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  • Dec 29, 2014
  • Updated: 3:38am
CommentInsight & Opinion

How Chinese foreign policy is turning its back on Deng's dictum

Trefor Moss says China has shown over the past year it is no longer content to keep its power in check in regional relations, with the effect of turning wary neighbours into outright rivals

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 December, 2013, 4:49am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 December, 2013, 4:49am

Ever since Deng Xiaoping advised his countrymen to hide their strength and bide their time, China has favoured reassurance over intimidation in its regional dealings.

From peaceful rise to harmonious development and win-win partnerships, Beijing has cast itself as its neighbours' biggest opportunity rather than as their greatest threat. Everyone could welcome China's emergence as a superpower and share in the benefits.

But not anymore. 2013 may go down as the year in which Deng's measured foreign-policy approach finally outlived its regional usefulness - the year in which fear of China reached a tipping point in East Asia. That won't halt China's rise, but it will change the nature of that rise.

China wanted to become great with its neighbours' blessing. Instead, it is becoming great without it. And in the process, China will have to abandon some of its key foreign-policy objectives.

The first of these relates to Japan. For a long time, Japan has dozed on the fringes of regional geopolitics - and that was exactly where China wanted it to stay. For decades, no amount of American pressure or other global factors were enough to convince Tokyo to start increasing its military spending or play an active role in regional security. It had no interest in remilitarisation, and in fact shied away from it.

Instead, in the end, it was China's growing power - and its open antipathy towards all things Japanese - that helped persuade Tokyo that it had to start doing more to protect itself. This month, the Japanese government began a new and perhaps decisive phase in Japan's security reorientation by announcing defence spending increases and an ambitious shopping list of new military equipment.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is working to revise the country's pacifist constitution, so that Japan's self-defence forces can become a normal army again. This is the stuff of Chinese nightmares and yet, ironically, China has helped create the conditions for it to happen.

It will further dismay China's leaders, therefore, to watch Southeast Asian governments take a very different view of Japan's military activities.

Like China, Southeast Asian countries suffered horribly at the hands of Japan during the second world war, but, unlike China, they have put it behind them. Some are even calling openly for Japan to remilitarise, seeing a tougher Japanese military not as a threat but as a safeguard against potential Chinese aggression.

So at the Japan-Asean Commemorative Summit in Tokyo earlier this month, marking 40 years of ties, China was the elephant in the room. Without naming names, leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations joined Abe in calling for freedom of navigation by air and sea - a dig at China's new air defence identification zone - and for peaceful resolution of disputes - another dig, this time at China's rejection of UN arbitration in its territorial dispute with the Philippines.

The Philippines contretemps has perhaps been most damaging of all to China's reputation. In its dispute with a much weaker adversary, China has neither bided its time nor hidden its capabilities. Instead, it has forcibly imposed its own solution. The Southeast Asian governments all do too much business with China to criticise Beijing openly. However, it is their discomfort over China's approach to the dispute with Manila that has led them to urge Japan to play a bigger role, both economically and militarily, in their region.

This same impulse - to defend the status quo against an uncertain new order shaped by China - has also led some countries in the region to urge the United States to maintain its presence. This, too, is against Beijing's wishes: it has long wanted to see the back of the US military in Asia. China's hopes were even close to being partially realised. US budget cuts might have convinced Washington that now was the time to give up most of its regional bases, had there been no local enthusiasm for them to remain.

Yet the opposite has occurred: Australia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam - all are desperate for the US military to commit to Asia long term, mainly as a hedge against China. Some are making it quite difficult for Washington to refuse, opening up ports and airbases, and in some cases footing the bill for the US presence.

There was controversy earlier this month when a US warship was accused of harrying China's aircraft carrier Liaoning as it steamed towards the South China Sea. However, Southeast Asian governments are unhappy about the Liaoning operating in nearby seas, and they may quietly have welcomed the American intervention - just as South Korea and Japan welcomed Washington's defiance of China's new air defence zone by routing two B-52 bombers through the supposedly restricted zone.

