Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

China walking an image tightrope [Straits Times]


China walking an image tightrope
By William Choong, Senior Writer
Source – Straits Times, published November 26, 2010

Source - Straits Times

ONE gets the sense that times are a-changing when analysts at Chinese think-tanks are pressed into service as quasi-diplomats to explain Beijing’s behaviour.

At a recent Asian security seminar, some Chinese academics aired a complaint. Their counterparts from other countries had repeatedly called on them to explain the rationale behind China’s assertive behaviour. One of them, a professor from a top Chinese university, even added that China had been singularly ‘targeted’ by foreign observers.

In response, an Australian academic spoke for the grouping of American, British, Singaporean and Japanese participants: ‘I am not trying to pick on China. But I am still concerned about these matters and I want explanations that I don’t find forthcoming,’ he said. (Under Chatham House rules, they cannot be named).

The comment reflects a widespread sentiment concerning China’s recent behaviour. That behaviour – be it over a territorial spat with Japan or its reaction to American-South Korean military drills targeted at North Korea – has been seen by many to be assertive, even aggressive.

It could well be true that China’s show of assertiveness is not incongruent with its theses of ‘peaceful rise’ and ‘harmonious seas’. In the light of recent events, however, China has a lot of explaining to do.

According to some projections, China would have a blue-water navy by 2020. It already has more submarines (63) than the United States (54, of which 60 per cent are deployed in the region).

Writing in Red Star Over The Pacific, Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes – two academics at the US Naval War College – argue that the Chinese navy is developing an anti-access strategy that is part of a ‘sustained Chinese nautical challenge to the United States’.

Such projections should be taken with a pinch of salt, though. Some American predictions about Chinese future behaviour can be a tad alarmist.

That said, Chinese officials have not proffered strategic arguments for the country’s military development – is it defensive or offensive? – apart from saying that China’s intentions remain peaceful.

China’s diplomatic gaffes suggest a reactive stance that is not wholly cognisant of the long-term repercussions of its behaviour. Speaking to The Straits Times earlier this year, Admiral Robert Willard, the Commander-in-Chief of US Pacific Command, observed that China had been too ‘quick to suspend’ military-to-military contacts with the US following a diplomatic spat. Last year, China also threatened to sanction American defence contractors after the US approved an arms package to Taiwan.

On balance, the outcome of China’s recent behaviour has not been positive: While Asian countries largely accept the thesis of China’s ‘peaceful rise’, the trajectory of China’s military development and its recent assertiveness are unnerving.

Beijing should understand that the general aspiration that China become a ‘responsible stakeholder’ is not merely an American construct. The aspiration is shared by many countries.

Arguably, China’s image problem currently is as much its fault as America’s, which has sensed a rare opportunity to regain diplomatic clout in the region.

It could even be said that the recent hullabaloo about China declaring the disputed South China Sea to be its ‘core national interest’ (and therefore non-negotiable) was due partly to American scare-mongering.

According to the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a close examination of Chinese sources yielded no instance that publicly identified the South China Sea as a ‘core interest’. Indeed, after contacting ‘knowledgeable’ US officials, Carnegie scholar Michael Swaine confirmed that Chinese officials had not explicitly used the term ‘core interest’ at a March meeting with US officials. Rather, he added, US officials could have stressed China’s use of the term to ‘deter China from attempting to add the South China Sea to its list of core interests’.

In short, it is not set in stone that China is out to challenge the US – at least not yet. Assertive behaviour should not be seen as destabilising per se.

In this context, Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping’s speech in Singapore last week, which stressed that China poses no threat to its neighbours and would play a useful role in regional stability, should be seen as a mid-course correction to make some amends for its behaviour.

Western analysts put much salience on Deng Xiaoping’s longstanding guiding principle of hiding one’s capacity and biding one’s time (taoguang yanghui). The concept is generally accepted to be associated with a low-key strategy to build China’s positive image globally while achieving specific gains.

If China is not careful, it risks intensifying perceptions of a more sinister interpretation of that concept: China would keep a low profile until it musters enough wherewithal to challenge American hegemony.

williamc@sph.com.sg

Western analysts put much salience on Deng Xiaoping’s longstanding guiding principle of hiding one’s capacity and biding one’s time (taoguang yanghui). The concept is generally accepted to be associated with a low-key strategy to build China’s positive image globally while achieving specific gains. If China is not careful, it risks intensifying perceptions of a more sinister interpretation of that concept: China would keep a low profile until it musters enough wherewithal to challenge American hegemony.

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Filed under: Beijing Consensus, Charm Offensive, Chinese Model, Communications, Influence, International Relations, Media, Politics, Public Diplomacy, Soft Power, Straits Times

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