The Debate

China’s ‘Peaceful Rise’ and the South China Sea

Recent Features

The Debate

China’s ‘Peaceful Rise’ and the South China Sea

To Beijing, its conduct in the South China Sea does not contradict promises of a “peaceful rise” for China.

China’s ‘Peaceful Rise’ and the South China Sea
Credit: Peace calligraphy image via Shutterstock

With tensions in the South China showing no signs of abating, some foreign analysts are scratching their heads at recent reassurances by Chinese President Xi Jinping. In a speech celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, Xi promised that China will “firmly stick to the path of peaceful development.” Xi’s words echoed the usual Chinese argument that history is proof of Beijing’s benign intentions. “There’s no gene for invasion in Chinese people’s blood, and Chinese people won’t follow the logic that ‘might is right,’” Xinhua quoted Xi as saying.

The New York Times’ Sinosphere blog argued there was a contradiction between Xi’s remarks and Chinese General Fang Fenghui’s statements during a recent press conference in Washington, DC. Fang insisted that China “cannot afford to lose an inch” of its historical territory, and promised that China would continue its drilling operations in the South China Sea, despite strong protests in Vietnam. Writing for Sinosphere, Michael Forsythe said that Xi and Fang had “presented starkly different views of their country’s foreign policy.”

On the surface, there’s some truth to this. Xi, speaking at a conference celebrating “friendship with foreign countries,” would naturally seek to highlight China’s peaceful intentions. Meanwhile, General Fang, as a high-ranking Chinese military leader on foreign soil, was obligated to defend China’s policies in the face of direct questions from reporters. These different contexts obviously produced a different emphasis.

However, it’s a mistake to conclude that these are actually different foreign policy visions. In fact,  Xi’s statement and Fang’s are merely two sides of the same coin: China’s rise is peaceful, but China will not hesitate to use whatever means necessary to defend itself. Or, to quote Fang Fenghui, “We do not make trouble. We do not create trouble. But we are not afraid of trouble.”

From official Chinese remarks (made not only by Fang but also by the Chinese Foreign Ministry), it’s abundantly clear that Beijing see no contradiction between its activities in the South China Sea and China’s “peaceful rise.” On the current spat with Vietnam, for example, Beijing has asserted that it is well within its rights to drill in the region near the Paracels, and blames Vietnam for the maritime clashes that ensued. In fact, in Beijing, all the maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas are viewed through this lens: China’s territorial claims are undeniable and absolute, and other countries are causing the trouble by trying to infringe on China’s territories.

China has always been crystal clear that there are limits to its peaceful intentions: China will not rule out the use of force or coercion where matters of its territorial integrity are at stake. The most obvious example is Taiwan, but China also includes its maritime territories in the East and South China Sea in this category. To the Chinese mind, there is no contradiction between Beijing’s peaceful inclinations and a strong defense of its own territory.

Many of China’s neighbors, including Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan, would disagree. This is a serious problem for Beijing, as talk of China’s “peaceful rise” is most useful when accepted by foreign audiences. However, China generally frames its “peaceful rise” as an overt comparison to the legacy of colonialism and imperialism. By promising a “peaceful rise,” China is, in effect, promising not to use force to expand its territory — but this promise has no bearing on the areas China already claims. Thus China’s “peaceful rise” should not be read as a promise to compromise on issues such as the South China Sea.

Looking at remarks by Xi and Fang and seeing a divergence in foreign policy is misleading, as it encourages people to try to explain away the “differences.” One such explanation has been the theory that China’s civilian leaders are out of step with military leaders. This viewpoint was widely in vogue under the leadership of Hu Jintao, who was assumed to not have strong control over the military. However, since Xi Jinping came to power, the narrative has changed — rather than seeing a civilian/military divide, people now seem to simply believe that China attaches no real importance to its “peaceful rise.” In other words, the “won’t give an inch” narrative is seen as reflective of Beijing’s intentions, while the rhetoric of a “peaceful rise” is dismissed as a facade.

The truth, as always, is more complicated. China has always placed peace as subordinate to territorial integrity — a decision that is not unique to Beijing. China’s idea of a “peaceful rise” was never meant to apply to the South China Sea and East China Sea, or to other areas where China’s sovereignty is at play. However, when applied outside of the framework of territorial disputes, China’s emphasis on peace carries more policy weight.

To be fully understood, Xi’s comments should be read not in opposition to but in concert with Fang’s. China is “willing to live in harmony with peoples the world over” (as Xi said) but “in matters that relate to sovereignty, territorial integrity, our attitude has been firm” (as Fang noted).