The Unsubtle Aggrandisement of China

keywords: return of geopolitics, overriding geo-economics, revisionist, bipolar hegemony


China is a great power without any doubt. While its GDP growth rate of this year has been estimated at 7.1% (Ferro 2014), the nation has ranked the second most militarily powerful nation in the world (Macias et al. 2014). In both name and reality, China is the second powerful country after the United States and this implies that Beijing is eligible to take over the only one vanguard right ahead of itself, sooner or later. Albeit the United States has staged a recovery these days, whether the ascendancy of China could be peaceful or not has been the most read-about news story, surpassing whether China is rising or not.

Then, would it be possible to foresee that China can hold its place as a new great power in a peaceful way? By extension, how would the new world order in the near future be mapped? After introducing a literature review, by analysing the current look of Chinese diplomacy in terms of power relations, economics, and international institutions and values, this paper will answer the questions which are the hot potato in the International Relations. Based on the findings, it will be concluded with an argument that China is masquerading as a peacekeeper regionally and globally to achieve its own aggrandisement according to its national interests, and eventually to become second only to the United States.

To get a better understanding of the current situation, this paper will use geopolitics and geo-economics to analyse the characters of China as an actor in power relations and economics respectively. It is because regionalisation may indeed be the new stage of globalisation (Trenin 2014) in which states can hardly achieve their global dominance. Additionally, the empirical evidences which will be used to buttress the analysis will be mostly associated with the Far East Asia region because that region has clearly depicted the rivalry between China and the United States since Korean War. Finally, to depict the Chinese position well in the voluminous field of international institutions and values, this paper will, in a narrow sense, refer to the United Nations and liberal order which is mostly led by the United States and its allies, the West and Japan.

Tools for Analysis

The Return of Geopolitics

Geopolitics is the study of the effects of geography (both human and physical) on international politics and international relations (Devetak et al 2012, 492). It traditionally studies the links between political power and geographic space, and examines strategic prescriptions based on the relative importance of land power and sea power in world history. The geopolitical tradition had some consistent concerns with geopolitical correlations of power in world politics, the identification of international core areas, and the relationships between naval and terrestrial capabilities (Osterud 1988, 192).

Conventional geopolitical imperatives predict that states will engage in power balancing against rising powers (Kapur and Suri 2012, 2). Therefore, in the realm of military competition the instruments of power are missiles, planes, warships, bombs, tanks and et cetera (Baru 2013). At most, military power in world affairs is an important factor in terms of geopolitics. Nowadays, scholars see the end of the Cold War as a watershed for the global agenda, whether geopolitics is still applicable or not. In one instance, Mead argues the return of geopolitics on the ground that the West utterly misread the collapse of the Soviet Union as the ultimate ideological triumph of liberal capitalist democracy over communism (Mead 2014, 69). As will be explained below, there are new geopolitical fault lines where the ambitions of great powers overlap and conflict (Kagan 2008).

The Grammar of Geo-economics

Samuel Huntington predicted that economic activity would (rather) be the most important source of power so it would determine the primacy of nations (Huntington 1988). Afterwards, it is followed by Paul Kennedy and Edward Luttwak, who argue the waning of the Cold War is reducing the importance of military power in world affairs (Luttwak 1990; Kennedy 1987). According to Sanjaya Baru in his speech at Global Strategic Review 2013, states as special entities which are jealously dealing with their own territories will not disappear but reorient themselves toward geo-economics in order to compensate for the decaying geopolitical grows (Baru 2013).

Unlike the drivers of geopolitics, the geo-economic imperatives are driven by the factors such as wage differentials, rising productivity, changing locus of consumer demand and technological advances underpinning complex cross-border supply chains, as profit- maximising private actors pursue deeper trade and investment linkages (Kapur and Suri 2012, 2). Following this, Luttwak points that the methods of commerce are displacing military methods with disposable capital in lieu of firepower, civilian innovation in lieu of military technical advancement, and market penetration in lieu of garrisons and bases (Luttwak 1990, 17). Currently, it can be truly pointed out several fundamental geo-economic grammars which are head to bipolar direction. One is led by the re-industrialisation of the United States, and the other is led by the expanding economic power from the East, China.

