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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 18, April 24, 2010

Dialectical Advance of China in International Relations: An Overview

Saturday 24 April 2010, by Arshi Khan


The trend and pattern of international relations, which is in transition, seems to be following a kind of ‘dialectical advance’ in the direction of unfolding itself due to inherent conflicts and oppositions. This dialectical process as a natural course of shifts, curves, breakdown and resetting also seems to continue due to the deficiencies and imperfections existing therein. This hypothetical reading of international relations is closer to the ‘Hegelian theory of Reason and Absolute Idea’ rather than the Marxian universal substance of ‘motion within the matter’. As a result we find the rise and fall of mighty empires and systems replaced by the newer forms. It is in this context of the unfolding of the Idea, the Chinese advance from a poor, backward, agricultural country to a modernised, technological and rising economy is an undeniable political reality in world politics.

Speculative predictions

There are varied speculations about China as a rising power likely to surpass the United States at the international level; but all these need to be examined. The recent outbursts of China over the meeting of Barak Obama with the Dalai Lama, its incontrovertible claim over Taiwan and disagreement with the United States over issues in West Asia are not the manifestations of a power equalling or surpassing the US in the near future. China can be defined as a regional power but that too is likely to create its anti-thesis in terms of the emerging threats it poses to Japan (in East Asia) and India (in South Asia) which are having unequivocally similar claims, will and choice. They are more interested in a ‘self-contained China’ rather than it pursuing ‘developmentalism’ and ‘militarism’.

On the other hand, the Russians have not much to offer to China whereas the US approach is to maintain the regional balance by maintaining deep defence and economic ties with Taiwan and supplementing these with close diplomatic relations with Japan, South Korea and India. Occasionally the US is also raising some unsettled issues falling within the domestic jurisdiction of China as a part of the media and psychological campaign to project Beijing’s belligerent, militarist, authoritarian and aggressive image in the world. The Xinhua news agency reported on April 23, 2009 that the Chinese President, Hu Jintao, told the heads of 29 foreign Navy delegations (at the 60th anniversary of the PLA Navy) that China would never be a threat to other nations, it would be an important force in safeguarding world peace and development. He said China would stick to the road of peaceful development and pointed out that her policy was ‘defensive in nature’. It is in this respect that China seems to be more interested in ‘self-protection and preservation’ rather than making an ideological drive to contest the US in those spheres where it is expected to do so. In fact, like Japan, it lacks its own perspective and vision of a ‘world order’ to compete with the American liberal world order. Therefore, this rising China is more compro-mising in nature rather than assertive and prescriptive which are the attributes of the US in international relations.

Capitalising the Market Force

However, this compromising advance is part of a dialectical process in comparison to its earlier position. This needs to be articulated for the purpose of a better understanding of China. It is neither a global power nor a decisive regional power but its ongoing drives in economic, political, strategic, military, diplomatic and cultural spheres certainly enable it qualify as an aspiring regional power in the southern flank of Asia. Mao had called the US a ‘paper tiger’ and the new leadership seems to be engaged in preparing the ground for proving it on the ground. By 2000, Bush had described China as a ‘strategic competitor’.

The constituent elements of China—a vast territory, a large Army, a nuclear power, a power wielding the veto in the UN Security Council, the third largest economy, skilled workers, technology, continuing internal reforms and diplomatic resetting—certainly bring out its strong profile among the few major countries of the world. China is the world’s third largest economy with over seven per cent annual growth rate. Jonathan Woetzel, Director, McKinsey & Company, Shanghai said in March 2009 that China could build 20,000-50,000 skyscrapers (over 30-storey high) equivalent to 10 New York cities in the next 20 years. By 2001, it had 2300 universities (1911 central and 289 private). In 2002, it had a $103 billion trade surplus with the US. Over 100 US-based MNCs have projects in China.

