by Su Hsing Loh

In seemingly yet another attempt to emphasise the benign nature of China's rise, the Information Office of the State Council released a white paper entitled 'China's Peaceful Development' in September this year, six years after a similar paper entitled 'China's Peaceful Development Road.

Stressing that "China's peaceful development has broken away from the traditional pattern where a rising power was bound to seek hegemony," and that "peaceful development is a strategic choice made by China," the 2011paper obliquely addresses some of the key issues which have stoked fears of China's belligerence, such as the territorial disputes in the South China sea. The paper also pledged that China will "actively live up to international responsibility" and "be open-minded to other proposals for regional cooperation, and welcome countries outside the region to play a constructive role in promoting regional peace and development," ostensibly in reference to the jostling of influence between the United States and China in East Asia and Southeast Asia. At the recent Summer Davos meeting in Dalian, Premier Wen Jiabao reiterated that "Peace, development and cooperation remain the trend of our times. The international environment is generally conducive to China's pursuit of peaceful development." From the promise of "peaceful rise" to the current emphasis on "peaceful development" (the use of "development" was purportedly chosen over "rise" starting in 2004, as it was deemed to convey a less threatening posture), China has consistently employed the rhetoric of peace, and underscored that China's growth will bring stability, peace and other positive spillover effects to the rest of the world.

In this regard, China's perception of itself appears strikingly at odds with that of China in other parts of the world. China's rising military budget (approximately one-sixth of US military expenditure), sizeable investments overseas, and firm stance on adhering to its principles of foreign policy rather than bowing to external pressure are often seen as indicators of its ambitions. China's sheer size in terms of population and GDP, the nature of its political system, and its history of close association with rogue states firmly places it as a non-mainstream country in the international arena. And yet, its economic importance grants it a place at important global forums (the G20 for example) and it has to maintain a delicate balance between being simultaneously the world's largest developing country and the country singled out as the century's emerging hegemon. China became a member of the United Nations in 1971 and joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, and as a relative latecomer to the international system, the learning curve for China has been steep. China's initial distrust of international regimes was evident - this was clearly manifested in its evolving stance toward the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). China refused to sign the NPT in 1968 on the grounds that China supported the principle of non-proliferation but was concerned that the Soviet Union and the US were using the NPT to maintain their nuclear monopoly. China felt that Nuclear Weapon States had no right to deny Non-Nuclear Weapon States armaments unless they were committed to disarmament themselves. China eventually joined the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1984 and finally ratified the NPT in 1992. Currently it is an important party in the nuclear negotiations with Iran and North Korea. This is but one indicator of the fact that China's definition of its place in the international system, and its trust and understanding of international regimes, is still very much a work-in-progress.

Despite China's assertion that it "never engages in aggression or expansion, never seeks hegemony, and remains a staunch force for upholding regional and world peace and stability", the amalgamation of the factors outlined above, and China's opaque political system, leave China's intent mired in ambiguity. This is reflected in the negative opinions on China in many regions of the world. According to a BBC World Service Poll, perceptions of China in fourteen other countries (Australia, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Mexico, the Philippines, Russia, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the US) that were polled have been declining - falling from 49 percent on average in 2005, to 34 percent in 2009 and 2010. In Gallup's World Affairs poll this year, Americans ranked China as the second "greatest enemy" of the US together with North Korea (Iran was ranked top place), while Afghanistan and Iraq were ranked fourth and fifth, respectively. Is western perception of China's threat a legacy of Cold War mentality or a reflection of justified fears? Or is it a tactical move to provoke China into being defensive, thereby reinforcing the negative image of China in the international arena? Most importantly, is there substance to China's rhetoric of peace, and is China likely to be belligerently assertive as it acquires greater political influence with its increasing economic power?

In the near future, there appears to be little incentive for China to seek hegemony. First, China's rapid growth has thrust it into the spotlight, and China is fully aware that it is under great scrutiny and any misstep is likely to be judged in the worst possible way, given the existing fears and negative perception of China. China is concerned that any display of belligerence will trigger containment or hedging as seen in the eagerness of ASEAN countries for the US to check the growing influence of China in Southeast Asia. Second, after a century of tumultuous changes and unrest, the sustained period of peace in the recent decades has proved conducive for economic growth, and China's priority will continue to be economic and social development. As stated in the White Paper, "From their bitter sufferings from war and poverty in modern times, the Chinese people have learned the value of peace and the pressing need of development. They see that only peace can allow them to live and work in prosperity and contentment and that only development can bring them decent living. Therefore, the central goal of China's diplomacy is to create a peaceful and stable international environment for its development." Third, China is cognisant of the fact that its rapid ascent is as much the fruit of its labours as it is the result of a virtuous circle: because China is perceived to be a rising power, it is accorded increasing importance, triggering a positive multiplier effect (for example, receiving more foreign direct investment and being given a stronger voice in international affairs). The 'Beijing Consensus' and the 'BRICs' (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are all concepts originating from western scholars and researchers and subsequently harnessed by China. Any sign of aggressive dominance or overt undermining of international regimes is likely to end this virtuous circle. Fourth, China is fearful that the US, concerned that its current leadership of the world might be challenged, could use any sign of China's aggression to full advantage by sowing discord between China and its neighbouring countries or using it as evidence of China's flagrance.

In addition to the lack of incentives for pursuing hegemony, there is the issue of the current global context. First, there is now an unprecedented degree of interdependence between countries. Pressing problems such as the current financial crisis, global warming, terrorism and nuclear-proliferation are global in nature and cannot be solved by any country alone. Cooperation on an equal footing is increasingly recognised as the basis for forming the necessary mechanisms to deal with these problems. China is now the largest trade partner of many countries, and while this increases its relative economic importance and might confer it leverage in areas beyond the economic sphere, it cannot conceivably undertake any threatening actions against these countries without suffering adverse economic consequences. Second, while Britain and the US respectively rose as sole superpowers, China is rising during a time when other countries like India and Russia are also experiencing great economic growth and have increasing international influence through the size of their markets and their control over key resources. India's population is estimated to exceed that of China before 2050. With several emerging countries jostling for influence, and with the continued presence of the US and the EU as key global actors, the objective of "peaceful development" where China "pursues both its own interests and the common interests of mankind and works to ensure that its own development and the development of other countries are mutually reinforcing, thus promoting the common development of all countries" does appear to be the most pragmatic course of action for China. While it remains to be seen if China will indeed be consistent in its words and deeds, the potential threat of China's rise ought not to be overstated for now.


Su Hsing Loh is an Associate Fellow with the Asia Programme at Chatham House.



"China's Rhetoric of Peace "