Benign or Bellicose? China and the South China Sea: the Ambiguities of the Peaceful Rise Paradigm

“China loves peace” (Li, 2014). This solemn claim by the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has probably sparked scepticism if not misbelief in Washington, Tokyo or Canberra. The recent Chinese charm offensive reiterating the Middle Kingdom’s peaceful intentions falls in a period amidst intensifying disputes in the South China Sea. The current rule-based order in the region is uphold by American military superiority which still dwarfs China’s capacity. Recent Chinese actions are as a consequence condemned for precipitating conflict by attempting to undermine that peaceful array and contradicting China’s proclaimed paradigm of a ‘peaceful rise’. However, by simply declaring this principle as propagandistic deception and criticising Chinese bellicosity, the West and its allies fail to truly comprehend Chinese intentions, thereby further fuelling conflict in the region.

Image courtesy of ping.shakl © 2013, some rights reserved

Image courtesy of ping.shakl © 2013, some rights reserved

History provides an appropriate accomplice in understanding the paradigm. In 1954, Mao Zedong proposed the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence as guiding parameters for China’s foreign policy: mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence. These originated in China’s colonial history, characterized by territorial infringement by foreigners between 1842 and 1949. Ever since, the leitmotif of China’s foreign policy has been the utmost emphasis on Westphalian sovereignty. Aimed at assuaging foreign apprehensions in the context of surging GDP growth and military spending, China translated this fundamental strategy into the catchy slogan ‘peaceful rise’ back in 2005, accentuating its benign intentions regarding territorial disputes. At the 60th anniversary of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, Xi Jinping reconfirmed the world that “China does not accept the logic that a strong country is bound to become hegemonic, and neither hegemony nor militarism is in the Chinese DNA” (Xi, 2014).

Critical observers have highlighted the flaws of Xi’s statement. The unilateral declaration of an air defence identification zone, the heated rhetoric concerning the Senkaku Islands, the clashes with Vietnam over China’s oil rig foray or Chinese insistence on its authority over all territories within the ‘nine dashed line’ subvert the principle of ‘peaceful rise’ as the West interprets it. Of course from an undifferentiated perspective, Chinese actions in the pursuit of resources and geopolitical advantages are a detriment to the sovereignty of its neighbours. Yet the central reason for its failure to understand Chinese motives is the West’s lack of appreciation for the significance of the South China Sea for the Middle Kingdom.

Undoubtedly, China has profound pragmatic and realist interests in the South China Sea which other countries legitimately contest. The offshore oil deposits are estimated to yield up to 130 million barrels of oil, more than any other area except Saudi Arabia. Provided the insatiable thirst for resources – consumption in East Asia is estimated to double until 2030 – energy security is pivotal for China’s economic growth (Kaplan, 2014, p.10ff). Additionally, lying within the South China Sea is the Malacca Strait, the central trading route which functions as the gateway between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, upon which the export-led Chinese economy heavily depends. By controlling the South China Sea, the Middle Kingdom would cement its preponderance over the Eastern hemisphere. Naturally, the United States and regional players such as Japan oppose these ambitions. But realpolitik is only part of the story.

Chinese foreign policy is profoundly influenced by its unique historical parameters. The experience of colonialist suppression by western powers fuels today’s principle of rejecting foreign infringement upon domestic issues, which includes Chinese-claimed territory, to the utmost. Therein, disputes over Taiwan, Hong Kong or now the islands within the nine-dashed line are regarded as matters of sovereignty and are consequently unnegotiable, which is further exacerbated by surging nationalism. It is vital for the West to comprehend that China will not compromise on its perceived rightful territorial claims. Just like the US has failed to reconcile Chinese claims to reintegrate Taiwan post-1949, the US-led powers will fail to peacefully contain Chinese historical claims in the long term. During the China-Australia Diplomatic and Strategic Dialogue in Sydney on September 7th, the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi expressed that the `Four Respects` should be adhered to regarding the South China Sea disputes (Yi, 2014). By demanding, among other, respect vis-à-vis the historical facts, he accentuated China`s right to claim sovereignty over these disputed territories.

Therein, history provides a blueprint for China’s intentions. Whether legitimate or not, the Middle Kingdom will not concede its claims in the South China Sea easily. First and foremost, the United States will need to acknowledge that core Chinese interests are at stake and consequently ponder the options to face it. Whatever option it chooses, a strategic reorientation is needed. Assuming that domestic stability in China will prevail, the country’s economic and in the long term military capacities will make a direct confrontation with the U.S. costly. If the Superpower does not decisively rather than symbolically pivot to Asia, the days of American dominance in the region seem counted. A better option for the West appears to be to recognize Chinese claims whilst integrating it into multilateral frameworks such as the planned Trans-Pacific Partnership. This form of appeasement is no guarantee to stop further claims nor will it please Japan, Vietnam or others; but it provides the best chance to accommodate China’s return as a great power and de-escalate the situation in East Asia.

In the long term, key players such as the United States, Australia, Vietnam and even Japan will have to recognise that stability in the region is solely achievable by appeasing China. However, the geopolitical outlook on East Asia is not inevitably grim. Beyond perceived domestic issues, the ‘peaceful rise’ paradigm holds as a central pillar of Chinese foreign policy. The paramount importance of economic growth to ensure domestic stability can only by sustained by pragmatic economic and political cooperation. Henry Kissinger advocates that “a country facing such large domestic tasks is not going to throw itself […] into a quest for world domination” (Kissinger, 2012, 525). Ryan Griffiths from the university of Sidney goes as far as to argue that Chinese hegemony will sustain a more peaceful regional order, due to its respect of the sovereign norm of territorial integrity and therein inclination to abstain from military conquest (Griffiths, 2014). Thus, the ‘peaceful rise’ is not a universal truth but neither simply propaganda. Benign or bellicose? As often in international relations, the nature of actions very much depends on the perspective.

Griffiths, Ryan, 2014: The future of national self-determination and territorial integrity in the Asian century, in The Pacific Review, 27:3, pages 457-478

Li, Keqiang, 2014: in The Economic Times, China loves peace says premier Li Keqiang, despite regional disputes []

Kaplan, Robert D., 2014: Asia’s Cauldron, Random House: New York

Kissinger, Henry, 2012: On China, Penguin: London

Xi, Jinping, 2014: in China Daily, Xi pledges China will never seek hegemony []

Yi, Wang, 2014: Sticking to Four Respects on the South China Issue []