Southeast Asian Perspective

"China and International Law/Norms: Southeast Asian Perspective"

Peaceful Development towards a Sinocentric Asia?

China’s rise has resulted in a fundamental shift of the strategic balance in the world. While the United States and its alliance system remain dominant in security arrangements, China has become the center of economic gravity. In the wake of the US “rebalancing” policy towards Asia, China’s growing military capability and its “new” assertiveness in territorial disputes in the East and South China seas have raised serious concerns about Beijing’s intentions as well as its policies towards the outside world.1 The ultimate questions are whether China will adhere to its pledged “peaceful development” policy and, more importantly, whether this policy is an end in itself or just a means for China to eventually rise as a hegemon.

“Peaceful Development”: A Policy Choice to Sustain China’s Development2

In retrospect, the “peaceful development” policy grew out of Beijing’s pragmatic approach towards formidable challenges that stem essentially from the three fundamental dilemmas the Chinese leaders have faced in their effort to sustain China’s development. First, China has to avoid a confrontation with the hegemonic United States, yet inevitably there would be conflicts of interest between the two, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. The Chinese leadership was keenly aware that it would be suicidal to confront the hegemon—even the perception that a rising China would challenge US dominance would spur an effort to contain China, which would engulf China in a perilous situation.

Second, unlike the other rising powers in history (e.g., Great Britain, Germany, Japan, the USSR, and the United States), whose rises were preconditioned by their capability to fight massive wars far beyond their borders, China has yet to develop the capability to project power in the region, let alone the world, despite its fast military build-up in the past two decades. But China’s interests have long been entrenched all over the world due to its rapid economic growth amidst globalisation. By 2000, China had already executed a total of 23,565 contracts involving foreign entities, with investment amounting to US$14.94 billion, and China’s foreign trade had reached US$474.29 billion, making up 44.53 percent of the total GDP.3 How could China, with interests extended far beyond its borders, protect its fast-growing interests overseas without adequate military power? The bombardment of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 made this dilemma even more pressing to Beijing.

Third, virtually all the critical challenges to China’s stability under CCP rule are found at home, yet the explosion of these problems could all be triggered by activities abroad. From Beijing’s perspective, these explosive problems—the demand for “genuine autonomy” of Tibet, the Uyghur movement for separation, the human rights issue, the demand for democracy, and all kinds of anti-government activities—could be aroused by activities outside China. While leaders have to carry on the policy of reform and openness in order to sustain China’s development, it would be an impossible mission for them to keep China insulated from the political influence of the international community.

These three fundamental dilemmas have propelled Beijing to adopt a pragmatic approach toward the outside world in order to find a way to avoid confrontations with the United States without compromising its “core interests,” to protect its growing interests across the world despite its inadequate military capability, and to sustain political stability under the CCP rule while maintaining a peaceful external environment necessary for sustaining China’s development.

Thus, starting from the late 1990s, a series of policy shifts took place in China’s foreign policy, resulting in a grand strategy of “peaceful development” after Hu Jintao came to power in 2002. Essentially, this strategy called on China to integrate itself into, instead of challenging, the existing international system, although this system is Western originated and led by democracies. The top priority under this strategy is to maintain a stable relationship with the United States, whose dominance in global political, economic, and military affairs has provided Washington with substantial leverage vis-à-vis Beijing’s effort to handle the challenges at home and abroad. Hence, the Sino-US relationship has been the linchpin in China’s foreign policy.

Consequently, Beijing quietly replaced “anti-hegemonism” with “anti-unilateralism” in its rhetoric and dropped its long-term principle against “the presence of foreign military forces” in Asia. Instead, China acknowledged that the US military presence in Asia could “play a positive role” in the region.4 Moreover, China tried to align its policy with the US approach on two critical issues in Asia—the North Korean nuclear weapons program and Taiwan—in order to find common ground. In 2003, China shifted its policy priority from “peace and stability” to “nuclear-free” on the Korean Peninsula. Soon after that, an “unusual flurry of shuttle diplomacy” by Chinese diplomats among Pyongyang, Washington, Seoul, and Moscow culminated in the Six-Party Talks, at which, as Christopher Hill pointed out, China was “leaning forward” in the endeavor to roll back Pyongyang’s nuclear ambition.5 Although these talks have yet to achieve the desired goal, they formalized the US-China commitment for denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.

