China and the World – the Demise of Peaceful Rise, by Raquel Vaz-Pinto

For the past thirty years the rise of China has stunned the world. This rise has been possible by deliberately playing a low-profile in international affairs whilst devoting all the energy and resources to economic growth. This strategy known as Peaceful Rise or Development has made China one of the indispensable countries of the world. Nonetheless, Beijing is now a victim of its own success and is facing strategic constraints that stem from the fact that China’s economic weight is spilling-over into the political, diplomatic and military realms. It is no longer possible for a country that has the world’s biggest population, second biggest economy and military expenditure, and an increasing physical presence in the globe, to lay low and avoid being the «responsible stakeholder» to use Robert Zoellick’s expression.

In the article published in Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional (RBPI, Special Issue, 2014) Raquel Vaz-Pinto argues that in order for us to encompass the strategic dilemmas posed by this enormous success, we have to understand the roots of Chinese exceptionalism as well as look into the domestic factors. Moreover, the article argues that the official policy of Peaceful Rise or Development has reinforced a deeply-rooted historical perception that China is exceptional. For centuries, China ruled its region through a complex and multilayered sinocentric system and exerted an enormous fascination on foreigners. The Middle Kingdom and its superior civilisation were unable to withstand the «century of humiliation» as well as a disastrous twentieth century. It is only now that China is returning to its rightful place at the centre, but still emphasising that Beijing will pioneer a peaceful rise, unlike previous Great Powers. In this regard, the concept of Peaceful Rise reinforces the tradition of being unique and exceptional. It remains to be seen how this can be achieved, even more now that there are evident signs of greater assertiveness in political and military issues. For instance, all the activities and incidents in the South China Sea have worked against this assertion of China rising as a benign and benevolent power.

This article explores the fact that the return of the Middle Kingdom has prompted the US to change its strategic discourse by rebalancing to the Pacific. Washington realised that in order to meet the challenges posed by Beijing to its Pacific allies and to itself it needed to upgrade this region. This was only possible after the end of American commitment in Iraq and its quasi-end in Afghanistan as well as a greater regional push for US presence. Even if the geographical borders of the Asia-Pacific region are not yet clearly defined, there is a US willingness to include India as a key-player, thereby enlarging this region to include two oceans, namely the Pacific and the Indian. The prevailing perception in Washington is to see India as a counterweight to Chinese influence in the region as can be observed, for instance, in the case of Burma. From the mostly military and security tone of the «pivot» to the more economic emphasis of the «rebalancing» we are now witnessing two important goals: to make the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) a dream come true and to readjust the rebalancing within the Pacific. The latter can be seen in the greater emphasis given to the Southeast Asia and in the multilevel initiatives that have been developed by the US.

Following Edward Luttwak’s recent work on Chinese strategic thinking and the concept developed by the European Council of Foreign Relations that we are now witnessing a third cycle of power – China 3.0 – as well as a generational change in Beijing, the article focuses on the main domestic challenges. These challenges that range from the tension between private and state capitalism, debt provincial and local authorities, corruption to massive urbanization are particularly difficult to tackle with since they are by-products or outcomes of China’s economic growth. This is even more so when we take into account that the Communist Party of China’s monopoly on power rests upon its ability to deliver economically rather than the former Maoist leaning on ideology. For example, the article highlights the consequences of China’s plan to urbanize 400 million by 2030. The process of urbanizing as many people as twice the Brazilian population in 16 years, will entail an increase in the already strained resources such as water and energy, reinforce Chinese energy foreign policy and encompass greater dam projects in the Tibetan plateau. These have already been a cause for controversy with neighbouring countries since China plans to divert and dam the main rivers of the region.

The article concludes that the rise of China has left an undeniable footprint in international relations and it will continue to do so.  The claim that China’s rise will be different and peaceful because China is exceptional seems to be facing increasing strategic constrains. From a regional and global perspective, the US responded by rebalancing to the Pacific. We are still a long way of fully comprehending the outcomes of this strategic move as well as the next steps of the Chinese leadership. In terms of shaping the 21st century China will face Herculean challenges, of which the domestic ones will be paramount. Since these stem from economic growth they are not easy to solve, but they will determine the ability of China to think strategically. To paraphrase Richard Haass this article considers that strategy begins at home.

Contact

Raquel Vaz-Pinto

Catholic University of Portugal, Institute for Political Studies, Lisbon, Portugal (rvazpinto@mail.telepac.pt)

Read the article:

VAZ-PINTO, Raquel. Peaceful rise and the limits of Chinese exceptionalism. Rev. bras. polít. int.,  Brasília ,  v. 57, n. spe,   2014 .   Available from <http://www.scielo.br/article_plus.php?pid=S0034-73292014000300210&tlng=en&lng=en>. access on  19  Oct.  2014.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1590/0034-7329201400213.

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