After 1990, China signed bilateral agreements with each of the ASEAN states. It comfortably used American business lobbies to mute anti-Chinese voices over human rights violations and renew its MFN status. Besides having a significant attraction in East Asia, it established the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (whose members are China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan), an inter-governmental mutual security organisation in 2001, closely linked with the Eurasian Economic Community. The SCO member-states signed a Framework Agreement to enhance economic cooperation on September 23, 2003. At the same meeting the PRC’s Premier, Wen Jiabao, proposed as a long-term objective the establishment of a free trade area in the SCO, while other more immediate measures would be taken to improve the flow of goods in the region. The Moscow Summit of the SCO in October 2005 prioritised joint energy projects to include the oil and gas sector, exploration of new hydrocarbon reserves, and joint use of water resources. The creation of an Interbank SCO Council was also agreed upon at that summit in order to fund the future joint projects. The first meeting of the SCO Interbank Association was held in Beijing on February 21-22, 2006.

In June 2009, at the Yekaterinburg SCO Summit (in central Russia), China announced plans to provide $ 10 billion loan to SCO member-states to shore up the struggling economies of its members amid the global financial crisis. The SCO Summit was held together with the first BRIC Summit, and the China-Russia Joint Statement said that they want a bigger quota in the IMF. China is also spending 2.5 per cent of its GDP to become a great science and technology power. The US has accepted it as the Most Favoured Nation despite having disagreements over some issues. In the US Presidential elections of 2008, both Obama and McCain favoured cooperation with China. Americans are preferably using words like Chinese nationalists rather than Chinese Communists amid the possibility of creating a G-2. On April 1, 2009, the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue was started

China has a long border with at least fifteen countries. It maintains the 2.3 million strong PLA (Army) which showed newly developed smart weapons on display at the National Day parade in October 2009. The PLA is transforming from manpower to science and technology, mechanised warfare to ‘information warfare’ (IW) and by 2020, it is expected to complete the IW process. It is not only a permanent member of the UN Security Council but also exercises much influence in today’s’ world politics. It has succeeded in reforming its image from being an aggressive and military power to a rising world economy and goods producing country with a huge market of consumers. It has developed good relations with East Asian giants like Japan and the Republic of Korea. China is also expanding itself by incorporating Macao (1993) and Hong Kong (1997) with a new political principle of accommodation—One Country Two Systems. It has decided to neutralise Taiwan and time and again declared Taiwan as a part of China which is also documented in the Joint Statements with the US and Japan.

Revolution and After

The People’s Republic of China is known for its ancient civilisation, Confucian thoughts, Middle Kingdom empire, Mao-Communist Revolution and it is finally moving fast towards its own brand of market socialism. China witnessed a bloody revolution that began in the 1930s and overthrew the Kuomintang Government of Chiang-Kai-shaik in October 1949. This country embraced a new form of government with the communist ideology of society, polity and economy in 1949 when the entire world had got divided into two power blocs headed by the two great rivals—the United States and the Soviet Union. The Chinese Revolution was a big setback to the Allied Powers as the new China became the closest ally of the Soviet Union. Seeing the large size of China, its population and its history in East Asia, the US also pursued a policy of containment against China. As a result, a broad network of alliances was weaved by the US in cooperation with Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan.

Till 1970, China remained unrepresented in the United Nations and the US continued to recognise Taiwan as the real China. China began to rise as a fast developing industrial country soon after its independence in 1949 when the Soviet Union helped it with over 10,000 Russian experts and technical support. It showed its political and military muscle in the Korean conflict (1950-53) and in Indo-China in the 1950s. It came up with the principle of Panchsheel in 1955 and expressed the desire to lead the Third World countries since the mid-1950s. After the Sino-Soviet split in 1959, China began to emerge as a self-reliant country with several internal reforms. It began to cultivate a hard working, ideologically disciplined society with the objective of reaching the targets of development. It pursued the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution to root out corruption. Since 1964, it tested a number of smart bombs which helped to characterise it as a nuclear power.

