Dr Zafar Nawaz Jaspal
CHINA has been pursuing an ambitious economic agenda without flexing its military muscle in its neighbourhood and worldwide. Instead of coercion, it has been engaging the neighbouring states by mega-financial investment, encouragement of economic cooperation, and mutual infrastructure projects. It is transferring technology and financing projects in the smaller states. This benign internationalists approach has been increasing China’s influence regionally and globally. So, currently, it is “increasingly approaching the centre of the world stage.”
The Chinese ruling elite publicizes that China would never pursue hegemony and remains committed to a multilateral trading system and further opening of its economy. Hence, it practices a defensive national defence policy. On December 18, while speaking at the conference to celebrate the 40th anniversary of China’s Reform and Opening up policy at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, President Xi Jinping said: “China’s development does not pose a threat to any country. No matter how far China develops, it will never seek hegemony.” Beijing’s declaratory external policy that is averse to hegemony differentiates it from traditional Great Powers that exercise aggressive defence policies to establish their regional cum global hegemony. President Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative (OBI) establishes trade link among the Asian and Eurasian countries and allow a smooth exchange of goods for more than 60 countries. Since 2012, Beijing has steadily been expanding its footprint globally from Asia-Pacific to Africa and beyond through a broad network of infrastructure projects. Its non-violent march towards the centre of world stage alarms the status quo powers, including the United States. During the recent months, President Trump had imposed sanctions on Chinese companies and levied a tariff on Chinese goods to obstruct its peaceful rise.
The critics opine that China’s long arm of influence—OBI projects—is mostly in favour of China at the expense of smaller countries. Conversely, President Xi ensured that China would not develop “at the expense of other countries’ interests.” The annals of flourishing states reveal belts, roads and corridors encourage inter-state commerce smooth movement. These channels facilitate free trade which is in the advantage of each member nation of the project. Therefore, inventors, investors and cooperators of inter-state trade networks are beneficiaries. China has a few disputes with some of its neighbours in the South China Sea region. However, it is cooperating with all the neighbouring states for maintaining stability in the South China Sea. Consequently, the overall situation in the South China Sea is stable, and therefore more than 100,000 merchant ships pass through these waters every year, and none has ever run into any difficulty with freedom of navigation.
The American Professor Graham Allison of the Harvard Kennedy School used ‘Thucydides Trap phrase’ to profess China-US relations in the future. The phrase means that a rising power causes fear in an established power, which escalates toward war. China could contest US leadership in the emerging global order, but it is not inclined to alter the current economic international order. It has broad interests in an open and rule-based system, which facilitates its contacts with other nations for trade, investment and knowledge sharing. China considers the United States Freedom of Navigation Program different from freedom of navigation permitted by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Therefore, Beijing question’s the United States interpretation of the “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea. It demands that the American ships navigating in the South China Sea must meet the “innocent passage” requirements of the UNCLOS, i.e., “not using force or threatening the use of force, and not engaging in military exercises or intelligence gathering.”
President Xi’s reiteration that China would not develop at the expense of other countries is a fitting rejoinder to the critics of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), who claim that the project will entrap Pakistan into a debt trap. CPEC is a flagship project of OBI, and thereby Pakistan and China would be the primary beneficiaries of it, yet other regional actors would equally benefit from the operationalisation of the project.
To conclude, unlike the traditional great powers, China is approaching the centre of the world stage through a defensive national defence policy, instead of the aggressive national defence policy. Hence, it is averse to establish its hegemony in its neighbourhood as well as worldwide.
— The writer is Associate Professor, School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.