It is difficult to look at a newspaper or get on the Internet without seeing another analysis or op-ed about the rise of China. These pieces often range from cautionary tales to alarmist declarations of inevitable Chinese aggression. Though time will tell, the majority reinforce the belief that a more powerful China will be belligerent and upset the current status quo. Paradoxically, China is being led down this very path by regional actors who insist on publicly labeling China as a regional antagonist, creating an environment of suspicion and distrust, and using rhetoric that marginalizes China’s growing economic and political power.
Chinese economic growth has coincided with a relative expansion of its influence across Asia. While there are a myriad of arguments as to how the world should respond to the “rise of China,” by and large these arguments (at least in the eyes of Beijing) recall a Cold-War era mentality of “containment.” Stakeholders in Asia have decided to view China as an almost inevitable threat, and in doing so have created a political environment hostile to any type of “rise” at all. Given China’s almost assured development, and the subsequent expansion of its sphere of influence, this mentality means that conflict is almost guaranteed.
Evidence of this negative dynamic can be found in many of the region’s forums. Instead of accommodating China’s emergence by welcoming its attempts at integration (i.e. attendance at regional forums such as the ASEAN Defense Minister Meeting (ADMM) and the Shangri-La Dialogue), many Asian actors have used these forums as opportunities for derision and criticism. For instance, at the most recent Shangri-La Dialogue, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe harshly criticized Chinese actions in the South China Sea. He then outlined Japanese plans to become a “proactive contributor to peace,” emphasizing that his country enjoyed the support of ASEAN leaders, the U.S., India, Australia, the U.K. and France in doing so. This helped create a “China-versus-everyone else” dichotomy at the dialogue, and sidelined any constructive discussions that could have potentially taken place.
Later in the dialogue, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel joined Japan in its public condemnation, calling China’s recent actions in the South China Sea “destabilizing” and denouncing “any nation’s [i.e. China’s] use of intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force” to assert territorial claims. China was angered by these remarks and as a result accused the U.S. and Japan of collusion. China’s Deputy Chief of the PLA, Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong accused Abe of violating the principles of the dialogue (which he implied were to promote the peace and security in the region through constructive ideas) and labeled the comments “provocative.”
These comments may prove to be provocative, in that they are likely to push Beijing into pursuing the very same behaviors that they condemn. Beijing’s international conduct is closely tied to nationalist sentiment on the mainland. Marginalizing China in regional forums is not only unhelpful, it is counterproductive. Comments made by other Asian states and the U.S. that are seen as “anti-Chinese” serve to create internal pressure on Beijing to prove (more to its own population than to anybody else) that it is willing to use force to ensure its economic and strategic interests.
The dominant security discourse in Asia of a belligerent China is self-defeating. Multilateral forums can and should be put to better use as a means of positively engaging with China. This means not highlighting political grievances and using these events to more firmly entrench China as part of a larger Asian community. It also means giving Beijing the respect it deserves as a regional power and avoiding, at least publicly, the “flaring rhetoric” that creates domestic incentives for assertive unilateral action. This is not to say that Chinese foreign policy is undeserving of censure, but that public condemnation will only increase pressures on the Chinese ruling party to respond aggressively to outside criticisms.
There are many benefits to enhancing engagement with China through multilateral forums. Foremost, drawing China into regional processes creates a political environment of constructive engagement, incentivizing Beijing to demonstrate its positive influence in the region. Moreover, smaller Asian states can use multilateral processes such as the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ADMM-Plus to dilute Chinese influence and present a united front on matters of security policy. The fact that Beijing has increasingly participated in multilateral dialogues, despite a historical resistance to them, indicates its openness to this type of regional engagement, a tendency that should be encouraged by all states with an interest in Asian security.
In short, political actors in Asia need to be cognizant of the domestic political situation in China and tone down their rhetoric in public forums, otherwise they contribute to the very instability they are trying to avoid. Regional actors should also make a public show of engaging China as much as possible in regional security. In doing so they remove any excuse Beijing may have for unilateral action and avoid fomenting a domestic situation in China that leads to aggression. Criticisms should not be silenced, but they should be delivered privately, thereby permitting Beijing to respond without the pressures of nationalist sentiment. Doing so will make China’s peaceful rise both more likely and much easier to achieve.
Erin Zimmerman is a research associate at the Indo-Pacific Governance Research Centre within the University of Adelaide. Her research focuses on non-traditional security issues, informal diplomacy, and the development of Asian regional security architectures.