Is ’peaceful rise’ only rhetoric?
American President Barack Obama’s recent schedule reflected just how deeply the United States is getting involved in Asia and, at the same time, sent clear signals that despite its severe budgetary problems, its involvement in the region will deepen rather than otherwise.
This is a major shift for Washington which, while extricating itself after long years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, is attempting to hitch its economic wagon to Asia’s rising star. At the same time, it is trying to maintain positive relations with Beijing while offering its security blanket to countries in the region anxious about China’s growing heft.
How China responds to this wide-ranging strategic shift will to a large extent shape the political landscape of the region. It is too early to speak of a new Cold War, but there are signs that the countries of Southeast Asia, at least, are being told to choose sides.
President Obama’s Asian schedule began in Honolulu, where he held a meeting with China’s President Hu Jintao on the margins of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, chaired this year by the United States. He publicly asserted that China was “grown up” now and must abide by international trading rules.
Seven days later, he was in Bali, Indonesia, for a meeting of the East Asia Summit, and a private talk with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. This time, politics was in the forefront, as he and most of the other leaders present insisted on talking about the problems of the South China Sea, despite China’s objections.
In between, the U.S. leader was in Australia, where he announced an expanded American military presence in the country. “Our enduring interests in the region demand our enduring presence in this region,” he told the Australian Parliament. “The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.”
So far, the official Chinese reaction has been moderate. The foreign ministry, asked for comment, did not take offense at Obama’s “grown up” remark, simply saying that it is up to the international community to judge whether China has behaved responsibly.
In Indonesia, Premier Wen, after saying that “outside forces” should not be involved in the South China Sea dispute and that the matter should not be discussed in the East Asia Summit, delivered a measured response after the issue was raised by 16 of the 18 leaders present despite Chinese objections.
This rejection of China’s position showed that, when the United States is around to back them up, the vast majority of countries in the region are willing to stand up to China despite its impressive economic, political and military rise.
If the United States was to withdraw from the region, the converse would no doubt also be true. China’s neighbors are in no position to challenge the giant next door. While Chinese leaders maintained a facade of calm and reason, the disquiet in China was evident.
The Global Times, an affiliate of the official People’s Daily newspaper, published several commentaries that threatened a variety of actions against the United States and its supporters in Asia.
One commentary, also carried by the People’s Daily online, questioned America’s economic capacity, pointedly saying, “China has more resources to oppose the U.S. ambition of dominating the region than the U.S. has to fulfill it.”
At the same time, the article warned, “there will be no room for those who choose to depend economically on China while looking to the U.S. to guarantee their security.”
Last month, the paper issued a blunt warning to countries that challenge China’s maritime claims. “If these countries don’t want to change their ways with China, they will need to prepare for the sounds of cannons,” it said.
Since then, it has shifted its focus to economic warfare. “China could postpone the implementation of investment agreements,” the Global Times said in an article targeting the Philippines. “Chinese people could reject traveling to the Philippines and China should decrease imports from the Philippines. Any slowdown in Sino-Philippine cooperation will put long-term pressure on the country.”
While punishing the Philippines, the article said, “China should enhance cooperation with countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, allowing them to benefit more from the Philippine vacuum.”
The thrust of all these articles is that China should transform its new-found economic power into political muscle to be flexed against the United States and its supporters in Asia.
All this leads one to wonder, what ever happened to the promises of “peaceful rise” and “peaceful development” which used to fill the speeches of Chinese officials?
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator based in Hong Kong. Email the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1.