China's Rise: Rhetoric and Reality

(L-R) Gilly Yarrow, wife of the Lord Mayor of London, the Chinese President's wife Peng Liyuan, Britain's Prince Andrew, the
(L-R) Gilly Yarrow, wife of the Lord Mayor of London, the Chinese President's wife Peng Liyuan, Britain's Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, Chinese President Xi Jinping and The Lord Mayor of London Alan Yarrow pose at the Guildhall in central London before attending a banquet on October 21, 2015. British Prime Minister David Cameron today announced almost £40 billion (54.6 billion euros, $61.9 billion) in deals with China during a visit to Britain by President Xi Jinping. AFP PHOTO / JACK TAYLOR (Photo credit should read JACK TAYLOR/AFP/Getty Images)

Chinese leaders consistently express a commitment to a "new model of major country relations" based on three pillars of non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation. However, over the past five years, the first commitment - non-confrontation - has seemingly disappeared as China has engaged in various spats and clashes with neighbors.

In the East China Sea, Beijing has clashed with Tokyo over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and declared an air-defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the area. In the South China Sea, Chinese vessels have clashed with Philippine ships, China has embarked on a large-scale land reclamation project, and Beijing and Hanoi have argued about sovereignty over various reefs and islands in the Spratly chain. Chinese forces also harassed Indian border guards in the area surrounding the disputed line of control (LOC) in the Himalayas.

The United States, which is allied with Japan and the Philippines and has greatly improved relations with Vietnam and India has been placed in the uncomfortable position of responding to China's "provocations" without actually taking sides in the specific disputes. Deterring a military conflict while maintaining freedom of navigation through disputed areas have become critical objectives in the Pentagon. After a decade of softer, reassuring policies vis-à-vis smaller regional neighbors and receptive partners in Africa and Latin America, Beijing seems much more willing (and able) to throw its weight around and bully smaller states in the region.

At least that is the view from the outside. Some very knowledgeable China experts argue that nothing has really changed. China has always been clear about its willingness to defend its core national interests--whether Taiwan, Tibet, or the South China Sea--against foreign encroachment. The only difference is that Beijing now has much greater capacity to support its claims and enforce its will. There has been no change in its fundamental strategy, however. While this view may indeed be valid, it is largely irrelevant when considering the security dynamics of the Western Pacific region. China's actions, rather than its rhetoric, are driving the responses of other states in the region and may ultimately undermine Chinese objectives over the long-term. Herein lies the paradox of Chinese policy. While it energetically and defiantly defines and defends its core interests, Beijing seems almost oblivious or unable to comprehend that other countries may also have important national interests and that China's stated intentions and material capabilities combine to make China a real threat to the security of other states. In the South China Sea, for example, Chinese leaders and elites simply dismiss the claims of Vietnam of the Philippines, despite questionable geographic and historical support for China's case. Similarly, the United States should not worry about navigation in the area, even as there is evidence of Chinese military activity on the man-made islands that China has created, because China has no intention of shutting down the region. Beijing is not seeking to revise the regional or global order, but simply looking after its core interests. This may indeed be true, but it overlooks or ignores the importance of the perceptions of other states that must accommodate China's expanding capabilities. To a large degree, the intentions and motivations of China's leaders are irrelevant. The combination of China's massive capabilities (most importantly its modernizing military and naval forces) and its behavior (which is generally perceived as "assertive" or "aggressive" by its smaller neighbors) have combined to create the image of a real Chinese threat in the Western Pacific. Yet despite the alleged "realism" espoused by many Chinese leaders (a clear understanding of power and the need to prioritize national interests) the rhetoric and behavior is anything but realistic. Beijing simply rejects the claims by others that its policies are aggressive, seemingly oblivious to the fact that its sheer power advantages make it at least a latent security threat to almost all of its neighbors. And when those states take steps to safeguard their own security, Beijing argues that they are taking provocative steps and paving the way to conflict.

Thus China seems to possess a fairly "realistic" picture of its own goals and interests but a highly unrealistic (almost naïve) vision of the foreseeable implications of the policies and behavior it has implemented since 2010. Prior to that time, the so-called "soft power" of China was prevalent, purposefully deployed to place a benign façade on its rapid expansion of material power and resources. This strategy seemed consistent with China's ultimate goal of maintaining a stable external environment that supports and facilitates China's peaceful rise and avoids the types of countervailing coalitions and alliances that have formed in the face of previous rising powers throughout history. Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping continue to voice a commitment to a new model of great power relations, but Beijing's foreign policies and actions have increasingly deviated from that rhetoric. Only with concrete policies predicated on open and constructive negotiation, cooperation with smaller states, and a de-emphasis on military power, can Beijing effectively reassure its neighbors and maintain a stable and secure Western Pacific region.