Commentary: US must confront China’s assertive, expansionist Asia strategy
China’s approach towards Asia has grown more aggressive in recent years, reflected in its words and actions, which Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit will have to confront, highlights Benjamin Ho.
SINGAPORE: As the dust settles from the 2021 National People’s Congress (NPC) held in Beijing in early March, one crucial question on the lips of policy-makers and political observers is: What is China’s Asia strategy going to be like?
Indeed, the geopolitical situation in Asia was clearly of paramount importance to China as seen in Premier Li Keqiang’s speech at the NPC opening.
The US was also mentioned in reference to Sino-American business relations.
In comparison, there were 27 mentions of President Xi Jinping (according to the English language report), with the terms “COVID-19” and “coronavirus” appearing 22 times combined.
The central message of Mr Li’s NPC keynote speeches was this: China is exceptional, and under the leadership of President Xi, it is determined to take its place in the sun, especially in Asia.
This was most clearly fleshed out in his closing remarks calling for “tireless efforts to build China into a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful, and [to] fulfill the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation” – characteristics that reflect an exceptional vision of what China’s future would be like.
The proof of the pudding, however, is in actions rather than words. Asia – and more specifically, Southeast Asia – has received considerable attention from Beijing in the past year.
According to a recent ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute report, Chinese leaders including President Xi, Politiburo Member Yang Jiechi, Defence Minister Wei Fenghe and Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited nine out of ten Southeast Asia countries in 2020 (only Vietnam was excluded).
This, in contrast to American leaders’ physical absence in Asia, speaks to Beijing’s priorities: We want Southeast Asia on our side when the dust from the COVID-19 settles.
As observed by eminent Chinese observer David Shambaugh in Where Great Powers Meet, the relationship between the United States and China can be characterised as comprehensive competition, with this competition playing out most vividly in Southeast Asia in three ways.
CHINESE ENTITLEMENT AND THE RETURN OF HONG KONG
The first is China’s heightened sense of entitlement, particularly in terms of territory. Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew had expressed the view that Chinese leaders are serious about displacing the US as the number one power in Asia and the world in Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States and the World.
The enactment of the National Security law in Hong Kong last year was a key move to ensure China could now take decisive action in territories under its jurisdiction.
The national security law represents a crucial effort by Beijing to protect its interests in the city, and strike at the heart of what it sees as efforts by Western governments using Hong Kong as a base to gather intelligence and subvert its political system.
As Chinese interests grow, be it in Hong Kong or elsewhere, this sense of entitlement can only increase. Although the terms of Hong Kong’s handover were negotiated and agreed to by China many years back, how this “One Country, Two Systems” transition would play out has been left to interpretation.
And as China grows stronger, these conditions should reflect China’s interests, the thinking goes. After all, such rules and expectations were forged in an earlier era by Western countries when China was weak.
More broadly, a more equitable international system of rules – this line of argument goes – should reflect the shift of global power and take into account Chinese preferences.
Indeed, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in a press conference last week, called for greater representation and a bigger say at the United Nations for developing countries: “The UN is not a club for big or rich countries. All countries enjoy sovereign equality and no country is in a position to dictate international affairs.”
Mr Wang has also articulated China’s hardened position on the South China Sea, most recently at the East Asian Summit Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in September 2020 where he said, “China’s claims … have not changed and will not change. They have not expanded, yet not will they contract.”
CHINESE EXPANSIONISM: RESPONDING TO THE US PIVOT STRTAEGY
China also wants to expand its influence, to respond to what it sees as ongoing American intrusion into its strategic space.
While Chinese leaders are careful to avoid framing Chinese foreign policy as expansionist, the thinking is that China would have to adopt an “active defence” approach, or to use an illustration from football, the need to “gegenpress” (counterpress) opponents.
Ever since the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” strategy in 2008, Chinese policy-makers have largely taken the view that Washington is attempting to contain it.
The Trump’s administration trade war and bellicose rhetoric only confirmed what Beijing suspected all along: America wants to keep China down and maintain its primacy in Asia.
Indeed, the Biden’s administration singling out of China as the “biggest geopolitical test” for the US will only further serve to reinforce the Chinese mindset that the next four years of Biden’s presidency will not be very different from Trump as far as American foreign policy towards China is concerned.
In the event of conflict, China sees the need to break out of the first island chain – a crucial chain of major archipelagoes linking Japan to Taiwan down to the Malaysia Peninsula – in order to preserve its ability to fight on the maritime front.
READ: Commentary: They already have jet bombers and super missiles. Will Chinese fighter jets be more powerful than America’s soon?
The most recent announcement last week by the US to build anti-Chinese missile network along the island chain would likely result in a strong Chinese military response, likely in the form of increased surveillance activities and Chinese challenge to American freedom of navigation operations, in addition to increased Chinese activities off Taiwan since last year.
CHINESE EXCEPTIONALISM: CHINA IS BETTER, DIFFERENT FROM THE WEST
Chinese exceptionalism represents a mindset that has gained considerable traction among Chinese citizens, particularly in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The idea that China is better and different from the West is a central narrative that the Communist Party of China (CCP) has sought to communicate in the last decade or so, particularly following the 2008 Beijing Olympics which was seen as China’s coming-out party.
International events such as the 2008 global financial crisis and the 2020 coronavirus pandemic which devastated many Western countries were seen as signs signaling an inexorable power shift from the West to East, and further amplified by scholarly works by writers such as Martin Jacques' When China Rules the World and Kishore Mahbubani’s Has China Won?
The rise of Chinese corporate titans – Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent – are signs the country can be an innovative, economic and technological powerhouse which its people can be proud of, with such commercial entities reined in if they stray away from national interests.
In this respect, Chinese exceptionalism provides the CCP with the biggest source of legitimacy: China is great because the CCP is in control.
Building on a strong anti-Western discourse, Chinese exceptionalism thinking portrays the West (particularly the US) as the source of all the major problems of the world.
Back in January this year, Chen Yixin, a senior law enforcement official close to Xi, reiterated the view that “the East is rising and the West is declining”, adding that international developments at the moment are “favourable” to China, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal.
CHINA AND SOUTHEAST ASIA: TURBULENT TIMES AHEAD
Beijing will not likely let up its ongoing cultivation of allies and supporters among countries in Southeast Asia, the next theatre of great power competition.
Already China’s aggressive pushing of its coronavirus vaccine to many countries worldwide have generated concerns that vaccine diplomacy is merely disguised jostling for geopolitical influence.
Yet, at the same time, to assume China can translate its economic preponderance to effect specific political outcomes in Southeast Asia risks overestimating the magnitude and efficacy of China’s political power.
This line of thinking also ignores the potential challenges facing the CCP back home including domestic challenges to President Xi’s hold on power.
US efforts to re-engage with the world has been gaining steam since President Joe Biden took over, particularly in calls for members of the Quad (Australia, Japan and India) to play a bigger role, for democracies to step up through the G7, and for US companies to compete with China.
Indeed, upcoming big-ticket events like the Shangri-La dialogue later this year will be closely scrutinised for further explication of American foreign policy priorities vis-à-vis the region and China.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s upcoming Asia tour this week and subsequent meeting with top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi could provide first insights.
While the coronavirus pandemic has generated talk of what a “new normal” would be like in a post-coronavirus era, it is likely that great power competition will go on as per normal – pandemic or not.
Benjamin Ho is an assistant professor in the China Programme, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He researches on Chinese exceptionalism, China’s foreign policy and international relations