The role of resurgent nationalism and the international economic crisis.
The debate over the economic and international rise in world politics of China in the last two decades has been characterized by growing concerns about the nature of its peaceful purposes. With the deepening of the world economic crisis since 2008, several military and diplomatic operations have been aimed at containing the rise of Chinese power in the Asia-Pacific area. These include the strengthening of the American commitment to Japan’s defence, the formation of Japan-South Korea alignment, redeployment of Japanese forces, naval cooperation between the United States and the Vietnamese and Philippine forces, and, finally, the Asia-Pacific Security Strategy announced by President Obama and the Secretary of State Clinton in the last weeks of 2011.
At first sight these concerns could seem exaggerated given that on the 9th of December 2003 Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao reiterated the concept of a new phase in China’s approach toward its neighbouring countries. He pointed out the peaceful nature of Chinese rise, adding that hegemony and expansion never would have been pursued in the area, even with the full development of the country.
Despite the attempt of reassuring their regional neighbours and the United States by substituting the term “rise” with the more neutral “development”, several questions about the new role of China in world politics have emerged since the recent economic meltdown.
Given that China’s development has been driven by capital, technology and resources acquired by peaceful means (Bijian), the unexpected economic slowdown after 30 years of uninterrupted rise could bring about the demise of the peaceful approach to international politics in favour of a more assertive Chinese foreign policy in order to maintain its socio-political stability, commercial openness and the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party.
The more assertive Chinese approach to foreign policy, recently demonstrated by a warning to the US to stay out of any disputes about the South China Sea and with the refusal to US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to visit the country, coincides with the emergence of the so-called geopolitik nationalism. Hughes, by analysing a number of popular Chinese texts published in the last few years including Wolf Totem, Unhappy China, China’s Maritime Rights and China Dream, has discovered how concepts of lebensraum, ’maritime interests’, and ‘sphere of influence’ underpin and foster Chinese domestic discourse on foreign policy. As PLA Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu’s 2010 China Dream asserts, the Chinese national “grand goal” will be to become number one in the world by displacing the declining United States. In addition, Liu rejects the concept of a “peaceful rise” arguing that China cannot rely solely on its traditional virtues of harmony to secure the new international order. Therefore, China needs a “military rise” in addition to its economic rise.
In the last decade Chinese awareness of being weaker than the US from a military standpoint and the need to harness external threat and nationalistic ideologies for obtaining a better domestic cohesion and reinforcing the Party legitimacy has caused increasing concerns about the peacefulness of the Chinese rise. In fact, as the 2012 Global Military Balance reports, the shift in economic power is already beginning to have a real military effect: while Western states’ defence budgets are under pressure and their military procurement is constrained, Asian Pacific nations (particularly China) are increasing defence spending by double digits annually, with some forecasts suggesting they will achieve military parity with the US in the next 15-20 years.
In conclusion, this data seems to confirm an on-going change in distribution of power in the Asia-Pacific and, accordingly, it not only discourages any optimistic expectations on China’s peaceful rise but is helpful in explaining the new American Strategy for the area, based on a massive redeployment of both US military forces and financial resources in order to contain China’s rising assertiveness.