The peaceful rise of a China based on shared interests with other powers, big and small, was an idea proposed by Zheng Bijian some years ago that has been adopted as strategy by the Chinese leadership in preparing
Zheng, one of China’s great strategists, understood that China could not follow the trajectory that Western countries had followed in the last century. He said that what China had to avoid was embarking on an old strategy that was no longer valid for the future, such as happened in Europe at the end of the 19th century, which resulted in the outbreak of World War I. China had to remain free of power politics, the Cold War and hegemonic competition.
As we are experiencing today, elements of competition exist, but so do elements of cooperation and coordination in big-power relations, making the idea of hegemonic competition almost impossible.
Economic interdependence and, to a certain extent, global and regional integration have prevented that from happening. In addition, developing nations have developed and modernized, becoming an important part of the world and making hegemonic economic dominance impossible for the last half decade.
For China, which might become the world’s biggest economy by GDP in the next 10 years or so, its biggest challenges will be how to behave and how its role should be formulated as a big economic power.
In this effort, China must also take huge domestic problems into consideration, as well as its dependence on natural resources, energy and advanced technology.
China has no ambitions to become a global superpower, because it recognizes its limitations and willingness to run other parts of the world. This has never been an ambition of China throughout history. China has always been big. Its ambition is mainly to be recognized by others, and not to run over or to subdue others.
Admittedly, Southeast Asia or ASEAN’s member nations have their differences in their respective policies toward China. However, in general, the region accepts that China is an important and strategic partner and that economically China is and will become more important. Historically, China has always been accepted and recognized as an important country in the region, and the region has to pay attention to the nation.
If hegemony is almost impossible, then China’s peaceful rise has to be taken as the best strategy for China and for the region. A peaceful rise in connection with regional institutions might be just the right strategy for China and the East Asian region, because they share common interests, although strengthening bilateral relations is also of paramount importance.
In concrete terms, the first step needed to solidify the common interests of ASEAN and China is the creation of a Code of Conduct (CoC) on the South China Sea based on the accepted Declaration of Conduct (DoC) of the South China Sea. The idea is to establish a regional mechanism to prevent conflict or to overcome or manage conflicts if they arise. This CoC is not intended to resolve overlapping claims, but to create an atmosphere for stability and peace, and in doing so make it easier to find a solution in the future.
Achieving such results in the South China Sea would have a good follow-on effect on the East China Sea problems of the Daiyou/Senkaku Islands claimed by both China and Japan. Those two nations should be encouraged to engage in joint cooperation as was promised before but never implemented. Here, China should be more moderate and nuanced in its actions and reactions, while Japan must accept that these problems are historical and related to the end of World War II. It is important to encourage centrist-oriented policies on World War II legacy issues. Otherwise, it will make resolving the issues more complicated for the whole East Asia region.
China and Japan have to establish direct lines of communications between their leaders, political and military, and put in place arrangements to prevent incidents that could develop into conflicts or wars in the future. Trust, in the end, has to be established by both sides.
The US role and policies should also be commensurate with the nuances of the region. The US pivot toward East Asia was not a thought-out policy, but instead is the result of a wrong gut reaction that was obviously misinterpreted by the Chinese, as the pivot started with US security increases in the region. The US should have well-rounded presence in the region, especially in economic terms.
Regional common interests also cover the economic field. In trade, both the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) can be complementary, if the US is willing to lower the TPP threshold, while the RCEP should raise its threshold to become more meaningful for the region to participate. Only then the most maximum results can be achieved for the benefit of the region. Neither China nor the US should exclude anyone.
If the aforementioned policy changes can be adjusted, then there is no reason why China’s strategy for a peaceful rise based on shared common interests can be carried out and well accepted.
The writer is vice chairman of the board of trustees at the Centre for the Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Foundation.