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China's 'peaceful' rise? The world must work with China to achieve this historical aberration

Following the recent flare-up between Indonesia and China in the South China Sea, the situation is clearly deteriorating. Doomsayers warn that the South China Sea may be the "Sarajevo" of World War III. As The Economist more judiciously and succinctly put it, "armed conflict in the South China Sea is a long way from being inevitable. But it is far from unthinkable".

In other words, while there is no need to panic, it would be dangerously irresponsible to be complacent. Above all, the situation needs to be looked at in proper perspective. China should be seen as a rising great global power, not as an "emerging" nation or part of a superficial category such as Brics, as the emerging market group of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa is called.

China is in the process of joining the ranks of the relatively small number of nations that over the course of the last half-millennium, beginning with the rise of the Portuguese Seaborne Empire in the late 15th century, achieved great global power status. (The others, in chronological order, were: Spain, the Netherlands, Britain, France, Germany, the United States, Japan and Russia/Soviet Union).

What guidance can Beijing draw from the experiences of its predecessors? Every single nation, without exception, that became a great power did so through war and conquest.

The US rose by, among other things, eradicating the Indian tribes that got in the way of "manifest destiny", by establishing hegemonic power in the Americas through the "Monroe Doctrine" (1823), by transforming the Caribbean into an American Lake, by frequent military intrusions in Central America and elsewhere, by utilising African slave labour and "importing" Chinese coolie labour to build its railways, and so on.

In fighting with Spain in 1898/99, it not only consolidated its power in Latin America, but also extended it to the western Pacific by colonising the Philippines. The US succeeded Britain as the leading power after World War II, from "pax Britannica" to "pax Americana", following struggles and actual conflicts in the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as the Anglo- American war of 1812, with Britain then totally exhausted after fighting two world wars.


Soldiers from China's People's Liberation Army Navy on patrol at Fiery Cross Reef, in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, in February. PHOTO: REUTERS

The countries of South-east Asia, adjoining the South China Sea, were all, with the single exception of Thailand, Western colonies, and during World War II were all, again with the single exception of Thailand, invaded, conquered and pillaged by Japan as it sought to extend its rising power across Asia: the Greater East Asia "Co-Prosperity" Sphere.

For those who would believe that "Asian values" might differentiate Japan from the Western imperialist nations, in fact not only did its behaviour conform to pattern, but even more savagely so through orgies of rape, torture and massacre - notably in Nanjing in 1937.

Until very recently, China failed to join the ranks of the great global powers. Indeed when the Ming Xuande Emperor (reign 1425-1435) brought to an end the extraordinary naval expeditionary exploits of the great Admiral Zheng He (down the East and South China Sea as far as Surabaya, across the Bay of Bengal and down again to Ceylon, through the Arabian Sea to Hormuz, and from Aden up the Red Sea and then across the Indian Ocean to East Africa), China renounced a global role, turned its back on the oceans, and looked inwards, developing continentally. The Middle Kingdom over the centuries expanded, but on land, not on sea.

From the establishment by the Portuguese of a trading port (later colony) in Macau in the mid-16th century until the opening-up reform programme launched by Deng Xiaoping in the late 20th century, China was initially a passive observer and then, following the first Opium War (1839), an exploited victim of the great powers.

As Chinese territory was grabbed, spheres of influence established, sovereignty impeded, labour forced into indenture - hence the origin of the term "shanghaied" - there were no rules: just a Darwinian jungle.

The historical background, with the patterns that appear and implications that may arise, is essential as context for understanding current developments, forces and trends; and must inform the policy debate.

This is by no means to suggest that while describing the imperialistic exploitation and brutality of former rising great powers, China should be given an "it's your turn now" carte blanche. But nor is sermonising particularly helpful; in fact, it is hypocritical and irritating. The Chinese, some intone, should "play by the rules" not because Western powers did so - they didn't - but because they say so!

Worse, confrontational approaches, such as the "pivot to Asia", especially those involving anti-Chinese alliance-building, as we know from history , risk escalating and precipitating armed conflict.

What does need to be recognised by all players is that if China succeeds in achieving a peaceful rise to great power status - that is, dispensing with war, pillage, slavery, conquest and exploitation - it will be the first rising great power to have done so.

If it seeks inspiration from precedents, for example, Britain, the US and Japan, then the past patterns of rising great powers will re-appear and armed conflict will probably be unavoidable. When it is argued by some that the conflictual past is the past and today we have institutions - notably the United Nations - and rules, this fails to convince. The US/British invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a clear violation of the rules and the UN was ignored.

Great powers seem to be immune to rules.

So, to emphasise once again, the present cannot be understood and the future cannot be envisaged without recognition of what happened in the past. This requires a lot of dialogue.

One step forward could be to establish a discussion platform (a forum) composed of thought leaders, especially historians, from former rising great powers (especially Britain, the US and Japan), South-east Asian nations and China.

This would be with the objective of deliberating on what lessons can be drawn from the past, how to avoid repeating past bellicose patterns, and how they should inform future policy. Proceedings and conclusions would be submitted to relevant heads of government and policymakers.

Dialogue cannot be a silver bullet. It will take time, there will be significant suspicions to overcome, but, as Churchill said: "Jaw-jaw is better than war-war."

For over half a millennium, the West has dominated the planet. When Japan rose, it chose not to confront the West, but to ally with risen Western powers: first imperial Britain (1902-1922), then with Nazi Germany (1930s/40s), and, since World War II, with the American global hegemon.

China's rise marks the first time in over 500 years that an alternative non-Western power, an erstwhile victim of Western/Japanese imperialism, is seeking its place in the ranks of global great powers.

The situation is radically different from the past. That, however, does not guarantee that past patterns of conflictual behaviour will not re-impose themselves. Thus, in recognising the past, we have to break from the past.

For China to achieve its peaceful rise and for the South China Sea to be conflict-free will depend not only on Beijing, but also on all concerned.

War need not be inevitable; establishing a forum for dialogue may prove to be a modest help in making it more unthinkable. It is definitely worth trying.

•The writer is emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD, Lausanne, Switzerland, and visiting professor at Hong Kong University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 09, 2016, with the headline 'China's 'peaceful' rise? The world must work with China to achieve this historical aberration'. Print Edition | Subscribe