Huffpost WorldPost
Richard Javad Heydarian Headshot

Why Is China Feared? Resurgence, Pride and Uncertainty

Posted: Updated:

Recently, I asked the Philippines' Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario about his opinion on China's newly-announced Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in East China Sea, which covers territories claimed by both South Korea and Japan, and whether he sees it as a reflection of a more assertive China under the Xi Jinping administration.

As a veteran diplomat, he was very cautious in his response, constantly re-affirming the Philippines' adherence to prevailing regional and international principles as well as its opposition to any coercive acquisition of disputed territories. But beneath those carefully worded statements, he couldn't conceal his misgivings about China's inexorable rise as an Asian powerhouse. Earlier, in a media interview, Del Rosario went as far as characterizing the ADIZ as a "threat that China will control the air space [in the East China Sea]", in effect transforming an entire air zone into "China's domestic air space." Del Rosario saw China's new regulation as an infringement on civil aviation that "compromises the national security of affected states." These were pretty scathing statements from a country, which hasn't been directly affected by the Chinese ADIZ in East China Sea.

But what explains Del Rosario's fiery statements has to do something with Southeast Asian anxieties over the Chinese Defense Ministry's earlier announcement that it will "establish other air defense identification zones at an appropriate time after completing preparations." And of course, keep in mind that China has threatened to "adopt defensive emergency measures to respond to aircraft that do not cooperate in the identification or refuse to follow the instructions".

For South China Sea claimant states such as the Philippines and Vietnam, which have been locked in an intense territorial jostling with China in recent years, it is perhaps just a matter of time before another ADIZ is extended to the Spratly and Paracel islands, allowing China to dominate the southern flank of the Western Pacific. While Japan and South Korea have the military wherewithal to challenge China's ADIZ, as eloquently exemplified in recent weeks, the same can't be said of Southeast Asian countries, which suffer from an acute power asymmetry vis-à-vis Beijing.

Ahead of the Japan-ASEAN summit in Tokyo, other Southeast Asian countries have also joined the growing chorus of disquietude over China's behavior. Japan and the 10 members of the ASEAN have drafted a joint statement, expressing their concern over any "threat" to international civilian aviation, reaffirming the common positions of Southeast Asian nations and Japan on "maritime security," and their commitment to preserving "freedom of navigation" in international waters. In effect, China has managed to antagonize the whole region by implementing what it sees as an established international practice, since India, Japan, Pakistan, Norway, the United Kingdom and the U.S. happen to have their own air identification zones.

The Post-Deng China

All the talk over China's revisionism and unilateralist approach to territorial conflicts, however, tends to overlook the fact that China has hardly invaded any country since the end of Cold War, and has had a millennium of imperial history based on a benign tributary system rather than an aggressive-expansionist outlook. Since the 1990s, China has emerged as the top trading partner of almost all East Asian economies, with the notable exception of the Philippines, while providing multi-billion investment and trade deals to poorer countries across the region. China has transformed into an indispensable partner for the region, eclipsing Japan, the U.S. and the World Bank in financial aid and provision of affordable technologies and infrastructure to the peripheries.

The country's meteoric rise wouldn't have been possible without the careful guidance of Deng Xiaoping, China's former paramount leader, who combined domestic market liberalization with pragmatic foreign policy. Deng's constantly called for pragmatism and a low-profile foreign policy, memorably stating "hide your strength, bide your time." He saw the world as Darwinian struggle for survival and power, lamenting, "development is the only hard truth... [and] if we do not develop, then we will be bullied."

For China's critics, however, as the country becomes the preeminent power in the region, it has combined its traditionalist notions of a Sino-centric sphere in Asia with a more aggressive 21st century version of German-Japanese revisionism in the late-19th to early-20th century period. For them, what we seen today is a powerful, post-Deng China, which rides on a wave of popular nationalism and is determined to establish a new great power relationship with the U.S. -- at the expense of smaller powers in Asia and its long-time rival, Japan.

For instance, Brahma Chellaney, a leading Indian strategist, eloquently describes China's ADIZ as part of a broader strategy, which relies on a "a steady progression of steps to outwit opponents and create new facts on the ground." For Chellaney, China has been implementing a stealthy approach, which allows it to "construct a dispute, initiate a jurisdictional claim through periodic incursions, and then increase the frequency and duration of such intrusions, thereby establishing a military presence or pressuring a rival to cut a deal on China's terms."

For leaders in Manila, Hanoi, and Tokyo, this has been more or less the pattern of Chinese para-military and military maneuvers in East and South China Seas in recent years, especially since 2009. It is also one of the reasons behind the Philippines' recent decision to call for third-party arbitration of its territorial dispute with China, since, it contends, prior bilateral negotiations have been hobbled by the latter's claim to "inherent" and "indisputable" sovereignty over disputed territories -- backed by growing military and para-military patrols in the contested areas.

In East China Sea, meanwhile, China is effectively forcing Japan to accept the former's claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, challenging decades of de facto Japanese control over the disputed features. The ADIZ, analysts maintain, represents a new chapter in China's evolving strategy of making it increasingly costly and dangerous for Japan to maintain its territorial gains since the 1898 Sino-Japanese war.

Resurgence and Reform

In order to understand why China is willing to take such risks in regional affairs one also needs understand the shift in the domestic political landscape. The country is undergoing a period of ideological self-transformation, with communism giving way to popular nationalism.

In his highly influential work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), the German sociologist, Max Weber eloquently described how the advent of capitalism -- accompanied by an explosion in consumerism, individual self-belief, and secular politics -- will eventually undermine its religious roots, giving birth to a new society characterized by rationalization, atomistic interaction, and hedonistic pursuits. In a quite similar vein, the explosion of capitalist instincts in China has gradually undermined the tenets of Mao era communism, paving the way for a "market society", along Karl Polanyi's ideas in The Great Transformation (1944), where material prosperity, productivity, and prices displace principles of solidarity and redistribution.

But in order to avoid the fate of Western capitalist states, where capitalism prefaced the emergence of parliamentary democracy and political apathy, the Chinese leadership has skillfully shaped and re-channeled a resurgence in Chinese nationalism, with hundreds of millions of middle-class citizens demanding not only more accountability at home, but also the return of China to its pre-eminent historical role in the region and the wider world. In effect, the Chinese leadership is now locked in a double-edged dialectic, whereby its legitimacy is largely determined by how it projects nationalist sentiments onto the broader neighborhood: The leadership has to strike a difficult balance between maintaining domestic legitimacy by asserting itself internationally, on one hand, and preventing outright confrontation with major trading partners that have been central to the country's economic success, on the other.

After three decades of relentless growth based on cheap labor, investment overdrive, and exports, the new Chinese leadership, under Xi Jingping and Li Keqiang, is carefully re-orienting the economy towards domestic consumption, high-end manufacturing, and liberalized property and capital markets. And such difficult transition process is expected to (a) meet stiff opposition from domestic interest groups and (b) carry risks of instability in the medium- to long-run.

Thus, China's recent assertiveness abroad should perhaps be seen through the prism of how a new Chinese leadership is willing to sacrifice foreign relations in a calculated manner to create enough domestic legitimacy for undertaking an ambitious economic reform agenda at home. Whether this is a sustainable strategy is another question. The fact that Japan is yet to come clean on its historical atrocities against China has added legitimacy to a more confrontational approach, while the U.S.' highly touted "pivot to Asia" is seen as a thinly-veiled attempt at containing China. Yet, fears of a powerful China is deepening across the region, unifying a whole host of neighbors in opposition to what they perceive as territorial expansionism.