By Antony Clement
China is one of the major global powers in the world, and its economy is the second largest next to the US. However, its reactions in thrusting the external actors away from the South China and East China Seas exposes the insecure nature of the Chinese.
Starting with the issue of ‘one country two systems’: the main land Chinese eagerly expecting more freedom, the unsettled issue of Tibet as an autonomous region, and the Taiwan issue: these influence the causes of the Chinese unsecured environment. The world has been looking at the Chinese, because of its economic magic, since its liberalisation during the late1970s. However, the present economic downturn in their growth trajectory has caused concern for the Chinese leaders, which has been seen as the instrument of the Chinese power projection in the international system. The recent years’ upspring in West Asia and the democratic transformation in Myanmar has concerned the Chinese ruling elite to be cautious in their approach of containing the freedom of social media in China. The continuous containment of social media and religious freedom are in the direct control of the Chinese high command, which proves and acknowledges their unsecured nature. Hence, the Chinese reactionary approach in the disputed islands articulated their domestic concern which is directly linked to their stability and security.
The late former Singapore Prime Minister Lee said, “China will collapse like the Soviet Union, if it adapts democracy”. While its neighbour India has more to celebrate, its democracy would make for an uncomfortable situation for the Chinese. While in India 1.2 billion people cast their rights to select their representatives, the Chinese 1.4 billion people, voiceless in a suppressive condition,are not able to express their feelings by looking at the ruling elite. This would be a vulnerability for China. Now the recent transformation in their other neighbour, the Myanmar (Burma), into a democratic path will influence the Chinese public mind further.
Since its liberalisation during 1978, in the last three decades China had enjoyed the concept of being outward looking, and this benefited China as it largely modernised the infrastructure and their military. However, the recent continuous down fall in growth confused them and caused concern to the Chinese leadership. Their cheap exports made the Chinese the upper hand in global markets unchallenged by other competitors. Still their products are flooded in all western markets from toys to needles. This also providing mixed signals. The more the western countries import the Chinese goods, the more it would give an opportunity for the Chinese to be a predominant exporter. The west now has a trajectory to contain China by diverting their markets through Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
So the present continuous economic decline makes the Chinese leaders think about course corrections to stabilise its growth rate by at least by 7 percent. Martin Wolf from the Financial Times says, “China will struggle to keep its momentum” (FT, April 2015). The other important dimension would be the more the Chinese liberalise its economy to stabilise its own economic system, they may unknowingly lose control over its people. This would lead to a challenge that a time frame will be waiting that the Chinese system will face, similar to the former Soviet under Mikael Gorbachev. This would not necessarily be an actual future threat for the Chinese, but it cannot be dismissed.
In 1997, the Hong Kong region was handed over to the Chinese by the British with the acceptance of “One country Two systems”. At that time, Hong Kong was welcomed, but not its democratic practice. However, China was forced to accept, without any other choice, the frame-work of “One country Two systems”. Though it was a moment of joy, it can be described also as a starting point for new challenges. The reason would, while the region of Hong Kong practiced democracy, in the same country the mainlanders would be suppressed without freedom of speech. The news about the election to elect the next Chief Executive of Hong Kong in 2017 – means the people of Hong Kong region will have the right to select their leader, but the main land of China cannot. It is natural that the mainlanders of China could not control the commotion in their mind supported by the fast communication-transferring world. The Chinese government can increase their iron curtain to control them physically, but they cannot delete the emotional progressive thought towards democracy in the main land people’s minds.
The Communist Party of China (CPC) has been in anxiety with a strategic trajectory of introducing “the kind of stage-managed democracy” in Hong Kong, says the former governor of Hong Kong under the British rule, Lord Patten. In 1989, the Chinese government supressed the unarmed students’ demonstration for pro-democracy in Tiananmen Square with an iron hand and caused many deaths. The protest was controlled. However, in today’s world with the predominant media presence, the Chinese government are prevented from applying the same procedures on the Hong Kong protesters against the Chinese government to control the democracy process in Hong Kong.
The civil war in China ended by the defeat of Kuomintang (KMT) with the Communist Chinese Party in 1949, but KMT established the government in Taiwan. Taiwan’s transformation as a multi-party democracy in the 1980s caused the Chinese to perceive them as a threat posed to them due to their democratic structure. Since 1949, the KMT and the Chinese leadership first met in 2005. This causes an uncomfortable polarisation for the KMT in Taiwan, since in the recent local body elections largely benefited the Democratic Progressive Pan-Green (DPP). The reason would be the KMT in recent times transformed as pro-Chinese, and the Taiwanese main opposition DPP is more divergent from China.
The presidential election in Taiwan will be held in January 2016. As this article was being written, the KMT candidate Wang Ju-hsuan was more than 25 percentage behind the opposition candidate Chen Chien-jenof DPP. In this context, the recent Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou meeting in Singapore this November raised the eye-brows of strategic thinkers. The outcome of the talks could not be perceived in a clear strategic vision. However, the perception would be while the 2016 election will clearly favour the DPP candidate in Taiwan, this will result in a more hostile relationship with China. Further, the victory of the DPP in Taiwan would also dictate the future US and Chinese relations.
China has been claiming ownership for all the artificial manmade rocks on the South China Sea. The recent fleet of US warships closer to the disputed island sindicates that the US are reassuring support for its allies over their claim on the disputed islands in the region. This exercise has cautiously transferred the fear of communication to the Chinese about the US strategic interest on India-Pacific region – which passes more than 30 per cent of global trade. Those countries also have claim over the disputed islands like Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia’s concerns are not resolved through these demonstrations by the US, but give a comfortable zone. This asserts a strong message to the Chinese that the US Pacific fleet will continue to ensure the freedom of navigation without any aggression from other states around the disputed islands in the South China Sea.
Why the Chinese panic more about the disputed area is because of the prevailing nature of the domestic insecurity. This can be easily compared with the Russian reactionary approach while the US backyard NATO reached out to the Ukraine. Kissinger rightly said, “China’s greatest strategic fear is that an outside power or powers will establish military deployments around China’s periphery capable of encroaching on China’s territory or meddling in its domestic institutions”.
Antony Clement is currently a student of the International Relations program at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, UK