strong language for this normally conciliatory regional forum, and in spite of the hosts’ desire not to alienate China.
Stepping back from the details of recent developments, the “rise” of China has now begun to address both the liberals and the hawks directly. New institutions, backed by China’s huge financial reserves, have led to a flood of bandwagoners, including key US allies. In its maritime “backyard,” China has begun to assert its dominance over a huge space backed by massive capital investments and a willingness to act aggressively even at the cost of losing carefully cultivated goodwill.
But, it should be noted, these actions have little to do with the principles expressed in neo-Confucian conceptions like Tianxia. If anything, the Chinese are taking a leaf out of the American imperial playbook. Through two centuries, beginning with the Monroe Doctrine telling “old Europe” to keep out of the Americas, and leading up to Dumbarton Oaks and Bretton Woods, when the institutions that shaped the next four decades of international interactions were inaugurated, the US created a distinctively new template for world order, a structure that is now in disarray.
The Chinese have, for the moment at least, decided that the template is good enough even if the Americans no longer appear to be united or statesmanlike enough to carry through on their imperial vision. The perennial question can hence be reframed: Is the limit of Chinese ambition to reproduce American-style hegemony “with Chinese characteristics” as these recent developments seem to suggest, or, does it reach further? Are these only the first steps in instituting a new global order that takes its cues from the immensely ambitious conception of Tianxia?
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