Even China's North Korea policy is showing signs of failure. In Kim Jong-un, Beijing has a rash and insecure despot right on its doorstep - a leader who would sooner purge his senior rivals and reject Chinese advice than embrace the market reforms that China has so long urged Pyongyang to adopt.

Deng preached patience and forbearance. His successors might need to rediscover those qualities, if they are to achieve their regional goals without meeting ever more resistance.

Trefor Moss is an independent journalist based in Hong Kong and a former Asia-Pacific editor of Jane's Defence Weekly. He can be followed on Twitter @Trefor1


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This article is now closed to comments

If this has offended you I suggest People's Daily.
This article is a typical psychological warfare shot at the Chinese people and at the people in the region. It is trying to portray the Chinese government’s attempts to defend Chinese territories as aggression against China’s neighbours, hoping to mislead enough Chinese people to impede China’s ability to defend herself and to mislead the people in the region to fear China’s peaceful development.
Any failure to defend China’s territorial integrity would make the Chinese government look like the Chinese governments before 1949 revolution. The expected social chaos in China would put an end to the China’s development which sinophobes and global hegemonists hate so much because of its scale and speed. Many western strategists have recommended that inducing social chaos and unrest in China like what is happening in Egypt, Syria and other developing countries is the preferred option to resolve their China problem.
“…. The goal should be to preserve something as close as possible to a peaceful status quo, if necessary for decades, until the internal contradictions in China’s current model of authoritarian capitalism grow to the point where the Chinese Communist party is either overwhelmed by civil unrest or forced to move towards democracy.”
The most glaring omission here is the US “Pivot to Asia”, causing long, latent disputes to flare up
A very good read, cheers.
The facts in the article are misrepresented in many instances. It would be too long here to deal with all of them.
“…. it was China's growing power - and its open antipathy towards all things Japanese - that helped persuade Tokyo that it had to start doing more to protect itself. This month, the Japanese government began a new and perhaps decisive phase in Japan's security reorientation by announcing defence spending increases and an ambitious shopping list of new military equipment.”
Japanese products and brands have been selling very well in China prior to the Japanese unilateral breaking of the decades old Sino-Japanese agreement to set aside the dispute over the East China Sea islands. Japanese rightists’ campaign to tear up Japanese post-WWII pacifist construction commenced many, many years ago long before China’s rapid growth. US encouragement of Japanese re-militarization is also a long standing affair. Amongst the lastest being:
The portraying of the South-east Asian countries ganging up against China is so misleading. No ASEAN countries including Vietnam supports the the Philippines action to bring the island dispute to international arbitration. ASEAN desiring peace and prosperity, in fact, favours the settlement of the disputes through bi-lateral negotiations.
Terrific article. In recent times China has opted for thug diplomacy over real diplomacy. This may play well within the confines of rogues within the CCP, but certainly will not serve China's interests.
“China's growing power” is a fact
“its open antipathy towards all things Japanese” is a delusion
of stupid bigots the kind that caused religious racial and imperial atrocities
that overfilled European history and their contemporary successors are seeking
new opportunities for outbursts using predicable Japanese as proxy
A shallow and biased nonsense like TM’s silly ventilations
shouldn’t even be accepted for print as advertisement
It matters not whether lexishk is able to recognize
but no sensible person may reject the bell curve
There are always a quantum of lexishk and the like
in the curve section that measures their taste and intelligence
I’d be unkind to say that it’s entertaiing
to watch fools devouring rubbish
To those preoccupied by single-minded over-active proseltizing
making objective comments become a waste of time
Reality is such that it is foolish and vicious
to mistreat differences as offending
a very western attitude
as manifested in incessant religious and ideological conflicts
This article is so one sided. It will be a waste of time to read it.
Yet you wasted your time commenting on it?
Really? Many western readers feel SCMP has become more China-centric. In reality, it contains some pieces from both sides. My view of this article is that it is analytical and well balanced. It certainly doesn't push a Western view like many of the comments here are rabidly pushing a blinkered, pro-establishment China view. Instead it suggests a more positive path for China than the one it is on now.



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