The China paradox

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The China paradox

Win-win cooperation and co-prosperity or common progress are the catchphrases Chinese leaders have been selling on the foreign front. The idea is in line with the government’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” initiative that could, if realized, connect Asia to Europe and Africa over land and sea. The slogan was again underscored at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-building Measures in Asia, a kind of regional security forum, held in Beijing last week. Chinese speakers were all busy touting the “win-win cooperation” and “common Asian community” concept.

At the same time, the Chinese Defense Ministry released the 2015 defense white paper that outlined a new military strategy emphasizing “active” military posture. The white paper - the first to focus entirely on military strategy - laid out the “principles of defense, self-defense, and post-emptive strike.” It wrote that the Chinese “will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked.” The paper also highlighted China’s aspirations towards a blue-water navy and an increased Chinese naval presence. How are we to interpret two contradicting foreign and security policies from Beijing - common peace and prosperity alongside aspirations to become a naval power?

Ingrani Bagchi, a reporter from the Times of India, said China is different inside and outside. Chinese President Xi Jinping, in a recent visit to Pakistan, pledged a $45 billion investment to the country, the single largest Chinese investment in a foreign country to date. The investment is a facade and part of China’s One Belt One Road, or New Silk Road project. And Pakistan, China claims, is its “economic or industrial corridor.” Bagchi claimed the establishment of the so-called Sino-Pakistan corridor was a strategy to encompass India. Regardless of how many times and how loud Beijing recites the mantra of win-win cooperation and co-prosperity, it is largely met with skepticism and suspicion from its neighbors.

The so-called Chinese paradox appears in many corners in Asia. I recently had been to Kazakhstan where Beijing also has pledged multi-billion-dollar investment. To citizens of the country’s most populated city Almaty, China is a threat rather than a friend. “Chinese people do not go home after construction work is done. They disappear. Before long, the Chinese could dominate our country with a small population,” an official at the statistics office said. I heard similar disgruntlement from officials and scholars from Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar and Mongolia. The reasons vary slightly, but the underlying feeling of discomfort was the same.

Lee Hee-ok, a professor at Sungkyunkwan University and an expert on China, said the suspicion is based on three factors: China’s ambitions for hegemony, its rapid rise in economic and military power and the stigma held by neighboring countries. The Chinese threat is fed by suspicions over the motivations and capabilities of Beijing coupled with the country’s stigmatized image. Despite its rank as the second largest economy, China repeatedly assures that it has no ambition to abuse its newfound power to influence others. But its neighboring countries in general do not believe its words, and China’s aspirations for naval power have only deepened the suspicion.

The conundrum is inevitable in the unique geopolitical and economic equation in the region. In a globalized community, free trade, cooperation and co-prosperity can be the only solution for survival. Asia is the only place in the world where Cold War-like rivalries and power struggles persist. Japan and India are separately waging a war of tensions with China. The United States complicates the math whenever it can. Despite ongoing and ever-interactive economic cooperation in the region, the China paradox is alive, feeding the broader Asian paradox where regional members are clashing on the foreign and security front, while cooperating in the economic field.

Such mechanisms and geopolitical developments concern us directly. We have already made a major policy mistake getting caught up in the Chinese paradox. Afraid of annoying Washington, Seoul has missed the right time to join the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. We have to differentiate between win-win cooperation and political interests in all policies related to China. Experts advise Seoul to be aggressive and self-willed, seeking its own interests over paradoxical stumbling blocks. The win-win cooperation initiative led by China is too tempting to resist. We must be on the bandwagon no matter what. But on the strategic level, we must stand next to Washington. We must try to solve complexities and awkwardness through diplomacy in pursuit of a two-track policy.

In President Park’s visit to Washington, she must frankly address the situation. She must explain that selective participation in Chinese programs, instead of outright suspicion and contradiction, could help better contain the country.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 1, Page 28

*The author is the director of the JoongAng Ilbo China Institute.

by Han Woo-duk

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