PRC flag (taken at the Jinan University, Guangzhou, September 2013

PRC flag (taken at the Jinan University, Guangzhou, September 2013)

The People’s Republic of China is a revisionist rather than a status quo power. These rather old concepts still apply in this case. Despite appearing to have been socialized with the “civilized” behavior of the international community states, China seeks changes in the international order according to what it reads as best for its interests.

It may be a member of the United Nations Security Council, yet China is not secure. Compared to the Cold War period, the only improvement is rapprochement with Russia. On its flanks, China is hemmed in by hostiles like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and further afield–Australia.

China in Asia

China in Asia

China is basically a land power with a brown-water navy. While the US 7th fleet had a more formidable presence during the Cold War (it had an anti-Soviet orientation), this time American naval forces have an undisguised anti-Chinese orientation.

Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia

China seeks to build its forces steadily so it can over-match the opposition, the US included. It asserts its territorial claims for the twin purpose of interdicting sea lines of communications as well as pushing forward lines of defense. It has not entirely abandoned its charm offensive in so far as Cambodia, Myanmar, and Timor Leste are concerned. It wants to drive a wedge within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It is cautious with Vietnam and other territorial claimants in Southeast Asia. Cambodia and Myanmar offer possible outlets to the Gulf of Thailand and the Indian Ocean via the Bay of Bengal.

Indian sub-continent

Indian sub-continent

Only the Philippines is treated in a different manner. The Chinese leadership have apparently written the Philippines off. The resort to hard power is addressed more to the United States than Manila. The question seems to be: what will you do for your ally beyond the issuance of official communiques? To themselves: to what extent can we push the envelope?

With the key powers in the sub-continents–India and Pakistan–China have good relations. It’s true that India was closer to the Soviet Union during the Cold War given that a war was fought with China over disputed territory. The US sought to improve relations with India post-Cold War but India refuses to be trapped in a monogamous relationship. In addition, the US has cohabited with Pakistan, India’s principal enemy, for a long time. Pakistan will not change its anti-India orientation but it is doubtful if it could be mobilized in an anti-China effort.

China’s activities in sub-Saharan Africa are intended to create friendly spheres of influence through soft power. What is interesting is China’s pointed willingness to do business with states and leaders that are frowned upon by the Western powers.

China is obviously not a global power. Its current programme is to achieve parity with the United States in the East Asian theater. Whether it will go beyond what its currently doing is an empirical matter.

Who are China’s allies in the East Asian theater?

Together with Russia, China is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a Eurasian political, economic, and security organization. However, SCO is principally oriented to Central rather than East Asia.

Shanghai Cooperation Organization

Shanghai Cooperation Organization

In the Yellow Sea region, only North Korea is apparently China’s ally. Its reliability is rather suspect. Opposing China is Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the American military forces.

Northeast Asia: The Yellow Sea region

Northeast Asia: The Yellow Sea region

The US alliances established during the Cold War with Thailand and the Philippines are still intact and the latter’s forces exercise regularly with the US and other American allies like Australia for inter-operability.

In short, China seems to be alone while the other side is heavily populated.

Why then is the apparently weaker and out-numbered side making very bold and provocative initiatives (at least vis-a-vis the Philippines and Japan)?

It is less risk-averse. Its moves are calibrated. It stops short of making a move that will invite catastrophic consequences. If an earlier move is more or less unanswered and gains are made, it will raise the ante until the returns are no longer attractive. It may lay low for a while and launch a new offensive in the future.

Such is the nature of revisionist powers. They will always take the initiative. I cannot imagine them to be merely reactive.

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