Chinese leaders have always identified international politics with struggle – the struggle for sovereignty, status and prosperity. In recent years, offering lucrative business opportunities to other countries and investing in scores of official dialogues allowed Beijing to claim a course of peaceful development. And many countries gave it the benefit of the doubt, at least for a while.
But China now faces growing resistance as even some Chinese begin to question how peaceful the country’s rise can really be. Either way, the Year of the Dragon looks set to be a strategic watershed for Chinese diplomacy.
Centrality invariably means trouble in geopolitics, and certainly for China. I remember strolling underneath the weeping willows of Beijing’s Ritan Park with a retired ambassador who neatly summed up the problem China faces: “If we do well, our neighbors see that as a threat. If we are in trouble, that is perceived as a threat as well. We are a challenge just by being here.”
It’s this diplomatic claustrophobia that explains why Chinese leaders have been so eager to promote the idea of a harmonious world. What sounds like a fuzzy slogan, therefore, is actually seen by China as a diplomatic necessity.
And Beijing hasn’t been entirely unsuccessful in promoting these ideas. Asians, Africans, Americans, and Europeans have all echoed the need for closer relations. There has been the promise of trade, which China has carefully cultivated by stressing that an open economic order would bring about a beneficial division of labor. Cooperation through international organizations, which China eagerly joined, was supposed to help settle disputes. The assertion that the use of force had become redundant in today’s world could equally be a passage from a liberal political textbook. Most of all, Chinese leaders insisted that they would stick to this benevolent line as their country grew stronger.
These good intentions notwithstanding, China’s peaceful development is hitting the rocks. This isn’t because China’s growing supremacy fosters arrogance, but because the country is stuck in transition. For a start, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for China to reconcile its domestic needs with expectations abroad. Beijing believes that it has to stick to a bold industrial policy to keep its people at work, but struggling markets elsewhere are becoming fed up with what is perceived as unfair competition. Meanwhile, this Chinese brand of mercantilism breeds bubbles everywhere, placing the architects in Zhongnanhai under pressure from even more conservative comrades. The result is that China doesn’t feel confident at all, and in private, decision makers concede that some serious turbulence is in the offing.
But that isn’t necessarily how others perceive it. Neighbors are calling upon Washington to balance China’s growing military prowess. Countries that initially bought into free trade agreements with China complain that it is becoming too influential. Resistance is mounting, and it is this confluence of events that makes diplomacy tense. History shows that rising powers typically become pugnacious when they get trapped with domestic and diplomatic problems, not when they make it to the top. Rising powers become dangerous when they falter.
China is being asked by other states to make ever larger economic and political concessions, but it is increasingly seeing those demands as unfair and even unbearable. My experience is that there’s a very large wave of indignation rippling through the People’s Republic. Experts, officials, journalists, and students alike ask whether it matters whether China tries to integrate itself more willingly into the international society. They argue that its sheer weight will create even more opposition. China’s window of opportunity is closing.
In response to all this, some are recommending that China engage in more intensified cultural diplomacy. Indeed, one senior official told me that China should position itself like Germany has in Europe, letting its clout be neutralized by an Asian regional organization. The mainstream, though, is silently turning. This isn’t aimed at contradicting the official line of peaceful development, but the country is certainly towards a much less benign and tolerant view of the world, one in which China has to stand firm over its interests.
“Look at Russia,” a student uttered during a heated debate at one university in Beijing, “When did Europe and America bully it? When it did not dare to clench a fist. Only with a strong leader, it got respected.”
That strongman in Moscow might have lost his prestige, but statements like these illustrate how China’s next generation of leaders is expected to play hardball in the international arena. With China’s economic future looking grim, those expectations could offer Party bosses like Xi Jinping a new opportunity to shore up their esteem with a much more troublesome brand of nationalism. And with thorny issues like Taiwan, the South China Sea, the disputed border with India, and various trade disputes moving again to the forefront, the Year of the Dragon could be a major turning point in China’s rise.
Jonathan Holslag is a research fellow at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies. His latest work includes 'Trapped Giant' and 'China and India: Prospects for Peace.'