Last month I visited Ningxia province, in China’s northwest. It is a relatively poor region, with a large Muslim population, a considerable stretch of desert, and a growing petrochemical industry. It is far from the unrest of Xinjiang province to the west and the maritime disputes of the South China Sea to the east. Ningxia is leveraging its Muslim heritage to attract investment from the Arab world. It is using its plentiful sunshine and wind to ramp up sustainable energy projects. And it is working hard to stop the encroaching deserts by greening the landscape, hectare by hectare.
This is the China of the peaceful rise. This China is open for business. It is focused on economic growth that can lift millions of people out of poverty. It is tackling age-old afflictions like the desertification that hascaused the “yellow dust” problem in Japan and Korea.
But recently a very different picture of China has dominated the headlines. This other China is clashing with Vietnam over disputed waters in the South China Sea. It is locking horns with Japan over disputed islands in the East Sea. It continues to increase its military spending by double digits and acquire new naval and aerial capabilities for power projection.
These actions have fueled speculation that China has abandoned its largely peaceful rise to global power in favor of confrontation. According to this view, China is challenging powerful neighbors like Japan and strong-arming smaller countries like Vietnam and the Philippines. And it is preparing for the day when it must inevitably battle the United States for the position of global superpower.
To determine whether China’s trajectory remains peaceful or has turned confrontational, let’s first look at the situation from China’s perspective. The country is vast, and the population is restive. Not only are there serious movements for autonomy in Tibet and Xinjiang, but every day there are labor actions and protests against government regulations and gatherings against environmental pollution. There are as many as 180,000 protests in the country each year, and the country spends over $100 billion just to maintain internal security.
The second priority for the government, after controlling these centrifugal forces, is to maintain economic growth. After the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, the social compact has involved a trade: as long as they see improvements in their livelihoods, the citizenry will maintain a measure of support for the current political system. Chinese economic growth in 2013 was 7.7 percent, which would delight most countries in the world. But for a country that enjoyed double digit growth rates in the recent past, it’s a warning sign that China’s economy is slowing down.
The third priority for China is ideological. Communism no longer means very much to the population, though Party membership remains an important tool for advancement. Rather, the government has relied on nationalism to bind the country together. Part of that involves appeals to Chinese history and to the time when the country was at the mercy of foreign interests. The Chinese government has made an implicit promise that it will not allow a return to the humiliations of the past.
What I saw in Ningxia certainly confirms these three tenets. The authorities in Beijing need to continue to close the economic gap between Ningxia and the more prosperous provinces. If it fails to do so, the region could experience greater political unrest. Appeals to nationalism can do only so much, particularly in ethnically diverse regions, to compensate for slowing economic growth.
I also had a chance on this trip to talk with a number of foreign policy experts in China and hear their perspectives on the South China Sea. There was a consensus: China’s claims were legitimate and needed to be defended. As we conducted our conversations, Vietnam was challenging an oilrig that China had set up in what Vietnam claimed was its territorial waters. Late last month, a Chinese vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese ship. Anti-Chinese protests erupted in Vietnam, and Chinese ships had to evacuate thousands of ethnic Chinese. China relocated the oilrig, but the conflict is far from over.
At the same time, China has refused to engage the Philippines in its attempt to bring a related territorial claim in the South China Sea to an international court. China, like the United States, has adopted an a la carte approach to multilateralism: supportive when multilateralism serves its purposes and resistant when it doesn’t.
It’s important to remember that the three Chinese priorities of political stability, economic growth, and national pride apply as well to the country’s current foreign policy. Even though China’s actions in its surrounding waters are terribly unpopular among China’s neighbors, they remain popular inside China. Partly this is a function of nationalism: China is standing up to both hegemonic powers (Japan) and smaller countries that don’t show sufficient deference (Vietnam). This in turn solidifies political support for Xi Xinping and his cohort.
There is an economic dimension as well. Key to Chinese economic growth is energy, and much of China’s energy comes in the form of oil imports. Indeed, last year, China became the largest importer of petroleum in the world, surpassing the United States. Much of this imported oil passes through the South China Sea. In addition to potential oil, there may well be other resources like rare earth materials on the seabed. China’s economic future depends in part on its ability to control the sea lanes and these valuable resources.
Controlling the surrounding seas is intimately connected not only to China’s economic growth but China’s identity as a rising power. Regional powers, much less global powers, are not hemmed in by the maritime capabilities of their neighbors. Despite the importance of these waters, China has so far been relatively cautious in staking its claims. It has asserted sovereignty over a large gulp of the South China Sea – the infamous nine-dash line — but Taiwan and Vietnam have also made overly ambitious claims. There have been clashes, and even some loss of life. But this remains a low-intensity conflict. China’s military is vastly superior to any of the other claimants, but it has not used that military to secure this territory. It has not precipitated war.
The pessimists believe that China is biding its time. It won’t make any definitive military moves until it’s clear that a declining or disengaging United States won’t come to the aid of Vietnam or the Philippines. The optimists believe that the Chinese government is fundamentally pragmatic. Beijing must know that any military intervention would put its entire program of economic growth and political stability at risk. It’s impossible to guess who will ultimately be right in predicting China’s trajectory.
Much depends on the strength of regional security institutions and how embedded China decides to be in those institutions. And that in turn depends on the United States and its willingness to acknowledge the authority of such multilateral mechanisms. If the United States does not make room for multilateralism in the region, war becomes more likely. If the United States does not make room for China, then China may feel the need to make room for itself.
Hankyoreh, June 4, 2014