The rise of China as a global economic and political power is arguably the most significant development in world politics and is one that has been unprecedented throughout history. China’s global impact is increasingly felt on every continent, in most international institutions, and on many global issues. (Shambaugh 2013) This is starting to create a power transition from the West to the East as the United States starts to (arguably) decline, shifting the world landscape from a unipolar world towards a bipolar order. Historically speaking, the emergence of new poles of power in the international system have been geopolitically destabilizing such as the rise of Russia, Germany, and the United States.(Layne 2008) The rise of China has the potential to create significant conflict in the international, regional, and local spheres, thereby altering the current world order and creating a deep and lasting conflict.
Two Dominant Theories on The Rise of China
Liberal theories assert that because the current international system is characterized by interconnectedness and the acceptance of political and economic openness, the international system can accommodate China’s rise to power peacefully. They argue that globalization has created conditions that have made everyone dependent upon each other in areas such as trade. In line with this thinking, China buying increasingly large amounts of United States debt creates a safety net between the two powers, de-escalating the potential for future conflict due to a mutual reliance on one another. This, however, has not held true historically. In the 1900’s tension and conflict were extremely high between Britain and United States due to the new emergence of a great power, even though both were democracies.
In contrast, Realist theorists assume that there will be intense and growing competition in the international system because of China’s rapidly increasing economic, political and military strength which will lead the country to pursue its interests firmer and aggressively by challenging the current system. In turn, this is going to create conditions for conflict as the United States and other Western countries attempt to create a balance against the rising China as they seek to secure resources for future advancement. BRICS can be the first obvious sign of a global balancing act.
China and the World System
In September 2005, President Hu introduced his foreign policy of “harmonious world –seeking lasting peace and common prosperity” (Yetiv 2012) Although ambiguous it indicates China’s willingness to co-operate on the many issues that call for global attention. China knows that to pursue their domestic and national interests in the future, they must begin to build their national legitimacy through active engagement in the international system. This is part of China’s ‘asymmetrical warfare’ plan. It aims to install China into international institutions with the goal of accumulating soft power. Failure to succeed means eventually being absorbed into the liberal system as most ‘rogue states’ have before them.
Thus, China’s future role will be as a co-operative bilateral and multilateral actor in the international arena, building their nation’s legitimacy. They approach the international system with the realization that any direct confrontation with the current system would create intense conflict that could harm their exponential growth numbers they have enjoyed for so many years. This leaves china hesitant to directly attempt to change the system, thus they take a more subtle approach to challenging the existing order and choose to reform it subtly from within.
Gradually, China has been building status, authority, and political power through embracing participation in the currently existing liberal order. Examples of China trying to build legitimacy within the international system are:
- (1) Taking the lead in the North Korea nuclear debates
- (2) Taking a lead role on climate change
- (3) Joining the WTO and IMF
- (4) holding the Summer Olympics in 2008
- (5)Becoming a member of the permanent UN Security Council
- (6) Co-operating in bilateral relationships with countries such as Canada
With China’s new legitimacy they have increasingly relied on utilizing the existing institutions to challenge the legitimacy of U.S. hegemony. China’s specific tactics include:
- (1) denouncing U.S. unilateralism and promoting the concept of multilateralism
- (2) participating in and creating new international organizations (that do not involve the U.S.)
- (3) pursuing proactive ‘soft power’ diplomacy in the developing world
- (4) Voting against the United States in International institutions
- (5) setting the agenda within international and regional organizations. (Schweller 2011)
Through these actions, China is seeking to slowly modify the existing order and not to directly challenge it. As a Chinese ambassador reportedly thundered during China’s negotiations to enter the WTO, “We know we have to play the game your way now, but in ten years we will set the rules!” (Schweller 2011)
China and Their Utilization of Inter-governmental Organizations
As China rises to power, so does their ability to interfere with the western agenda through the utilization of NGOs and IGOs. The formation of BRICS which includes Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa represents a division in the world, and also a tightening on the gap between Global North and Global South.
