How to deal with ChinaChina has ascended to become the world’s second-largest economy trailing only the United States. Through its spectacular military parade on Sept. 3, it showed off its military power in addition to its economic prowess. The show of force was massive in a typical Chinese style. The extravagant exhibit of 500 pieces of military hardware and 200 aircraft included homemade weaponry and intercontinental strategic missiles designed to carry nuclear warheads to as far as the U.S. mainland. In contrast to his proud display of military assertiveness, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke of peace. Where is the new China headed with its contrasting mix of strategic firepower and promises of peace?
The U.S.-triggered financial crisis in 2008 changed the global climate in favor of China. With its insatiable demand and purring industrial activity, China contributed to half of the global economic growth amidst slowdowns almost everywhere else. China’s pride reached the sky. It hit an early apex through the spectacle of the Beijing Summer Olympics. Publications started portraying China as a formidable superpower, the only rival to the United States. Nationalistic sentiment has led to a major shift in Beijing’s foreign policy.
The logic behind the transition is simple. China is expected to surpass the U.S. in economic scale by 2030 and the global order will inevitably become bipolarized between the U.S. and China. Beijing needs to establish strategic rank befitting its new status. It is casting aside Deng Xiaoping’s famous dictum, “Hide your strength and bide your time.” The rekindled Sino-centric sentiment is starting to overcome silent compliance with the U.S.-led global order that Beijing kept up since it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001.
China’s pragmatic diplomacy has been sophisticated under Xi Jinping. Its flexing of muscle was mitigated by a diplomatic promise to abide by moral duties. It will build its physical power but practice alternative ideological leadership. It is combining hard power (military and economic) and soft power. Yan Xuetong, a professor at Tsinghua University, outlined Beijing’s path in his book “Ancient China Thought, Modern Chinese Power,” which was published in 2013 when Xi came to power. Yen’s call for morality and realism in the flexing of national power came to shape Xi’s foreign policy. The concept and wording of strategic options and peaceful coexistence has been borrowed from Yan.
Beijing wants to pursue a contest of strength with Washington on two different fields. Ideologically, it proposes a hegemony concept different from the U.S-imposed free democracy. It envisions its leadership in an environment where traditional cultures and autonomy are respected, but benefits are shared for common interests, co-prosperity and China’s long-term strategic objectives. It offers an alternative development and peace framework, offering incentives for states that join it. The creation of the New Silk Road or One Belt, One Road initiative to increase regional demand through infrastructure developments is a byproduct.
Beijing has abandoned its long-held nonalliance principle and instead is aggressively courting strategic allies to compete on more equal grounds with Washington. Yan has listed Russia, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos and Myanmar as potential partners that could help Beijing wield greater influence on the global stage. Leaders of those countries attended China’s high-profile Victory Day celebration. They also are partners in its New Silk Road project. South Korean President Park Geun-hye standing alongside Xi on the stand at Tiananmen Square was a huge diplomatic success for Beijing. Park was given the red carpet treatment. China will likely accelerate its diplomatic offensive. It must enlarge the members of its team. How does Korea fit into this new framework?
We can seek wisdom from Chinese ancient sage Mencius, who had said large kingdoms should address smaller ones with benevolence and small kingdoms address bigger ones with their wits. Benevolence in today’s diplomatic parlance would mean soft power. In China’s own words, that translates into peace and co-development. How much we can trust Beijng’s words remains uncertain. But as a guest at its Victory Day celebration, we can demand Beijing to keep its side of the bargain — being responsible in contributing to peace and development on the Korean Peninsula. That is how we use our wits as a smaller neighbor.
We should both please and use Beijing. If need be, we can use our leverage with Washington to expand the space for our diplomatic maneuvering. Korea is scheduled for summit talks with the U.S. and then with China and Japan. Between the traditional alliance with the U.S. and rising power of China, we only have our good wits to depend on.