On the Taiwan issue, China shifted its policy priority from “reunification of the motherland” to prevention of Taiwan’s de jure independence. Under Hu Jintao’s leadership, China went all out to promote “peaceful development across the Taiwan Strait under the one-China principle.” This has enabled Beijing not only to avoid the “commitment trap” of reunification, but also cultivate common ground with Washington, given the latter’s policy of maintaining the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. Thus, when Chen Shui-bian was “pushing the envelope” of Taiwan independence during his second term in 2004-2008, Washington appeared harsher than Beijing in an effort to keep Chen in check. After President Ma Ying-jeou came to power in 2008, the situation has stabilized as the two sides resumed dialogue and exchanges on the basis of the “1992 consensus.”

Meanwhile, China adopted a multilateral approach in foreign affairs. Its timely assistance to the ASEAN countries after the Asian financial crisis boosted both China’s relations and economic exchanges with ASEAN, resulting in the groundbreaking ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) in November 2002, which in turn gave momentum to FTA negotiations in the region. China’s multilateral approach effectively steered the US predominance into directions that would not be adverse to China’s vital interests, hence avoiding confrontations with the superpower.

The “peaceful development” strategy paid off. Despite the apparent hostility by the Bush administration when it came to office in 2001, the Sino-US relationship improved quickly to such a level that Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick recognized on September 21, 2005 that China had become a “stakeholder” of—hence had to play a “responsible” role in—the US-led international system. This marked a critical change in the paradigm of the US China policy: engagement and hedging, rather than containment, has become the mainstream in its approach towards China.

The biggest gain for China is its fast development in the first decade of the 21st century. China’s GDP exploded from barely US$1.1 trillion in 1999, which ranked 7th in the world, to over US$7.3 trillion in 2011, the second largest economy. Meanwhile, China has become the largest US creditor, which has made the two countries irrevocably interdependent with each other. It was in this context that President Obama immediately turned to China after he came to office in 2009. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared in her visit to China in February 2009 that the United States and China were “in the same boat,” and in November, Obama proposed in Beijing to build “a positive, cooperative, and comprehensive US-China relationship.” Indeed, the situation appeared to be so promising that the idea of a G-2 began to gain wider currency among the pundits as well as some “strategic thinkers” in the United States.

China’s “Assertiveness”: Towards a New Balance or a Sinocentric Asia?

But Beijing cold-shouldered both Obama’s proposal and the G-2 fantasy. While the recession in the West made China’s rise appear more successful, rising nationalism and the internal power struggles during the leadership transition made it politically suicidal for any leader to appear soft in foreign affairs, especially on sovereignty issues. In 2009-2012 we saw a surging assertiveness in China’s approach towards the outside world, particularly on territorial disputes in the East and South China seas. In addition to the ‘tough’ attitude by a few PLA generals, actions China took in recent years—dispatching patrol boats to the disputed waters in the East and South China Sea, setting up Sansha City to administer the islands and adjacent waters within the “nine-dotted lines,” and the maneuver to block a joint statement at the ASEAN summit in July 2012—have raised serious concern about China’s ambitions in the region.

It is under these circumstances that the US “rebalancing” policy, adopted in 2011 under the rubric of “smart power,” was welcomed, to various degrees, by Asian countries, particularly the US allies such as Japan and the Philippines. Although Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel emphasized at the 2013 Shangri-la Dialogue that rebalancing is “not for confrontation, but cooperation” and that “the US-China relationship is the most important bilateral relationship” in the world, Beijing perceives the rebalancing policy as renewed “containment” against China. From its perspective, “rebalancing” is the essential source of tension because it emboldened countries such as Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines to challenge China’s sovereignty in the East and South China seas. Thus, Beijing insisted that the withdrawal of “foreign intervention” (by the United States) is necessary for a solution reached between the “involved parties.”