The Crisis of Liberal Order

Over the last decades the liberal international order have made appearances with the combinations and changing ways of the following aspects: open markets, international institutions, cooperative security, democratic community, progressive change, collective problem solving, the rule of law and etc (Ikenberry 2009, 71). This liberal world order is carried out by both international and domestic institutions that states primarily play by. The liberalists prefer a rule-based system in which stakeholders trade and cooperate to achieve mutual gains. That is because even powerful actors such as great powers would face very high costs if they were to use only force in order to influence events (Keohane 1998).

The central liberal dilemma lies on that liberal states support a pluralist approach to international institutions — “Liberalism of Restraint” as well as a non pluralist approach — “Liberalism of Imposition.” The United Nations system which is combined with a distinct liberal order centred on West-West cooperation within the framework of NATO and other trans-atlantic institutions, has resulted from the establishment of a universal Restraint order after World War II (Sørensen 2011, 142). However, the system has been criticised by the dissenters mostly from the third world and rising powers including China and Russia. Although they do not suggest any new alternative for the current world order, they indeed want to revise it, claiming the double standard of the vested states. For example, in recent years, the “humanitarian intervention” under the banner of “Responsibility to Protect” has caused tremendous controversy in the international area (Zongze 2012). The crisis of the liberal order led by the United States and its allies is giving way to a new world order, which can be explained with universal scope, post-Westphalian sovereignty, post-hegemonic hierarchy, and expanded rule-based system (Ikenberry 2009, 74).

Analysis on Now

The Regional Trouble Maker

The Chinese assertive approach to old but until recently territorial disputes with its neighbours including Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam and India has jangled nerves. Because of this, defence spending in Asia has risen sharply until now (Banyan 2014). As a result, China finds itself in the paradoxical position of having more economic partners but fewer friends in its region (Cox 2012, 376). As China has risen, most Asian countries (even including communist-led Vietnam) have demanded more, and not less, of an American presence in the region. In fact, in South Korea, the longtime ally of the United States, there was a strong critical public opinion about the Obama administration’s wishy- washy military policy after the former Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel had resigned.

Some might argue that military power is becoming less important, especially in the era of geo-economics. However, the military power of the United States in the regions near China, even to the extent of Australia, has been still mentioned and even compared to the developing military forces of China. This evidently shows the significance of geopolitics on analysing the status quo of China. Some Sinophiles also argue that China has developed its military power for defence. It is a naive conclusion that China is benign enough to avoid confrontation by building defensive rather than offensive military forces, since it is hard to distinguish between defensive and offensive military capabilities. No neighbours especially Japan will consider the Chinese naval strategy to be defensively oriented, though Chinese leaders refer to it as “Far Sea Defence.” Even South Korea which has just risen as a new strategic partner of China — the recent summit between Beijing and Seoul drew regional powers’ attention (Song 2014), cannot loose its military bond with the United States, mainly because of the Chinese blue navy. In addition to this, some maintain that China’s recent behaviour has not been aggressive in any meaningful way. However, this cannot be a reliable indicator for the complex current situations nor for the shaky future events (Mearsheimer 2010, 383). After all, it is not inappropriate to argue that China has intended to exert influence on its neighbour regions more and more, due to the Geopolitics 101 that great powers are always sensitive to potential threats near their home territory (Mearsheimer 2014). In conclusion, China has a significant offensive potential in its military power, and this characterises the current geopolitical aspect of the region that China is a regional trouble maker. The president of China, Xi Jinping, has tried to reassure its strategic partners about the Chinese peaceful intention, but it is just because he has realised that China’s provocative behaviour has not only harmed its own interests but also carries the risk of unintentional regional conflict (Banyan 2014).

