This geopolitical summit season has consolidated ongoing trends in international affairs. A still-rising China with global leadership aspirations, a resurgent Russia bent on restoring its superpower status, and sclerosis and dysfunction in Western countries is likely to dominate international politics for at least the next 20 years. In fact, we might only be at the beginning in this long time span where seismic global power shifts are taking place.
The challenge for countries around the Asia Pacific is what to do and how to respond. To promote regional peace and stability, China’s global leadership requires measured accommodation, enough to satisfy Beijing’s rightful place in the global order but not so much as to lead the Chinese leadership into an outright expansionist agenda.
Over the past two weeks, during the APEC summit in Beijing, the ASEAN and East Asia Summit in Naypyidaw, and the G20 leaders’ meeting in Brisbane, the patterns were clear. Everywhere Chinese leaders went, they were pestered with questions about China’s aggressive intentions in the East China Sea with respect to Japan and the South China Sea involving ASEAN member states, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam.
Similarly, Russian President Vladimir Putin was greeted with criticism and questions about Russia’s interventionist aims in Ukraine after it annexed Crimea in March. Whereas Putin tended to be prickly and defiant in response, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang were deft and sophisticated. In place of rhetoric, China has been following up its geopolitical posturing with action plans and key deliverables.
For the East Asian region broadly, the Chinese have proposed a ‘one belt, one road’ regional development outlook, underpinned by the China-sponsored Maritime Silk Road and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). While the idea of using massive Asian foreign exchange reserves to finance Asian development is not new, Beijing has stepped up by providing US$50 billion to capitalise the AIIB, and this will be complemented by other signatories. Already 20 countries in Asia have signed up and more are likely to do so in the future.
The maritime beltway across East Asia is also financially backed by Beijing to the tune of US$40 billion. Coming soon after China’s instrumental role in setting up a BRICS bank — known as the New Development Bank, with an initial capital of US$50 billion, and involving Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — the Silk Road fund and the AIIB would be a game changer for regional development in East Asia. These schemes would also likely elevate China into a top role in the neighbourhood.
Understandably, the United States and Japan have opposed Chinese funding manoeuvres for fear of losing out to Beijing. The roles of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and even the Asian Development Bank may be consequently eclipsed. But here, Chinese global leadership was further on display in recent top-level meetings.
To indicate goodwill and bilateral cooperation, Mr Xi signed a crucial climate change agreement with President Barack Obama. To assuage concerns about the growing rivalry between two regional free trade schemes, the US-peddled Trans-Pacific Partnership and the China-preferred Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, Beijing has provided a big boost to open regionalism and freer trade by proposing a Free Trade Area for the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP), previously an on-again, off-again regional trade configuration.
In fact, the FTAAP can be seen as Xi’s concession to the US. Instead of a competition between TPP and RCEP, China may have enabled both to be enmeshed in the FTAAP. And despite media images to the contrary, Xi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had productive meetings during this most recent summit season.
In the ASEAN realm, Beijing has not committed to the full formulation and implementation of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (CoC). But it also has not aggravated the outstanding territorial disputes between China on the one hand and the Philippines and Vietnam on the other. Instead, Chinese leaders kept saying that they viewed the South China Sea as stable and reiterated their intent to remain peacefully engaged in the area. It was a foot-dragging manoeuvre but it did not rule out the completion of the CoC in the future. The AIIB and the Silk Road fund are the sweeteners in exchange for the drawn-out and delayed CoC negotiations.
Along the way, China separately struck bilateral free trade agreements with Australia and South Korea. Both are treaty allies of the United States, and Washington did not object to either trade agreement.
The Chinese leaders just about covered all bases. They had something for everyone and showed no belligerence and bluster, as was sometimes the case in the past. This is not just a global charm offensive but a full-blown global leadership quest. As a rising superpower, China wants to act like a genuine leader, shouldering global burdens and responsibilities.
China’s leadership aspirations coincide with a time when US pre-eminence appears to be fraying around the edges. After his Democratic Party’s recent losses in midterm elections, US President Obama risks being a lame duck. His much touted global ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ towards Asia now does not carry as much credibility as a few years ago when it was launched. Obama wanted to be a Pacific president but circumstances beyond his control at home, in eastern Europe and the Middle East have effectively denied his lofty goal. He has been generally well liked in Asia but Asians are not oblivious to emerging realities in their immediate landscape.
Simply put, the penultimate question for East Asia is: who leads? China might play more by the rules if Beijing is recognised and regarded as a full-fledged major global leader — certainly not the only one but perhaps eventually first among the two equals because of its location. This is not a time for alarming accommodation or dangerous appeasement. But the time has come for more give and take, for China to continue to show leadership capacity in return for greater global recognition.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University. This article was earlier published in the Bangkok Post.