Close scrutiny, however, reveals that there is a substantial change in China’s foreign policy; and this change is based on China’s growing capacity and influence in the world, especially in the Asia-Pacific. Although the US-China relationship still remains the central piece in its foreign policy, Beijing now demands a “new type of relationship between the major countries.”6 This means that the United States and China should appreciate and respect each other’s “core interests” and, moreover, have “full consultations (with each other) on major concerns” in world affairs as well as on bilateral relations. In other words, China wants to be part of agenda setting and rulemaking in global affairs on an equal footing with the United States, which reflects its view of an emerging “multipolar world,” in which there are different models of development (and the “China model” is one of them for sure). As such, the global order should be based on a new balance of power created in a large part by China’s rise.

It is in this context that one can appreciate China’s recent accommodative approach towards the BRICS, especially Russia and India, and major European powers such as Germany and France. China endeavors to develop “win-win relations” with these powers by fostering “common interests.” The aim is to establish a “long-term strategic partnership” with them and, more importantly, gain effective leverage vis-à-vis the United States, which remains China’s primary target in foreign affairs not only because of the shared stake in global peace and prosperity, but also because the two can be rivals.

It is towards ASEAN and Japan that we have observed Beijing’s astute maneuvering under the new Xi Jinping leadership. ASEAN processes substantial value to China not only because of its geopolitically important location, but also because it has served as a strategic buffer in dealing with the United States, given ASEAN’s principle of neutrality in international affairs. Now that China’s rapid rise, with the relative stagnation of the United State and its ally Japan, has resulted in a fundamental shift in the strategic balance in the region, there are subtle, but significant changes, in both the perspective and approach of the ASEAN countries in regional affairs. Merely ten years ago when the United States was overwhelmingly dominant in global affairs, all the ASEAN countries aligned their interests as well as policies with its position in the region. However, as China has become the center of their economic orbit—it is the largest trade partner to virtually all the countries in the Asia-Pacific and is rapidly rising as a top investor—, the ASEAN countries have all adopted a hedging policy: while they still look to the United States for security, China has become an essential factor in their economic policymaking. As a result, they are reluctant to take sides between two states, which are in fact hedging against each other.

China is taking full advantage of this situation. Soon after the new leadership was established in late 2012, China’s top diplomats shuffled between the ASEAN member countries to repair the damage caused by China overplaying its hand in blocking the Joint Statement of the ASEAN Summit in July 2012. At the 2013 Shangri-la Dialogue, General Qi Jianguo, head of the Chinese delegation, reemphasized the Deng Xiaoping approach of “shelving the dispute and promoting joint development.” Meanwhile, China returned to negotiating the Code of Conduct on the condition that it is for managing the disputes, but not for a solution (which has to be reached through bilateral talks between the involved parties), and that China has to sit at the table at the very beginning before the ASEAN countries could reach a consensus on the issue.

This new approach peaked when Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang visited the region in October 2013, bringing with them attractive proposals for economic development and integration and advocating a new concept of “collective security.” As Xi implied in his speech in Jakarta, this new concept means that China’s “security” matters to ASEAN, and vice versa. A more significant implication is that intervention by foreign powers (e.g., the United States) in regional affairs, especially territorial disputes, undermines regional security for all because it sets the countries in the region against each other for the interest of the intervener(s). Only by working together (with China) can regional peace and stability be maintained. Obviously, China is confident that time is on its side, which stems from an assessment that it is highly unlikely that claimant countries in the South China Sea would unite as one against China, and it is also unlikely that the United States would fully commit to intervention, in the final analysis, on the South China Sea issue. China’s “smile and gift diplomacy” seems to have achieved initial success because it is ultimately supported by China’s growing capability.

