‘Our prosperity is not a threat to our neighbors’

by Tom Plate

Modern-day China still seems to search for a clear-headed sense of its true self and its proper place in the 21st-century sun.

Where and how this otherwise predictable resource-seeking superpower will fit into the scheme of things on this troubled planet is the 1.3 billion people question. The leaders of China repeatedly deny that their country of many storied millennia has any ambition whatsoever to mushroom into a dragonlike hegemon. But precisely that scenario has been the consistent pattern of rising and ambitious nations throughout history.

Yet China, we are told by China, will be different. But will it? Indeed, why should it be different from any other potent power in the course of history?

Still, a newly re-proclaimed sense of defined difference was the urgent message under conveyance in an extraordinary new white paper issued the week before last by the Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China.

The State Council, roughly the equivalent of the U.S. Cabinet, issues all sorts of statements and releases, to be sure. And you can forget about most of them. But this one was different. It arrived at nearly 9,000 words and, despite the artlessly disarming title “China’s Peaceful Development,” was aimed at shooting down any suspicion or worry that China is trying to become a military monster.

Here is a typical thematic statement from this State Council opus: “China’s peaceful development has departed from the traditional pattern where a rising power was bound to see hegemony. China does not seek regional hegemony or a sphere of influence, nor does it want to exclude any country from participating in regional cooperation. China’s prosperity, development and long-term stability represent an opportunity rather than a threat to its neighbors.”

The very fact that the State Council set out to impart such a self-justifying “state of the Chinese union” address to the world is revealing in itself. It tells us that it is worried that its past promises of “peaceful rising,” endlessly repeated under the Hu Jintao government, have not been received with universal credulity.

The pointed and panoramic text was made instantly public in English as well as Chinese. English availability was widespread on the Internet, and China Daily, the country’s showcase English-language newspaper, added analysis as well as commentary to the word-for-word translation.

An extra point about China Daily needs to be made. The newspaper is no longer little more than some lame-brained government handout. Yes, its political priorities and philosophy absolutely reflect those of the Communist Party power elite. But that is part of its value: No other newspaper available to the West so well reflects Beijing’s worldview, and as China’s growth to superpower status proceeds apace, understanding those views (while not necessarily accepting them) is vital to improving the Sino-U.S. relationship.

What’s more, in its reporting of the State Council’s survey of China’s intent and intentions, China Daily augmented the official line without crossing over it as if trying to deny current accepted doctrine. This is another feature of the paper’s editorial evolution worth noting. The main story, for example, emphasized that questions about China’s intentions come not only from the West and its immediate neighbors — with whom it has been quarreling over disputed territories and sea rights — but sometimes from its own citizens as well.

In its main story, the associate dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University was quoted as admitting to nationalistic pressures within China that would prefer a less-peaceful rising. “Some domestic voices argue that China should be more aggressive in the international arena,” the paper quoted the well-known Wang Yizhou as saying. But that view is not correct, he insisted, as the new white paper “tells the public that China should remain modest and prudent in its diplomacy.”

Of course, it will be deeds, and not so much words, that will in the end define China’s image in the world. As long as its many gunboats bump up against those of smaller nations in the vast seas around China, doubts about what China is really up to will surface anew. As long as it appears to reject as viable the major American naval presence in Asia, those suspicions will deepen, especially in the West.

China, therefore, does need to accept the stated wisdom of the State Council’s exceptional policy statement and take it to heart. For not even China’s breathtaking rise in the world can erase certain realities.

One is that China’s views on international disputes will not always be well accepted. Another is that its neighbors have their own sincere and indeed urgent interests to protect. And the third is that the U.S., whatever its newly discovered financial predicament, is not going to withdraw from Asia and its oceans.

China must keep its militarists and military at bay — a chore we in the U.S. have as well. Otherwise there is going to be trouble that inevitably both sides will profoundly regret. The State Council’s own wise warning on this point was well taken — and, in fact, much appreciated.

Since 1996, Tom Plate, the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University, has been writing columns about Asia and its relationship with America. The latest volume of his “Giants of Asia” series, “Conversations with Thaksin,” has been published by Marshall Cavendish. © 2011 Pacific Perspectives Media Center