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China’s Dream of Regional Hegemony

By Elizabeth Pond

Let's consider the yin and yang in the confluence of China's foreign policy and domestic politics—and the parallel yin and yang in the challenge of China's precipitous rise to America's hegemony in the South China Sea.

On Chinese foreign policy, the narrative is clear. After two centuries of humiliation at the hands of the West, it's pushback time. China has declared its determination to convert its new power as the world's largest trader and second-largest economy into political clout.

Strategically, Beijing is pushing back against a United States it sees as trying to prevent China's reassertion of the regional hegemony the Middle Kingdom once rightfully enjoyed. Tactically, it is pushing back especially vigorously against Japan, the World War II occupier of China, the post-war local surrogate for the developed West, and now the globe's third-largest economy. By such intimidation as "painting" a Japanese destroyer with pre-strike targeting radar, Beijing is contesting Tokyo's century-old administration of the uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. It is gambling with triggering impulsive local escalation up to an inadvertent war that could ultimately draw in Japan's 60-year American ally and democratic patron.

On the domestic side, the Chinese dynamic seems murkier to Western onlookers. Chinese diplomats—when peppered with advice to act less belligerently and accept more responsibility for the common good of open seas and regional peace and stability—tend to plead inhibiting internal weakness that some Westerners find risible. Beholding the giant that has so abruptly ended America's unipolar moment, skeptics dismiss Chinese protests of vulnerability as Beijing gives priority instead to the urgent domestic task of avoiding the middle-income trap in their development.

In this vein, foreign cynics point out that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been uniquely successful over the past quarter century at revolutionizing the country's economy with market reforms—conducting the largest and fastest poverty alleviation in history and creating a middle class larger than America's entire population—while still preserving authoritarian one-party control. Western cynics note that their own faith that every new middle class will inevitably demand democracy has been confounded by Beijing's "adaptive authoritarianism"—a  mix of reflex suppression of protests, occasional concessions, and a social contract that has steeply raised the well-being of the apolitical middle class over three decades of 10 percent-a-year economic growth.

Yet the fear that haunts party leaders is very real to themselves—and to indignant bloggers and the Chinese think tanks that have sprung up in recent decades. It echoes Chinese rulers' historical anxiety about peasant uprisings that have toppled dynasty after dynasty. For the first time in eight years, the central authorities have just released embarrassing official figures that tally 180,000 rural and urban "mass incidents" (demonstrations with 100 or more protesters) last year. For the first time in over a decade, authorities have also just released (understated) official statistics that peg the Gini coefficient of social inequality at 0.474, a level exceeding even the ur-capitalist American gap between top and bottom social strata. And popular anger over corruption by billionaire senior party officials has been fueled in the past year by lurid scandals and exposure of top-tier wealth that make a mockery of the party's post-Mao claims to legitimacy through raising everyone's boats.

As the new leadership for the next five years settles in, then—CCP chief Xi Jinping will assume the country's presidency next month—it feels beleagured at home but empowered abroad. These contrary instincts could interact in either negative or positive ways.

At worst, there could be a replay of the slide into World War I in 1914 as the rising power of Germany challenged the naval hegemony of Britain. A hot-shot Chinese pilot—like Wang Wei in 2001—might again nick the wing of an American spy plane in mid-air and force it to land on Hainan island or ditch into the ocean. In the absence of reliable hotlines or agreed rules of conduct for close shadowing, mid-level Chinese navy officers might lock missile-firing mechanisms as well as radars on rival ships next time. Japanese captains might respond in kind. In a tense standoff there could be a hair-trigger exchange of fire that no one ever intended.

Popular anti-Japanese chauvinism would then flare up again in China and tempt the top Politburo Standing Committee of imbalanced factions to fall back on the unifier of ultranationalism. Analagous anti-Chinese chauvinism would exert the same pressure on a receptive Tokyo government, which might then summon help from the American guarantor of its defense.

At the same time, volatile North Korea might further exacerbate tension by conducting yet another missile or nuclear test in defiance of United Nations censure. Or the U.S.-Chinese confrontation over Taiwan, which calmed down in the past two decades as Taiwanese and Japanese investors poured well over $140 billion into China, could erupt again. This time around, there would be even more risk than in the last showdown in the 1990s. The People's Liberation Army and Navy can now bring formidable new firepower to bear on the Taiwan Straits. American commanders, acutely aware that time is on China's side, might well call for a robust application now of the Pentagon's bold "Air-Sea concept" to disrupt Beijing's acquisition of "anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD)" capacities. In a chain reaction, both South Korea and Japan might themselves go nuclear.

Yet a more benign conjunction is also conceivable. The geostrategic tradeoffs may not be as obvious as they were in the Cold War, when Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger sought reconciliation with a China that sought American reassurance against Soviet military incursions to the north.  At this point, however, both sides would benefit from regular military-to-military contacts, agreed rules for ship encounters, and a clear system of signalling red lines. And China might even come to appreciate Washington's restraining influence on Japan, as most recently exercised by last month's sudden dispatch of a high-level US team to Tokyo to urge caution in Senkaku waters.

Surely it would be insane for China and the West to subject their trillion-dollar-plus trade and investment in each other to the vagaries of some uncontrollable momentum toward war. Instead, wary joint management of the epic confrontation could eventually profit all players by leading to such win-win outcomes as joint mining of seabed minerals, perhaps on the Svalbard model—even before rival island claims have been resolved, and even before the resistant U.S. Senate has followed China in ratifying the Law of the Sea Convention. The 1920s' Svalbard treaty grants Norway sovereignty over the island but allows any signatory of the treaty to engage in commercial activities there, including mining.

In parallel—perhaps after a five-year truce between CCP factions that might agree on more economic reforms now but not on political liberalization— a more productive domestic dialogue between rulers and ruled could evolve in China to smooth some of the rough edges of Beijing's headlong pursuit of manifest destiny. Much as Beijing's lethal smog is internalizing the demand for pollution control in a way foreign hectoring never did, so might the facts on the ground of 200 million migrant factory workers finally obviate the discriminatory hukou ban on peasants' settling in cities as a dysfunctional relic in the 21st century. Already the incoming Chinese leaders have hinted at hukou reform.

If the next succession of leadership in 2018 does bring more "Communist Youth League" politicians onto the Politburo Standing Committee to balance today's more hardline "princelings," as the Brookings Institution's Cheng Li anticipates, better treatment of China's own citizens could follow. Tax laws could be introduced to give cities other sources of revenue than expropriation of contiguous farmland for lease to rich commercial developers. Courts might eventually be compelled to accept suits by farmers against land grabs—and to enforce existing laws guaranteeing peasant lessees' 30-year tenure on their plots. The expanding coterie of Chinese lawyers might eventually begin to defend and develop rule of law. Party censors might eventually admit that they are no match for the ingenuity of  bloggers who deploy Chinese homonyms in infinite variations to evade Internet bans.

The examples of proto-democratic Hong Kong and democratic Taiwan show the way. So does the current fad in some party circles for reading De Tocqueville's l'Ancien Regime and identifying their own system, remarkably, with that doomed regime rather than with the French revolution. So does the approval Chinese reformers accord the example of Jiang Jingguo, son of the autocratic Chiang Kai-shek, in democratizing Taiwan from the top down in the 1980s.

With some common sense and a bit of luck in Beijing, Tokyo, and Washington, perhaps the complementarity of yin and yang can triumph after all over the duality's inherent confrontation.



Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based American journalist and author, first visited rural China by bicycle 29 years ago.

[Photo Courtesy to Noneck]

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