China is preparing a 'peaceful ascendancy'

Posted in China , Asia | 30-Dec-03 | Author: Yoichi Funabashi| Source: International Herald Tribune

Asia's future

TOKYO - There was a time when Chinese leaders described their country as a poor, developing country. It was no false modesty. But in the past two decades China has witnessed prodigious economic growth, with an increase in its military might and attendant political clout. There is no doubt about "the rise of China." But will it, like many a rising power before, disturb the neighborhood and destabilize the world? China says it will pursue a "peaceful ascendancy." The future of peace in Asia will to a large extent hang on that promise.

The rise - or rather re-emergence - of China promises to be a historic undertaking comparable to or even greater than that of postwar Japan. Beijing's target is to increase its per capita gross domestic product fourfold by 2020, to attain what it calls a state of xiaokang, or relative comfort. But what form China's rise will take, and how China will come to view the world and foreign policy, is uncertain.

In international politics, how a country rises often has more drastic consequences for the world than the fact of the rise itself. The accompanying speed, ideology and impact on the international balance of power cause other countries to harbor suspicion, caution, jealousy and fear, and can trigger antipathy. The remarkable advances of Germany in the late 19th century and Japan at the beginning of the 20th sparked considerable reactions from established powers.

The rise of China could trigger all of the above reactions. Many aspects of China are regarded as forces that could change the status quo and provoke anxiety: the size of its population; its low wages; its "great leap forward" in economic growth; environmental destruction; Beijing's insistence on maintaining a one-party system; exclusionary nationalism; and possible confrontation with the United States.

When I took part in a recent international conference alongside several Chinese diplomats and researchers, however, I learned that China itself is more aware of these dangers than anyone else. A researcher at a Beijing-based, government-affiliated research organization said: "China aims to grow and advance without upsetting existing orders. We are trying to rise in a way that benefits our neighbors." I was told that China is pursuing a process of heping jueqi, or peaceful ascendancy.

As for relations with the United States, China has been faithfully following Deng Xiaoping's advice to Jiang Zemin to "never act haughtily." For now, China is concentrating on domestic economic construction and refraining from projecting its power externally. But this is because it is still in the development phase. Once it surpasses a state of "relative comfort," will it become "haughty"?

The concept of peaceful ascendancy appears to imply a long-term strategy. At the recent gathering I attended, a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference asked: "How did historic empires and major powers rise and what reactions did they trigger? What should we do so as not to cause excessive wariness? This is what we are currently studying internally."

A researcher at an influential Chinese institute said: "We are studying the origin of the U.S.-Soviet cold war. Why did it happen? Was there no way to prevent it? Some see that a U.S.-China cold war is inevitable, but what can we do to prevent it?"

In addition to containing the "China threat" theory popular in some U.S. political circles, it appears that China's concept of peaceful ascendancy is also aimed at laying the groundwork for major power diplomacy, as can be seen in Beijing's hosting of the six-party talks over the North Korean nuclear and missile problem.

An article in the November-December issue of Foreign Affairs magazine by Evan Medeiros and M. Taylor Fravel presented the views of experts on Chinese foreign policy that China should overcome its long-held "victim mentality" and adopt a "great power mentality" instead. These experts must be aware that there is no greater threat to the world than the emergence of a major power in possession of a victim mentality.

Still, can China readily dispel the humiliation and victim mentality it has harbored since the mid-19th century? The semi-colonization and construction of foreign settlements at Canton, Shanghai and Qingdao, and the Japanese invasion and establishment of Manchukuo, are still sources of acute sensitivity. Even after 150 years these deep wounds to China's pride may yet need time to heal.

Today, the Internet is flooded with Chinese public opinion obsessed with vengeful, xenophobic thoughts. When I pointed this out, the leader of a Beijing research institute remarked: "China's mainstream is more calm and analyzes the situation objectively. Please don't accept Internet public opinion without question." I certainly hope that's true.

Chinese people tend to keep their antipathy toward Japan bottled up, but anti-American sentiments are in full evidence, particularly on the Internet, and have become a source of considerable unease. For instance, a recent opinion poll reported that 90 percent of Chinese people believed the CIA planted severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in China. This and similar conspiracy theories toward the United States are now the rule rather than the exception.

As far as the Chinese leadership's attitude to the United States is concerned, Beijing appears to be faithfully enacting Deng Xiaoping's maxim of never acting haughtily toward the United States. But some suspect China's leaders are following Mao Zedong's "protracted strategy" - waiting patiently for the United States to burn out - and Deng Xiaoping's directive of 1991, which advised that China should "hide our capacities and bide our time."

For China there are two formidable challenges ahead. First, as part of its strategy of peaceful ascendancy China must learn to respect and observe the rule of law on the international stage. China also needs to accustom itself to treating others as equals, particularly other Asian countries. These are no longer the days of the Middle Kingdom, to which all others paid obeisance and sent gifts.

Second, China needs to tread a careful path in its policy toward the United States. China should not present a threat, but at the same time Washington also has to accept China's new direction and strategy.

On these and other matters, China has already begun to take large strides forward. The fact that Chinese intellectuals have come to voice such views so frankly is in itself a major change and an important step in the right direction. Is this not also part of the process of "peaceful ascendancy"?

The writer is a columnist and chief diplomatic correspondent for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun. This comment was reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online (