The Regional Leader Aiming Globally

After Deng’s Market Reform, China has well integrated into the Western-led world economy. It has not only made a lot of strides in pursuit of economic growth but also proved that the growing national wealth and autocracy can be compatible. Now, China has focused on expanding its economic clout in Eurasia, aiming to globally expand its influence. China believes its old idiom “a prosperous country and a strong army.” To be prosperous, China needs to survive in the globalising era. Therefore, it has been concentrating on integrating itself well into the western capitalism. Based on the economic growth which make it ranked the number one until now, China has started to tighten its economic ties with its neighbours and strategic partners such as the rising powers, BRICS. The thing is, the way China has developed its economic clout can rival the established economic institutions, such as the World bank and the Asian Development Bank, which are under the sway of the United States and Japan (Oh 2014). In other words, China has seek its national interests beyond its territorial boundary, by acting as a regional peace promoter with the grammar of geo-economics. For China, the first step to go global is to go regional according to Yang Xianming of Yunnam University. Let us have an example. Beijing eyes Central and South-East Asia as prime areas for boosting trade and investment. In 2013, Xi Jinping announced initiatives about the Silk Road Economic Belt in continental Asia and the Maritime Silk Road which point to the two main axes of China’s geo-economic expansion (Trenin 2014). He says Beijing is willing to lead a new challenge which is to reinvigorate the ancient Silk Road with a modern transportation and to develop the least underdeveloped part of China. However, it can be assumed that China is actually searching for a new access to strategic shipping routes which belong to Singapore and Thailand (Boten and Mohan 2014). It can be natural that China is eager to extend its economic clout mainly focusing on its region, considering that the economic centre of the world has moved from the West to the Wast (Perlberg 2014). However, the rivalry between the United States and China in the Asian region is overheating and this should not be overlooked.

Furthermore, China is developing its economic system, state capitalism, in a more sophisticated way to eliminate obstacles on the way to the regional leader. Until now, most of Chinese economic investment has been dominated by state-owned companies and even large companies that remain in private hands have relied on government patronage in the form of credit, contracts, and subsidies (Bremmer 2009, 43). With the advantages benefited from the government and more sophisticated authoritarian tools, Chinese economic actors have grown their influences all around the world like China’s state-owned businesses stealing a march in Africa (The Economist “W…” 2014). Obviously, China has already ruled its region and outside of it, enough to threaten the soft power of the United States.

The Self-Seeker Masquerading As Peacekeeper

China is considered (not literally but figuratively) as a “good citizen” by most of its regional neighbours, but when it comes to the global level it is not easily regarded as in the same way. It is true that China has been more peacefully rising than its predecessors such as the former Soviet Union. The nation which used to a rule-taker has championed several forums and conferences at the regional as well as global level to promote the better understanding and relationship among the states in the region. Recently, for example, China suggested Japan and South Korea step up cooperation on Ebola fight, by taking a leading role (Yonhap 2014). More broadly, it emphasises that East Asia in particular, should not only take a stronger view of sovereignty and non-intervention but also share a Confucian culture more for the regional peace (Buzan 2010, 14). In addition to this, China has gradually increased its engagement as a global peacekeeper. These days, the dragon has become a major player in the United Nations peacekeeping operations, taking part in anti-piracy patrols off the Horn of Africa (The Economist “W…” 2014). Through peacekeeping, which has been sometimes benign enough to cross its diplomat interests like dispatching the blue dragons to MINUSTAH regardless of the Haiti’s continued recognition of Taiwan, China has been able to achieve its position where they can demonstrate its progress toward “responsible power” (Wang 2013).

The thing is that the outcome of China’s attempts has not guaranteed a concert of powers, but rather generated a tension between the United States and its allies, and China. It is mainly because the major Asian nations including China and India take the current liberal order such as humanitarian intervention as a moral imperative, based on their history under the colonial period. In particular, the nations believe the conceptualisation of humanitarian intervention is a total fallacy (Ayoob 2004, 103) in a historical as well as emotional context. In their perspective, “Responsibility to Protect” is just a cover to legitimise armed interference by rich Western powers in the affairs of poor countries (Zongze 2012). Based on this, China has vetoed for several times such as the North Korea prosecutions, Syria By extension, and etc. By extension, the opponents of the current order have claimed that the United States has lost its credibility, after the Ferguson and torture report case revealed in the very recent past (Blanchard 2014).

However, these Chinese arguments should be interpreted with some other empirical facts. The growing number of the Chinese leadership suggests that only two poles, which are the United States and China, are acceptable (Trenin 2014). 2014 Hong Kong protests ended up with no fruitful humanitarian outcome. Because of the growing political power of China in the international society, even Pope declined Dalai Lama meeting in Rome (BBC 2014). If China really reckoned itself as a global peacekeeper, then the series of the anti- humanitarian events should not have happened. Then, what can be inferred is China have made some contributions to peacekeeping and non-proliferation in the United Nations, but been fairly passive in its political position and mainly concerned to protect its national interests (Buzan 2010, 15).

Analysis on Ahead

“Let China sleep, for when the Dragon awakes, she will shake the world.”

