Geopolitics

China: Threat or Challenge?
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Issue Book Excerpt: China: Threat or Challenge? | Date : 16 Jul , 2017

China’s sustained double digit economic growth over three decades transformed China. It has lifted 700 million Chinese people out poverty – an unparalleled feat in human history. Its economic development has been able to fund a substantive programme for the modernisation of its military machine. The one Party government has deftly managed the aspiration of the various regions which were left behind in the development process and through all means at its command ensured internal stability.

Consequently the overall development of China has been clubbed under a common banner of ‘China’s rise’. Post the 2009-10 period, when China underwent a sudden change in its foreign policy agenda and became fairly assertive in its dealings with its neighbours and the world in general, it was then a rising China began to be seen as a potential potent threat. China soon realised this negative wave building up and initiated steps to redeem its image. Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, together, re-christened China’s ‘rise’ to ‘peaceful rise’ and further diluted it to ‘peaceful development’ in a conscious effort to ‘photoshop’ its image and dispel any lingering apprehensions of it being a threat to its neighbours in particular.

Post the 2009-10 period, when China underwent a sudden change in its foreign policy agenda and became fairly assertive in its dealings with its neighbours and the world in general, it was then a rising China began to be seen as a potential potent threat.

The guiding principles proclaimed during the Jiang Zamin regime were the ‘Three Represents’. The official statement of the ideology stipulates that the Communist Party of China should be representative to advanced social productive forces, advanced culture, and the interests of the overwhelming majority. Hu Jintao advocated building a ‘Harmonious Society’. He understood that the days were gone when the party could maintain political stability by the fear of the gun. He sought a softer approach in resolving social conflicts. In addition, he also believed that overly ambitious political reforms could disrupt the power balance, offending the political elite.

Now Xi Jinping has enunciated a new ideological directive, the ‘Four Comprehensives’. It has been added to the Party’s stock of guiding concepts in political philosophy. These are to comprehensively – build a moderately prosperous society; deepen reform; govern the nation according to law; and strictly govern the Party. In addition Xi Jinping has coined a signature nebulous slogan of “Chinese Dream” relating to national prosperity. The Chinese Dream, according to President Xi, refers to the collective aspiration of ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ as well as the personal dreams of the individual citizens of China to attain productive, healthy and happy lives. Xi has emphasised that the ‘China Dream’ is a dream of the Chinese people that can only be attained through ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’.

On the face of it none of these enunciations are threatening or ‘dangerous’ to regional or global peace. Internationally, the Chinese Dream is being viewed as a continuation of the country’s peaceful development strategy. It is a key component of China’s soft power campaign, which seeks to counter the theory that China is a threat to regional peace and security and promote instead a benign and positive image of the country. To quote Xi Jinping: ‘We Chinese love peace. No matter how much stronger it may become, China will never seek hegemony or expansion. It will never inflict its past suffering on any other nation.’

Does that allay the apprehensions of the neighbours?

China’s rise has willy-nilly forced South-Eastern states to seek to balance China by the US in both the military and political-economic spheres. The de facto expectation is that these countries will want to balance against China on the basis that a rising China is threatening.

When one is confronted with a dichotomous situation it is pragmatic to go back to the basics. The basics of any relation between countries are dictated by power. Power in turn manifests into a threat or a challenge. Undoubtedly, the paramount factor in international relations devolves around power. The dictionary defines power as – the ability to influence people or events; the right or authority to do something; a country seen as having international influence and military strength. Based on this definition the old school of thought explained power as constituting a country’s geographic location, size of the landmass, natural resources available, a stable ethnic population, economic strength and military power. This definition of power makes it more tangible so it could be easily measured and is predictable. Since power is an instrument of the state wielded to obtain preferred outcomes while war in the 21st Century is becoming a more distant arbiter, power also needs to be seen in its relational or behavioural avatar.

Relational power has three aspects as suggested by Joseph Nye: commanding change, controlling agendas and establishing preferences. The first dimension is to command others to change their behaviour against their initial preferences; the other is the ability to affect others’ preferences so that they want what you want and you need not command them to change. For discussion purposes this theoretical construct is acceptable. However, realism still maintains that in the anarchic conditions of world politics, countries have to rely on their own devices to preserve their independence and that when push comes to shove, the use of force is then the ultimate explication. In all fairness, a pragmatic realist in his assessment will surely take into account persuasion and attraction so as to complete the full spectrum of power.

Manifestation of power is in the form of a threat. Threat is a declaration of an intention to inflict harm or punishment. The question of threat is not merely academic. A threat has certain necessary implications with regard to political action which are all the more severe the greater the threat is perceived to be. Military superiority does represent a threat. In the public mind a military threat is often equated to a national emergency. Historically, China is deemed to be an aggressor. It has illegally occupied Tibet, East Turkistan, Inner Mongolia, Paracel and some of the Spratly Islands. China has invaded Vietnam 17 times in its recorded history. China’s continued irredentist claims are, therefore, a cause of legitimate concern to the affected countries.

The old Chinese saying that “One Mountain Cannot Contain Two Tigers” literally means that in an area, there cannot be two very strong personality people leading – it applies to India and China in Asia. Just like in a mountain, there will only be one leader.

There are conflicting views on whether China is a ‘threat’ to India or a ‘diplomatic challenge’. For this group, China is no unstoppable, all-threatening juggernaut, nor is it an inevitable heir to solo superpower status. It is a country like any other, may be bigger, with complicated problems and internal challenges, an emerging power but not necessarily a metastatic one. China need not be feared; reassurance lies in much greater engagement, and much less western hubris. The necessary trick is to persuade China to play by the rules, and whatever the new rules turn out to be. Diplomats prefer to use the term ‘challenge’. First, it does not convey that element of fear; second, it jives’ this community into finding more affable solutions which gives them the necessary adrenal rush.

The challenge for the diplomatic community lies in not being paranoid about China’s rise but rather to help shape its choices so as to deter regional aggression and encourage China’s active participation in international initiatives that benefit Asian nations and without compromising their respective national interests. While China is already strong enough to destabilize East Asia and to influence economic and political affairs worldwide, it benefits enormously from the current global order and should have no intention of overthrowing it; but that is not enough. China’s active cooperation is essential to global governance. Never before has a developing country like China been asked to contribute so much to ensure international and regional stability.

The contrapuntal is that on a range of other fronts, China now appears in the process of challenging, and rejecting, not only American and western geopolitical leadership but also the legal, institutional and security framework of the post-war international order upon which that leadership was founded. A recent paper published by Chen Jimin of the Communist Party’s Central Committee school, titled The Crisis of Confidence in US Hegemony, reflects a widely held assumption evident in much Chinese thinking: that the US is in irreversible retreat, and growing weaker as China grows stronger. The issue, as seen in some Beijing quarters, is not how to manage China’s rise but how to manage, and profit from, America’s decline. Such an antagonistic undercurrent carries with it the more serious possibility of conflict which shall determine the outcome of this seismic and hazardous transition of who will ultimately run the 21st century. This latent rivalry bodes ill for India which has now developed a broad spectrum comprehensive relationship with the US. India will have to be prepared to stand its ground against substantive pressures from China – both diplomatic and military.

The old Chinese saying that “One Mountain Cannot Contain Two Tigers” literally means that in an area, there cannot be two very strong personality people leading – it applies to India and China in Asia. Just like in a mountain, there will only be one leader. If there are two tigers (two strong states in one region), you can be sure, they will fight it out. Either that or one of the tiger leaves that mountain. The theme develops further where there can be another outcome. It is where one of the tiger pretends to be ‘not-a-tiger’ for a while. This leads to the second part of another Chinese Idiom “Pretend to be a Pig, to eat the Tiger”. India needs to understand this saying more thoroughly!!

For the time being for Southeast Asia, there is a consensus among analysts that the sub-region has adopted a twin strategy of deep engagement with China on the one hand and, on the other, “soft balancing” against potential Chinese aggression or disruption of the status quo.

China’s rise has willy-nilly forced South-Eastern states to seek to balance China by the US in both the military and political-economic spheres. The de facto expectation is that these countries will want to balance against China on the basis that a rising China is threatening. South-East Asian States have adopted a strategy of hedging to secure their interests against Chinese domination or hegemony; keeping US involved in the region and enmeshing regional powers so that they have a stake in a stable regional order. India is not yet seen as a power that can adequately provide a viable counterweight due to a very limited financial clout and an archaic defence industrial complex. India’s role here becomes very crucial and should be the benchmark of its Foreign Policy plank of “Act East”.

