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China's rise is waking up the neighbours

Benjamin Herscovitch | China Spectator | 03 April 2014

While delivering a speech in Paris last week, President Xi Jinping shrewdly gave China’s ‘smile diplomacy’ a Gallic twist by quoting France’s favourite autocrat.

Amid the inking of agreements on high-tech transfers and industry cooperation, Xi approvingly cited Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte’s prophecy that when the Chinese lion ‘wakes she will shake the world.’

The Chinese president then quickly reassured his audience of China’s benign intentions: ‘Today, the lion has woken up. But it is peaceful, pleasant and civilised.’

Xi’s rhetorical gesture set the right tone, but it is hard to reconcile with Beijing’s bullish claims to vast areas of disputed territory and the bellicose sentiments emanating from elements of the People’s Liberation Army and the state-controlled Chinese media.

Capitals across Asia are well aware of this disconnect and are already hedging against the risk of a violent Chinese lion.

This emerging ‘concert of Asia’ is bad news for Beijing: It means closer defence partnerships between the United States and China’s neighbours, and increased military and diplomatic cooperation between nations on the Middle Kingdom’s maritime and continental peripheries.

Despite being undermined by budgetary woes on the home front, the US military and diplomatic ‘pivot’ to Asia has been embraced abroad as a counterweight to Chinese power.

Tokyo is planning to extend the mandate of its self-defence force to allow it to fight alongside American forces if they are attacked, while US marines have been rotating through Darwin since 2012.

Having ejected US military bases from the Philippines 23 years ago, Manila announced last month that it will soon welcome temporary American defence facilities.

Meanwhile, Singapore will host two more US combat ships by the end of 2016 -- bringing the total American naval deployments to the city-state to three ships over the next three years.

Beyond traditional American allies and partners, the US pivot has even received support from one of Washington’s former enemies.

US warships now regularly visit Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay to receive repairs, and with Washington offering Hanoi US$18 million worth of naval aid last year, US-Vietnamese defence cooperation has been upgraded to a comprehensive partnership.

China probably foresaw that its rapid rise would prompt a ramped up US military and diplomatic presence in the Western Pacific. But more worryingly for Beijing, key Asian powers are now independently banding together in a bid to contain China’s territorial and strategic ambitions.

India and Japan -- two of China’s former adversaries and Asia’s second- and third-largest economic powers and defence spenders -- are deepening ties.

In a thinly veiled rebuke of Beijing’s contested territorial claims in East and South Asia, Tokyo and New Delhi have stated their opposition to any attempts to change Asia’s territorial and strategic status quo by force, while also agreeing in January to strengthen bilateral maritime, onshore and aerial defence cooperation.

India is also looking to rebuff Chinese encroachment in Southeast Asia: New Delhi has developed a strategic partnership with Hanoi as part of its ‘Look East Policy,’ and is giving the Vietnamese credit for defence purchases, training for their submarine crews, and assistance to explore and exploit hydrocarbon reserves in the disputed South China Sea.

With Narendra Modi -- the favourite to be the next Indian prime minister -- accusing China of having an ‘expansionist mindset’ during a campaign rally in Indian-administered territory claimed by Beijing, India is likely to continue to undercut Chinese territorial and strategic initiatives.

Although Vietnam and the Philippines have long been vocal opponents of Chinese territorial claims and brinkmanship in the South China Sea, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has remained meek in the face of China’s ‘big stick’ diplomacy.

The rationale for taking a collective stand against China is nevertheless increasingly compelling for ASEAN: Beijing has now also included part of Indonesia’s Riau Islands Province in maps delineating Chinese territory and has started antagonising Kuala Lumpur with naval exercises around a disputed shoal within Malaysia’s 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

Manila’s move over the weekend to bring its territorial dispute with China to the United Nations for arbitration will not receive vocal support from ASEAN. However, the need for a stronger and more unified response to China’s provocative territorial claims can be expected to figure prominently in discussions among ASEAN defence ministers as they meet US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in Hawaii this week.

Deng Xiaoping, the father of China’s recent resurgence, was fond of claiming that the principal threat to international peace and security was US and Soviet aggression. Deng insisted that unlike these great powers, Beijing would never browbeat and bully other nations: China simply wanted to pursue its own ‘peaceful development.’

President Xi would be wise to translate Deng’s narrative into policy substance. Failure to do so will see China confront an expanding concert of hostile Asian nations.

Dr Benjamin Herscovitch is a Beijing-based Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.