China's Leadership Transition

Rise of China's military and economic power leaves rest of world wary

The arrival of China on the international scene, economically and militarily, has brought much tension as the world works out how to accommodate this new superpower

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 October, 2012, 1:51pm

When President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao took power 10 years ago, China was still new to the world stage, trying to re-establish itself after a decade-long diplomatic stalemate.

China had just been accepted into the World Trade Organisation, an achievement which helped to show that the country was willing to play by international rules and could overcome the setbacks it suffered after Beijing's crackdown in 1989 on the student-led democracy movement brought sanctions from many countries.

Now, as Hu and Wen prepare to hand over the reins after a remarkable run that has turned China into the world's second-largest economy, the country is fast becoming a major presence in global events and learning to wield new influence overseas.

Officially, Beijing still sticks to the foreign policy directives laid out by previous leaders, including Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin , seeking to keep a "low profile" in international affairs. It denies any interest in China becoming a hegemonic power like the United States, and expresses a commitment to the country's peaceful rise, a phrase adopted by party leaders early in Hu's tenure.

But many analysts contend that, in practice, the overseas economic interests of China and Chinese companies, many state-owned, are increasingly influencing the affairs of other countries.

That growth is challenging the other major global powers, especially the United States, and leading to more calls for China to take action internationally, and more international anxiety over its rise.

"The policy mottos still have not been changed," said Jin Canrong , an international affairs professor at the Renmin University. "But the constant change of development inside China and in the international community have triggered a changes in how China's foreign affairs are perceived."

China's changing status in the world has been obvious since the autumn of 2008, when, just after Beijing hosted the country's first Olympic Games, global business and political leaders looked to Chinese economic power to help soften the recession then taking hold in the West.

The country contributed 14.5 per cent of global economic growth in 2009, up from 4.6 per cent in 2003, according to the World Bank.

China's complex new role was further illustrated last year at the G-20 summit in France, as European leaders courted Beijing for financial support to fight the continent's sovereign debt crisis, simultaneously stoking concerns about the West's growing dependence on the communist state.

Such developments make the diplomatic environment facing Hu, Wen and their successors more sensitive. Even as the country expands its footprint overseas in pursuit of energy, resources and business opportunities, its leaders have sought to contain perceptions of China as a threat. China rejected a proposal advanced by some in the US to create a "G-2", which would place China and the US alone at the head of world affairs. Beijing said it wanted increased co-operation with the US, but favoured a more multilateral approach to problem-solving.

To that end, China has sought an overhaul of the International Monetary Fund, seeking reforms that would give developing countries more representation, a move which would diminish the dominance of the West.

Professor Jia Qingguo , who teaches international relations at Peking University, said: "The status of China is enhanced, while for the US it is lowered. China is exploring how to deal with its increased influence in the world."

In an attempt to cast China as a positive force for global development, Beijing has offered loans to countries across Africa, Asia, eastern Europe, Latin America and the South Pacific. In July, Hu pledged another US$20 billion (HK155 billion) in loans to African states over the next three years.

To allay fears about China's rising military strength, it leaders have begun committing troops to peacekeeping missions, with more than 2,000 peacekeepers serving in United Nations operations worldwide. It has also sent a naval squadron to join anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.

Chinese leaders say they want a more "harmonious global order", an extension of Hu's domestic vision for a "harmonious society", and stress that countries should seek common prosperity and eschew unilateral action.

"We should use peaceful means and negotiations to settle international conflicts," Hu said at the UN's 60th anniversary in 2005, not long after the US-led invasion of Iraq. "We should oppose violation of other countries' sovereignty, interfering in the domestic affairs of one nation, and the use of violence as a threat."

But not everyone sees China as a force for harmony. Some accuse it of "colonising" Africa through the purchase by state-owned enterprises of farmland and tracts rich in minerals.

The People's Liberation Army's growing capabilities, including the launch last year of the navy's first aircraft carrier, have also fuelled concerns among China's neighbours that the country may one day resort to force to assert territorial claims in the South China and East China Seas.

"China is puzzled that increased concern from the outside world has led not to more recognition, but more suspicion," Jin said.

Faced with such fears, party leaders pledged their commitment to China's "peaceful rise" after Zheng Bijian, then the vice-principal of the Central Party School, coined the term in 2003. Eventually, even that term was deemed too threatening and scrapped in favour of "peaceful development".

But the policy has failed to convince many, especially with the recent flare-up in territorial disputes between China and Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Kerry Brown, a specialist in Chinese politics at the University of Sydney, said: "'Peaceful rise' is largely viewed as meaningless rhetoric. There is still deep suspicion of China's true intentions, and events over the last two years in the South China Sea only underline how disruptive China rising can be."

Nations that feel threatened by China are inclined to move closer to the US, a trend which stands to only increase tension and distrust between the two.

Even though Hu and the US president, Barack Obama, have met 11 times in the past four years, Sino-US ties remain delicate, with Beijing complaining about a "trust deficit" and American politicians accusing China of unfair trade policies and human rights abuses.

"To the US, the 'China threat' theory is becoming more obvious after 2008," Jia said. "Some US politicians believe that any concessions made to Beijing will be interpreted as a sign of the US declining, thus prompting them to be tougher against Beijing."

China has sought to establish its own international alliances, such as the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation and the BRICS group of developing economies, which takes in itself, Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa.

Jonathan Holslag, head of research at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies, said: "A lot of small countries are much more comfortable negotiating with Beijing on all sorts of issues if you give them the impression that they are in the game together.

"In that sense, China is really the master of the game of multilateralism and has made a lot of progress at the expense of Western countries, like the US."

Despite party leaders' commitment to a peaceful rise, they are facing mounting pressure at home to be more assertive, with some members of the military top brass urging a hard line in territorial disputes.

"China still thinks it is being bullied and that its territorial integrity is trampled on and thus it needs to take strong actions, which is a kind of 'weak nation' mindset," Jia said. "From a long-term perspective, China should focus more on navigation rights and how resources in the disputed waters can be utilised, than on territorial rights."

Analysts believe China's diplomatic approach will remain largely unchanged after Hu and Wen give way to their expected successors, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang . Nonetheless, maintaining an "introspective" position will eventually become untenable as China's booming resource needs drive it further abroad.