China has stated in its White Papers on National Defence that it strives for a ‘harmonious world order’ and that its military forces are there to merely ensure that peace prevails regionally and globally. Heralded as China’s official foreign policy strategy, ‘harmonious world’ first rose to prominence internationally in 2005, during a keynote speech made by Hu Jintao at the UN’s 60th Anniversary Summit. In this speech, Hu outlined a four-point proposal advocating (1) multilateralism for common security; (2) win-win co-operation for common prosperity; (3) inclusiveness for the coexistence of all civilizations and finally (4) UN reform, to improve efficacy and maintain authority. The details of this foreign policy approach were further reinforced in a white paper entitled “China’s Peaceful Development Road” in the same year, and again reiterated in Hu’s speech to the 17th National Congress of the CCP in November 2007. It seeks to project China’s soft power.

Reality is however quite different. There are limits to China’s soft power. (1) Language will be a major barrier in China being accepted globally; (2) Chinese culture, drama, films, music or dress is not endearing to the rest of the world; (3) Talented youth seeking green pastures do not head for China; (4) People of diverse ethnic and cultural background do not see China a country to migrate to; (5) Its ideological isolation and projecting a uniqueness under the rubric of ‘Chinese Characteristics’ for its economy or method of governance makes it a global alien; (6) The world sees China as harbouring and supporting the global renegades and ‘rogue’ states which takes away the sheen of its soft power claim; (7) Its veto power in the UN has been generally seen as retrograde in nature on various global commons and security issues. Exotic cuisine of ‘Birds Nest Soup’ and ‘Peking Duck’ are hardly sought after. Therefore, it is quite evident that to influence the global community by its soft power China has a very long way to go.

Despite the above, China remains a developing country with enormous, unfulfilled human needs, a potentially explosive democratic deficit, a large post-2008 debt, a slowing economy, a chronic dependence on imported raw materials and energy, a yawning urban-rural, rich-poor divide and a worsening threat from violent ethnic minority unrest.

For the time being for Southeast Asia, there is a consensus among analysts that the sub-region has adopted a twin strategy of deep engagement with China on the one hand and, on the other, “soft balancing” against potential Chinese aggression or disruption of the status quo. The latter strategy includes not only military acquisitions and modernization but also attempts to keep the United States involved in the region as a counterweight to Chinese power. India needs to define its role to support these strategies.

China’s creation of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, New Development Bank established by the BRICS, ‘One Belt One Road’, China ASEAN Free Trade Agreement and Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP) endorsing it to make a geostrategic statement, give credence to the view that China is bent on changing the ‘old world order’ and rewrite the rules of engagement.

According to an important OBOR vision document released by the Chinese government in March 2015, the initiative is intended to facilitate regional trade and investment, promote more widespread use of the Chinese currency, Renminbi, in cross-border trade, and foster greater exchanges between Chinese citizens and the peoples of OBOR countries. Through dialogue with participating countries, China also aims to remove technical barriers to trade, such as conflicting customs procedures.

While the Chinese government has couched the initiative in altruistic terms, OBOR is chiefly designed to benefit China’s economy. Most importantly, China seeks to spur economic development in its poorer western and southern regions, which lag far behind the prosperous coastal provinces. There are apprehensions that under the guise of OBOR China could relocate some of its heavily polluting industries to the neighbouring states.

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As conceptualized by Beijing, the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road starts in the major port cities of southern China and passes through the South China Sea before extending across the Indian Ocean to East Africa and northward through the recently expanded Suez Canal to Europe. Infrastructure investment along the route will involve the construction of new ports and upgrades to existing facilities. Beijing’s objective is to facilitate greater Chinese commercial (and perhaps naval) activity in the Indian Ocean region. China is often at pains to reiterate that Indian Ocean is not India’s ocean probably out of a sense of vulnerability.

Despite the above, China remains a developing country with enormous, unfulfilled human needs, a potentially explosive democratic deficit, a large post-2008 debt, a slowing economy, a chronic dependence on imported raw materials and energy, a yawning urban-rural, rich-poor divide and a worsening threat from violent ethnic minority unrest. Some of China’s recent foreign policy actions, especially towards close neighbours, have been self-defeating in part because the military and the security apparatus have too much autonomous power. President Xi has been centralising authority around himself. But he faces opposition from the old guard, including former presidents, especially in his campaign to root out endemic official corruption. Xi has warned that, unless checked, the spread of corruption will “doom the party and the state”. In this many-fronted struggle it is not certain he or the party will prevail. These pressures of the explosive internal situation does give China a sense of paranoia which it could link with deterioration in an internal situation as having been instigated by outside powers prompting China to take recourse to military action.

