Authors: Niv Horesh, University of Nottingham, and Emilian Kavalski, ACU
One day in June 2013, President Xi Jinping and his wife and First Lady Peng Liyuan touched down in Trinidad and Tobago. As the pair embarked the aircraft and strode down the gangway, there was something unmistakably ostentatious — a swagger even — in Peng’s turquoise attire and Xi’s matching tie. It marked a shift in China’s approach to international relations.
Such an air of confidence would have been less remarkable had this first couple not been Chinese. Perhaps due to the haunting memory of Jiang Qing, Chinese first ladies have hitherto shunned the limelight. And in comparison to Xi, there was something very drab in how previous Chinese leaders Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao had conducted themselves in public.
That sight of President Xi and his wife was symbolic of China’s growing assertiveness in its relations with the rest of the world — a world removed from Professor Lucian Pye’s famous scathing remarks in 1998 that suggested a crisis of identity would weaken any East Asian claims to global leadership. At the height of the Asian Financial Crisis and a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Pye deemed neither China nor Japan capable of rising above their own parochialisms and cultural self-absorption to find an appropriate global mode of expression with which to envision an alternative East Asian world order.
Over the next decade, the Chinese nation-building project steamrolled ahead and now the prospect of China becoming a superpower capable of challenging US influence is of course no longer a novel or daring proposition. We have become well versed in how the majority of policymakers in the West, particularly the United States, view China’s rise, right through from Kissinger to Obama.
But how do China’s neighbours in Asia perceive its increasing strength? In recent years, commentators have begun to notice that Beijing’s bilateral and regional interactions are premised not on rule-based behaviour, but the practice of normative and historicised relationships.
So how are Asian countries responding to China’s new, distinct brand of relational governance? What does the rest of Asia think of China’s approach to international relations? A new book, Asian Thought on China’s Changing International Relations, explores these questions by transcending the conventional focus on Sino-American, Sino-Japanese, Sino-Taiwanese or Sino-Indian rivalries, carrying over as these all do from the Cold War, in a bid to identify fresh geo-strategic and intellectual shifts within Asia.
Asian thinkers have a key role to play in shaping public opinion across the continent. We can all track the day-to-day geopolitics in the region, the exchange of threats that shape the headlines and the fallouts over territorial disputes. But it is much more difficult to ascertain a detailed picture of Asian public opinion towards China, and for China to steal a march on the US is dependent on whether China can mobilise support within the region. After all, ten years from now Asia is expected to account for half of the world’s GDP.
Up to this point China’s number one weakness has been its failure to make friends. South Korea is the only middle power that China has been able to get close to and even then relations are finely balanced, as Seoul weighs up the consequences of a closer relationship with Beijing for its longstanding alliance with Washington.
How then will Asia react to China’s more assertive approach? Is it a sign that China is seeking regional hegemony or is it a projection of soft power? Is the new Chinese narrative about global dominance or about changing the prevailing international system for the better?
The response of Asian states to China’s engagement could go either way. We could begin to witness a pan-Asian shift away from Western-centric perspectives, or China’s neighbours may opt instead to rally around the US in a bid to make it stay engaged in the region as a hedge against what they see as an overly assertive China.
In the wake of the Cold War, commentators were pondering how far Western ideas would spread. Today, the debate is about how far Chinese ideas will reach.
Niv Horesh is Director of the China Policy Institute, the University of Nottingham, and Professor of the Modern History of China. He researches the economic history of China, China in world history, the socio-economic history of Shanghai, and eighteenth and nineteenth-century depictions of East Asia.
Emilian Kavalski is Associate Professor at the Australian Catholic University, Sydney and book series editor of ‘Rethinking Asia and International Relations’. His research explores the security governance of complexity, the interactions between the EU, China, and India in Central Asia, and the contributions of complexity thinking to IR theory.