China does not need to always win to be great

In its rush to assert itself on the global stage, it has simply reaped acquiescence

BEIJING • In his address at the 95th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) this month, President Xi Jinping devoted an unusually lengthy part of his speech to foreign policy.

Speaking just days before a ruling by the Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague on China's claims in the South China Sea, most international media focused on him saying that China will never compromise on its sovereignty. The Chinese media, however, picked out certain phrases to highlight his vision for the country on the global stage.

One of them is "ren lei ming yun gong tong ti", or a "community of common destiny for mankind", a term Mr Xi has used at least 60 times since 2013.

Building this community is the "Chinese solution" for an international world order that emphasises mutual benefits, and will allow China to fulfil its responsibilities as a major country, said party mouthpiece People's Daily in a commentary on Monday.

Another Chinese media analysis said China has come up with the "Chinese solution", or "zhong guo fang an", because it no longer wants to follow Western rules now that it has "a major country's capabilities and self-confidence".

Taken together, these points summarise China's reimagining of its role as a "major country/great power" or "da guo" in recent years.

Although it became the world's No. 2 economy in 2010, the Chinese have always debated whether their country is truly a great power. There is, however, little doubt in the mind of Mr Xi, who has more actively sought to answer the question: "So what should a great power do?"


Chinese soldiers marking the Communist Party's 95th anniversary in Heilongjiang province last month. In President Xi's address, he said China will never compromise on its sovereignty. Standing up forcefully on the world stage has become a cornerstone of the country's diplomacy. PHOTO: AGENCE-FRANCE PRESSE

Plenty, it seems. In recent years, standing up more forcefully on the world stage has become a corner- stone of the country's diplomacy.

Last September, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) carried out a rare and massive display of its latest hardware through Tiananmen Square in a show of military prowess that unnerved neighbours in the region and countries further afield. That came amid a PLA restructuring and personnel reshuffle meant to improve its combat capabilities, as well as weapons deployment and land reclamation in the South China Sea.

Then last month, at a special meeting in Kunming between Asean and China's foreign ministers, a planned joint press conference failed to take place after the Chinese applied pressure on a few Asean member states and caused the 10-member bloc to splinter over a proposed joint statement on the South China Sea.

Experts such as Nankai University analyst Liu Feng have pointed out that "China has been more inclined in recent years to use its coercive power to persuade neighbouring countries or to ensure that they indeed treat it with respect". That is consistent with the observation that China has modified its foreign policy strategy to become more pro-active, shifting from the decades-old mantra of "tao guang yang hui" (keeping a low profile) to "fen fa you wei" (striving for achievement), a term Mr Xi used at a high-level diplomatic work conference in 2013.

Yet, what a great power can do and what it should do are different things - and both China's leaders and its people seem increasingly interested only in the former while "striving for achievement". That attitude extends to the Chinese public, as can be seen in the response of a fisherman from Hainan province who said in an interview in May: "Just attack them..., what are we afraid of?"

He was referring to the Philippines, which the tribunal ruled in favour of this week in the former's disputes with China in the South China Sea. Many of these fishermen had clashed with the coast guard and fishermen from the Philippines during their expeditions to the Spratlys, which the Chinese government encourages as a way of safeguarding sovereignty.

It is not uncommon to see netizens comment on territorial disputes online with a single word "da" (attack), born from the angst of seeing "great power" China supposedly being pushed around by smaller countries. They feel that China's might is not limited to the military either, often questioning what would happen if China decides to cut off trade ties or investment with another belligerent country. In short, now that we are strong, why do we need to play nice?

Yet, when it suits its cause, China (or its public) is quick to highlight that it is also a "rising power" - a developing country - hence relieving it of the international responsibilities that most expect a great power to shoulder.

Indeed, when Mr Xi committed US$2 billion (S$2.7 billion) last September to a development fund for poor countries and said China would aim to increase investment in least-developed countries to US$12 billion by 2030, that effort to change China's image as an international "free rider" swiftly came under fire. Why is China not helping its own poor, many Chinese asked. China is just a big country, not a rich country, others said.

None of that helps China's standing on the global stage. In its rush to demand respect befitting of a great power, China has merely reaped acquiescence.

Just looking at Asean, for instance, closer economic cooperation with Beijing has failed to translate into mutual trust. If anything, it has been the opposite, with concerns growing about China's readiness to wield its economic clout for geopolitical benefits. As one Western scholar observed, "China is a great power, but it doesn't realise that being a great power doesn't mean you need to ensure you win all the time".

This is where China can perhaps heed a lesson it learnt from the remarkable feat it pulled off early this year, in opening the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which People's Daily also sees as part of the "Chinese solution". Few would have given it a chance when Mr Xi first mooted it in 2013, especially given the intense pressure that the United States had put on other countries not to join the bank. But the benefits of this new institution were apparent to the 57 that eventually signed up, in what became a major public relations coup for China.

No coercive action was needed when the countries could assess for themselves the AIIB's merits, while being keenly aware of the limitations and associated biases in current international financial institutions.Two weeks on from Mr Xi's address, the tribunal has ruled against China's claims in the South China Sea and all eyes are on how forcefully it reacts. It should keep in mind that in recent years, assertive action has only served to push China's neighbours further away from it. It is still questionable, on balance, how much "striving for achievement" and not following "Western rules" has gained for China, and if that is still a path worth going down.

China deserves to have a greater say in the world order and, as it has pointed out, there should be no objection to its attempts to build a new world order that emphasises "mutual benefits and a non-zero sum game model". In such a world, however, the great power should not be the only big winner.


  • The writer ends his China posting on July 20.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2016, with the headline 'China does not need to always win to be great'. Print Edition | Subscribe