China as a ‘Rising Power’: Changing Rules to the Old Game of Power

 By Dr. Amrita Jash
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While COVID-19 Pandemic takes precedence, but ‘Rise of China’ undeniably has been one of the important characteristic features that define the 21st Century. However, China’s economic rise has often been equated with the contexts of the China Challenge, which has been further boosted under the pandemic. China’s Wolf Warrior diplomacy in fighting the global resentment over Beijing’s handling of the virus in Wuhan to that of diplomatic fallout with the United States and most importantly, China’s expansionist designs along the Himalayan Border have resurfaced the debate: What entails China’s rise? This pertinent query is driven by concerns over two key scenarios: Will China emerge as a dominant regional player? Or, will it become a hegemonic world power?

In assessing China’s rise, the dominant view suggests that China will continue to grow and will not be content with the current distribution of status and influence. It is specifically argued that China’s current attitude and behaviour are perfectly predictable as China is merely acting the way that any major power would. This calls for the query: Will China act any different? Undoubtedly, China’s Rise is driven by the self-fulfilling prophecy of the Chinese Dream of “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”- A strong country with a strong Army!

To understand, China’s rise, perspectives can be drawn from three key dimensions: First, its rapid economic rise followed by growth and development. This has led to China becoming the World’s Second Largest Economy in 2010 as well as emerging as “World’s Factory for Manufacturing”. The implications of which are manifested in  the grand Chinese plan of building connectivity through the “Belt and Road Initiative” as well as giving an alternative to the west-led economic order under new institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the New Development Bank (NDB) and the Silk Road Fund.

Second, its political rise, which is defined by the leadership quotient of Xi Jinping. Wherein, Xi’s centralisation of power under an indefinite reign has become synonymous with a strong China. This further validates the authority of the Communist Party of China as guided by Xi Jinping’s Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era as put forward in the 19th Party Congress. In addition, Xi’s political control also exhibits a departure from Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of “Keeping a low profile”, as China under Xi strives for achievement.

Third, its military rise, which is guided by the principle of “fight and win”. The onus lies on perfecting the art of being ‘combat ready’ to carry out joint operations as exemplified by the establishment of Theatre Commands. The aim here lies in making the People’s Liberation Army a “World Class Military” by 2050, added with the twin goals of: becoming a mechanised force by 2020 and that of a modernised force by 2035. China’s quest lies in becoming a security maximising state that is well-trained in “winning informationised local wars” or rather “intelligised war”, with greater offensive capacity and military capabilities.

It is the three-fold perspective of China rise that brings forth the corollary of ‘China Threat’. The bigger challenge for China remains to be dispelling the “China Threat” Theory, which has only gained traction with China’s unilateral behavioural dispositions- in South China Sea, East China Sea, the Himalayan border and through infrastructure activities under BRI. To fight its case, China ideated the formula of “building a shared community”; however, despite its global governance policy, China still suffers from being perceived as a “Responsible Normative Actor” in the International System. Rather, China is perceived to be playing by its own rules that runs contrary to the international order. What makes China act different? To which, one can argue that China’s actions are driven by its perception of the international order which in Chinese view is “unfair and irrational” and that China’s ambition lies in establishing a “new world order”. In this process, China’s quest lies in reshaping the west-led rules-based system that favours the Chinese interest- as evident from the Belt and Road Initiative, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and most notably, China’s robust military modernisation has raised concerns over the geopolitical implications of a risen China.

This very aspect has led to build the impressions of a risen China which is dominantly perceived to be: First, an assertive China. This is validated by China’s island build up activities in the South China Sea; establishment of the Air Defence Identification Zone in Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea; the port build-ups such as Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka under BRI; the Doklam Stand-off in 2017; and Eastern Ladakh stand-off in 2020. Second, a defiant China that is not a normative actor in the international order. This is validated by China’s nullification of the South China Sea Tribunal in 2015. Third, a non-compromising China. Fourth, a China with an ambition to build a “unipolar Asia” and a “multipolar” world order. And finally, a China that aims to build a “Sino-centric” system with China taking the “centre stage” by means of its Belt and Road Initiative. These impressions further validate that a risen China is a confident China that is ready to claim its place in the world at large- thus, no more abides to ‘hide and bide’.

In the context of India, this very aspect of understanding the ‘rise of China’ holds significant relevance. This is justified by the fact that China’s rise is faced with an emerging India- wherein, greater competition between the two Asian powers is an evitable fact. This is shaped by aspirations driven by claims over spheres of influence in Asia as well as in the global stage at large. Here, it is the divergences that plays the trick, that includes: First, China’s “Asia-Pacific” that is at odds with India’s “Indo-Pacific”. Second, the “all-weather friendship” with Pakistan acts as a debacle with the China Pakistan Economic Corridor acting as the new harbinger of contestation. Third, China’s growing footprints in the Indian Ocean through submarines and warships further sanctifies the encirclement policy against India through port facilities. Fourth, China’s public diplomacy in South Asia mainly in Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and now in Afghanistan, raises security and strategic concerns for India. And most importantly, with no quick fix to the unsettled border and increasing incidents of transgressions and stand-offs; it only calls for greater uncertainty in China-India ties- making less room for compromise.

Therefore, with China, not yet a sole regional player or a global authority; it only deems right to state that a risen China is playing by its own rules to survive as the fittest in the global order. For the hard truth is, with its rise, China is also faced with greater challenges. The biggest challenge for China lies in battling with an image of not being perceived as a ‘responsible player’- one of the key benchmarks to be fulfilled to be called a ‘global power’. On the contrary, China’s own actions feed to the image of being perceived more as a ‘threat’, than otherwise. More importantly, the pandemic has further coupled the phenomenon of ‘China’s rise’ with a rise in ‘anti-China sentiment’.

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Dr. Amrita Jash is Research Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi. She co-edited the book on COVID-19 & Its Challenges: Is India Future Ready? with Lt Gen (Dr.) VK Ahluwalia (Pentagon Press, 2020). She holds a Ph.D in Chinese Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is the Managing Editor of the CLAWS Journal(KW Publishers).Dr. Jash is a Pavate Fellow and has been a Visiting Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge. She has been an Adjunct Faculty at the School of Global Affairs-Ambedkar University and a Visiting Faculty at the Department of Chinese-Sikkim Central University; a UGC Graduate Fellow (2012-2017); a US-INDIA-CHINA InitiativeFellow SAIS-Johns Hopkins University(2013); a researcher under China’s Ministry of Commerce(2014); a researcher under Harvard-Yenching-Nanching Programme (2015). In 2019, COAS Gen Bipin Rawat awarded her for contributing to the field of Chinese Studies.Dr. Jash’s research has appeared in 13 edited books, Peer-Reviewed Journals such as East Asian Policy, Review of Global Politics, Strategic Analysis, Yonsei Journal, China Report, Maritime Affairs and Strategic Vision. She has published with CSIS, RUSI, RSIS, Pacific Forum, ThinkChina, Huffington Post, E-IR, Asia Times, Munk School, Crawford School, ISDP, China-India Brief, SADF, and others. Her expertise are: China’s foreign policy, strategic and security issues; the PLA, India-China relations, China-Japan relations, and Indo-Pacific.