It was a long time coming.
- China recently rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat causing it to sink.
- China creates an Air Defense Identification Zone in contested airspace over the East China Sea. And then this happens.
- China’s territorial claims over areas in the South China Sea has also caused tensions with the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia – all of who are impacted in some way and contest China’s claims
- And then, there is always Taiwan
Not to mention China’s myriad tensions with the west including the IP theft issue with both the US and Europe. US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was unusually candid in his remarks in his ongoing trip to China. And got this in response.
There isn’t any denying it – the tensions are escalating to a new level – both within Asia and with the global world.
So, the question becomes – What is China’s end game? Is China picking up these fights for its inexorable energy needs (a lot of which is ostensibly in the South and East China seas)? And in the case of blatant IP thefts – just to even a playing field that it feels was unjustly stacked against her – in whatever way it can – without a lot of ratiocination about the means to get to the end.
Or it is merely to define the new normal for a rising global power. As the world increasingly becomes paranoid about China – it is important to consider a few ground realities.
One, the global alarm notwithstanding, China isn’t close to becoming a global power. A pre-requisite to becoming a nation that can project its power globally is having strong allies. And as far as this author can see, China has one ally – North Korea. And that is changing as well – with North Korea opening talks with Japan. Yes, China has projected its economic might to build presence and “partnerships” with a number of dubious regimes around the world (particularly in the Middle East and Africa) – these countries cannot be counted as allies. Detractors will quote the increasing closeness between Russia and China – Putin’s geopolitical response to the West’s reaction to Ukraine – historically, the China – Russia relationship is filled with animosity and distrust (even though they shared an ideological philosophy) – and given China’s ascendence and Russia’s decline (coupled with Putin’s vision of a global Russia) – there are underlying tensions that will surface – gas deal notwithstanding.
Secondly, there was a lot of talk about the Renminbi replacing the US Dollar as the global reserve currency. This is even more far fetched. I would argue that it is impossible in the short and medium term. Reason? The world does not trust China. Or it’s institutions. Period. There is a complete lack of transparency and legislative, executive and judicial checks and balances that are critical for gain the trust of the financial markets. (not to mention, a few things like IP theft, listed above). And being a single party rule does not help in the world’s view of the Chinese ability to build those institutions.
China is without a doubt a great and rising economic power. And a very significant military power.
But it has yet to win social capital around the world. Regional powers do not become global powers just on the basis of economics and military. There has to be a cultural acceptance (or more even a desire to culturally emulate – think 19th century English culture, Hollywood etc.) before any nation can legitimately make a claim for being a global power.
And China, for the reasons stated above and many many more ( e.g. think about the Dalai Lama’s cache in the west vs. China’s claim on Tibet) – China is far away from being a global power. If ever.