Positive Scenario II: Optimism amidst Doubts for China and Its International Behavior

On the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of the end of WWII, China’s much expected military parade of September 3 was held in Beijing. After all, China, the “forgotten ally” as the British historian Rana Mitter put it, was a key part of the anti-fascist alliance during WWII. It bore a heavy burden in the Asian theater and made a great contribution to the final victory. Severely victimized by Japan’s invasion and having made a huge sacrifice in the face of many atrocities, China had every reason to commemorate this important anniversary and the victory. Not long after the war’s end—both pre-1949 and post-1949—China gave up its justified right to war reparations. Looking around the world over a long history, only a great nation would have done so! Those who use the readily available label “nationalism” to refer to the commemoration and parade—as if it is self-evident—miss the point. It is banal, and could well be misleading, to characterize the commemoration as “anti-Japanese.” Those commentators do not truly understand history and the Chinese people. They should take notice that the tone of the commemoration was not revenge, but rather a wish for peace and a determination not to allow the miserable past to happen again. In the speech President Xi Jinping delivered that day, “peace” appears eighteen times, and this signifies the spirit of the commemoration. Also, Xi opportunely announced that China will cut its military by 300,000 troops, the largest reduction since 1997 and a gesture for peace. Bearing in mind China’s idiom jiang xin bi xin (将心比心), which basically means do not do unto others what one does not want done to oneself, one should not miss something important in Xi’s statement, i.e., China “will not impose upon others the sufferings it experienced in the past.”

Looking at the issue from a longer-term perspective, since the early 1980s, “independent foreign policy in favor of peace” (duli zizhu de heping waijiao zhengce) has established itself as a fundamental principle for China’s handling of foreign relations. Independence means China does not form any alliance with other powers. When there was a Sino-Soviet alliance, China was part of the “socialist bloc” as well as the international communist movement with the Soviet Union as the leader. Within this bloc, China’s foreign policy was constrained by its ally and head of the bloc, the USSR, and thus was not genuinely independent. The alliance lasted for just about a decade before it finally broke up. A lesson was learned. Since 1961, China has not formed any alliance and, itself, became a supporter of the non-alignment movement. More recently, there have been calls for China to alter this policy and forge closer and allied relationships with a few countries including Russia. However, it is widely believed unnecessary to do so, and there is no sign that China will alter its non-alignment policy.

Along with “independence,” the other key word is “peace.” Over the past three decades, peace has gradually established itself as a key value in China. After the significant debate on “peaceful rise,” this value has culminated in “taking a path of peaceful development” (zou heping fazhan daolu). Not just China, every country should take such a path for a sustainable world peace. Taking a path of peaceful development became the theme of the first “collective study” of the Xi-Li leadership in 2013, and the third one since it replaced the Hu-Wen leadership the previous year. This “path” (daolu) was again emphasized and deemed a correct strategic choice on the basis of China’s fundamental interests. Believing that an emerging power and a status quo power do not inevitably clash, Beijing began to probe for a “new type of major power relations,” particularly with the United States. In the meantime, the challenges facing China are how it will handle the territorial and sea disputes that have reemerged in the East Asian region. Those are all enduring disputes, which have been there for many years. China drew a red line to avoid armed conflict with neighboring countries over disputed islands. China is set, as Xi Jinping put it, to play the role of “practitioner of peaceful development, promoter of common development, maintainer of the multilateral trade regime, and participant in global economic governance.”1

In his second statement, Takahara mentioned Zheng He and the purpose of his fleet’s sailings overseas during China’s Ming dynasty. He probably has misread the history. Obviously, what Zheng He led then was the most powerful fleet and navy in the world, and during the seven sailings they reached the various kingdoms in Southeast Asia and all the way to the Indian Ocean coastal nations as well. If Zheng He and the Ming emperors who dispatched Zheng had the intention to conquer or colonize them, it would have been an easy job. Yet, history tells us that they did not do so. Why? This is a fascinating question, which needs an answer. There must be something deep in the mind and behavior of Zheng He and China in general, likely something cultural. According to a senior historian of Southeast Asia and overseas Chinese, when Zheng He and his fleets found out that there did not exist any threat to China from the seas, the Chinese court was reassured, and it decided to shift attention to the northern frontiers to guard against the threat from the north (private conversation with Wang Gungwu on May 29, 2015 in Singapore.). If Wang is correct, this at least indicates that Zheng He’s mission was not a hostile one, and it had no intention to conquer foreign land.

