China's assertiveness reflects evolving political system

CHINA, once described as "a civilisation pretending to be a state", is now no longer pretending but is legitimating its statehood.

China's increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea has to be seen in this light, which underscores its evolving political system and leadership.

Its strategic approach to the South China Sea disputes also has wider geopolitical ramifications - including a possibly divided Asean and renewed concerns about the Chinese diaspora's loyalty.

China's moves in securing the Paracel and Spratly islands and Scarborough Shoal are a strategic calculation, and are a vital part of defining its "core" national interest.

Though historically never a maritime power, China's military assertions in the South China Sea are a radical maritime shift from its traditional continental geopolitical orientation.

Historical relations

THE long historical experience of South-east Asian kingdoms with China for the most part has been benign. These kingdoms recognised China's emperor and China's rulers as having little colonial interests in their region.

Only the Mongol forces made three unsuccessful attempts to invade Pagan (in Myanmar) in the 14th century. In Ming times, the voyages of the Muslim admiral Zheng He underscored the Chinese "civilisation state" and "tributary-based" relationships with China's neighbours.

Until recently, despite Western criticisms of its perceived expansionist moves, China has not been involved in major military expeditions outside its geopolitical sphere - unlike the United States and European powers - other than its skirmishes with India, Russia and Vietnam, and its proxy wars in the Korean peninsula and in Vietnam.

Its South China Sea claim underscores several aspects of the evolving Chinese political system and leadership.

First, since China is a relatively new state, Chinese leaders seem hyper-sensitive to territory and borders - beginning with claims for Hong Kong, Macau and now Taiwan.

Since the end of World War II, China has been redrawing its maps, renaming islands, redefining borders, and challenging and revising colonial history in the light of Chinese history.

Second, China's sizzling economy has boosted nationalistic pride. The leadership fans such grassroots patriotism and nationalism by creating the bogey of foreign threats to its sovereignty as a way of deflecting domestic political pressures.

Third, after 30 years of dedicated communist rule and a planned economy, the civilisation shine seems to have rubbed off.

The new capitalist-communist fusion system is a different political animal in a multi-polar world.

Fourth, the Chinese see a window of opportunity in expanding their spatial influence in the region at a critical time when Western countries are at their weakest economically and politically.

Fifth, China wants to stake its geopolitical reach over the South-east Asian region and hopes to deter Western powers from interfering in its strategic enterprise.

South-east Asian states have a love-fear relationship with China. They welcome Chinese aid, trade and economic investments but fear that these economic ties will leave them with less room for diplomatic manoeuvre.

Political fallout

WHILE much reflection has been centred on the military posturing and strategic negotiations of the South China Sea disputes, the issue has wider geopolitical ramifications nationally, regionally and globally.

At the national level, the way China's leadership handles its South China Sea initiatives will depend on the jostling for power between military hardliners and political moderates.

One needs to watch the current leaders who grew up in the time of Mao's Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. This group represents young revolutionaries with deep idealism, Marxist indoctrination and deprived childhoods.

There will also be political opportunists trying to ride the masses of discontent arising from wealth disparities, as in the recent leftist reverberations arising from scandals involving party high-up Bo Xilai and Chongqing's city officials.

Regionally, the South China Sea disputes might drive a wedge in Asean's regional cohesiveness and make the regional body less South-east Asia-centric. Clearly, Asean's regional voice is affected, as was evidenced in July when the Phnom Penh Asean Ministerial Meeting failed to issue a communique for the first time.

China operates at two levels in the region: It concludes superb bilateral deals with individual governments which potentially bind them to Beijing's strategic leanings; and it engages in broad regional Asean-led initiatives which dilute any opposition to its growing political and economic hegemony in the region.

China's posture over the South China Sea issue might also put the large Chinese diaspora in the region in a dilemma.

While the ethnic Chinese populations have integrated well into the national political fabric of Asean countries, there are many recurrent events over the decades when governments have questioned their national loyalty.

The overseas Chinese known as huaqiao remain also as huaren, people of Chinese origin. Huaren have been positive conduits for China-Asean trading relationships based on guanxi (network and connections), but their loyalties - to the countries they are now citizens of - might be questioned in future if the China-Asean relationships deteriorate and if the huaren demonstrate sympathies or affiliations as zhongguoren (people of China).

Globally, the South China Sea seems like an arena for a "clash of civilisations" unfolding between China and the US - two highly confident systems, culturally and politically, that are wary of each other's global reach and have little trust in each other's foreign policy initiatives. This lack of trust makes Sino-American dialogue difficult.

As a rising superpower, China needs to show greater political confidence in dealing with its neighbours and demonstrate territorial magnanimity to augment its "peaceful rise".

Victor R. Savage is an associate professor in the Department of Geography, National University of Singapore, with academic research interests on South-east Asia. This article reflects his personal views.