With the United States-led war on terror, and its disastrous Iraqi occupation saturating the media, Washington is turning to yet another rising security challenge - China. Over the past few months, key speeches by the Bush administration and policy documents have signalled US concerns about a rising China.
They included Secretary of State Condolezza Rice’s speech in Sydney for a trilateral approach by Australia, Japan and the US to “engage” China; Pentagon’s 2006 Quadrennial Defence Review and mixed signals sent by Congress and the executive over the re-evaluation of the yuan; the Sino-US trade deficits and the repeated concerns over human rights in the communist state.
When one follows the US-dominated rhetoric and discourses, it would appear that China is the next Soviet Union: a precursor to the next stage of the Cold War that never ended in 1991. But is there a real basis for making such an assessment? Or is the nature of China’s rise something more complex than it is purported to be?
The article argues that while China’s rise is complex, the nation of 1.3 billion people is unlikely to be the nemesis in the new cold war. Three themes will support the proposition that China is not the existential threat that some sectors of the American establishment perceive the country to be.
Chinese power is different
First, the nature of Chinese power is very different from the defunct Soviet Union, notwithstanding that both are communist states.
The Soviet Empire was an expansionist and totalitarian regime. It inherited the Tsarist mantle of enlarging its borders in the European theatre, the Far East Asian front, the Caucasus corridor and the Central Asian region in the name of national security; messianic propagation of its values and ultimately, absolute control.
The first salvo fired in the Cold War was Stalin’s move into East Berlin after World War II. The Berlin Wall was built, dividing the capitalist west and the communist east in a protracted ideological tussle between Moscow and Washington that lasted over four decades.
On every front, the Soviet leadership presented the “Socialist paradise” as an ideological, political, economic, military and cultural rival to the United States. Although the Soviet empire was essentially a military power, it did not prevent the Kremlin from forming alternative organisations such as COMECON, the Warsaw Pact and other Soviet-led security and friendship pacts.
The many proxy wars fought by the two superpowers in the developing world were one of the many expressions of this rivalry. If there was one enemy that matched the true definition of a nemesis, it was the Soviet Union.
In contrast, China is not an expansionist power in the classical or contemporary sense. Neither does Beijing harbour colonial or hegemonic aspirations to pressure other states to embrace all things communist and Chinese. China is more concerned with recovering lost territories, a legacy of colonialism where dynastic China was “carved” up by western interests.
China’s policy towards Taiwan illustrates a claim in territorial sovereignty rather than an act of aggression. From the perspective of history and international law, China is exercising its sovereign prerogative to reclaim what rightfully belongs to the Chinese people. Beijing is staking a legal right to repossess a “renegade province” in a similar manner that it brought Hong Kong and Macau into Special Administrative Regions post-1997.
The circumstances of how the three regions were denied to China may differ but its legal right over them remains inviolable.
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