The Post-Deng China: The End of China's Soft Power?

In the last three decades the world came to witness one of history's most dramatic stories of economic transformation in the once-isolated, formerly frail China. It marked a decisive end to the country's "century of national humiliation" (beginning with the First Opium War in 1839 and ending with the conclusion of World War II in 1945) and decades of political instability, ideological zealotry, and economic mismanagement under the watchful gaze of Mao Zedong.

The rise of Deng Xiaoping, a pragmatist in practice and a nationalist at heart, represented the inflection point that eventually propelled China to the top of the global economic and political hierarchy. In retrospect, however, one could argue that it was precisely Mao's radical ideological experimentation that provided a perfect Hegelian antithesis to a centuries-old process of political decay and economic stagnation in China that coincided with the rise of Western colonialism.

Following this line of argumentation, Deng reflected a new synthesis in China's national consciousness, one that was founded upon an astute mixture of technological modernity and traditional Confucian thought. China's pragmatic turn in the last decades of the 20th century represented its growing appreciation of and confidence in mastering the virtues of capitalism for the benefit of national development. And along this process China managed to inspire both admiration and fear among its peers.

Falling back on a long tradition of sophisticated statecraft, however, the post-Cold War era saw not only the demise of the Soviet threat to China (a critical factor in binding Washington and Beijing in the twilight years of Chairman Mao) but the emergence of a capable diplomatic core that impressively burnished China's public diplomacy and international image. The first decade of the 21st century saw a perceptible shift in public opinion with respect to China, thanks to the Bush administration's aggressive display of unilateral hubris. But there was also a critical economic component.

China's economic miracle not only represented an attractive model of state-led capitalist development (with a so-called "Beijing Consensus" supposedly reshaping the terms of international trade and investment) but created a "commodity boom" that dramatically enhanced the economic fortunes of many developing and emerging economies. This represented the "peaceful rise" dimension of China's unrelenting national development.

In recent years, however, more and more countries have come to focus on China's military might rather than its economic success.

The sheer scale of environmental challenges in China and the breadth of structural vulnerabilities afflicting its economy have partially undermined the attraction of its development strategy. And the brewing territorial disputes between China and its East Asian neighbors have played a critical role in reshaping international discourse vis-à-vis its intentions -- and the long-term implications of a prospective Sino-centric order in Asia.

The Age of Skepticism

Western powers can understandably treat China's rise as a direct challenge to their centuries-old global dominance. Although both China and the West are essentially capitalist in economic practice, there is a palpable difference in terms of their politico-ideological outlook. China's (arguably) successful management of capitalist accumulation in recent decades progressively undercuts the purported inseparability between private enterprise and parliamentary representation -- the cornerstone of (official) Western political thought.

But what is even more interesting is how many countries across Asia have come to view China's rise with growing skepticism. Throughout my engagements across Asia, from Tehran to Tokyo, I sensed growing anxiety toward China's international influence. A decade ago perceptions of China were significantly more sympathetic.

For instance, in sanctions-hit Iran, which has been forced into barter deals with China, many businessmen have been complaining about China's allegedly opportunistic business practices. Ordinary consumers have been complaining about the safety of cheap Chinese imports, which have also battered local manufacturers. In Japan the ongoing dispute in the East China Sea has alarmed many ordinary citizens, who are worried about their country's ability to defend itself. Gradually the Abe administration is gaining more public support for his proposed revision of Japan's pacifist post-World War II constitution, paving the way for proactive and nimble Japanese armed forces in the near future. Across Southeast Asia popular views toward China have been mixed, but the ongoing maritime disputes in the South China Sea have set off alarm bells in the Philippines and Vietnam, which have welcomed a greater American strategic footprint in the region to stave off Chinese territorial assertiveness.

While China has consistently maintained that it prioritizes harmonious and peaceful relations with its neighbors and accords equal respect to fellow developing countries, there is a growing consensus that "balance of power" dynamics explain Beijing's renewed assertiveness in international affairs. After all, the aftermath of the 2008-09 Great Recession, which severely undermined the global standing of Western powers, precipitated the emergence of a new China that is more vocal about its interests and more capable of asserting it.

The Post-Deng China

Throughout the 1990s the Clinton administration vigorously encouraged the integration of China into the global networks of production, arguing that a poor and isolated China with little stake in the international system is always more dangerous. The liberals argued that subjecting China to economic globalization and integrating it as a status-quo power would redress its historical grievances and tame its excessive passions.

Refusing to opportunistically revalue its currency, China played an extremely constructive role during the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis. It devoted a lot of energy to resolving many of its territorial disputes, even proposing joint development in areas of overlapping maritime interests. By the first decade of the 21st century, China had become the leading trading partner of most Asian countries, serving as a pivotal element of economic integration in the Asia-Pacific region.

In recent years, however, the views of American political scientist John Mearsheimer, a major proponent of the thesis that China's rise will not be peaceful, have gained more currency. The world is beginning to see the less-benign dimensions of China's rise. In the words of Indian strategist Brahma Chellaney, China's territorial strategy represents "a steady progression of steps to outwit opponents and create new facts on the ground."

The swift defeat of (Soviet-armed) Iraq in the Gulf War served as a formative experience in China's modern military strategy, inspiring a massive military modernization program that focuses on information warfare, blue-water naval power, and Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) capabilities. The short-term objective is to secure and consolidate China's territorial claims in the region while preparing the country for a long-term run at Pacific supremacy -- obviously at the expense of Washington.

The rapid expansion in China's military capabilities, meanwhile, has been reinforced by the country's ability to sustain its economic momentum, while most leading Western powers have struggled to recover from the 2008-09 Great Recession. In this sense China has managed to rise in both absolute and relative terms. The other critical factor is how the erosion of communist ideology amid massive economic liberalization has reignited popular nationalism, with many ordinary Chinese citizens eager to witness China's restoration to its historical glory as the center of East Asian order.

As an economic powerhouse armed with a nuclear deterrent, China is well aware that neither the West nor its neighbors can afford a direct confrontation. From a military standpoint, the hardliners in China believe that they can afford to constantly push the boundaries of their territorial claims without triggering a massive backlash.

Their strategic calculus is not based on chess, which places a premium on decisive victory, but on the ancient Chinese game of Go. As veteran Filipino journalist Narciso Reyes argues, a Go-inspired strategy aims at gaining "more territory than your adversary" and, in contrast to chess-like strategies, represents a "low-risk, incremental undertaking involving the consolidation of gains, focusing its attack on the enemy's weak points and group, and avoiding their strong positions."

After all, it might take decades before China can credibly match the conventional capabilities of the U.S. As China confronts the prospect of a regional counter-alliance comprising Japan, India, the Philippines, Vietnam, Australia, Singapore and the U.S., the moderates within the Chinese leadership can once again reassert Deng's emphasis on self-discipline, humility, and strategic restraint. But the advent of popular nationalism combined with China's continued struggle with shoring up its domestic legitimacy amid a difficult period of economic reform could prevent a moderate recalibration of China's territorial posturing.

It will take immense political will and creative diplomacy by disputing countries to prevent the tragedy of a great power confrontation in Asia. At the end of the day, China is a legitimate powerhouse that should be peacefully integrated into the the emerging global order.