Beijing has gone to great lengths over the past 10 to 15 years to convince the international community that China’s rise as a global power would be peaceful and mutually beneficial for the world and China. Under the leadership of former President Hu Jintao, government officials began championing the idea of China’s “peaceful rise,” as party officials and diplomats sought to calm fears of a Chinese “threat” to regional peace and global stability. In 2004, Beijing changed course and substituted the phrase China’s “peaceful development” for China’s “peaceful rise” to counter the narrative of a rising China that seeks to alter the established international world order.
With the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) once in a decade leadership change in 2012, Beijing once again changed course in its approach to regional and international diplomacy. With current President Xi Jinping at the helm, China altered its course from a conservative defensive role to a more active offensive role in regional and international affairs. Xi’s government has consistently promoted itself, and for the most part, acted as a responsible international power. But lately, China’s naval and military maneuvering in the South China Sea has irked its neighbors and their allies, while earning Xi the moniker of being a “strongman president”; the strongest Chinese president, some observers say, since Mao Zedong.
Beijing has become convinced that the greatest threat to peace and stability in Asia is the long-term presence of the United States military in the Western Pacific. From a strategic perspective, the Chinese government is content with its lack of influence in East Asia due to historical conflicts with Japan and the security threat of its troublesome northeastern ally, North Korea. Despite its diplomatic shortfalls in East Asia, Chinese policymakers believe that its allies within ASEAN and its economic influence in the region makes Southeast Asia, without a doubt, China’s most important regional sphere of influence.
With a mix of economic soft power and cultural populism, Xi is determined to position China as a regional security power that will one day be able to offer Asian nations state of the art weapons technology, becoming an Asian alternative to the United States. The Chinese president dreams of a Chinese military industrial complex (MIC) that could one day supply state of the art weaponry on par with the United States, and at a fraction of the cost to its Asian allies.
As Beijing’s economic might increased over the last 30 years, so too did its ability to share its prosperity with countries around the world. Some beneficiaries of China’s newfound wealth have been in Asia, where Beijing has attempted to increase its regional influence. From favorable loans for Indonesia to financing and constructing high-speed railway networks in Laos, China’s “more carrots, and less sticks” approach to regional diplomacy has benefited its regional diplomatic and political agenda. However, China’s growing influence in the region hasn’t been nearly enough to significantly weaken the United States’ presence.
In an attempt to promote the uniqueness of Asian identity and culture, Beijing has been engaged in a cultural populist campaign in a bid to sway its neighbors in Southeast Asia on the need of a regional security framework with Asian characteristics. In a keynote address in 2014 at the Fourth Summit of the Conference of Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), Xi addressed a room of Asian diplomats and world leaders by stating, “We need to innovate our security concept, establish a new regional security cooperation architecture, and jointly build a road for security of Asia that is shared by and win-win to all,” arguing that “ In the final analysis, it is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia and uphold the security of Asia.”
Xi correctly argues that it is the responsibility of Asian nations to ensure the security of Asia, but the undertones of his speech hint at a security concept in Asia that would be devoid of U.S. diplomatic and military influence; an issue that not all Asian nations agree on. In a 2015 one-on-one interview with the Wall Street Journal, while discussing China’s growing military power, Xi further commented “China has always pursued a defense policy that is defensive in nature and a military strategy featuring active defense. In strengthening our defense and military building, we are not going after some kind of military adventure.”
An active defense policy means that Beijing believes a 21st century Chinese military industrial complex is of paramount importance to China’s domestic security as well as regional stability. From 2010-2014, China saw its major weapons exports increase by 143 percent compared to the previous five years, moving up in the rankings to third in export sales behind the United States. and Russia. Although China has increased its presence in its regional and global arms sales market, it still trails the U.S. and Russia in advanced weapons systems and aircraft used for anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) defense.
While China has been able to display a modern and capable military in defense of its territorial claims in the South China Sea, its ambitions for its MIC go far beyond the Spratly Islands. Xi believes that the only way China can ensure its dominance in Asia, and a diminished role for the United States, is by replacing the United States as a security partner for its strategically important Asian neighbors. Now four years into a 10 year term, Xi Jinping has already solidified a legacy for future Chinese presidents of a Chinese foreign policy that is more assertive in regional and world affairs.
Paul R. Burgman Jr. is a former graduate of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He currently lives and work in China.