China: Peaceful rise, antagonised… antagonistic?

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THERE are risks a great power like China can take that a small- or medium-sized country like Malaysia cannot.

Still, when there is a territorial “intrusion” by airplanes of the Chinese air force over Malaysia’s maritime waters off the Sarawak coast, as recently reported, even a medium-sized state has to take some steps to signal a response to threats to its sovereign right.

Malaysia did well to do so. Both the scrambling of the Hawker jets and the protest note are par for the course. We should then not retreat from those actions.

When the foreign ministers meet, representing their nations, however unequal, they should speak as equals. None of the little brother, big brother stuff.

Nobody, of course, wants trouble with China. Least of all Malaysia, with all the dependencies, from vaccines to economy. Lives and livelihoods, the common refrain these dark days of Covid-19.

Ask Australia, which is in trouble with China. But we should recognise that Australia is not grovelling. There has to be some dignity for Malaysia, too. So let us not negate what little we have done over the “intrusion” — and move ahead.

In the wider context, the common interpretation that China has abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of “peaceful rise” overlooks that bit about “bide your time” in that advice.

So the fact China has risen to become the second most powerful nation in the world — and rising — takes us beyond that “biding your time” bit. We are now seeing the contours, not infrequently, of actual state action, of what to expect of China as a great power.

China may be antagonised right now, but it will move beyond that condition to other forms of state attitude and behaviour not unlike those of other great powers in the history of international relations — but with special Chinese characteristics.

The “century of humiliation” prefaces the character of the modern People’s Republic of China. But it does not stop or begin there. There is the well before and the thereafter.

Chinese civilisation goes back more than 3000 years, one of four ancient civilisations in the world, but the only one among Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Indus Valley that has sustained itself as a civilisational and racial entity, which is a source of pride not just for China but of Chinese people everywhere.

Against this extant of historical continuity, the “century of humiliation” from 1839 to 1949 may seem to be a blip in time, but it is a blight in the experience of the Chinese nation. At any rate, at this time in history, it is an intolerable memory and a shameful experience, which China is today in a position to put right.

When it is felt, that correction — here its definition can be subject to dispute — is opposed. There is a righteous indignation which, now that China has risen, can be supported by the power of state action.

What is happening to and in Hong Kong is the best example of return to status quo ante not subject to any other construction, including the “one country, two systems” principle agreed between Beijing and Britain when the colony was returned to China in 1997.

Implicit in this disregard of the joint declaration is the derecognition of locus standi of the departing colonial power after 156 years, in a process that rightfully returns Hong Kong to China.

China knows the power of the economy, specifically of its economy. And, increasingly, the power of its military.

There are still misplaced narratives on what has happened to China’s peaceful rise. Even discussion on the end of it is wide of the mark. China has risen.

The Deng Xiaoping dictum has ended. The expression of its end occurred when Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. Of course, the change did not take place in one fell swoop. China’s accumulation of power has been taking place before Xi, thanks to Deng’s economic reforms from 1978, but it is Xi who has made the decisive decision based on a now powerful China.

China and America are in a gladiatorial contest of who is angrier and more antagonised. President Joe Biden has not moved from Donald Trump’s position that China threatens American dominance in the world. For the rest of the world, the concern is where all this might end.

In the Asean region — and to
us in Malaysia — that concern is more immediate, as in the South China Sea there is a ready theatre of conflict. Incidents of “intrusion”, such as the recently experienced off the Sarawak coast, will continue to happen from time to time due to the overlapping claims, with China ignoring the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling that its nine-dash line giving it almost the whole of the sea has no basis in international law.

Vietnam has borne the brunt of many conflagrations with China. In the past couple of months, 200 Chinese vessels have been sitting in and swarming the waters in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

China seems to be operating on the basis possession is nine-tenths of the law. The US and other western powers are operating freedom of navigation rights across the South China Sea. If there were to be an incident it could break into a wider conflagration.

Would China then be considered to have been antagonised, or has it become antagonistic?

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