China’s quest for primacy
China’s intransigence over arbitral proceedings against its Nine-Dash Line claim in the South China Sea contains an impulse to make threat or use of force a norm in China’s relations with Asean nations involved in the controversy.
In the “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea” that China signed in 2002 with the claimants, the parties affirmed their commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and to “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including … refraining from action of inhabiting … presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays.”
China has thrashed this pact with contempt. It has been taking a series of unilateral actions that subvert the status quo in the region. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is accelerating massive land reclamation and construction activities in the islands that include the Paracels and the Spratlys.
These actions not only alter the region’s strategic environment but also underscore China’s naked quest for primacy. The quest has the familiar ring of “lebensraum” or living space, a geopolitical concept that was central to Nazi Germany’s political and social ideology. It advocated the necessity of acquiring additional territories as new sources of food and raw materials.
In China’s case, lebensraum is a drive for offshore oil, gas and minerals to support its rapid economic growth and a population that now exceeds 1.350 billion people. Reinforcing this thrust in November 2013, it unilaterally established an air defense identification zone that overlaps with the existing such zones of Japan and the claimant nations.
All this is part of a political choreography aimed at replacing America as the hegemonic power in Asia. Looming over this goal are China’s growing military apparatus and staggering financial prowess.
The Pentagon’s 2014 report to the US Congress outlines the PLA’s technology advancements that trouble US defense policymakers. China is now the world’s second-largest military spender, after the United States. Since 1995, it has expanded its defense budget by 500 percent in real terms. As a result, its 4.6 million-strong PLA (combined active reserve and frontline troops) now possesses nuclear warheads along with a modern blue water navy, stealth fighters and strategic airlift, nuclear submarines, and intermediate range ballistic missiles.
As for financial resources, the People’s Bank of China in 2013 accumulated an astonishing $3.9 trillion worth of foreign exchange, the highest forex reserve in the world, dwarfing America’s forex of $448 billion. This does not include the $400 billion foreign assets of China Investment Corp., a sovereign wealth fund, or the colossal reserves held by China’s major commercial banks.
Such military and financial preponderance has fostered a policy that vacillates between intimidation and enticement. Last year, Prime Minister Li Keqiang proposed a friendship treaty with claimant countries, offering $20 billion in loans to directly and separately settle the disputes—a ploy to break the collective stance of Asean. It is this mercantilist approach that betrays Chinaís anxieties as a new superpower.
With a burgeoning middle class that now exceeds America’s total population, China remains resolute in striving for parity with US industrial output and consumption levels. Already, it is competing with America for oil and metals on world markets. Though per capita consumption rates in China are still about 11 times below those in America, China has overtaken the latter as the world’s biggest consumer of energy. In terms of personal auto vehicles, its roads will see the number of vehicles rise from 20 million to 160 million between 2005 and 2020.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), however, must first cope with China’s economic slowdown. Since 2012, its export-import and manufacturing sectors have been contracting, triggering a rash of corporate bankruptcies and a major credit crisis. With these developments, the CCP may be expected to be more aggressive as a way of diverting Chinese angst over increasing economic imbalances. The decline in external demand, for example, is forcing China to artificially keep GDP growth high by creating new infrastructure, housing, and factories that lack end-users.
In the past, the CCP proved that it can be pragmatic and creative in advancing China’s primacy. It abandoned, for instance, its long alliance with the USSR to promote detente with America in the early 1970s. That move not only reestablished Sino-American relations but also, toward the end of that decade, introduced Deng Xiaoping’s sweeping market-oriented reforms that stood Marxism-Leninism on its head.
Pragmatism has long been a hallmark of China’s persevering and entrepreneurial people. From the Hsia (Xia) Dynasty, its first recorded dynasty in 22 BC, China has been a civilization of resiliency, accustomed to the kind of thinking and dreaming in millennia that built the Great Wall over some 2,000 years. Transitioning from an agrarian to an industrial society, from a communist monolith to a market economy—within three brief decades—has given China a mantle of exceptionalism that fascinates mezzanine powers and developing nations alike.
China, too, has always been an exemplar of realpolitik. It is confident that a legal victory by the claimants in the current territorial conflict will be a pyrrhic one because both The Hague tribunal and the sovereign plaintiffs will be unable to enforce it. There are, after all, myriad examples where great powers, including America and Russia, scorn international edicts that do not serve their purposes.
The challenge, thus, is for China to moderate its lebensraum with a good dose of Confucian humanism and help build a new economic order, one that may transform the Pacific basin into a region of stability, progress and peace. That, surely, is a goal worthy of a great and ancient nation.
Rex D. Lores ([email protected]) is a member of the Futuristics Society of the Philippines.
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