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Buy Now: Threat from China

This compilation of articles are presented to help those dealing with China in the corridors of power and ‘China watchers’ in interpreting ‘what are China’s national interests?’, analysing ‘what does China want?’, deciphering ‘what is this new normal?’ and assessing ‘what will China do?’ with its newfound global and rising economic power, which is openly being translated into soft/hard power and growing political influence in the region and in major international organisations. Nations are justified to pursue their national interests. But they cannot ride rough shod over the sensitivities and interests of others. Compromises by both sides can smoothen any rough patches in inter-state relations. However the government is responsible to its people to provide a secure environment for the people to grow in and prosper. It is prudent to err on the plus side and therefore be fully prepared for the worst case contingency – a war. If it is avoided it will be because the country was prepared for it. So it is wise to pay heed to this age old Latin adage – “Si vis pacem, para bellum” translated as, “If you want peace, prepare for war”.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen (Dr) JS Bajwa

is Editor Indian Defence Review and former Chief of Staff, Eastern Command and Director General Infantry.  He has authored two books Modernisation of the People's Liberation Army and  Modernisation of the Chinese PLA

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7 thoughts on “China: Threat or Challenge?

  1. Sir, this book is extremely relevant to the happenings at Doklam. China is a threat not only to India, it is a threat to the present global order. Its skewed views of international relations are not in consonance with modern times. For instance, on the basis of an imaginary nine dash line it claims the entire south China Sea; so also it claims Arunachal Pradesh referring to it as south Tibet. Its rise in anything but benign and if need be India and other like minded states must counter its belligerence with ‘force.’

  2. Thanks for the article.
    China, having second largest GDP, is emerging as a super power in global scenario – We can’t ignore it.

    While China, talks about peaceful coexistence with India and maintained peace along the border with India, on the other hand China’s strategic ties with Pakistan is concern for us. Military help extended to Pakistan is major concern for us.

    West, on the other hand eager to put India as a counter balance for China.

    However, I think we have to maintain peace and dialogue with China despite of our concerns. We have to talk with China directly regarding our concerns. Peace and harmony across the border to be maintained.

    At the same time we have to be self-reliant on defense technology as per the MAKE IN INDIA CONCEPT and have to build minimum deterrence for security of our country silently as did by China. Collaboration with the other parties if required for the above are to be done.

    However war of words waged by media should be avoided.

  3. Sir enjoyed reading the article and your views on wide ranging issues were all relevant. China to me is both a challenge and a threat as far our country is concerned. Their policy statements and the real life actions / reactions are different.
    Will we be able to check at any stage the passing of CPEC through our territory, or reclaim Akshai Chin?
    Then their open support to Pak is a concern, therefore China needs to be engaged appropriately, the answer may lie in your book. Will love to read the whole book for my satisfaction.
    With regards

  4. China in its form is both a challenge and a threat at present. The only way to tackle a strong China is to boost our economy and increase defence capabilities along the border especially in the north East.

  5. Dear Raja,
    Your observations are relevant and do need consideration. In this Book – “China: Threat or Challenge?” which I have prefaced with this piece above, I have compiled articles by various authors to address these issues.
    We will continue to keep a vigil eye on geo-political developments in the region.
    Warm Regards

  6. Resp.sir,
    Nice views.
    In your next article kindly share your views on the following statements:

    1.China seems to be thinking a sort of racial superiority vis-a-vis the rest of the world.They have the ability and will to change any of the factors which are required for sustaining the current regime (whether population control or expansion) to establish their thinking on the world based on historical stories?

    2.Based on its military power the chinese behaviour is centred. Are the chinese so much advanced in the development of arms vs the world? within such a short span of a few decades with less R&D compared to the west?

    3.Chinese behaviour towards india is unpredictable.A sovereign state will not follow the path of china. Hence a rapidly militarised India is required. Flying doves will not work.
    or We can’t match them.Instead we should spend money for our own development instead of matching them which is futile.

    4.Joining with some western powers whether will help india in the long run?

    5.CPEC, chinese troops joint patrolling with pakistani troops and a sort of latent guarantee for pakistan and what india needs to do about it?

    6. All western arms suppliers think of india only as a cow. So what sort of partnerships will evolve and its benefits?

    7.The strengthening of pakistan by china and long run behaviour of pakistan towards india.
    8.Are the chinese biding time?

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