As Napoleon said, the world has trembled since China appeared on the world stage. Albeit China has insisted its peaceful rise and even the entire world have anticipated the dragon does so, there would be inevitable conflicts generated from the battle for supremacy in the region. Furthermore, a new world order will be arriving which is mainly composed with the United States and China.

Above all this is because of those in Beijing who have wanted to redefine their country by using the terms such as Sino-American bi-hegemony, Anti-American and/or Western, or even “post” American. It is said that while nationalist rhetoric has been circulating in China for a while, the quantity does seem to have risen sharply (Zakaria 2014). It reveals that China is the one who keeps two tongues in one mouth and will hold its status until it achieves the goal, to create a new world order which can be regarded as bi- polar, at least.

Plus, in the China’s scenario for its aggrandisement, competition will be necessary. Because, to integrate itself into the established system will be not enough. It needs to make use of the return of geopolitics as well as the grammar of geo-economics. This time, the main actor of the regionalisation which has come from outside of the Western background, will contest for revising its own norms and values by taking advantage of its increasing influence on the world (Trenin 2014). Also, China will put more significance on geo- economics. It is because, as mentioned above, China believes that it should grow its economic potential in order to ascend at a global level. Some might counter argue that China may be strong abroad, but it is fragile at home (Gries 2008; Shirk 2007). Yes, its internal systemic malfunctions such as corruption has been discoursed. However, it is somehow explained that the authoritarian system has some positive aspects which are adaptability, meritocracy, and legitimacy (Li 2013), and this has been positively acknowledged by the people of China, eventually contributing to the citizens’ approval. It remains to be seen whether the Xi Jinping’s willingness to chase after “tigers” as well as “flies” for anti-corruption will turn out successfully. However, the unique system of China has been operated very well, and also represented a significant advance on its predecessors in several respects. For example, it is far better at using capitalist tools to achieve its desired ends by using more sophisticated tools at its disposal (Webb 2012, 2). The evolved dragon has already eaten up Far East Asia and began to covet South Asia and Eurasia. If these plans are implemented, the future economic Sinosphere, which might be more politely called Greater Asia, may extend all the way to the Gulf, the Black Sea and the Baltics, and embrace countries such as India, Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan and Russia (Trenin 2014).

Furthermore, geo-economics, by itself, will not just raise a dust. The more interdependent economic ties are often a major source of friction between great powers (Mearsheimer 2010, 393). Kind of similar to what the Ukraine Crisis has shown, geopolitics will follow to the case of China as well. China as a great power, is avid to secure its sovereignty by beefing military power up as much as possible. Having a long memory for “Century of humiliation,” it has increased soft power to undergird hard power. Having confidence with its growing power, China now sees even relatively far-flung parts of the Pacific, such as American-allied Australia, as part of its local playground. In the same vein — though Mr Xi lowers his tone over the South China Sea and the disputed islands, Senkaku (or Daioyu) islands — China will not stop its geopolitical aspiration and rather, send more coastguard boats to make its neighbours shut up (Banyan 2014). The geopolitics in the region will become more complicated, as the prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, has been able to tighten up his grip on power because his liberal Democratic party won a comfortable majority in general elections on 14 December 2014 (The Guardian “J…” 2014). In the recent interview with The Economist, Mr Abe, a self-acknowledged realist, stressed his plan, which is to regain the bygone competitiveness of Japan in the region as well as the rest of the world (The Economist “S…” 2014). His intention is understandable, considering another Japanese perspective that if the United States and China strengthen their relationship, than this would threaten the security alliance between Japan and the United States, and exacerbate the Japanese fears of abandonment. Because of this complex situation, there would be unavoidable conflicts between the two countries, albeit Xi and Abe both agreed with a maritime communication mechanism. Like adding fuel to fire, the wishy- washy Obama administration’s foreign policy will turn out to be ineffectual when it comes to cope with the regional disruption, making the Chinese government insecure enough to pour more cash on its national military budget. The White House is also suspicious toward Chinese intentions, not being fond of Chinese designs to obtain foreign recognition of its “core interests,” which the administration sees as a murky jumble of territorial demands (Li and Xu, 2014), and this would worsen the situation too.

Mearsheimer argues that it is hard to imagine the circumstances which is similar to the entire world experienced during the Soviet-American rivalry period. Mainly because Asia’s geography is so different from Europe’s, and the stakes in East Asia are smaller and a number of the possible conflict scenarios involving fighting at sea. There are certainly some ideological differences between China and the United States, but they do not affect the relationship between the two countries in profound ways mainly because China has embraced a market-based economy (Mearsheimer 2010, 392). Though his argumentation sounds a bit superficial, it is always worth being aware of any unpeaceful possibility. Additionally, unlike their western partners, the rising powers including China do not feel secure in the global market created by their used-to-be-enemies, so they use all the elements of national power — its companies and banks, its aid agencies and diplomats — to get its rightful share (Webb 2012, 11). Unless this Chinese distrust of the West is ended, China would be still captured in the jeopardised history. The twilight of history is not a quiet time at all (Mead 2014, 79), as we can see from Xi Jinping’s response after Obama visited Beijing. He has called for army modernisation plans that have rattled nerves across the region (The Guardian “X…” 2014).

Let the Dragon In

Historically, China considered itself, in a sense, the sole sovereign government of the world (Zakaria 2014). However, (unfortunately) China has been put pressure on its adoption of Westphalian standards and institutions, since it has aspired to rise in a period of transition when postmodern developments at the global level like human rights and “good governance” have created a new “standard of civilisation.” Like other international actors, Beijing needs to adapt to this restructuring in order to sustain its economic growth or it can also find other way of developing its economy which is to foster domestic market. However, Beijing still needs the western market at its disposal for expanding the country and sustaining the national system. As Legro points out, much of the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party hangs on maintaining the growth that has so far been generated by reform and opening up (Buzan 2010, 18; Legro 2007). The growing concern about the planetary environmental crisis such as climate change, will make China unfold itself more in the international society as well (Buzan 2010, 19).

However, just like it did not accept the need to westernise itself completely when it entered into the Western international society, Beijing has shown that it does not have any slightest inclination to jump on the bandwagon, by, for example, vetoing on several crucial agendas of the United States. China is acting within the Western framework only because it does not want to lose the diplomatic recognition from many other governments, and also because it wants to seek to find a stable and workable blend of modernising reforms and “Chinese characteristics” (Buzan 2010, 11).

There is one more matter for further consideration. A new world order which the United States and China have just started to come up with, has an inherent flaw. It can ignore some other countries including the key allies of the United States such as the European Unions and other rising powers such as Russia and India in the region. This would make the small but still concerned stakeholders of the region worry about their security due to the possible Chinese expansionism. Consequently, the United States would be reluctant to force China to buy the United States-led liberal order. Then, the “New Type of Great Power Relations” that Xi Jinping and Obama suggested together last year, which ideologically depicted mutual benefits in general and no confrontation (Li and Xu 2014), would be used just as a reference by both of them. It is true that not just Beijing hopes the rise of the dragon can be win-win, though not all diplomacy can be reliable, but unfortunately, it is impossible for both sides to win on some colossal issues (Banyan 2014), regarding world order and hegemony game in particular. Hence, we cannot help but accepting a new bi-polar world order coming with turbulence, and continuously attempting to let the dragon embrace the end of history as soon as possible, given the huge dangers of rivalry.


To acknowledge world order is very hard, especially on a world scale, in societies struggling with the anarchic effects of new media (Kissinger 2014). However, we can have a glimpse of the transition, by analysing what has been done by the major stakeholders, historically. One of the stakeholders, China, with its enormous demographic asset, has been successfully landed a global stage. Now, it has tactfully focused on geo-economics and geopolitics to become a great power. As a consequence, China has become the regional trouble maker in terms of geopolitics, and the regional leader expecting more in terms of geo-economics. China does contribute itself to the international society actively, realising an old saying, “With great power comes great responsibility.” However, its actions should not be read as 100% pure humanitarian but as political and self-serving.

China has been eagerly awaiting its rise for ages. Therefore, China would be willing to risk even though it might see unintended consequences which could be against the western’s design, since international order does not rest on ideas and institutions alone, but it is shaped by configurations of power (Kagan 2008). As a result, the world will be facing a turbulent times. The upcoming phase of world order would be new but somewhat familiar for those who have already experienced the Cold War. However, unlike its predecessor, the new Cold War between China and the United States would be more messier and diverse, and perhaps last longer than expected, because of China, the rising power.



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