SINGAPORE: As the mud settles from the 2021 National People’s Congress (NPC) held in Beijing in early March, one essential query on the lips of policy-makers and political observers is: What is China’s Asia strategy going to be like?
Indeed, the geopolitical scenario in Asia was clearly of paramount significance to China as seen in Premier Li Keqiang’s speech on the NPC opening.
The US was additionally talked about in reference to Sino-American enterprise relations.
In comparability, there have been 27 mentions of President Xi Jinping (in keeping with the English language report), with the phrases “COVID-19” and “coronavirus” showing 22 occasions mixed.
The central message of Mr Li’s NPC keynote speeches was this: China is phenomenal, and beneath the management of President Xi, it’s decided to take its place within the solar, particularly in Asia.
This was most clearly fleshed out in his closing remarks calling for “tireless efforts to build China into a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful, and [to] fulfill the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation” – traits that replicate an distinctive imaginative and prescient of what China’s future can be like.
The proof of the pudding, nonetheless, is in actions quite than phrases. Asia – and extra particularly, Southeast Asia – has acquired appreciable consideration from Beijing previously 12 months.
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According to a current ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute report, Chinese leaders together with President Xi, Politiburo Member Yang Jiechi, Defence Minister Wei Fenghe and Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited 9 out of ten Southeast Asia international locations in 2020 (solely Vietnam was excluded).
This, in distinction to American leaders’ bodily absence in Asia, speaks to Beijing’s priorities: We need Southeast Asia on our aspect when the mud from the COVID-19 settles.
As noticed by eminent Chinese observer David Shambaugh in Where Great Powers Meet, the connection between the United States and China may be characterised as complete competitors, with this competitors enjoying out most vividly in Southeast Asia in 3 ways.
CHINESE ENTITLEMENT AND THE RETURN OF HONG KONG
The first is China’s heightened sense of entitlement, significantly when it comes to territory. Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew had expressed the view that Chinese leaders are severe about displacing the US because the primary energy in Asia and the world in Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States and the World.
The enactment of the National Security regulation in Hong Kong final 12 months was a key transfer to make sure China may now take decisive motion in territories beneath its jurisdiction.
The nationwide safety regulation represents an important effort by Beijing to guard its pursuits within the metropolis, and strike on the coronary heart of what it sees as efforts by Western governments utilizing Hong Kong as a base to assemble intelligence and subvert its political system.
As Chinese pursuits develop, be it in Hong Kong or elsewhere, this sense of entitlement can solely enhance. Although the phrases of Hong Kong’s handover had been negotiated and agreed to by China a few years again, how this “One Country, Two Systems” transition would play out has been left to interpretation.
And as China grows stronger, these circumstances ought to replicate China’s pursuits, the pondering goes. After all, such guidelines and expectations had been solid in an earlier period by Western international locations when China was weak.
More broadly, a extra equitable worldwide system of guidelines – this line of argument goes – ought to replicate the shift of world energy and consider Chinese preferences.
Indeed, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in a press convention final week, referred to as for larger illustration and an even bigger say on the United Nations for creating international locations: “The UN is not a club for big or rich countries. All countries enjoy sovereign equality and no country is in a position to dictate international affairs.”
Mr Wang has additionally articulated China’s hardened place on the South China Sea, most just lately on the East Asian Summit Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in September 2020 the place he mentioned, “China’s claims … have not changed and will not change. They have not expanded, yet not will they contract.”
CHINESE EXPANSIONISM: RESPONDING TO THE US PIVOT STRTAEGY
China additionally needs to develop its affect, to answer what it sees as ongoing American intrusion into its strategic house.
While Chinese leaders are cautious to keep away from framing Chinese overseas coverage as expansionist, the pondering is that China must undertake an “active defence” strategy, or to make use of an illustration from soccer, the necessity to “gegenpress” (counterpress) opponents.
Ever because the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” strategy in 2008, Chinese policy-makers have largely taken the view that Washington is making an attempt to comprise it.
