CHINA’S unrelenting growth is continuing to fuel speculation about the implications of its spectacular rise for the rest of the world.
Its irrepressive re-emergence as a major world power shapes and colours private discourses, academic analyses and bilateral and multilateral discussions, whether or not intended originally to discuss China.
It permeates strategic discourses behind closed doors, casual coffeeshop talk and everything in between. The recent Germany-Malaysia Security Forum in Kuala Lumpur, sponsored by Konrad Adenaur Stiftung (KAS) and organised by ISIS Malaysia, was an example.
Germany’s political foundations like the KAS are affiliated with their respective political parties, and with the KAS it is with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s rightwing Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
It is significant that even with a conservative CDU government, Germany has no qualms about the rise of China. German delegates instead looked constructively ahead to an even more prosperous China with which to work, above and beyond any ideological differences.
A Malaysian delegate privately remarked that Germans had been trading successfully with China for centuries. China had been a major world power then and, after a period of isolation and internal upheaval, it is becoming a major world power again.
Countries East and West that have had similarly positive experiences with China feel the same. Those that might have upset China through war, invasion, occupation or squabbling over tiny islets might feel differently, but exactly how an unprovoked China would perceive them today is another matter.
A larger conference in Berlin some years ago attended by delegates from various countries, and sponsored by Germany’s Defence Ministry, was similarly positive about China. At that time, Merkel’s government comprised her CDU, the equally rightwing Christian Social Union (of Bavaria) and the left-of-centre Social Democratic Party (SPD) of her immediate predecessor, Gerhard Schröder.
Since then, Merkel’s CDU-led coalition had substituted the SPD with the Free Democratic Party (FDP), a centrist party that became another right-of-centre party. That Germany’s formal posture towards a rising China has not changed indicates that its positive outlook on China is deep-seated and enduring, unaffected by political ideologies in Germany or China.
Nonetheless, some classic questions about a rising China and its impact on Asia and the world linger. These tend to refer to developments such as the increasing defence expenditure of countries in East Asia.
Other slick assumptions are that Asean countries are “hedging” against China, and the world has moved from the Westphalian concept of national sovereignty to that of “responsibility to protect”. The former is untested and the latter is still disturbing.
It is easy to make a superficial connection between these issues and a rising China, and then to conclude that there is an arms race in the region, and the arms race must therefore have resulted from a region alarmed by China’s rise.
These points had been raised erroneously 20 years ago, and they will still be raised 20 or more years from now. The problem with these simple-minded assumptions is that they neglect both the key details and the big picture.
All countries spend continually on defence, routinely preparing for contingencies from any quarter and not just to arm against any particular threat. This happens everywhere all the time, regardless of the prevailing strategic situation in a country or region.
A Malaysian delegate explained that it was part of the normal course of running defence establishments, when countries need to renew their ageing arsenals or when they become more developed and can afford to spend more. It might be added that defence procurement is the most lucrative industry in the world, so it easily acquires a logic and a momentum of its own.
However, at a time when Philippine and Chinese officials have had uncomfortable brushes with each other over the disputed Scarborough shoal in the South China Sea, blips in national defence budgets may appear suggestive.
But alarmist presumptions about regional threats and the need to “arm” against them can easily acquire a logic and a momentum of their own as well, however unjustified. At the same time, some parties may be hoping to see conflict in the region to profit from it through the arms trade, strategic leverage or recruitment of allies.
Such a prospect militates against this region’s collective interests and several of its abiding realities.
First, the political stability and economic prosperity of countries in East Asia depend on the stability and propensity for growth in the region as a whole. Injury to the region’s prospects also hurts individual national prospects.
Second, the countries in East Asia, particularly those of Asean, are clearly dwarfed by China. No amount of individual “arming” can address the gulf in national defence capacities between them and China.
Third, Asean countries are still unable to act as one militarily even if by doing so their collective clout can achieve some “balance” with a hulking China. Age-old border issues, disputed maritime territory and other niggling bilateral concerns have prevented any sense of an Asean security entity from developing until now and for the foreseeable future.
Fourth, the immature presumption that smaller countries in East Asia can always bank on the US for protection is both mistaken and dangerous, because that notion becomes very destabilising whenever it is proven untrue.
The notion of a US acting as a countervailing force against China derives only from those instances when US and indigenous concerns coincide in ways that are dissimilar to China’s. When US and East Asian interests diverge, as they will at certain points, the regional strategic picture will change.
US-China joint interests have grown tremendously and will continue to grow. They may already have surpassed the shared interests between the US and East Asia minus China.
The US itself is the sole superpower with an agenda and priorities of its own. Beyond a limited convergence of interests with other countries, it will not deign to act as a servant or bodyguard of smaller nations.
China remains inundated with domestic problems of its own. These span pressing social, administrative and environmental concerns as well as restive provinces and an economy running out of steam.
Meanwhile, it has witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union that had suffered excessive arms expenditures, and a troubled US economy weighed down by overspending on foreign wars. Pragmatic Chinese leaders today would know better than to repeat those mistakes.
Modern China’s success also depends considerably on a peaceful East Asia that has enabled it to boost its exports worldwide. And since the regional peace has also been maintained by a US military presence in the Asia-Pacific, China as its greatest economic beneficiary might perhaps be asked to help pay for that presence.
When I mentioned that to Martin Jacques, the British academic and author of When China Rules The World, he chuckled. But that is a modern-day reality that a country like Germany may be able to understand.
Clearly, not all Western views of a rising China are created equal. The differences between the German and US views are interesting, and they become more telling when Germany is a leading country and the strongest economy in Europe.
Perhaps that has something to do with Germany not having to “guard” its status as the sole superpower in the world.