After 1970, it developed close relations with the United States and also became a member of the UN. As a consequence, it also developed good relations with East Asian countries which brought China into the economic race. In 1979, China opposed the Soviet Union for invading Afghanistan and this brought it closer to the US. In other words, the US used the China card to balance the power of the Soviet Union in the Western Pacific and East Asia. Just a year later, China pursued an Open-Door Policy to bring about certain changes in its bureaucracy, state controlled industries, agriculture, defence and in the field of science and technology. This was known as the modernisation process which included pragmatism and flexibility. Since then, China has never looked back and moved towards market socialism. China’s GDP is expected to surpass Japan’s in 2016 and the US by 2025. In order to remain unaffected by the economic slump, China rolled out a two-year stimulus package of $ 588 billion in the year 2009. China is not only producing goods but is also a source of raw materials for some important countries. It is expanding its economic presence in the energy sector and now moving towards securing fuel efficient and environment friendly technology in collaboration with Japan and other countries. It is part of the ASEAN Plus Three. It is developing activities in the energy sector in Central Asia, West Asia and Africa.

From 2000 to 2006, it is third in the Research and Development expenditure in the world, thus becoming a leader in biotechnology. The Beijing Genomics Institute decoded the rice genom in 2002. In the same year it produced digital three-dimension image of the human body. In space, it ranks after the USA and Russia. It is obtaining dual-use technology. About 40,000 Chinese scientists and engineers are working in the US. It is developing world class technology. By 2001, China became the world’s third largest IT producer after the US and Japan. Now it is the second largest chip producer in the world. Eighty per cent of the FDI coming to East Asia is being absorbed by China. It has over 1000 car factories and in 2005 its exports rose to $ 243.4 billion.

Foreign Policy

In the field of foreign policy, China is getting interested in economic expansion rather than military aggressivism. It is trying to resolve disputes with Taiwan and in the South China Sea peacefully. It is getting economically integrated with East Asia and the world economy. It is also maintaining its independent foreign policy by disagreeing with the US on several issues like Iraq, Iran and North Korea. It is trying to balance both the US and Russia at the international level and Japan and India at the regional level. It is also cooperating with the UN and its agencies. Moreover, it is in support of UN reforms and a better world order characterised by multilateralism.

China is the one of the few countries, perhaps the only one, to view security from the Third World perspective. It ignored Gorbachev’s call for an Asian Collective Security system in the late 1980s. Since 2001, it has preferred mainly dialogue to resolve disputed jurisdictions in the South China Sea. The Malaysian statesman, Mahathir Mohamad, has lauded China’s role in East Asia. Even before 1990, it had predicted the emergence of a unipolar world and started its unending campaign for multilateralism. In 1992, Li Peng prioritised, at the Summit meeting at the UNSC, world peace, national stability and economic development as the peoples’ aspirations. In principle, China is opposed to the American military presence in South Asia and West Asia. It is also opposed to humanitarian interventions. After 1992, it has signed military agreements with Russia which is also a big market for Chinese goods. It is interested in the stability of Central Asia. After 9/11, the US shifted its stand on China from treating it as a strategic competitor to an ally.

At the security level, it is also changing its view. It is not only looking into the sophistication of weapons but also seeking to improve the human security factors and ensure human resource development. It has unfolded the ‘New Security’ concept which was mentioned by Jiang Zemin in 2001. By it he meant mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and cooperation; countries should endeavour to maintain long-term stability, security in a peaceful international environment, and strengthen economic and technical cooperation and communication with the aim of gradually changing the current unjust international order and realise mutual existence as well as the win-win goal of economic globalisation.

Summing up

Rising China, however, cannot be said to have became fully settled as there are several issues of regional and international concern. Its autonomy package for the regions of both Tibet and Turkestan (Muslim dominated western region) has not yielded satisfactory results. There are grievances stemming from human rights violations and keeping the area and its people backward and excluded. There are allegations of Chinese ethnic settlements in these areas which would further disturb the local people. China needs to address these issues. Another issue relates to border disputes with some countries including India wherein the ‘aggressive China’ image of its close-door neighbour is still quite fresh. Then there is the issue of Taiwan which needs very careful handling as China is succeeding in its social and economic integration processes. Last but not the least is the issue of ‘militarism’ to which China has not said ‘no’ to the international community. Its massive display of high-tech war weapons in October 2009 was a combined message to the world and the region in particular that China desires military supremacy in East Asia which is again a negative feature in its relations with other countries that are its potential competitors. It has also over 200 million people below the poverty line; regional imbalances coexist with accumulating desires for more political tolerance. Therefore, the rise of China is inextricably linked with all the questions mentioned above and these need judicious management in the coming days.

The author is an Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.

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