Shangri-La Dialogue: How Xi's China solution works - look at South China Sea troubles

Calls for rules-based global order fall on deaf ears as Chinese push to attain Xi's 'dream of national rejuvenation'.

In July 2015, Ms Fu Ying, the former foreign affairs spokesman for China's National People's Congress, spoke remarkably presciently at an IISS Fullerton Lecture she delivered in Singapore, when she spoke of the United States and China "talking past each other" when it came to discussion of the international order.

The key question, she asked, was whether China and the US were going to work in the same direction or move in two directions.

The latter has occurred, both in terms of the bilateral relationship and approaches to the rules-based international system. Not only have China and the US moved in two different directions, but China has developed a plausible Sino-centric alternative to the liberal Western global order dubbed the "China solution" by some sinologists.

Responding to China's campaign of island-building in the South China Sea during President Xi Jinping's first tenure, some countries have sought to impress upon China the importance of a "rules-based approach". At the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue last year, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in his opening keynote address warned of growing challenges to "the US-anchored rules-based order, the remarkable system where nations, big and small, play by the rules and respect each other's sovereignty".

US Secretary of Defence James Mattis was more direct, criticising "Chinese actions that impinged on the interests of the international community, undermining the rules-based order that has benefited all countries, including and especially China". The defence ministers of Japan, France and Australia all followed suit, calling for adherence to a rules-based system. It is highly likely that such messages will be repeated again at the dialogue this year.

China's resolve, however, is intensifying in reaction to insistence on adherence to a rules-based international system. Deng Xiaoping's enduring "hide and bide" doctrine of strategic restraint is over. Mr Xi's distillation of power at the top of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), becoming China's most powerful leader ever, offers him the opportunity to shape the international strategic environment to China's own advantage and on his own terms.

Chinese diplomacy has been given a boost through the creation of a position on China's Politburo for its foreign policy ideologue, Mr Yang Jiechi, and the promotion of China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi to the State Council. Meanwhile, Mr Xi has created a powerful National Supervisory Commission, an umbrella body coordinating China's anti-corruption drive which also serves as a tool to ensure unswerving adherence to his new vision.

People's Liberation Army Navy personnel taking part in a military display in the South China Sea in April. Beijing has pointed the finger squarely at US Fonops in the South China Sea as the trigger for China to deploy "necessary defence" of its claim
People's Liberation Army Navy personnel taking part in a military display in the South China Sea in April. Beijing has pointed the finger squarely at US Fonops in the South China Sea as the trigger for China to deploy "necessary defence" of its claimed features. PHOTO: REUTERS

A key characteristic of the "China solution" is an extremely tight, cohesive and joined-up narrative across the entire party and government in China. The CCP led by Mr Xi as "core leader" has been tasked with achieving the "two centenary goals" and the "Chinese dream of national rejuvenation".

The first goal, marking the centenary of the establishment of the CCP in 2021, aims to "build a moderately prosperous society in all respects". The second centenary, 2049, marking the foundation of the People's Republic of China, aims to "build a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious". Meanwhile, on the global stage, the CCP has adopted Mr Xi's mantra of "building a shared destiny for mankind".

Despite such a vision of inclusivity, in places like the Indo-Pacific, China is pushing back hard against the interests of the US and its allies there, fuelling a regional security dilemma.

This pressure has mounted since Mr Xi's appointment as CCP General Secretary at the end of 2012, exacerbated by a more confrontational approach by US President Donald Trump towards China and a lack of cohesion in US Asia policy.

CCP commentators are keen to compare the Brexit and Trump phenomena as examples of a moribund Western liberal order which should be replaced with an improved Chinese vision for the global order. The Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese international political influence and infiltration campaigns, the construction of China's first-ever military base on foreign soil in Djibouti and several more in the contested waters of the South China Sea all bear witness to China's challenge to the existing international order.

China has sought to undermine the US position on the international stage by promoting Chinese solutions to key international concerns. Beijing has advocated a "dual freeze" solution to rivalry on the Korean peninsula, while vehemently criticising the deployment of US Thaad radar to the Republic of Korea.

Mr Wang and his colleagues have embarked on a frenetic episode of shuttle diplomacy with Pyongyang resulting in Mr Kim Jong Un's first visit to China, allowing Beijing to take credit for rapprochement on the peninsula. While China and the US exchange blows in a simmering trade war, Mr Xi is taking all opportunities to promote himself as a champion of free trade and the saviour of globalisation.

Meanwhile, China has argued consistently, and increasingly vocally, that the US alliance system in the Asia-Pacific is an obsolete relic of the Cold War and that China is in a position to offer an alternative, more pluralistic approach to regional security. Beijing has also actively courted Moscow at a time of deep acrimony between Western powers and Russia, further running the risk of China's drift from the rules-based international system.

Mr Xi's approach to the South China Sea provides a good example of the "China solution" in action. From his announcement in a September 2015 White House statement that China had no intention to militarise the South China Sea, Beijing has pointed the finger squarely at US Freedom of Navigation Operations (Fonops) there as the trigger for China to deploy "necessary defence" of its claimed features.

Once the islands and bases were completed, the Chinese narrative changed - carefully choreographed Chinese official announcements by the defence and foreign ministries described the South China Sea as having "calmed down". The reality, however, is quite the opposite but Western demands for China to adhere to a rules-based international system and especially US calls for "free and open Indo-Pacific" will continue to fall on deaf ears in Beijing.

It won't be long before People's Liberation Army fighters and bombers deploy to their new bases in the Spratly Islands and, as the new commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, stated recently to the US Senate, short of war between China and the US, China will have achieved effective control of the region.

• Alexander Neill is a Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow for Asia Pacific security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Asia (IISS-Asia)

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2018, with the headline Shangri-La Dialogue: How Xi's China solution works - look at South China Sea troubles. Subscribe