China Power

China’s Perception Vacuum

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China Power

China’s Perception Vacuum

China claims its rise is peaceful. But if other countries don’t believe it, it doesn’t matter how many times it says it.

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.