BRICS form a heterogeneous coalition of often competing powers that share a common fundamental political objective: to erode Western hegemonic claims by protecting the principle which these claims are deemed to most threaten, namely the political sovereignty of states. (Laidi 2012) Therefore, the BRICS alliance builds a cumulative and committed group of state sovereignty defenders. They are concerned with maintaining and reaffirming their independence as states while also their judgment and courses of national action in a world that has become increasingly economically and politically interdependent. They consider state sovereignty trumps all and there is no better evidence of this today than their current opposition to any outside intervention in the countries affected by the Arab Spring. (Laidi 2012)
Under criticism and international pressure, China eventually chose to abstain from vetoing humanitarian intervention in Libya, a decision that costed them resource interests . China, however, learned from their mistakes after the initial Libyan humanitarian efforts turned into a regime change operation and have since rejected any intervention in to Syria.
China’s veto to sanctions and intervention in to Syria is an example of China serving as a sovereign state defender while also asserting and protecting their national interest. At the March summit, the Heads of States discussed Syria and Iran, where they underlined the need for diplomatic rather than military solutions. (Lassen 2013) China has significant interests in relation to trade and oil with Syria. As for China’s relationship with Iran, they are close trading partners and Iran is a future prospect to supply increasingly demanding China with vital energy needs to sustain development. Due to this, they refuse to co-operate on any level imposing sanctions on Iran. This followed from Chinese foreign ministry declaring that ‘China opposes any country imposing unilateral sanctions on another country pursuant to its domestic law’. (Xinhua 2013) In other words, China will be China, nobody will stop them from pursuing their national interest.
China and the United States
The US-China conflict is deeper than it seems. China has been expanding into previously untapped markets across the globe. They are seeking to undermine the current international system as they see a declining US. China is already trying to rid itself of the American dollar to reshape the international landscape, a move that is certain to create tensions with the United States. According to Pastor Lindsey Williams,
‘On Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012, China made the official announcement. China said on that day, our banking system is ready, all of our communication systems are ready, all of the transfer systems are ready, and as of that day, any nation in the world that wishes from this point on, to buy, sell, or trade crude oil, can do using the Chinese currency, not the American dollar.’ (Schortgens 2012)
This is a significant move by the Chinese as they move to contest the US as the world’s hegemonic leader. The petrodollar hypothesis states that a driving force of the United States foreign policy has been the status of the United States dollar as the world’s dominant reserve currency and as the currency in which oil is priced. Thus the term Petrodollar, which is every American dollar earned by a country from the sale of their petroleum to another county.
America has gone to war in order to maintain a monopoly over the petrodollar. Most notably in the Iraqi War when in 2000 Iraq changed all of its oil transactions to euros. However, when the US invaded in 2003 they returned it to dollars.
In the future, the Chinese Yuan could possibly rival the dollar and China is already displaying attempts to move away from the current dollar-denominated system that is dominated by the US. Since late 2008, the People’s Bank of China (PBC) has negotiated eighteen bilateral swap arrangements (BSAs) with foreign central banks that make it easier for China to settle cross-border trade and direct investment in its national currency (Mcdowelly et al. 2012) This is part of China’s future ambition to internationalize its own currency and rid itself of the dollar, creating a dominant multi-reserve system.
Furthermore, Daniel McDowelly and Steven Liao show strong evidence to support the trade interdependence hypothesis ‘‘the probability that a country will negotiate a BSA with the PBC increases as both countries become increasingly dependent on the other in the area of international trade.’’ (Mcdowelly et al. 2012) This has significant implications because China is a large importer of oil and a heavy exporter of goods, and as they rise many countries are becoming more dependent on China in the area of international trade.
BRICS has also recently begun moving away from the U.S. dollar when doing transactions among members of the alliance. At the latest BRICS Summit in South Africa in March 2013, the group decided to establish a BRICS development bank as a possible parallel structure to the World Bank. (Lassen 2013) China has also begun direct currency trading with many countries recently, as they move to cut the ‘middle man’ U.S. dollar. This is setting the conditions for a major rivalry between China and the United States that could potentially be dangerous. This because the United States has acted many times to safeguard their status as the world reserve currency, which arguably gives them an edge in the international system through the ability to run massive deficits while generating a constant demand for American dollars.
China and Regional Disputes
Since China has started to rise they have begun to become more assertive with their neighbours, rekindling old territorial disputes. China is beginning to build up their military while boasting about their solidarity to sovereignty, creating new fictitious borders such as the “nine-dash line“.
