In 1991, Deng Xiaoping famously explained that in order to reassure the world of its peaceful intentions, China should “cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.”
Since then, China’s reassurance strategy has evolved as its economic clout and military capabilities have become impossible to mask, and its participation in global governance has become unavoidable.
Rather than maintaining a low profile, China has gone on the offensive to combat perceptions that its growing strength constitutes a threat, initially vowing a “peaceful rise,” and more recently, reiterating its commitment to “peaceful development.”
China has also engaged in confidence-building dialogues with its neighbors and the United States, both at the official and Track Two levels. Although China’s reassurance strategy has changed, the nature of its gamble has not. The Chinese government has consistently wagered that alleviating mistrust abroad will not require political reform at home.
For China’s leadership, this bet against history has always held considerable appeal. It leaves unchallenged the consensus against political liberalization that emerged after the Tiananmen Square protests and the collapse of the world’s first communist state, the Soviet Union.
It also permits the Chinese government to believe that political reform can be postponed indefinitely without incurring international blowback. Above all, it keeps open the option that Beijing might use its growing economic power to dilute aspects of the rules-based international order that have threatened to change China’s own domestic political institutions.
But China’s bet is unraveling. Despite a concerted effort to put a friendly face on its rise, China has failed to quell growing doubts about its future course. These doubts exist not only in the United States and Japan; concerns about Chinese intentions have surged across much of Asia as well.
In 2009, the Center for Strategic and International Studies published an opinion survey of strategic elites in the Asia-Pacific region. When asked what nation would constitute the greatest threat to regional peace and security in ten years’ time, respondents from Australia, India, Indonesia, and South Korea in addition to Japan all listed China as the most likely country.
TEXT: CHINA FILES BY Daniel kLIMAN Apr. 3, 2015, 10:31 AM