The Promise and Pitfalls of China’s ‘Peaceful Rise’

The Promise and Pitfalls of China’s ‘Peaceful Rise’

Chinese leaders face the dilemma of continuing their country’s staggering economic growth while spreading its benefits to the hundreds of millions of rural poor. Beijing hopes its "peaceful rise" policy will reassure neighboring countries that China is not a threat and help it accomplish these goals.

April 14, 2006 11:47 am (EST)

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Chinese President Hu Jintao begins a U.S. visit on April 18 at a time of booming economic growth for his country and peaceful relations with nearly all of its neighbors. Experts say China has combined regional diplomacy with economic agreements to great effect, fruits of a policy known as "peaceful rise." The policy asserts that China can thrive economically in a peaceful environment and also serve as a catalyst for global peace. In practice, the policy has involved settling a number of border disputes, strengthening ties with regional organizations, and expanding trade relationships through Asia. Despite the success of the "peaceful rise" policy, China’s relations remain chilly with two important neighbors: Japan and Taiwan.

What is China’s “peaceful rise” policy?

The policy, also referred to as "peaceful development," states that China will develop economically by taking advantage of the peaceful international environment, and at the same time maintain and contribute to world peace by its development. The policy was articulated by Chinese leaders in 2003 to counter international fears about Beijing’s growing economic and political might. In 2004, Premier Wen Jiabao said China’s rise "will not come at the cost of any other country, will not stand in the way of any other country, nor pose a threat to any other country," according to the official Xinhua news agency. The policy is intended to create "an environment that maximizes the chances of China’s economic development," says Kenneth Lieberthal, director of the China Institute at the University of Michigan and a director of Asian affairs for the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. Others agree that the policy’s focus is clear. "It’s an attempt to grow economically and increase China’s diplomatic presence while keeping relations with other nations peaceful," says David Kang, a visiting professor at Stanford University’s Asia-Pacific Research Center.

How prominent is this idea among China’s leaders?

It is widespread among the leadership, experts say. "There is a strong consensus in China that the policy will help Beijing to increase the middle class and sustain the economic transformation of the country, all of which require foreign capital and cooperation," says David Denoon, a former deputy assistant Secretary of Defense and professor of Asian politics and economics at New York University. China’s leaders are obsessed with figuring out how to maintain growth rates of 8 percent or higher per year while keeping internal politics quiet. "Chinese leaders feel that between now and 2020 they have a strategic opportunity to become a relatively wealthy economy [and become] the second most-powerful country in the world," Lieberthal says.

How does it affect China’s foreign policy?

Experts say "peaceful rise" underlies nearly all of China’s actions on the foreign policy front, prompting it to seek peace and mutually beneficial trade ties with its neighbors. "Beijing decided on a foreign policy and then figured out how to package it to the world," Lieberthal says. China’s actions under the policy include:

  • Settling border issues with neighboring countries, including Russia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
  • Increasing economic relations with countries in the region. China’s trade relations are growing with every country in Asia. China has now surpassed the United States as the largest trading partner of both South Korea and Japan.
  • Becoming members of western and regional institutions, including the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC), and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

What are the implications for China’s domestic policy?

The focus of Chinese leaders on continuing their country’s staggering economic growth depends on keeping peace at home. The country has seen a surge in the number of demonstrations in the last few years—the government registered some 87,000 in 2005—with a corresponding rise in rural violence as farmers in China’s countryside protest income inequality and corruption. Some 800 million Chinese people still live in rural areas, which have largely missed out on the income gains concentrated in the high-growth cities. "There’s no question that many Chinese citizens are deeply resentful of being left behind," Denoon says. Rural citizens’ grievances include poor healthcare, a lack of access to education, endemic corruption, the lack of accountability for government officials’ actions, and massive environmental degradation. While Chinese GDP has more than quadrupled in the last twenty years, the government is under tremendous pressure both to continue the growth and to bring more of China’s rural poor into the middle class. The Communist party leadership has announced a crackdown on corruption and increased prosecutions of corrupt local officials, and at this year’s party Congress in March Premier Wen Jiabao announced a new initiative to pour $42 billion into rural areas to improve agriculture and spend billions more on rural social services.

