China’s Rise Threatens to Divide Asia, Not Unite It
China's Rise Threatens to Divide Asia, Not Unite It
Not since modern Japan moved on to the world stage a century ago has a non-western power emerged with such potential to transform the global order as China today. The Pentagon sees a budding rival military power; the US Congress views Chinese acquisitions of US companies as a national security threat; and Mario Monti, the former European commissioner, laments that Europe could one day be little more than "a suburb of Shanghai".
If China's dynamism is causing a crisis of confidence among western nations, its gravitational pull also appears to be drawing Asian neighbours into its orbit. Some perceive a new Asian community in the making, constructed around Chinese power and influence. For 2,000 years, Asian states ordered themselves as tributaries of the Chinese empire. Could Asia's past also be its future?
In reality, China's rise is dividing Asia, not uniting it. Opinion polls show that throughout the region, its growing military power is increasingly seen as a threat. Clearly, there are significant challenges to its regional leadership that Beijing must manage skilfully.
Japan's new assertiveness is largely a response to China's transformation. As one of the world's largest economies, with a modern military force, Tokyo will not willingly cede regional leadership to its historic rival. Japan has revitalised its alliance with America, stationed troops in Iraq and pledged to help defend Taiwan.
India is also unwilling to fall into line. It is liberalising its economy and building a robust strategic and economic partnership with what its leaders call its "natural ally", the US. India's economy is smaller than China's, but its potential power may be greater. Most importantly, India, like Japan, is a democracy in which leaders enjoy popular legitimacy, and political conflict is resolved at the ballot box. China's unelected leaders, by contrast, sit on a tinderbox of political and social unrest: according to its public security minister, there were 74,000 grassroots protests in China in 2004, the highest ever. Predictions that China will be the world's largest economy by 2050 assume it will enjoy decades of internal political stability and external peace. Few other great powers that have risen so fast have been so fortunate.
The Association of South East Asian Nations has sought to restrain Chinese power by enmeshing it in regional institutions. But whereas Asean is engaging China to tame the aggressive realpolitik that has characterised its foreign relations, Beijing views the same institutions as a way to extend its regional influence and has sought to exclude the US. In planning for the first East Asia summit, to be held in Malaysia in December, China also tried to exclude India, Australia and New Zealand – but was overruled by Asian nations including Japan and Asean members. As China's regional influence grows, most Asean members are working to hedge against or balance its power. While deepening trade and diplomatic co-operation with Beijing, many members – US allies such as Thailand and the Philippines, key swing states such as Singapore and emerging regional powers such as Indonesia – have also increased security ties with Washington. Australia has reinvigorated its US alliance.
As an engine of Asian economic growth, China's role is breeding conflict as well as co-operation: Asian states, concerned about losing foreign investment to China, worry about the hollowing out of their economies. Rather than helping shape a shared regional identity, China's ascendancy is in some ways causing a clash of national identities and fuelling nationalist sentiments. China is Japan's largest trading partner, but violent protests over the legacy of the second world war have accompanied shared prosperity. Taiwan is the largest single investor in China – and the nation most likely to be attacked by it.
China's authoritarian political system further constrains its ambition to lead Asia. If democracies largely adhere to international rules and norms because their societies are governed by law, should China's neighbours expect it to build a rules-based regional order and respect their sovereign rights when it does not treat its people with the same regard?
Despite its meteoric rise, China may not become a new Middle Kingdom to which its neighbours defer. Thanks to China, Asia may be uniting economically, but strategically it may be coming apart.
The writer, a former adviser to Senator John McCain, is the joint Fulbright/Oxford scholar at Oxford University and a consultant to the German Marshall Fund of the US.