China's rise and role in the Asia-Pacific

At this year's World Economic Forum held in Davos in January, its founder Klaus Schwab spoke of the international community looking to China in a world marked by great uncertainty and volatility. Those were the words he used when introducing China's President Xi Jinping, whose Davos speech was seen by many as a bold offer to assume the role that the United States has played for decades as champion of globalisation and free trade.

Mr Xi sparked debate over China's emergence as a global leader at time when the US seems to be increasingly inward looking. The Chinese leader has now gone on to further underscore China's growing stature and influence in global affairs with the successful hosting of the Belt and Road Forum last month.

It is undeniable that China plays an important role in the Asia-Pacific, both as an economic and strategic partner to regional countries. This role is set to expand exponentially. Ongoing economic integration efforts continue to draw Asia-Pacific countries and China into a tighter embrace. According to official statistics, China's non-financial outward-bound investments topped US$170 billion (S$235 billion) last year, a 44.1 per cent year-on-year increase despite a sluggish global economy. This year, China has also achieved two significant strategic firsts.

Last month, it launched its first domestically built aircraft carrier, a demonstration of its resolve to improve its defence capabilities so as to be commensurate with its international standing, as well as its security and development interests.

Its other strategic first actually took place a few months before that, in January, when Beijing published its first White Paper on Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation. It marks the first time China has issued, with high-level official sanction, a comprehensive document that contains different elements of its vision and policy on regional security. On the whole, the White Paper demonstrates China's commitment to a peaceful rise. It also recognises the importance - not only to China but to all countries in the Asia-Pacific - of a stable regional order.

Strategic interests aside, China also shares many common interests with all the countries in the Asia-Pacific, including the US. The most notable is the preservation of the peace and stability crucial to regional development, especially in the face of terrorism and tensions in the Korean Peninsula. There are also many opportunities for cooperation between China, the US and regional countries on non-traditional security issues such as climate change, and food and water security. With temperatures and sea levels rising, disasters due to extreme weather will have unprecedented socio- economic impact in the Asia- Pacific. Hence, China's commitment to shoulder greater responsibilities for regional and global security, and provide more public security services in the Asia-Pacific is more than welcome - it is crucial to the region's continued prosperity and development.

A Chinese navy patrol at Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands, known in China as the Nansha Islands, last year. As regional countries celebrate closer ties with China, even close friends will disagree from time to time, such as over the South China Sea issue, say the writers. PHOTO: REUTERS

Integral to China's peaceful rise is its role as a responsible global citizen. Beijing is shouldering an increasingly large share of global public goods provision. It is currently one of the largest contributors to United Nations peacekeeping missions. Not only does China contribute more troops than other UN Security Council permanent members do, but it also dispatches high-value personnel and, more recently, combat troops. China is also the largest developing country to provide foreign assistance, particularly in infrastructure construction and industrial development, outside of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Within the Asia-Pacific, China will expand its role through bold new initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative, the Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank and the New Development Bank.

Countries in the Asia-Pacific have responded positively to and endorsed China's calls for gradual reform of the international system, whether economic or strategic. Various Asean countries have accepted China's economic integration proposals and offers of strategic capability building. As regional countries celebrate closer ties with China and enjoy the early fruits of win-win cooperation, one must be mindful that even close friends will disagree from time to time. Transboundary water issues in the Mekong-Lancang River, fishery disputes and the South China Sea issue are some notable examples.

In the past 12 months, tensions in the South China Sea have significantly eased due to efforts by all the claimants. This resulted in a breakthrough agreement between China and Asean on the draft framework for the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, coming some 15 years after the parties first committed to such a code. China's commitment to progress on the COC is commendable and appreciated. Also welcome is China's continued pro-activeness in working with other countries in the region on major issues at various multilateral platforms such as Asean, the East Asia Summit, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, Xiangshan Forum and at the upcoming Shangri-La Dialogue this weekend.

As a rapidly rising power, China has the potential to further contribute to Asia-Pacific security and development. And most regional countries expect China to do so. Their hope must surely be that China's regional policy in the coming decades will be founded on Beijing's desire to play a positive leading role in the Asia-Pacific.

Decision-makers in China and regional countries should seriously contemplate how their respective decisions and policies could help bring about such a positive outcome.

•Irene Chan is Associate Research Fellow and Dr Li Mingjiang is Associate Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2017, with the headline 'China's rise and role in the Asia-Pacific'. Print Edition | Subscribe