Friction to be expected in China's rise as global leader

BEIJING • China's ambition under President Xi Jinping is clear - to be a global leader by the middle of this century.

In his report last week to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Mr Xi said China aspires to be a "global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence".

This is part of the Chinese dream of the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation" after its century of decline and humiliation from the Opium War of 1840.

The country, Mr Xi said at the 19th five-yearly national congress of the party, is now at a "new historic juncture" in its development. And the new era will be one that "sees China moving closer to centre stage and making greater contributions to mankind".

These contributions include, among other things, offering its development model as a "new option" for other countries wanting to speed up their development and taking an "active part" in reforming the international order.

While observers say China's aspirations are understandable, there are those - both in Asia and the West - who worry about what these mean for the rest of the world.

Western observers are of the view that China intends to replace the US as the dominant power in Asia and reshape the international order to be more in line with its interests.

China's ambition to serve as a development model and increase its international influence, together with its endeavour to turn its People's Liberation Army into a first-class military force - as mapped out in Mr Xi's report - reinforces "the widely held assessment that China harbours a deep-seated desire to displace the United States as the dominant power in Asia", wrote two analysts with the American think-tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

A military band practising before the opening session of the Chinese Communist Party's 19th National Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. While observers say China's aspirations are understandable, there are those who worry about what these mean for the rest of the world. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

In addition, wrote Ms Bonnie Glaser and Mr Matthew Funaiole, Mr Xi's highlighting of the building of islands and reefs in the South China Sea as a major achievement of his first term showed China would "prioritise strengthening its control over the contested waterway at the cost of rising friction with its neighbours and the United States".

Furthermore, during his first term, Mr Xi has sent mixed signals over whether China supported a rules-based international order, taking part in United Nations peacekeeping missions but also rejecting international tribunal findings against its claims to the South China Sea. Mr Xi's vision for the future, they suggested, may signal an intention to double down on challenging elements of the prevailing world order that Beijing sees as contrary to Chinese interests.

During his first term, Mr Xi has sent mixed signals over whether China supported a rules-based international order, taking part in United Nations peacekeeping missions but also rejecting international tribunal findings against its claims to the South China Sea.

The "overarching vision (Mr Xi) laid out should raise alarm bells in Asian and Western capitals", they said.

While not disagreeing totally on the issue of the international order, Professor Jia Qingguo, dean of Peking University's School of International Studies, said China's promotion of reform of the international order is not about China's interests alone, but also about making the system more equitable and fair.

He added that China is a beneficiary of the international order and that stability of the system is important to it.

He pointed out that Mr Xi, in his report to the party congress, also stressed that China would safeguard the stability of the order.

He added that the US was the most powerful nation in the world and that it was important for China to handle its relations with the US well. "This is important bilaterally for China, and also for safeguarding the international order."

As for China's growing military might, he contended that a strong Chinese military is not a bad thing. "If it is in China's interest to safeguard this order, then a strong China is a good thing for the international order," he said.

Prof Jia also pointed out that while China needs to be heard on the world stage because of its growing interests all over the world, the international community is also demanding that it plays a bigger role given its growing influence as a result of its economic might.

"In the past, China could sometimes dodge or keep quiet," he said. "But now as its status and influence grow, people expect it to say or do something."

On issues like the North Korean nuclear crisis, "people expect China not just to speak up but also play an important role", he noted.

The US has been pressing Beijing to do more to rein in North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes and the subject is expected to come up when US President Donald Trump visits China next week.

Still, there is also disquiet in the Asian region over China's intentions as it grows stronger.

Over in India, former Indian ambassador to China Ashok Kanthi wrote that the manner in which the Chinese pursued their dream "has generated widespread anxieties, including in India". This included "China's readiness to deploy its economic, military, political and diplomatic clout to advance its interests, defined in increasingly expansive and unilateral terms".

In Indonesia, an article in The Jakarta Post pointed to Mr Xi's envisioning of a more modern and powerful military for the new era, saying the Indonesian military needed to continue to reform and modernise too, to respond to the changing strategic environment. It talked about the possibility of confrontation with "a more affluent and powerful China" over "the unresolved territorial dispute over parts of the South China Sea near the Natuna Islands".

It also raised concern over China's Belt and Road Initiative to help build infrastructure in developing countries, saying that while Indonesia should make the most of the financing and development opportunities presented by the initiative, it also needed to ensure that the law of the land prevailed.

While there are actions by the Chinese that cause concern, particularly in their neighbourhood, Professor Yang Dali of Chicago University warned against getting into a situation where whatever the Chinese do "is necessarily bad".

He pointed out that Mr Xi was right in saying that some Chinese practices and experiences may be of value to other developing countries which can learn from them, such as China's development of infrastructure and investment in education.

He noted, too, that in the area of climate change, China has chosen to play a pivotal and global role that has been welcome.

China, he said, has been willing to learn, adapt and react to external criticism, including in the way the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is run. In doing so, China will not only be a global citizen "but also play a leadership role that is valuable for the global community", he added.

In the East Asian region, China's problem is possibly that it has risen so fast that it is not ready for the leadership role that it is playing.

It needs to go through a learning period, Prof Jia noted, including accumulating knowledge of international organisations and understanding of the conditions of the region and its history and culture.

Both sides, China and its neighbours, have to adjust to each other, he said.

China was an ordinary power before now, but is becoming less so.

"China needs to adjust its view of things and the way it does things accordingly," said Prof Jia.

At the same time, countries in the region also need to adjust to China's rise. While in the past they may be used to a certain way of dealing with their relationship with China, they now have to use other methods.

"During this period of adjustment, there may be contradictions and conflict," he said.

At the end of the day, he said, China's desire is to have good relations with its neighbours because this means China will be more secure and have more opportunities for growth.

The same could be said for countries in the region. The question is what kind of relationship is acceptable to both sides - and that needs to be negotiated.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 02, 2017, with the headline 'Friction to be expected in China's rise as global leader'. Print Edition | Subscribe