“It is China’s intention to be the greatest power in the world.”
— Lee Kuan Yew, 20111
“China’s peaceful development has broken away from the traditional pattern where a rising power was bound to seek hegemony.”
— China’s White Paper on Peaceful Development, 20112
“China does not see itself as a rising, but a returning power…. It does not view the prospect of a strong China exercising influence in economic, cultural, political and military affairs as an unnatural challenge to world order – but rather as a return to a normal state of affairs.” — Henry Kissinger, 20123
It would be worthwhile to briefly dwell on the origin of China as the country’s name and the genesis of the term “Middle Kingdom”. Through the ages China has been referred by many names. After Marco Polo popularised China in the West it was referred to as Cin. Other names it has been called are Cina, Sina, Sinea, Cathay, and Seres some of which were derived from one of the western-most kingdoms as the Qin (Chin), one of the early ruling dynasties4.
Traditionally the Chinese have called their country Zhongguo or the Middle Kingdom. This reference appeared in the 6th century BCE in texts by the Zhou Dynasty.5 Zhongguo is the most common name for China. The first character Zhong means ‘central’ or ‘middle’ while guo means ‘state or ‘states’ and in modern times ‘nation’, often translated as ‘Middle Kingdom’ or ‘Central Kingdom.’ In ancient usage, the term referred to the ‘Central States’ of the period before the unification of the empire. The connotation was due to the primacy of a culturally distinct core area, centred on the Yellow River valley, as distinguished from the tribes of the periphery who were only paying tribute to the Emperor.6 In later periods, however, Zhonggou was not used in this sense; rather, the country was called by the name of the dynasty, such as the “The Great Ming,” “The Great Qing” as the case might be. Some western writers use the translation of ‘middle kingdom’ or ‘central kingdom’ to imply that China has a deeply rooted self-centred psychology as the centre of the universe. Endymion Wilkinson denies that the Chinese were unique in thinking of their own country as central, although China was the only culture to use the concept of their name.7
To understand post modern China, another intrinsic part of its modern history needs some indulgence – a factor that predicates their world view even to this day. It is the ‘Century of Humiliation’. The term rose in 1915 in the atmosphere of rising Chinese nationalism. The beginning of the Century of Humiliation is usually dated to the mid-19th century, on the eve of the First Opium War amidst widespread opium addiction and the political unravelling of Qing Dynasty that followed.
The other major events often cited as part of the Century of Humiliation (1839-1949) are the unequal Treaties of Whampoa (1844) and Aigun (1858), the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), the Second Opium War (1856-1860), and the sacking of the Old Summer Palace (1860 and 1900), the Sino-French War (1884-1885), the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), the British invasion of Tibet (1903-1904), the Twenty-one Demands by Japan (1915), and the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). In this period, China lost all the wars it fought, often forced to give major concessions to great powers in the subsequent treaties.8 The time for an end of this Century of Humiliations has been open to different interpretations. Both Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong declared the end of the Century of Humiliation in the aftermath of World War II, with Chiang promoting his wartime resistance to Japanese rule and China’s place among the victorious Allies in 1945, while Mao declared it with the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949. The idea of an end of the Century was similarly declared in the repulsion of UN forces in the Korean War, the 1997 reunification of Hong Kong, and the Macau in 1999, and even the hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Some still say that the Century will not end until Taiwan is reunified with the mainland. By this aggressive irredentist bent of mind it will not be farfetched that Diaoyu/Senkaku, Spratly and Paracel Islets and Arunachal Pradesh would also figure in its ‘unfinished agenda’ of China’s Century of Humiliation!!
Since 1949, the government in Beijing has undoubtedly made huge progress in improving the living conditions of the Chinese people. Life in China has changed enormously for the better. There were, of course, the trying times, especially during the “Lost decade” of the Cultural Revolution, in the Mao era when the country faced the abyss of political and economic breakdown. Since its economic reforms launched in 1978, however, China has sustained the most rapid and protracted economic growth in modern history. Its economy has grown at about 10% annually in real terms in the years that followed – meaning that it has increased more than thirteen times in just over three decades.9 This economic expansion has increased China’s technological and military capabilities. China’s comparatively high growth rates, combined with its large size, have caused concerns abroad about a power shift in regional and even global political economy.
Post Mao era, China has witnessed political stability and period of consolidation. The “Four Modernisations” enunciated by Deng Xiaoping, coupled with US change in policy after the Nixon visit in 1972, brought China out of isolation. Deng became the acceptable face of Chinese Communism and gave currency to holistic reforms and a reinterpretation of Socialism in China. Following Deng was Jiang Zemin, from 1992-2002, with his theory of “Three Represents.” His “Three Represents” can be summarized as – Represents China’s advanced social productive forces (importance of economic development); Represents the progressive course of China’s advanced culture (development of cultural identity); Represents the fundamental interests of the majority (maintenance of people’s mandate).
Next in line was Hu Jintao (2002-2012). Like the previous leaders he too made his contribution to extending the founding principles of the Peoples Republic. His “Eight Honours and Eight Shames” have been widely promoted. Love the country; do it no harm. Serve the people; never betray them. Follow science; discard ignorance. Be diligent; not indolent. Be united, help each other; make no gains at others expense. Be honest and trustworthy; do not sacrifice ethic for prosperity. Be disciplined and law abiding; not chaotic and lawless. Live plainly, work hard; do not wallow in luxuries and pleasures.