This aligns with what Samuel Huntington points out, “The external expansion of the UK and France, Germany and Japan, the Soviet Union and the United States coincided with phases of intense industrialization and economic development.” (Huntington 1992) Once a rising country begins to attain power, influence and capabilities to back them, they will attempt to begin affirming their core interested more commonly, not only this but they will start attempting to gain more power over what is going on around them. Rising powers seek not only to secure their frontiers but to reach out beyond them, taking steps to ensure access to markets, materials, and transportation routes; to protect their citizens far from home, defend their foreign friends and allies, and promulgate their values; and, in general, to have what they consider to be their legitimate say in the affairs of their region and of the wider world. (Friedberg 2005)
There is speculation that China may try to overturn the regional status quo, proponents of this cite the rapid increase in Chinese military spending and assertiveness of old territorial disputes that until recently had been shelved. The Chinese foreign minister also has taken a stronger stand on China’s growing territorial disputes with neighboring nations, saying that “there is no room for compromise” with Japan and that China would “never accept unreasonable demands from smaller countries,” an apparent reference to Southeast Asian nations. (Wong 2014) China now sees themselves as the big player in Asia affairs and will be more unwilling to compromise as they gain more power and influence. They have already begun staging military exercises in the Asia-Pacific region, boasting their military power while affirming their solidarity to sovereignty.
As they seek to assert themselves, rising powers are often drawn to challenge territorial boundaries, international institutional arrangements, and hierarchies of prestige that were put in place when they were relatively weak. (Jensen 2011)
Tensions between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyudao Islands by China) have existed since the 1970’s. This came after Japan had surveyed the area which they thought they had indisputable sovereignty over and published in their newspapers the potential for the area to contain oil. Only within the last few year have the disputes erupted into potentially dangerous circumstances. As one observer pointed out, “It began with words, then actions of police forces, now actions of air forces that are leading both sides to mobilize all their military, political, economic, diplomatic, and cultural energies to engage in the dispute”. (Wade 2013) China refuses to budge on the issue while Japan is seeking for UNESCO support, which only heightened political tension between the two.
The Senkaku Island conflict in particular has both global and regional implications due to The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan. The treaty states that according to article 3, “ The Parties, individually and in cooperation with each other, by means of continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid will maintain and develop, subject to their constitutional provisions, their capacities to resist armed attack.” (“Japan-U.S Security treaty”) The treaty essentially acts as the biggest deterrent to a rapid escalation of the conflict, however, it may also act as a rapid escalator to the conflict if the US is forced to get involved.
China has also recently set up their own AIDZ (Air Defence Identification Zone) around the Senkaku Island, most likely to bolster and try legitimize their claims to the land. The United States refuses to recognize the AIDZ and has responded by flying unarmed, nuke capable, B-52’s over the AIDZ without prior warning to China, creating more tension.
China argues that is has had a claim to the land for centuries, despite them being uninhabited. Japan, on the other hand, argues that is had obtained the islands in 1895 and that they were ‘terra nullius‘ meaning they didn’t belong to anyone. Japan had lost the island after the Second World War, however, they were returned to Japan in 1971 by the Okinawa Reversion Agreement. Since being handed over Japan has failed to officially acknowledge the presence of a territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands.
This falls in line with the idea that most disputes are between a revisionist state, claiming ownership of certain territory based on old documents or pre-war status and a status quo state, who often does not even acknowledge the existence of a dispute –making negotiations very difficult. (Renner 2013) Nationalism has helped to put both sides into a political deadlock on the Senkaku Island Dispute. In both Japan and China nationalists have sought to unite over the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands, sparking protests in both countries over the issue.
Chinese political nationalism seeks to re-establish China’s domestic political authority and international sovereignty and to modernize every aspect of Chinese society, with the primary aim of achieving national wealth and military strength. (Guo 2012) This is leading China to become more assertive and willing to create conflict. There also are many other factors which have helped put both sides into a deadlock, refusing to budge.
