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