The Trump’s administration commerce struggle and bellicose rhetoric solely confirmed what Beijing suspected all alongside: America needs to maintain China down and keep its primacy in Asia.
Indeed, the Biden’s administration singling out of China because the “biggest geopolitical test” for the US will solely additional serve to bolster the Chinese mindset that the subsequent 4 years of Biden’s presidency is not going to be very completely different from Trump so far as American overseas coverage in the direction of China is worried.
In the occasion of battle, China sees the necessity to get away of the primary island chain – an important chain of main archipelagoes linking Japan to Taiwan all the way down to the Malaysia Peninsula – with the intention to protect its capability to combat on the maritime entrance.
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The most up-to-date announcement final week by the US to construct anti-Chinese missile community alongside the island chain would probably lead to a powerful Chinese navy response, probably within the type of elevated surveillance actions and Chinese problem to American freedom of navigation operations, along with elevated Chinese actions off Taiwan since final 12 months.
CHINESE EXCEPTIONALISM: CHINA IS BETTER, DIFFERENT FROM THE WEST
Chinese exceptionalism represents a mindset that has gained appreciable traction amongst Chinese residents, significantly in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The concept that China is best and completely different from the West is a central narrative that the Communist Party of China (CCP) has sought to speak within the final decade or so, significantly following the 2008 Beijing Olympics which was seen as China’s coming-out social gathering.
International occasions such because the 2008 world monetary disaster and the 2020 coronavirus pandemic which devastated many Western international locations had been seen as indicators signaling an inexorable energy shift from the West to East, and additional amplified by scholarly works by writers similar to Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World and Kishore Mahbubani’s Has China Won?
The rise of Chinese company titans – Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent – are indicators the nation may be an modern, financial and technological powerhouse which its individuals may be pleased with, with such industrial entities reined in in the event that they stray away from nationwide pursuits.
In this respect, Chinese exceptionalism gives the CCP with the largest supply of legitimacy: China is nice as a result of the CCP is in management.
Building on a powerful anti-Western discourse, Chinese exceptionalism pondering portrays the West (significantly the US) because the supply of all the main issues of the world.
Back in January this 12 months, Chen Yixin, a senior regulation enforcement official near Xi, reiterated the view that “the East is rising and the West is declining”, including that worldwide developments in the meanwhile are “favourable” to China, in keeping with a report by the Wall Street Journal.
CHINA AND SOUTHEAST ASIA: TURBULENT TIMES AHEAD
Beijing is not going to probably let up its ongoing cultivation of allies and supporters amongst international locations in Southeast Asia, the subsequent theatre of nice energy competitors.
Already China’s aggressive pushing of its coronavirus vaccine to many international locations worldwide have generated considerations that vaccine diplomacy is merely disguised jostling for geopolitical affect.
Yet, on the similar time, to imagine China can translate its financial preponderance to impact particular political outcomes in Southeast Asia dangers overestimating the magnitude and efficacy of China’s political energy.
This line of pondering additionally ignores the potential challenges dealing with the CCP again house together with home challenges to President Xi’s maintain on energy.
US efforts to re-engage with the world has been gaining steam since President Joe Biden took over, significantly in requires members of the Quad (Australia, Japan and India) to play an even bigger position, for democracies to step up through the G7, and for US firms to compete with China.
Indeed, upcoming big-ticket occasions just like the Shangri-La dialogue later this 12 months might be intently scrutinised for additional explication of American overseas coverage priorities vis-à-vis the area and China.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s upcoming Asia tour this week and subsequent assembly with prime Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi may present first insights.
While the coronavirus pandemic has generated discuss of what a “new normal” can be like in a post-coronavirus period, it’s probably that nice energy competitors will go on as per regular – pandemic or not.
Benjamin Ho is an assistant professor within the China Programme, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He researches on Chinese exceptionalism, China’s overseas coverage and worldwide relations