After two years at a standstill, the China-Japan-South Korea (CJK) summit will hopefully resume in the fall of 2015. While the Prime Minister Abe Shinzo refused to attend China’s September 3 commemorative activities including the military parade, President Park Geun-hye did so. During the Xi-Park meeting, South Korea—the host of the next CJK summit—and China, in principle, agreed to hold the next CJK summit in the coming months. For Beijing, it was, in a way, a return for Park’s support of the September 3 parade. As a precursor, the three foreign ministers’ meeting, held during the first half of 2015, had signaled the possibility for a summit, though it took China several months to wait and see what Abe’s seventieth anniversary statement would look like. Unsatisfactory for Beijing though it was, the statement at least did not provoke China and South Korea to the extent that they would refuse to meet Abe during a three-way summit. Hopefully, trilateral cooperation will be refueled to regain political momentum for future progress.

For a long time to come, the main challenges facing China come from within. China’s great changes over the past three-plus decades, unprecedented in human history, are very much a condensed process. A number of contradictions have accumulated and have yet to be dissipated, step-by-step. The anti-corruption campaign is well underway, which for the time being is aiming at only curing the symptoms (治标) rather than curing the fundamental sources (治本). The campaign is expected to contain the corruption trend and prevent it from becoming more rampant so as to win time for a more enduring solution. Economic structural adjustment will no doubt take more time before a benign cycle can be put in place. Evidently, tensions in foreign relations do not help deal with these challenges, and, thus, are not desirable. Under Xi’s leadership, China’s foreign policy is becoming more proactive and is striving for more accomplishments. However, as the high-level Neighborhood Diplomacy Work Meeting of October 2013 and the Central Foreign Affairs Work Meeting of November 2014 have indicated, to build an amicable neighborhood remains a high priority on China’s foreign affairs agenda. Out of its own interests, Beijing will continue to strike a balance between maintaining stability (wei wen) and safeguarding China’s national interests (wei quan), and will try to stabilize its relations with the neighboring countries in Asia. What is new and worthwhile to follow is the Xi leadership’s launch of the “One Belt One Road” initiative, which is China’s long-term vision for common development throughout Asia. Components of the initiative, the Silk Road Fund, the New Development Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and so forth are either in operation or will come into being soon. With the unfolding of “One Belt One Road,” as China provides public goods to the countries in the region over future years, it will be possible for China to win the hearts and minds of other Asian peoples. This, of course, depends on how successful China will be in terms of carrying out the initiative. Therefore, generally speaking, China’s approach is not a coercive but rather a cooperative one through forming partnerships with other countries, and the reason is precisely because this is in the best interest of China. The birth of this vision is made possible by China’s own development.

Without doubt, Japan is part of this bigger picture. All in all, China is not a revenging nation, as indicated by the above-mentioned decision to forgive Japan by giving up demands for war reparations. Whether it was a wise decision is a question for historians, but that was exactly what China did. Moreover, the Chinese people always appreciate Japan’s achievements. Almost all Chinese visitors have left Japan with a positive impression about the country, be it civility, cleanliness, orderly society, or all the great consumer goods! Earlier, China was willing to wait, and had waited, for the unresolved territorial dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands to be addressed in the future. It was not China’s but Japan’s act that caused the serious crisis in 2012, which resulted from Japan’s “nationalization” of the islands. Both Japan and China paid a high price, and a lesson has to be learned. Although mutual suspicions on the security level remain and will not disappear anytime soon, the issues between Japan and China are mostly manageable. China does not want any tension or trouble; this would be of no use. Yet this has to be a two-way street. As long as Japan alters its threat perception not seeing China as a strategic threat, there is no reason why the two cannot get along.


1. Xi Jinping’s emphasis, see Renmin ribao, January 30, 2013, 1.