Xi Jinping took over the reins in March 2012, and has propounded his theory of “Four Comprehensives.” Xi Jinping is moulding a different image where he is seen to pet calves, cup babies’ cheeks, and kick footballs. He laughs and smiles in public. He holds his own umbrella, shuns a limousine, carries his own bowl of dumpling to a restaurant table, and sits cross-legged in a farmer’s hut. Such behaviour is standard among modern politicians. But in China, Xi Jinping’s common touch and courting public opinion are a striking departure.
Xi Jinping first mentioned the “Four Comprehensives” theory in December 2014, and said the first step in the strategy was “achieving the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people.” This political theory envisages to comprehensively building a moderately prosperous society, deepening reform, governing the country according to the rule of law, and enforcing strict party discipline.10
As would be evident, the Party continuity and the resulting regime stability have enabled setting long-term development goals which in turn has enabled steady growth of the economy. The Four Modernisations were, though little known, set forth by Zhou Enlai in 1963 but were enacted by Deng in 1978. The order of priority was given to Agriculture, Science and Technology, followed by Industry, and finally National Defence. It was aimed to rejuvenate China’s economy, make China a great economic power, and make it economically self reliant. In practical terms, it translated to providing electricity in rural areas, industrial automation, a new economic outlook and greatly enhanced defence strategy. Former Red Guard, Wei Jingsheng posted on the Xidan Wall, (the ‘Democracy Wall’) that the “fifth modernisation” should be democracy if China was to truly modernise. He was jailed for 15 years. Deng referred to the economic reforms as “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” and believed that China was in the early stages of socialism. 1979, ushered in the first strands of diplomatic relations with US, that year was also marked by the end of the Sino-Soviet Treaty. Science and Technology modernisation was hard to put into effect due to lack of resources. Opening of markets increased foreign trade. Party loosened control and communes were disbanded. Chinese Communist Party promoted the creation of a civilized society with citizens all working towards modernisation. The modernisation of Science and Technology, although understood by Chinese leaders as being the key to the transformation of industry and the economy, proved to be more of a theoretical goal versus an achievable objective. This was primarily due to decades-long isolation of Chinese scientists from western international community, outmoded universities, and an overall lack of access to advance scientific equipment, InfoTech and management knowhow.
China’s success in achieving internal stability, a sustained high rate of economic growth since the post-Mao reforms has given rise to speculation that China would rise as a great power in the Twenty-First Century. Since the mid-1990s, the western media has begun to report on China as the “coming power, an economic centre of gravity in Asia, a military mover and shaker, and a peer of any of the western powers that once nibbled at China’s fringes and brought emperor’s low.”11 China’s move towards becoming the centre of the World’s post-cold war security calculus has raised once again – the oldest problem in diplomacy – how can the international community manage the ambitions of a rising power.
Realists argue that the rising economic and military power of China, would, by its own momentum, make China a threat to Asian and global security. An economic and military giant would upset the balance of power in Asia and spark realignments by China’s neighbours. As a rising power, China would tend to use force rather than consultation in disputes with other nations.12 Whether China will become a military threat to its neighbours, a systemic challenge to the global order, or a cultural-ideological challenge to the West remains an open question. There are indicators already suggesting the altering of contours of Asian security, international commerce, and the global balance of power. The uncertainties about China’s future capabilities and intentions and the debate about alternative policy options have gripped the entire spectrum of analysts.13
It is a moot point that China’s conduct and motivations are influenced by others whose actions impinge on Chinese interests and perceptions. Thus, China’s foreign policy clearly cannot be viewed in isolation, more so considering its sensitivity linked to the “Century of Humiliation.” As a matter of fact, when it comes to balance-of-power dynamics in Asia, the US is the proverbial “elephant in the room.” While balance-of-power theories based primarily on Europe’s or America’s experience cannot be automatically assumed to be applicable to Asia or China counter-intuitively, at the same time, Asia’s or China’s experiences are also not necessarily unique.14 To paraphrase Karl Marx, – “people make choices even if they make them under circumstances not of their choosing”. As a consequence how China’s neighbours react to China’s emergence or ‘re-emergence’ as a major regional power depends in large part on what Beijing does with its power, and the outcome is hardly preordained. Official policies may be constrained but are not likely to be determined by the structural conditions. Just as China is seen to pursue its national interests so are its neighbours. That these competing interests will clash or are on a collision course may be the realists’ weakness. As yet, China’s neighbours are not balancing against its rising power. There are sound reasons for the non-occurrence of this outcome expected from the balance-of-power perspective. The fundamental one is that officials are not myopic. They realise that balancing policies – by increasing their country’s armament or seeking foreign allies – are at best short-term solutions, because in the long run, the fundamental drivers of a country’s economic growth – and thus its national power – are located within it and external attempts to bend its developmental trajectory are likely to have only a limited transient effect.15 Balancing policies can be self-defeating because they entail important opportunity costs and induce reactions that trigger cycles of escalated recriminations.16
One may argue that military capabilities and security – the so-called “strategic vision” of national interest – cannot be created overnight. Thus, militaries world over, make worst-case scenario assumptions about other’s intentions despite the prevailing environment. However, out of sheer compulsion China’s neighbouring East and South-east Asian countries are adjusting to the geo-strategic reality as best as their independent existence allows. Their engagement with China has been variously described as engagement, enmeshment or entanglement – or to employ liberal terms, collaboration, cooperation, and integration. The key distinction is between organising countervailing power to balance against a country on one hand and instituting networks of shared interests and interlocking relations to defuse its power on the other hand.17 According to Robert Ross, “If China is growing stronger in East Asia then there is necessarily a relative decline of US power. This is balancing.”18