Columbia International Affairs Online: Journals

CIAO DATE: 05/2010

Bumps in the Road

The Journal of International Security Affairs

A publication of:
Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs

Volume: 0, Issue: 17 (Fall 2009)

Willy Lam


Full Text

HONG KONG-Still remember "Pax Chinamerica"? As recently as this spring, China was supposed to be the de facto quasi-superpower that was closing in on the United States-and the two behemoths seemed destined to become the arbiters of a new global geopolitical and economic order. The PRC's fast-expanding status was amply demonstrated by the photo op at the London G20 Summit in April. President and Commander-in-Chief Hu Jintao, the supremo who has done more than anybody to catapult his nation to superstardom, was seated right next to Queen Elizabeth II, while U.S. President Barack Obama was somewhere in the back row.

Yet at the equally high-profile "G8 plus Five" Summit recently held in L'Aquila, Italy, Hu was nowhere to be seen. After spending a day meeting Italian leaders, he had scurried back to Beijing to handle ethnic riots in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, during which more than 190 people were killed. While it was a coincidence that one of the worst instances of ethnic violence since 1949 flared up at this juncture, there is no denying that problems of the "China model"-particularly stern one-party rule and the ruthless repression of dissent-have become an impediment to Beijing's efforts at waging quasi-superpower diplomacy. After all, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) administration's suppression of the religious, linguistic and cultural rights of Uighurs-a Muslim, Turkic-speaking minority numbering 9 million-as well as Tibetans is well documented.

Late last year, as China's heft appeared to grow in direct proportion to the severity of America's financial hemorrhage, Beijing temporarily suspended exchanges with France to protest a meeting between President Nicolas Sarkozy and the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetans. In L'Aquila, however, a host of leaders including Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were openly critical of Beijing's Xinjiang policy. And in the wake of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's accusation that Beijing was committing "genocide" in Xinjiang, the Hu leadership is palpably nervous about hostile reactions in the Muslim world. Beijing's obsolete concept of total or indivisible sovereignty-as well as "non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries"-has become an obstacle to its game plan of enhancing the country's global clout.

Much of the Middle Kingdom's claim to quasi-superpower status rests on its economic might: a 9 percent growth rate for the past two decades and foreign-exchange reserves totaling more than $2 trillion. That Beijing has become the largest buyer of American bonds has obliged Washington to tone down its critique of China's human rights record as well as its alleged manipulation of the value of the yuan. However, the Hu leadership's attempts to take advantage of rock-bottom asset prices to acquire foreign companies with strategic holdings have met with a series of rebuffs. The recent failure of the state-controlled Chinalco's $19 billion bid to buy a big chunk of the Australian mining giant Rio Tinto is illustrative of the Western world's suspicions of the hidden agenda behind the so-called "going out" policy of PRC corporations. It is perhaps for this reason that Beijing has appreciably lowered its profile in its long-standing plan to restructure the global financial architecture. Just before the G20 meeting in London, the Governor of the People's Bank of China, Zhou Xiaochuan, made headlines around the world by suggesting that the greenback be replaced by Special Drawing Rights of the International Monetary Fund as the world's trading currency. On the eve of the L'Aquila conclave, however, Deputy Foreign Minister He Yafei surprised observers by saying that Beijing harbored no strong views about changing the U.S. dollar's international status.

It is, however, on the military front that China's global putsch might meet the most daunting obstacles. For the past two years, the PRC's hard-power projection has been dazzling. This ranges from building at least two aircraft carriers to frequent cat-and-mouse games between Chinese submarines and U.S. naval vessels in the Pacific. And China has apparently overtaken Japan and India in the three-nation race to put an astronaut on the moon. Yet the People's Liberation Army (PLA) juggernaut has become so fearsome of late that most of China's neighbors-particularly countries that have territorial disputes with the PRC-have taken drastic measures to protect themselves. The best example is the intensifying conflict between China on the one hand, and the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam on the other regarding sovereignty over islets in the South China Sea.

In the spring, Manila passed a law legitimizing its sovereignty claims over the Scarborough Shoal and other Spratly Islands; it has also registered such claims with the United Nations. Kuala Lumpur and Hanoi have ignited acrimonious debates with Beijing over other islets. In the meantime, all three countries have announced plans to upgrade their navies and air forces. For example, Hanoi has reportedly ordered six Kilo-class submarines as well as 24 SU-30MK2 jetfighters from Russia. All three have played the "America card" against China. Malaysia conducted wide-ranging war games with U.S. forces in June. And both the Philippines and Vietnam have professed their willingness to let the U.S. navy use their deep-sea ports and other bases. Even worse, from Beijing's point of view, Washington seems to have taken advantage of the increasing popularity of the "China threat" theory to consolidate its "anti-China encirclement policy" by cementing ties with allies and friends ranging from Japan, South Korea, Australia and India to the Philippines and Malaysia.

Not too long after he acceded to the helmsman's slot in China in late 2002, Mr. Hu decided to jettison late patriarch Deng Xiaoping's well-known dictum on foreign and military affairs: "Take a low profile and never take the lead." Driven partly by economic imperatives such as acquiring reliable supplies of oil and other strategic resources, China has extended its reach to regions and countries as far as Africa and Latin America. And while Deng had counseled a policy of conciliation with the United States, Hu is not afraid of taking on the lone superpower. The contretemps that the putative quasi-superpower has encountered over the past few months, however, might engender a re-think in the minds of Hu and his comrades, who seem to be getting too impatient in claiming what they perceive as China's rightful place in the sun.