China's Perception Vacuum
Image Credit: US Defence Department

China's Perception Vacuum


China’s rise is generating a great deal of anxiety in Asia, which in turn is creating a classic security dilemma. China has tried, with limited success, to avoid this situation with benevolent sounding foreign policy initiatives. Yet despite slogans like ‘peaceful rise,’ it’s questionable whether the region really believes that China’s rise will be conflict-free.

So, why have Chinese officials’ concerted efforts to portray the country as a peaceful superpower-to-be failed? Ultimately, it comes down to a lack of trust among Asian nations over China’s intentions. Even if China’s ambitions really are benign, the risk of conflict remains if China’s counterparts don’t believe this is the case. Security dilemmas, and the tense environments in which they exist, create the opportunity for self-fulfilling prophecies of conflict.

All this means that if China is serious about pursuing a peaceful rise, there are two factors that require attention: 1) understanding its own history and having empathy for others’ interpretations of that history and 2) realizing that adhering to policies is as important as simply declaring them.

Conversations with many Chinese about their history tend to demonstrate a genuine belief that China has always been, and always will be, benign.  This sense of innocence is firmly entrenched in the Chinese psyche. I’m not going to get into to the source of, or possible fallacy of, the belief that China has historically always been peaceful. But what’s important is that China’s counterparts don’t believe in the same historical narrative as China and therefore don’t believe that China has always been and will continue to be benign.

Chinese policymakers need to factor this disbelief into their foreign policy calculations. Simply saying that China’s intentions are peaceful, which Chinese believe to be self-evident, isn’t enough. A combination of history and classic realist views on international relations mean China’s neighbors still believe in the potential for belligerence with increasing Chinese power. Simply dismissing this fear as a ‘Cold War mentality,’ or an elaborate US campaign of ‘hypnosis,’ won’t help resolve the problem.

The anxiety that the region’s other countries have towards China is indigenous and a product of Asia’s pre-Western history. This fact needs to be accepted by China’s leaders. Only after recognizing the authenticity of the region’s fears will Beijing begin to understand the gravity of the situation. When countries like Vietnam, ruled by fellow Communists who experienced a brutal war with the United States, cosy up to the US in response to a rising China, that should be a clear sign that China’s image in the minds of its neighbors is hugely different from the image it assumes it is portraying.

Another reason for not believing China’s verbal assurances is the lack of credibility in some of its proclamations. China has many benign sounding phrases in its foreign policy lexicon. However, actions speak louder than words.  For instance, China has a Constitution that would compare well to the most liberal of societies – on paper. This Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and religion as well as protection from arbitrary detention. However, these rights are minimally protected – when they are at all.

This doesn’t ignore the progress China has made on these fronts. But it’s undeniable that China has failed to adequately enforce the laws it has itself enacted. The response to this argument is inevitably a shrill call deriding these values as a neo-imperialist ploy by the West, lacking in cultural tolerance, that’s being used as a weapon against developing countries. But this misses the point, since the argument here isn’t about political freedoms. It’s about perception. So long as the outside world perceives China as blatantly disregarding the obligations it makes to its own people, then other countries have reason to believe that China won’t adhere to its foreign obligations either.

In some ways it might seem unfair to single out China – every country is sometimes guilty of hypocrisy. But not every country has been catapulted onto the global stage quite so conspicuously. For this reason, China will, rightly or wrongly, receive more scrutiny than most.

The first step to recovery is recognition. However, China has persistently deflected these problems as misinterpretations by others, and therefore not China’s responsibility to resolve. This shows a lack of empathy for differing perceptions. Disregarding the perceptions that other countries have of China, and continuing on a course as if the Chinese narrative is unfolding in a vacuum, will surely create conflict.  Moving forward, China must better empathize with how other countries perceive its actions. Otherwise, in a belief that proclamations are reality, Chinese policymakers risk pursuing a path that deeply undermines its ‘peaceful’ claims.

Matt Anderson is a Resident Handa Fellow at the Pacific Forum CSIS. 

Mohammad Irshad
July 5, 2011 at 11:41

How bad your geography is! Pity on you!
There is only one INDIA and not two as you talk of West and East Indians. Its simply Indians!

July 5, 2011 at 11:12

The problem is that there are multiple different things that can decide who gets sovereignty and no one agrees on a hierarchy for them. Some may claim that history is most important – this then gets ugly as if everyone used history then their will be immense numbers of overlapping claims (just for example France has been the overlord of Britain, 1066 and all that, and Britain has also been the overlord of France, hundred years war). Essentially all sides will have some kind of historic claim to a territory or they would not be making the claim.

Territorial proximity is another – this only really works on the sea, having a border does not usually give you a right to claim the other side on land. But on the ocean it can either be claimed because it is close to your own land or because it is on the same continental shelf.

