The dragon’s teeth

Even as the applause at the Nobel awards ceremony begins to fade, one major question that it has triggered will continue to be debated and discussed for a while — where does China find itself vis-à-vis its neighbours. The Nobel Peace Prize for 2010 was awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who is currently serving an 11-year jail sentence. Mr Liu, who played a leading role in the Tiananmen Square uprising of June 1989, is best known for his scathing criticism of the Chinese massacre at Tiananmen Square, where nearly 3,000 pro-democracy supporters were gunned down by the Chinese government. Moreover, he repeatedly voiced demands for democracy, which led to his imprisonment on charges of sedition and treason.
The Nobel Peace Prize to Mr Liu and China’s demands for all countries, especially its Asian neighbours, to boycott the award ceremony indicate a new phase of Chinese diplomacy. China’s claims that attending the ceremony would be tantamount to interfering in China’s internal affairs suggests a very defiant diplomatic posturing.
While there is no reason to believe that the Peace Prize to Mr Liu will bring any change in terms of human rights issues within China, it is interesting to look at the manner in which neighbours have responded to China’s insistence on boycotting the award ceremony is Oslo. Within the region four countries defied this — Japan, South Korea, Thailand and India. For both Japan and South Korea, members of the East Asian trio, the rise of China has been the most serious challenge. For Thailand, which is a member of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), China has always represented an ambiguous relationship. And finally for India, given how bilateral ties with China are poised, this was an event to further its own diplomatic counterpoint to the Chinese policy.
For the four countries the circumstances of their response may differ based on the domestic and foreign policy compulsions, but the end result highlights a shift that is critical for the region, especially if seen as a contagion.
Both Japan and South Korea look at China as the major challenge in the region. The issues relating to China’s rise have been felt mostly in relation with its two closest neighbours. Sino-Japanese ties have had its highs and lows for several decades now. In fact, since the 1990s Japan has been playing a more proactive role within the region and its attempt to emerge as a “normal power” has led to significant changes in its foreign and economic policies. For South Korea, Chinese support to the North Korean regime remains a crucial factor. Moreover, for both these countries the United States plays a vital role because they still remain critical allies of the US in the wider Asia-Pacific region.
For Thailand, which is a member of the Asean and a close ally of the United States, the China factor has always been critical. In fact, most of the Asean players tend to differ in their view of China — some believe that China is a threat, while others believe that greater engagement with China will reduce the possibility of open hostility and lead to more cooperation in the region. For Asean itself there has been an increasing need to re-engage with the US because of the China factor. Even during last month’s Asean Summit in Hanoi, reaffirmation of the US’ role in the region was seen as a counterweight to the inroads which China has made in the region.
India’s own position emerges from the compulsions of its bilateral relations with China and, in some senses, from the role that China is playing within the South Asian region. The ties between the two countries have been very rough in the past few years. Chinese position on the issues of stapled visas to people from the Kashmir Valley, its disregard for India’s domestic compulsions vis-à-vis cross-border terror and its support to Pakistan have all been critical issues for India. Moreover, the unresolved border issue remains an irritant in the relations between the two countries.
As India expands its ties with Southeast and East Asia, the impact on China will be significant. There has always been a debate as to whether India and China will be competitors or play a complementary role in the region. In many senses both these roles will be visible. India’s attempts to find a place within the UN Security Council will meet with resistance from China.
All these issues and India’s presence at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony will be on top of the agenda during Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India that begins today.
What the Nobel Peace Prize issue signifies is that the matrix of East Asian interstate relations is constantly evolving and shifting. Despite the rhetoric of China’s claim to “peaceful rise”, there is growing concern within the region over the manner in which China’s rise will affect regional calculations and security dynamics. The re-engagement of the US within Asia-Pacific also indicates that the predicament of China’s rise is not being looked at as benevolently as the Chinese may hope.
While China has since the 1990s adopted a foreign policy espousing multipolarity and multilateralism, its assertions in the region have been somewhat contrary to this proclamation. Though its economic engagement with the region has led to growing interdependence, this does not minimise the shadow of China’s looming assertions over the region. A case in point would be the Spratly Islands dispute where China is pitted against claimants from Southeast Asia and Taiwan. In 2002, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties was initiated for settling this dispute, but it has not really taken shape. The meeting of the claimants is to take place this month and will hopefully bring clarity on the role that China intends to play. China agreed to acknowledge that it would not claim any special rights over Spratly on grounds of being the larger player — this was, however, modified and its assertions on the issue have been critical in reshaping the regional response.
Scholars of international relations have often contended between the status quo and revisionist approach of China after its rise. This debate, simply put, means that China will remain status quo in its ambitions and the flip side is that it would revise its imperial designs and will, more likely, show hegemonistic tendencies. The recent responses, both from the region and India, are indicative of the latter where regional players may integrate with China economically, but will remain vary given that the dragon is rising in their own backyard.

Dr Shankari Sundararaman is an associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the School of International Studies, JNU

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