The territorial dispute between Japan and China over the sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is framed by economic interests, domestic circumstances, national identity issues, requirements of international law and historical grievances. (Drifte 2013) Senkeku will be a tough dispute to diffuse without offering complete sovereignty over to China because it falls within their ‘core interests’ that have been laid out. The longer the dispute goes on without progress, the higher that the chances of a serious conflict occurring. When there is an extended dispute—in particular, a lasting territorial dispute—that creates the underlying condition required for a serious confrontation, Military buildups and arms races are predictors of the willingness of contenders to choose war over peace when both parity and an extended dispute are present. (Tammen 2006)
China has already been building their military for quite some time, while Japan is starting the boost their military to counter China. The longer a dispute is allowed to go on, the higher tensions will get between the two countries, creating conditions for a tiny spark to get the war drums beating on both sides. There are also several other factors that increase the chances of a potentially serious crisis occurring a) China’s current efforts to challenge directly Japan’s longstanding administrative authority over the islands through a fairly regular pattern of incursions into nearby spaces by a variety of mainly civilian government aircraft and ships; b) the relatively high numbers—and in some cases, level of capability—of the government vessels participating on both sides; and c) the intensity of elite and public emotions involved, especially in China.(25) (Swaine September 10, 2012) The way both sides are handling the situation is also leading to high chances of a serious conflict between the two.
China and Local Conflict
Most of the threats the Chinese see to their country come from within. For three decades China has depended on robust growth, largely from ever-increasing exports, to maintain high levels of employment and raise living standards, thereby assuring social tranquillity. (Haass 2011) The rise of China has intensified its current conflicts at the local level to deal with.
In the autonomous Xinjang region a combination of policy, environmental degradation, cultural repression and political repression have created deepening conflict between the Chinese government and the Xinjang Separatists. The Muslim Uyghurs are an ethnic minority in the Xinjang region which have been the center of religious and cultural mistreatment at the hands of the Chinese since 1949. With the discovery of oil and other natural resources in the region, the Han Chinese are now flooding into the region in an effort to exploit the resources. (“Ethnic Conflict and Natural Resources” May 2006)
The oil and resources are needed to help fuel the Chinese economy, however, the massive migration and exploitation of the land are leading to a depletion of the resources valuable to the region for people’s survival. Lands are the victim of over-production while water is becoming a scarce commodity. As a result, the Uyghurs have strengthened their own campaign, sometimes resorting to violence, in an effort to reclaim their land, to halt the religious and political persecution and, in extremist cases, to establish their own, independent Uyghur state. (“Ethnic Conflict and Natural Resources” May 2006) The most notable incident was recently when Xinjang Separatists attacked a train station in the city of Kunming killing 29 people and injuring another 130.
Much of China’s power has been developed through co-operation and is a situation they seem undesired to change at this present time. China has everything to gain through showing up in the existing international institutions, building their countries legitimacy and soft power. You could say China subscribes to the strategy of ‘asymmetrical warfare’, where, China already realized its sheer economic and growing military capabilities, however, they realize they need to build their soft power to be able to contend their legitimacy as a state sovereignty defender. Thus, China has attempted to shape the international system through strengthening ties with major powers, becoming more involved in multilateral efforts and promoting a multipolar distribution of global power. (Buzan 2010)
China seeks to not directly confront the current system however, they employ a series of tactics to undermine it while slowly attempting to modify the existing structure. This is creating tension and conflict between the US and China. Such tactics include attempting to internationalize the Yuan, voting against the US in international institutions, the forming of BRICS as a way to contend against western hegemonic claims, and showing support for authoritarian regimes. Through this lens, China’s involvement in the international system can be seen as solely self-interested as they only participate to gain legitimacy and power.
China has also become more assertive recently with their neighbors rekindling old territorial disputes which could have devastating consequences because of China’s solidarity to sovereignty. With Japan and China seeking to bolster the size of their military is leading to a recipe for regional disaster.
In the local sphere, China’s rapid growth has worsened the conflict between the Xinjang region and China, largely due to environmental degradation caused by an influx of people to exploit the resources in the region. This has led to land overproduction and water shortages which are setting the basis for social unrest in the region.
Because of this, The rise of China has the potential to create significant conflict in the international, regional and local spheres, altering the current world order and creating deep lasting conflict.
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