Population – I would think that most democracies would take this as the primary claim. This is that the people should decide where they want to be a part of (this is the main reason for Britain wanting to keep the falklands these days). However allowing the population decide has a bad name because it too could lead to chaos. There are too many borders that were created without reference to where people lived so any change to allowing people to decide would also lead to chaos. Easy to let Scotland have independence or Gibraltar rejoin Spain, much more difficult when it comes to carving provinces up.

there are probably others…

July 5, 2011 at 04:58

Lets assume your logic is valid, why did usa support the claim of british on the falkland back then despite the fact that england’s fleet took nearly two months to get there for a war while its just 1hour ferry away from argentina. Then all of sudden, physical proximity and continental shelf makes a sense again. Which one is it?

I understand the concern expressed by the author that if ccp canot uphold the law they have enacted themselves, whats the hope of them doing that in accordance with un conventions and protocols when engaging others on transnational matters. Thats a good question. Can i answer u with another one? How come us rushed into two wars in the name of defending democracy and liberty while negros, native and asian americans did nt have them back then. How come us used chemical weapons ( ” i enjoy the smell of nipons” in the morning) in the vietnam war, a direct violation of geneva convention, of which us is signatory. How come us invaded iraq without un sanction, by the way us is a founder of un and co-wrote the un charter with others. If u want me to go on, pl.

U propbably never thought that us ” short but glorious” history might come back and bite in the ass those “defenders”. Another problem i have with the author is why the onus of convincing others of their benign intentions falls squarely on the shoulder of china, not any one else. It takes two to tango and also two to de-escalate in a tense situation. And by his logic, vietnam, philipine, malaysia, indonesia or even singapore is guilty of what they accuse ccp of. Take singapore for exemple, the wealthest of them all. What democracy is it that u have one family in power for 40 years, much longer than their chinese counterpart, the ” dictator hu”. But they have done a remarkable job of transforming the city state into the trade and financial hub of the world, there is no denying that.

So if they arent qualified to lecture ccp, much less so are us or other claimants. But that doesnt have too much bearing on the reality. Its all politics or so are the article and some silly comments posted here. if u insist on linking it to some existing theories, that would be the force of nature or survival of the fittest if evolution comes to mind.

Zhuang Fu Lai
July 5, 2011 at 04:39

When western nations open their borders and subsidize mass immigration how does this make China a villain? Why is nonviolent legal neocolonization of these states such a bad thing? If China needs natural resources to fuel its growth and it can gain access to policy levers in these countries, via mass immigration, espionage, infiltrative soft power and seduction with money, so be it. Not a single shot needs to be fired; it is a peaceful process in its entirety. Besides, China can/will make these places much better, richer, safer, and healthier than they were before, with better scoring education and lower obesity rates; much like the Europeans did to the natives but without bloodshed.

July 4, 2011 at 21:59

Thanks John. I have not read any analysis on the subject by an non-partisan international law expert. If China is serious about its “peaceful rise”, it could take this one to ICJ and sort it out by due process rather than contribute to a new flashpoint. What is the point of institutions such as this if people do not use them? I do have to say that from my limited knowledge, if China claims the entire South China Sea, this does look pretty flakey.

July 4, 2011 at 18:44

The CCP (China) don’t want a international body to adjucate the issue as they realise that under the international laws of the UN, China does not have a claim.

If they can discuss the issue bilaterally then they can assert pressure and maybe win an agreement that would not exist if it was discussed in a neutral environment.

Lets look at the Chinese growth on mischief reef in Philippine waters. It started after the US closed clark base. Firstly the building was made of bamboo and was called a fishermans shelter, then it was made with concrete and called a typhoon survival place. The they added a wharf and military weapons and it was called “none of the philippines reason to complain”.

Recently its called a naval resupply base for Chinese military warships and the Chinese are intruding further into Philippine waters.

Does China want a neutral observor to make a decesion on the issue, not in a million years. Just ask Chinese Frank and John Chan, its always been Chinese according to them and they are now just taking it back.

Though, not one of them has produced a Chinese person who can say that a reef that exists under water for 12 or so hrs a day was ever supporting Chinese life in the Tang, Minh or Quin dynasty.

So its a territorial grab and International law in the 21at century would not support Chinese claims. Thus, no the Chinese don’t want a neutral legal opinion on the matter.

Bill Rich
July 4, 2011 at 15:20

US has more GDP than China, and therefore entitled to all the natural resources in China.

Bill Rich
July 4, 2011 at 15:19

One third of worlds hackers in China is not a small fraction, since China has only 1/5 of the population of the world.

Bill Rich
July 4, 2011 at 15:11

“India is fraud heaven” as if China is not. China is the biggest fraudster today, and the most corrupt country, bar none. India can’t hold a candle to China in terms of corruption and fraud. What’s worse, China’s judiciary cannot be relied on to get any justice when being defraud by a Chinese company, or forced to bribe a government official.

Bill Rich
July 4, 2011 at 15:07

It is not “protective”. It is “face saving”.

Bill Rich
July 4, 2011 at 15:06

You should pay more attention to the Chinese web space and you will find evidence to the contrary of your comment. Many Chinese want to rise, colonize and dominate.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief