China's militarism threatening its own rise

The gigantic military parade that will pass through Beijing tomorrow is meant to be all about the past. But many in the Asia-Pacific region will inevitably see it as a disturbing message about the future.

The Chinese government has called the parade to mark the 70th anniversary of "victory in the war of Japanese aggression". But, in the 21st century, it is potential Chinese aggression that is worrying many Asian countries. China has unresolved territorial disputes with several of its neighbours. Vietnam, India, Japan and the Philippines have all complained about Chinese incursions, backed by military force, into these disputed areas.

This year, China has also engaged in "land reclamation" projects in the South China Sea - creating entire islands that are likely to be equipped with airstrips and military facilities, to reinforce Beijing's claims to territorial waters thousands of miles from the Chinese mainland.

Such overt militarism is a risky course. If it goes wrong, it could destroy the international order that has provided the basis for China's stunning economic success over the past 40 years. Ever since the late 1970s, successive Chinese leaders have realised that the economic transformation of their country depended on globalisation and peaceful relations with their major trading partners. To get the message across, Chinese leaders parroted slogans such as "peaceful rise" and "harmonious world".

Under President Xi Jinping, however, China seems inclined to take a more assertive approach in territorial disputes that it regards as part of its "core national interests". This is a reflection of both strength and weakness.

On the one hand, China is now - by some measures - the world's largest economy. Mr Xi and his government may feel that their country is now strong enough to use its power more directly. There are strategic thinkers in China who will say openly that they no longer believe that the US is willing to risk a clash with China over Taiwan or the South China Sea.

The temptation of militarism may also be strengthened by the difficult economic transition that China now faces. A year-long surge in the stock market came to a crashing halt this summer and the economy is slowing. Mr Xi's anti-corruption campaign is causing discontent at the top levels of the Communist party.

The recent deadly industrial accident and explosion in Tianjin highlighted two of the biggest causes of popular discontent in modern China - a dreadful environmental record and a sense that regulations are flouted by the rich and powerful.

Under the circumstances, a patriotic military parade may seem like just the thing to rally popular support behind the Communist party and its leadership. The march will pass through Tiananmen Square, scene of the notorious repression of the student movement in 1989. Ever since that date, the Communist party has based its legitimacy on two pillars. The first is strong economic growth. The second is nationalism, or what Mr Xi calls the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese people". With growth faltering, there is clearly a strong temptation to rely even further on nationalism.

However, playing the nationalism card creates new risks. The evidence can be seen in a palpable rise in tensions across the Asia-Pacific region. In Japan, the Abe government is going through the controversial process of revising the country's pacifist Constitution, to allow Japan to dispatch its military to fight abroad. The US Navy has just announced that it plans to send more ships to the Asia-Pacific region, with Pentagon officials pointedly stressing that the vessels chosen are "ideally suited for a role in the South China Sea".

Australia announced this week that it is increasing its defence spending and strengthening military cooperation with the US. India, the world's second-largest arms importer, is also drawing closer to the US. And earlier this summer, Philippine President Benigno Aquino compared the world's reaction to Beijing's behaviour in the South China Sea to the appeasement of Nazi Germany.

Of course, compared with the violent chaos across the Middle East, or even the warfare in Ukraine, the situation in the Asia-Pacific region remains calm. But while the tensions in Asia are lower than in the Middle East, the stakes are higher. The military tensions there involve China, the US and Japan - the three largest economies in the world.

Mr Xi and his colleagues surely know that a serious military conflict would be a tragic mistake for China. The real risk is not that China will choose war, but that its leadership might miscalculate the reactions of its neighbours or the US - and that a territorial dispute or an unplanned military clash at sea escalates into a major international incident. Even if such a crisis were swiftly defused, the political fallout could inflict lasting damage on China and the global economy.

For all the current talk of a crisis in the Chinese growth model, the likelihood is that China has many years of increasing prosperity ahead of it. The biggest threat to that prospect is not a stock market crash or a credit bubble, but a conflict with China's neighbours. Its leaders should not lose sight of that danger as they take the salute tomorrow.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 02, 2015, with the headline 'China's militarism threatening its own rise'. Print Edition | Subscribe