11/10/2014 03:10 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Is China Making Trouble or Making Peace?

GREG BAKER via Getty Images

BEIJING -- As presidents and prime ministers gather in Beijing for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, the nature of China's rise again captures the world's headlines. Simmering tensions between China and Japan and in the South China Sea combined with the American "pivot" to Asia have been used by some to produce a narrative that China is a destabilizing force for the region and the world. Many have accused China of being a free rider and troublemaker. Nothing can be further from the truth. On the contrary, China has been a linchpin for stability and development in this important region.

First, the economics. In the past three decades, while lifting 600 million of its own people out of poverty, China has played a leading role for the entire Asian economy. Now China is the largest trading partner with almost all Asian countries, driving a large number of job opportunities. East Asia's economy alone accounts for a quarter of global GDP. China's contribution to world economic growth has increased from only 1.35 percent in 1978 to one third since 2010.

During the financial crises in 1997 and 2008, with per capita GDP much lower than most countries involved with the crises, China played an indispensible role in stabilizing the regional and global financial system rather than taking advantage of the crises as predicted by some China-threat advocates.

In regional security, Deng Xiaoping led China on a path to helping maintain regional peace and stability. At the beginning of Deng's reform, he put forth the proposal of "Shelving Disputes and Joint Development" in dealing with complicated and sensitive territorial and maritime disputes. This approach was innovative and contributed to decades of peace by keeping Asia's state-to-state relations from intractable conflicts. His strategic vision aimed at providing room and time for common development, which would in turn make the pie much bigger for common interests. If everyone has more to lose from conflicts, peaceful settlements of disputes are more likely. After the Cold War, many regions of the world became mired in costly and bloody conflicts. Asia was spared of such development in no small measure due to Deng's strategy.

The same strategy also drove China's unconventional approach toward ASEAN, the regional grouping of China's Southeast Asian neighbors. Instead of playing the traditional great power game of divide and conquer or resisting the formation of any effective bloc of surrounding powers, China cooperated with the northward expansion of ASEAN to include all of China's closest neighboring countries in the Indo-China peninsula. This is almost unheard of in the history of international relations.

In addition, China became the first major country to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, thereby providing the region with negative nuclear security assurance. In fact, for a long time, China and the gradually expanding ASEAN countries enjoyed stable and cooperative relations. In particular, both respected the ASEAN Way -- the so called "Three No's" - non-intervention, no-use-of-force, and no hurry (in resolving disputes). This incremental approach underwrote a long period of peace. It was actually the Obama's administration's "pivot to Asia" that disrupted this process of common development and unnecessarily sowed discontent by pushing conflicts to the front and center.

"It was actually the Obama's administration's 'pivot to Asia' that disrupted this process of common development and unnecessarily sowed discontent."

After the Cold War, in clear contrast to the U.S., China took a non-ideological approach to international relations. This has made China a stabilizing force in regional and global affairs. This has been demonstrated by China's balanced relations with both Russia and the U.S.

In the years after the Cold War, China and Russia resolved all border disputes through long and painstaking negotiations -- no one predicted this success. China led the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which plays an increasingly important role in maintaining stability in Central Asia.

As to China-U.S. relations, despite differences in ideology and interests, the two countries have developed an interdependence that is a cornerstone for global stability.

Many have credited the United States and its alliance system as the guarantor of Asian security for the region's recent peace and prosperity. That, of course, is a valid claim. But it is also true that, after winning the Cold War, the U.S. as the world's remaining superpower has maintained a strong presence in all regions of the world including the Middle East, Africa, and eastern Europe. It begs the question, then, how come none of these regions came close to achieving the same peace and stability as in Asia?

We are now in a new era. China's rise has gone beyond anyone's expectation in its speed and scale. It is indeed an unprecedented development in the history of the world. Pessimists would say that such an emergence of a new power had never been accommodated peacefully by an existing world order. But such pessimism is unwarranted. China's past behavior points to a more optimistic future. It is time for those who have been willfully ignoring or distorting the facts to play a more constructive role.