It is the Sino-Japanese tension over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands that could substantially undermine regional peace and stability. From Beijing’s perspective, the tension originated from Japan’s nationalization of the islands, but China’s tough response by regularly sending patrol vessels and surveillance aircraft to the disputed area escalated the tension to the brink of war. Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed recently at the Brookings Institution that China intends to maintain the status quo, with both sides recognizing the dispute over the islands, but the status quo has already been broken because Japan’s de facto administration of the islands has been challenged by Chinese coast guard vessels. China’s announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) further indicates its efforts to force a fait accompli, given the substantial overlap between China and Japan’s ADIZs in the East China Sea.

The ultimate danger is not just that the two largest Asian powers could head into a collision, but it could also drag the United States into a disastrous confrontation, given its obligation to protect Japan. Indeed, China’s tough stance has put the US-Japan alliance to a test, exposing a fundamental dilemma faced by the United States. Obviously, confrontation between China and Japan—its two largest creditors and major economic partners—is not in America’s interest, but the United States can be trapped by its commitment to protect Japan. More difficult for Washington is the fact that Sino-Japanese tensions and its reluctance to be dragged into a confrontation would make Abe more determined in his drive for “normal statehood,” which, if successful, would inevitably lead to a structural change in the alliance. Given the fundamental importance of this alliance to US interests in the Asia-Pacific, the consequences of such a change would not only be highly uncertain, but could also be potentially explosive. In this regard, the tension between China and Japan in East China Sea matters not just for bilateral relation between the two Asian powers, but also for peace and stability in the region and even the entire world.


Recent changes in China’s approach towards the outside world reflect China’s newly developed capability to manage and even manipulate the situation in the Asia-Pacific, especially in China’s neighborhood. This capability has enabled Beijing to be proactive and take the initiative on regional affairs. Moreover, it also provides the leadership with confidence and resources to strike a new strategic balance in China’s favor. This has raised serious concerns over its commitment to a “peaceful development” policy, although this policy has served China’s interests well over the past decades. It remains to be seen whether China’s new approach is to stabilize the new balance in the region so as to sustain peace and stability, or to try to develop a new regional order according to its worldview. In either case, the international community, especially the Asia-Pacific region, needs to maintain vigilance. After all, the incompatibility of China’s internal political system and the political mainstream of the Western-originated international system has been the ultimate source of conflict between China and the outside world, especially the US-led alliance system. In retrospect, China’s “peaceful development” strategy has effectively steered this incompatibility away from confrontation in the past. Hence, it should certainly serve the interests of the region, as well as China’s own, if China would adhere to this path, despite necessary adjustments in its foreign policy caused by its growing capability and influence in the world.

1. Iain Johnson in “How New and Assertive is China’s New Assertiveness?” International Security 37, no. 4 (Spring 2013): 7-48, argues that China’s recent approach towards territorial disputes is not unexpected, given China’s interests and behavior pattern. Hence, the alleged “assertiveness” is not really “new.”

2. For a more detailed analysis on the topic, see Jing Huang, “China’s International Relations and Security Perspectives,” in Andrew Tan, ed., East and Southeast Asia: International Relations and Security Perspectives (London: Routledge, 2013), 11-22.

3. PRC National Bureau of Statistics, China Statistical Yearbooks,

4. At a conference at Peking University on December 4, 2001, Wang Yi, then vice minister of foreign affairs, remarked that the US military presence in Asia “should play a positive role” in regional peace and stability.

5. The author’s conversation with Christopher Hill at the Ditchley Foundation Conference on Regional Security in East Asia, May 20, 2007.

6. Beijing deliberately uses the word “countries” instead of “powers.” The nuance is that, as Beijing insists, “all countries are equal” despite the differences in in their power and capacity in international affairs.