What impact does the policy have on China’s neighbors?

Other countries in Asia, initially skeptical or worried about China’s rise in status, have now bought in, experts say. Kang says the region is "reverting back to its historical relationships," where China was the center of the region. "The rest of East Asia is increasingly tied up with China’s rise," he says. China’s growth, unlike Japan’s in the 1980s, is quite integrated with the rest of the region and the world—that is, dependent on foreign markets, capital, and natural resources. "Clearly, one of China’s goals is to be seen as a respected and serious player in Asia and globally," Lieberthal says. However, Japan and Taiwan are reluctant to confer that status on Beijing.

How does the policy affect Japan?

The "peaceful rise" theory seems to stop at Japan’s borders. Chinese leaders have not hesitated to let diplomatic conflict with Japan escalate over issues including Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni shrine and how Japan’s actions during World War II are taught in Japanese history books. A series of anti-Japan riots in China last year grew increasingly virulent until the Chinese authorities—who experts said tacitly encouraged the riots by allowing them to take place—shut them down. And, in a clear contrast to its pattern of settling border disputes elsewhere, Beijing has antagonized Japan by exploring the seas between the two countries. "China is proceeding into disputed waters and is moving aggressively to assert its maritime claims," Denoon says.

Experts say China is seeking to marginalize Tokyo because it is worried that Japan, which colonized Taiwan for fifty years from 1895-1945 and is a U.S. ally, could potentially intervene in a conflict between Beijing and Taipei. "Japan is the only country in Asia, other than India, that could directly thwart China’s rise," Denoon says. But China has a long way to go to catch Tokyo. Denoon points out that Japan’s economy is three times larger than China’s, and Tokyo has much more sophisticated air and naval capabilities.

How does the policy affect Taiwan?

Despite the "peaceful rise" policy, tensions between Beijing and Taipei over Taiwan’s independence aspirations have continued. China’s recent increase in military spending has been primarily on weapons and systems—including Russian fighter jets and submarines—that it could use to attack Taiwan. "The Chinese are building a lot of short and medium-range missiles and deploying them on the Fujian coast, across from Taiwan," Denoon says. He says this is part of China’s effort to gradually increase the pressure on Taiwan not to declare independence. But Beijing’s show of force won’t change the fact that most Taiwanese don’t want to rejoin Communist China. "Roughly 80 percent of the Taiwan population, eighteen million people, are happy with the status quo and do not want reunification on Beijing’s terms," Denoon says. The United States, which has a relationship of "strategic ambiguity" with Taiwan but would likely protect it from Chinese military aggression, has warned both sides it wants the dispute settled peacefully. The situation remains volatile. "The only place people are worried about China using force is Taiwan," Kang says.

What impact does it have on the United States?

Some critics say Beijing is using the "peaceful rise" policy to hide its ambitions to challenge U.S. influence in Asia and Latin America. But other experts dispute this idea. Lieberthal says deterring the United States is not an active policy goal for China, as that would be self-defeating for Beijing’s plans to be the center of a peaceful, stable, prosperous Asia. Indeed, China seeks relatively good relations with the United States and a relatively open international trading system, he says. China cannot afford to antagonize Washington, he says, as the sea lanes that bring China imported oil from the Middle East are guarded by the U.S. fleet. "There’s not a lot of evidence that China is picking a fight with the United States," Kang agrees. But, he warns, while U.S. hegemony in the region is not lost, it is threatened by Beijing’s ascendance. "If the United States doesn’t pay attention to the region, China, Japan or another country will step in to replace U.S. influence," Kang says.

Is the "peaceful rise" policy successful?

By all accounts, yes. "Beijing has shown real skill in diplomacy, particularly in the last five years," Denoon says. China has signed a treaty of amity and cooperation with ASEAN, begun bilateral negotiations with ASEAN countries, established economic and diplomatic relations with countries across South America and Africa, and settled contentious land disputes over islands claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Beijing has continued its strong partnership with Pakistan and also made great strides in negotiations with India and Russia. In March, China and Russia signed a series of major energy and trade deals. "China has shifted from the very aggressive and violent policy of the 1970s and 1980s, where it was quite willing to use force, to a much more diplomatic route in the 1990s," Denoon says.

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