Dealing with the ‘China threat’: An Asian perspective

Sep 27, 2022
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Forcing Asian countries to choose between the USA and China is unlikely to work. Even close Asian allies of the US have shown that they prefer to go their own way in geopolitics.

The relationship between China and the US-led West has, for decades, been vitiated by the so-called ‘China threat theory.’ The theory ‘…assumes that China cannot and will not rise peacefully, that it actively seeks to subvert the West and the current world order, and that the West must restrict China’s rise to prevent serious global consequences.’

Why would the US-led West consider China a threat? There is a deeply embedded assumption that the virtuous combination of democracy and capitalism is a unique Western innovation that represents a gift to the rest of the world and is the only pathway to sustainable economic and social progress. China has contested such a claim by demonstrating that the mix of a communist political system and state-led capitalism represents an alternative pathway to socio-economic progress. China’s support of an UN-centred multipolar world also contradicts the idea of a US-led international order.

The unprecedented growth of the Chinese economy (around 10 percent per annum since 1978), its ability to lift more than 800 million out of abject poverty, its tremendous progress in technological and military capabilities have made the West envious. China is now the world’s second largest economy in the world after the US and will soon overtake it if current growth trajectories continue unabated.

The currently troubled nature of Sino-US relations makes it easy to overlook the fact that the US has played a key role in supporting the rise of China. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese students have been educated and trained in some of the finest US institutions. The US allowed its market to become a major destination for Chinese exports. The US paved the way for China’s membership of the WTO. Yet, today, the US is preoccupied with the quest to contain China. As one report suggests, ‘The United States’ approach in Asia, as explicitly indicated in its Indo–Pacific Strategy, is to build military capabilities and interoperability among its Asian allies to counter or contain China.’

Will the US and its allies succeed in containing China? This is unlikely to happen because China’s Asian neighbours are unlikely to uncritically accept the view that China represents a threat to the global order. Indeed, as John Menadue has shown in his scathing critique of US, the country has squandered its moral authority through a long series of disastrous military campaigns, most notably the tragic wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Internally, it is wracked by political polarisation which explains its inept handling of COVID-19. It is one of the very few countries in the world that experienced a decline in life expectancy. Hence, the US no longer represents a worthy socio-economic model to Asia and to the non-Western world.

There is much that the Western allies of the US – and Australia in particular – can learn from Asia in crafting their relations with China. Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s Prime Minister, offers an eloquent formulation of the Asian approach to dealing with China. He observes:

‘It’s natural for some countries to be closer to one side or the other but most countries would prefer not to be forced to choose between the US and China.’

The Singaporean Prime Minister warns:

‘…if we only look at regional security from the perspective of individual nations, we may end up with an arms race and an unstable outcome.’

A former South Korean foreign minister has also made observations that echo the sentiments emanating from Singapore. He observes:

‘We hope to see more stable relations between China and the United States because, from our perspective, both countries are very important. … [Choosing between China and the United States is] not a choice we … will be forced to make.’

South Korea is under pressure to play a significant role in the US-led China containment strategy. The current government led by conservative politician Yoon is keen to do so. Yet, elite opinion with respect to Sino-Korean relations is divided across the political divide, while Yoon has exceptionally low approval ratings. Furthermore, 90 percent of Koreans do not see China as an adversary.

India is another intriguing example of a country that has a nuanced approach to managing its relationship with China. India has long-standing border disputes with China. India sees China as a strategic competitor. India is also a member of the Quad and hence, nominally at least, a key part of the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy to contain China.

Yet, India, like Singapore, studiously avoids picking sides. This became evident during the Russia-Ukraine war. Despite enormous pressure from the US and its Western allies, India refused to censure Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, and like China and most emerging economies, did not join the US-led sanctions regime on Russia. It has zealously guarded its strategic autonomy. Thus, despite its membership of the Quad, India continues its membership of BRICs, ‘…the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum… and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.’ In all these cases, China is a key player and India is comfortable co-existing with such a key player in the global arena.

In sum, forcing Asian countries, to choose between the USA and China is unlikely to work. Even close Asian allies of the US have shown that they prefer to go their own way in geopolitics.

China too needs to reflect on its relationship with its Asian neighbours. If it seeks to become another bully in the US mould, it will quickly find itself isolated. It should avoid the aggressive and aggrieved rhetoric that is at times evident in its communications with the rest of the world. China needs to openly acknowledge its many internal challenges, such as inequality, environmental degradation, and treatment of minorities. It should make a renewed commitment to the thesis of ‘peaceful rise/peaceful development’ that the Chinese leadership formulated in the early 2000s. Such a combination of Chinese humility and Asia’s pragmatic approach to dealing with an emerging global power can go a long way towards discrediting the ‘China threat theory.’

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