China: more hegemon than bogeyman?

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s perceptive new book, “Eight Juxtapositions: China Through Imperfect Analogies,” presents some unlikely comparisons that are designed to challenge perceptions about China. Wasserstrom, a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, acknowledges flaws in his analogies — which include an exploration of the similarities between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Pope Francis — but makes a persuasive case that they are useful in making sense of contemporary China. He draws eyebrow-raising parallels between Japan in Manchuria and China in Tibet, and links these incursions with America’s delusional intervention in Iraq — a comparison that sheds new light on a debacle that plunged the Middle East into its current maelstrom.

The way Washington flouted the U.N. in the Iraq invasion and selectively adheres to international law provides useful perspective on the pundits and officials now sanctimoniously denouncing China for its hegemonic ambitions in Asia. The U.S. opted out of the International Criminal Court, probably reflecting concerns in the administration of George W. Bush that some members might be held accountable for war crimes.

It is also worth recalling that Australia won its 2014 case in the International Court of Justice, when it challenged the legality of Japan’s research whaling in the Antarctic Ocean. But, since then, Japan has shrugged off that ruling and resumed the practice. There are plenty of sinners at the altar of international law.

Much has been made of the recent decision by an international arbitration court that comprehensively rejected China’s historic claims of control over the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. It was the right call, but will it constrain China? Probably not.

The ruling is binding and carries region-wide implications, but there is no enforcement mechanism or any suggestions about how China and its Asian maritime neighbors can resolve the dispute. The best outcome of the ruling would be for Beijing and the other claimants to begin negotiations about reaching mutually acceptable settlements. That could happen, but its important for all sides to dial down the rhetoric — and intimidation.

America dispatched two of its carrier strike groups to the South China Sea on the eve of the ruling, but this is a counterproductive gesture. China will not be seen to kowtow to the U.S. Washington wants to reassure its Asian friends that it has a dog in this fight, but what can such bellicose posturing achieve? It increases the risk of a miscalculation that could spiral out of control. America doesn’t take a position on sovereignty over the disputed islands, so it surely wants to avoid going to war over them. The naval grandstanding risks exposing the weakness of the U.S. position.

After all the smoke clears, and praetorian posturing abates, Beijing must make a decision: Is it ready to become a rogue state by imposing its territorial claims with old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy?

Lets examine the July 6 speech given in Washington by former Chinese state councilor Dai Bingguo about Beijing’s regional intentions. He spoke of “finding truth from facts,” a sure sign in Chinese that listeners can expect some tremendous whoppers to follow, in this case regarding Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea. He also said bilateral relations should be based on mutual respect and equality, before denying Beijing’s desire “to make the South China Sea an Asian Caribbean Sea and impose the Monroe Doctrine to exclude the U.S. from Asia.” Interesting analogy. A Chinese version of the U.S. Monroe Doctrine is exactly what Washington worries about — it is unaccustomed to being hoisted with its own petard.

Back in 1823, under President James Monroe, the U.S. basically declared the Americas off-limits to European powers, grandfathering their existing colonies but asserting that it would henceforth decide what went on in the region.

One reason Asia might be chary about a Chinese Monroe Doctrine is the 1904 Roosevelt Corollary. President Theodore Roosevelt expanded the Monroe Doctrine, insisting that America had the right to intervene in the internal affairs of any of its regional neighbors if it saw fit to do so. Subsequently, Washington has found numerous pretexts to repeatedly intervene in the Americas, brandishing its values while often sabotaging democracy and routinely taking the side of despots who violated human rights.

Roosevelt’s famous adage “Speak softly and carry a big stick” chimes disconcertingly with the admonition of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping: “Coolly observe, calmly deal with things, hold your position, hide your capacities, bide your time, accomplish things where possible.”

But President Xi is decidedly brasher about what China wants. The nation will not shilly-shally about modifying the status quo to its advantage. China’s rapid economic growth has facilitated a sweeping military modernization, one that is transforming the geostrategic landscape in Asia. Tokyo and Washington are alarmed about this development, but other nations in the region have evaded addressing it.

Most likely the “Xi corollary” will embrace more subtle methods. Rather than a policy of military intervention, this may be a militarized and monetized diplomacy where China brandishes hard power while averting confrontation with the U.S. military — an effective salami-slicing strategy. It’s unlikely China will provoke an all-out clash, but it will play the long game by poking and prodding in a bid to show that it will not back down, while shaking regional faith in America’s capacity and long-term commitment.

Carrots are being dangled, too: The new China-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank will funnel loans to regional counterparts, enabling Beijing to translate its financial resources into tangible leverage in Asia. Moreover, China’s booming market makes it an irresistible magnet for economies across the globe, again conferring considerable clout and influence that looms especially large in the region.

Xi is trying to assert a new normal in Asia — a more muscular Chinese presence — but he has overplayed the nation’s hand. The backlash in Asia may seem guarded, but Beijing’s stance smacks of “American exceptionalism” — a misguided belief that might makes right.

The rejection of China’s claims over the disputed Spratly Islands has stoked China’s overweening pride, its sense of victimhood and historical resentments that draw on the wellspring of national humiliation from when it was prey to the depredations of Western and Japanese imperialism.

This is why China is not eager to become a “responsible stakeholder” in an international system it views as fundamentally hostile to the nation regaining its rightful place at the helm of Asia. Power is transforming China and feeding its appetite for revanchism. And, like America, it is not programmed to take no for an answer.

China seems insistent on writing the rules for a Sino-centric Asia, apparently yearning for the days when vassal states cowered at its feet. But this nostalgia clashes with 21st-century realities. Having experienced the humiliations of imperialism, surely it should know better.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.