Success of Deng’s reforms and his strategy of ‘opening China to the world’ have transformed PRC into a major player in world politics
China wants to be the dominant regional power and its desire for hegemony has led to its overly aggressive actions in the East and South China Seas and along LAC which has led to some regional countries rejuvenating their ties with Washington to form a balancing coalition in order to contain Beijing’s bid for regional dominance. China’s surplus resources, significant economic strides and military modernization programs may in the future grant it the status of a potential hegemon.
To be the Asia’s regional hegemon, China must be dominant over the both the continental and maritime components. In maritime Asia, the United States functions as the countervailing power to China. With alliances and access to military facilities along Asia’s littoral from South Korea and Japan in the north, down to Australia in the south and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, the United States performs the role of offshore balancer to China’s continental dominance. Certainly from the US perspective, the United States with its alliances and access maintains ‘the current continental-maritime military balance in East Asia. The U.S. is the key country in any attempt to form a balancing coalition to contain Chinese power.
Similarly, the Chinese military is building up the capability to deter American operations within East Asia. As Robert Ross has pointed out East Asia has become bipolar; China and the United States share the regional balance of power. China’s regional security objectives have as their ultimate purpose the removal of the United States as Asia’s other great power. Amid a trade war and military escalations, an atmosphere many describe as “Cold War 2.0” has set in. The perceived weakening of the United States after the 2008 financial crisis made China more confident about asserting its own perceived interests in East Asia but as China has got more powerful, it developed an increasingly aggressive stance towards its neighbours, which is in line with offensive realism theory.
Nationalism is on the rise in China now and is a tool used to legitimise the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. China is now a much stronger power than three decades ago, thanks to Deng’s 1978 economic reforms. China displays aggression with Japan in the East China Sea, and with the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea and with India in Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh. Sino-Japanese relations have been the most bitter and contentious as China adamantly opposes Tokyo’s claim to the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands claiming that they were only given to Japan after the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese war and should have been handed back to China after the Second World War. India has long viewed China as its greatest potential military threat; border disputes with India and China’s relationship with Pakistan, especially its military assistance and covert support of Islamabad’s missile and nuclear weapons program, have been a constant security concern. These longstanding tensions have been joined more recently by China’s inroads into Burma (Myanmar) which have aroused India’s sensitivity to a Chinese presence in the Bay of Bengal.
China puts its military and economic heavyweight everywhere to alter the course of international power politics in its favour. Credit goes to Deng Xiaoping who in the late 1970s, initiated the reform programs that were to end the internal chaos generated by Mao Zedong’s obsessions and China’s self-imposed isolation from the world. The success of Deng’s reforms and his strategy of ‘opening China to the world’ have transformed the People’s Republic of China (PRC) into a major player in world politics. Deng’s market- oriented reforms resulted in a booming economy and made China a significant global trading country. His comprehensive defense modernization programs are reconstructing the once lumbering, obsolescent People’s Liberation Army into a modern defense force. The modernization of China’s armed forces is being maintained and perhaps accelerated by the double-digit percentage augmentation of defense allocations that have permitted increasing acquisitions of advanced weaponry from Russia.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a major economic project was proclaimed by the President Xi Jinping as “the project of the century” at its first convening in 2017. Though the Belt and Road Initiative is an informal coalition with the sensible aim of coordinating trillions of dollars of desperately needed infrastructure investment across more than 60 countries, a narrative has taken hold in Washington that Belt and Road is a nefarious plot aimed at neocolonial hegemony through debt traps that result in militarized extraterritorial ports and control over foreign economies.
China has become the world’s largest commodities importer as well as largest exporter of finished goods, heightening its exposure to the so-called Malacca trap by which its physical trade depends on the narrow chokepoint of the Strait of Malacca passing between Singapore and Indonesia over which it has no control. And as China’s trade rapidly expands with the European Union (with whom China trades $500 billion more per year than it does with the United States) and the Arab world, it’s only logical that it would seek overland corridors toward Europe and the Gulf region of West Asia, too.
China today seems an unstoppable force. From the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean, China’s naval footholds, access points, and probing have awakened multidirectional countermeasures in the form of new coalitions such as the Quad (made up of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia). The greater trade with and investment from China has contributed to growth of many small economies. If the United States, Europe, Japan, India, and other powers don’t want to see the developing world fall into Chinese debt traps, they simply have to put their money where their mouth is.
For the time being, though, any bid for regional hegemony is going to be curtailed by a number of Chinese disadvantages. China, in terms of military technology, is still many years behind the Americans and still relies on Russia for most of its high end military equipment, including engines for its fighter aircraft. But the strength of China’s economic influence shouldn’t be underestimated. If China’s current economic growth continues for the next couple of decades and its military spending follows on a parallel trajectory, it may be harder for international actors to resist its power.
Author is Assistant Professor, Political Science, Higher Education Department, Government of Jammu and Kashmir