Features | Diplomacy | Politics

Beijing’s Next Big Problem

Managing asymmetry is China’s next big problem, but Beijing has ample historical experience doing so.

By Stephen Smith for
Beijing’s Next Big Problem

Fireworks and a giant Chinese national flag formed by lights are seen at the evening gala held on Tiananmen Square for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Power transition in Asia is now complete. China’s annual military expenditure, which bloated to nearly $230 billion in 2017, is now larger than all other countries in Asia combined (excluding Russia). For states on China’s periphery, salvation is not to be found in paltry American alternatives to the Belt and Road Initiative nor in embracing “shared values” with the West. Balancing overwhelming Chinese power is no longer an option. The future involves navigating new and very real power asymmetries. 

Managing asymmetry is a new problem for the People’s Republic of China, a byproduct of the country’s extraordinary development over the past four decades, but imperial China has ample historical experience dealing with such complex dynamics. Before the violent arrival of European international law in the mid-19th century, inequalities in wealth, power, and status between regional powers were mediated through practices of asymmetric exchange. Imperial China demanded deference to its superior position, while smaller states required a tacit promise of freedom from aggression. These lessons may offer a blueprint as China learns once again how to be a great power. 

Benevolent Developmentalism and Sinocentric Regional Order

Around 2013, China underwent an important shift in its foreign policy strategy toward its neighbors. The Party’s Central Committee held an unprecedented two-day work forum on peripheral diplomacy in October of that year. In the two years after that conference, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang visited two-thirds of China’s maritime and continental neighbors. Beijing’s network of “strategic partnerships” – a title bestowed on those states that recognize China’s core interests – was enlarged and upgraded, particularly in Central Asia and Southeast Asia. A new addition to China’s “basic guidelines” toward its periphery was announced: Diplomacy should be guided by “amity, sincerity, mutual benefit, and inclusiveness” (qin cheng hui rong). China’s diplomatic strategy, Xi stressed, should help “turn China’s neighborhood areas into a community of common destiny.” 

China’s neighbors have a dismal view of Chinese power. One recent study of 1,000 Southeast Asians reports that less than one in 10 see China as a “benign and benevolent power,” while a plurality (45 percent) believe China “will become a revisionist power with an intent to turn Southeast Asia into its sphere of influence.” In Central Asia, anti-Chinese sentiment is rising as countries grow dependent on Chinese loans and, in deals that smack of neocolonialism, infrastructure investment is exchanged for valuable mineral rights. Chinese analysts refer to the country’s smaller neighbors as “close but not intimate” (jin er bu qin). As China is finding out, wealth and power do not automatically confer trust.

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China now frames its role in Asia as one of a great power that benevolently distributes economic benefits to its smaller neighbors. Consider the evolution of language related to periphery diplomacy in the Party Congress work report – an authoritative document issued every five years that sets the Party’s goals for the next term. The 18th Party Congress work report, issued in 2012, notes: “We will continue to promote friendship and partnership with our neighbors, consolidate friendly relations and deepen mutually beneficial cooperation with them, and ensure that China’s development will bring more benefits to our neighbors.” The key phrase here is “bring more benefits” (huiji), a phrase that has not appeared in previous reports. Xi would reiterate at the important October 2013 work forum that to achieve the goal of national rejuvenation, “China must [ … ] enable neighboring countries to benefit more from China’s development.” 

Exchanging Benevolence for Deference 

Access to China’s lucrative market, and receiving huge sums of Chinese capital and technology for infrastructure projects, does not come free of charge. China expects reciprocity from smaller states. As in the past, China desires others to defer to its core interests and vision of regional order. This was evidenced in January 2019 when Xi Jinping met with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, and called for “joint efforts to build a community of shared future with strategic significance between China and Cambodia.” In exchange, Xi legitimized the rule of Hun Sen, who himself heads a brutal one-party regime at home, by reaffirming his support for Cambodia in following a “development path in line with its national conditions.”

Similarly, during a recent state visit to neighboring Kyrgyzstan by the Chinese president, the joint declaration signed by the two leaders contained this curious sentence: “The Kyrgyz side believes Xi Jinping’s proposed construction of a community of shared future for mankind has epoch-marking and historic significance.” Nearly identical language was used in a joint declaration with Kazakhstan.

These are hollow statements, to be sure. But viewed in the context of power asymmetry, these seemingly meaningless declarations take on a renewed importance as performative acts that reassure weaker states over the potential for aggression from China and provide recognition of legitimate rule at home, while small states publicly defer to China’s core interests and conception of order. 

Negotiating Asymmetry 

Xi Jinping’s desire for public submission to his vision of regional order has created space for smaller states to bargain. Hierarchies, after all, are created not by fiat but through negotiation. Sino-Malaysia relations are illustrative. After replacing Najib Razak in May 2018 in an election campaign where ballooning Chinese investment was a central issue, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad publicly warned about China’s “debt-trap diplomacy” and “new version of colonialism.” Mahathir also  suspended Chinese-backed infrastructure projects worth nearly $20 billion, including the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) – a 688-kilometer passenger and freight railway line that connects the country’s west coast to its east. Western pundits reported that the veteran Malaysian politician was “standing up” to China. 

But this is about negotiating asymmetry, not a quixotic effort to balance Chinese power, and Mahathir has proven adept at navigating his country’s relations with a resurgent China. After nine months of renegotiations over the ECRL, the new government came to a “mutually beneficial agreement” with Beijing whereby the cost of the mega-project was reduced by a third and the involvement of Malaysian firms was increased. Shortly after, Mahathir attended the second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing and gave his public approval for Xi’s signature foreign policy initiative, noting during his speech that “I am fully in support of the Belt and Road Initiative. I am sure my country, Malaysia, will benefit from this project.” 

Over the long term, Beijing intends to replace the United States as the principal constructor of a new security order in Asia. These revisionist intentions are not secret. Nor should they be surprising given China’s historic role as the region’s locus of power. Peaceful transition to a new Sinocentric regional order, a process already well underway, depends largely on how China and its smaller neighbors manage asymmetry.

Stephen Smith is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Stephen’s research explores the development of Chinese theories of international relations in the context of China’s rise, Chinese conceptions of world order, and China’s foreign relations.

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This article is a shorter-form version of a research paper published in The Pacific Review, a journal focused on the international interactions of the countries of the Pacific Basin. The Pacific Review covers transnational political, security, military, economic and cultural exchanges in seeking greater understanding of the region.