SPEAKING FREELY China sticks to collision course
By Stefan Soesanto
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
The die has finally been cast in the long debate on whether the rise of China will be peaceful. Despite the best intentions of the United States, and against a backdrop of growing economic interdependence in East Asia, the latest sequence of events in the region has exposed Beijing's preference for military conflict over political cooperation.
From China's accelerating military modernization efforts and aggressive foreign policy conduct in its "Near Seas", to the Middle Kingdom's persistent criticism of Japan's military past and current defense posture, Beijing's self-righteousness is increasingly paving the way for regional tensions to escalate.
China's newly found military assertiveness and open hostility
towards the status quo in East Asia does not come from nowhere. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Japan and China reached defense parity in 2003, with each nation spending roughly around US$60 billion a year on their military forces. Within a decade, the situation in East Asia has profoundly tilted in favor of China. SIPRI's latest figures suggest that Beijing's defense budget has risen to $166 billion compared with Tokyo's stagnating $59 billion.
In light of this statistical evidence it becomes extremely difficult to grasp how Chinese Defense Ministry Spokesman Geng Yangsheng could denounce Tokyo's new defense spending plan - which was approved on December 17 and bumps Japan's military budget back to 2003 levels - as a hawkish and irresponsible measure to regional peace and security.
Into the same category of diplomatic hypocrisy and self-righteousness falls Beijing's adamant criticism of Shinzo Abe's first visit to the Yasukuni Shrine since he assumed office exactly one year ago. While Abe has never made a secret about his intentions to visit the controversial shrine in central Tokyo during his second term as prime minister, his carefully calculated abstentions from the shrine prior to December 26 did not put Sino-Japanese relations on a better footing. Whether it was the annual autumn festival or the anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War II, no matter what Abe did or did not do, Beijing's outrage and political condemnation of him was guaranteed.
Not surprisingly, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang expressed his strong condemnation of Abe's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine and almost naturally reconnected Japan's military past with its current defense posture. But the democratic Japan of today is not in any way comparable to the Fascist empire it was in the past. And therefore ironically, Beijing itself is deliberately stirring up a Japan-threat hysteria that seeks to undermine Tokyo's security interests.
China's moral self-righteousness has also undermined the nation's ideological foreign policy foundation. Officially, China derives its foreign policy decisions from the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, which have guided its foreign affairs during most of the turbulent past of the people's republic. Beijing's new-found military assertiveness and growing nationalistic ego, however, are increasingly overwriting these ideological foundations. As a consequence, mutual respect, non-aggression, non-interference, equality, and peaceful coexistence have turned into empty words.
In April 2013 for instance, Beijing deliberately reignited its territorial dispute with India by sending a Chinese platoon across the Line of Actual Control to set up camp 15 kilometers deep in Indian territory. In the South China Sea, Chinese naval forces are continuing to forcefully impose Beijing's artificial nine-dash line by openly violating the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation signed 10 years ago with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In the East China Sea, China unilaterally chose to create its first air defense identification zone, which subsequently sent its relations with Washington and most of its maritime neighbors on a nosedive. And in the most recent stint, a Chinese warship almost collided with the USS Cowpens in international waters due to opposite interpretations of the freedom of navigation within a country's exclusive economic zone.
In all four cases, Chinese behavior has counter-productively raised regional tensions and adamantly ignored its own ideological premises of peaceful development and mutual cooperation. As a result, Beijing is now rightfully seen as the bully in East Asia despite all of its diplomatic assertions to the contrary.
Given the vast literature on China's rise it is disturbing to witness how those in power in Zhongnanhai are openly proceeding on a foreign policy trajectory that is bound to spawn anti-Chinese sentiments across the region. It almost seems as if Beijing has made a conscious choice to enter the traditional game of great powers and reach for regional hegemony against all better judgment.
At the heart of the issue are therefore not the numerous territorial disputes or the unresolved World War II history in East Asia. What is at odds in East Asia are disparate visions of how much security is enough for Beijing, Tokyo and the other capitals in the region to feel secure in the world of today and tomorrow. China's self-righteousness and blatant dismissal of the growing security concerns of its neighbors is therefore increasingly threatening to set the whole region ablaze.
While most academics and analysts still maintain a rather optimistic outlook by labeling Beijing's uncompromising behavior as an expression of national interest that can be softened through regional cooperation and international mediation efforts, reality is increasingly dictating that the Middle Kingdom will only listen to military force and political isolation.
It should therefore not come as a surprise that the Abe government is inching closer to amend Japan's constitution on the right of collective self-defense while seeking closer security ties with Washington, India, Russia, Australia, South Korea and ASEAN among others.
Abe's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine should thus be seen a powerful reminder to those abroad who still believe that Tokyo will idly sit by when its national security and territorial integrity is increasingly threatened.
It is now up to Beijing how fast tensions are going to escalate in East Asia, but if the current trend of self-righteousness so prevalent in contemporary China is any indication, the Middle Kingdom has already set itself on a deliberate collision course with its regional neighbors.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Stefan Soesanto is a non-resident James A Kelly Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS.