When US defence secretary Chuck Hagel recently accused China of destabilising the Asia region to an audience in Singapore, he knew he was preaching to the converted. China’s modern-day development is complex and multifaceted, but it is frequently boiled down to its bare elements. It is often convincingly presented, either implicitly or explicitly, as a “rising power”, which presents unique problems for others to solve. Doing so is convenient and persuasive, and politically useful.
“In recent months, China has undertaken destabilising, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea,” Hagel announced at the Shangri-La Dialogue at the end of May. He was likely alluding to incidents such as China’s claim over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in November 2013 in which it established an air defence zone without consulting others in the region. Or when a Chinese oil rig recently began drilling in disputed waters near Vietnam.
Hagel’s words drew support from Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, whose electorate is increasingly alarmed by China’s newfound wealth and capabilities. As part of its “Pivot” to Asia – the supposed shift of US foreign policy away from Afghanistan and Iraq towards China and its neighbours – announced in late 2011, Washington has also reinforced its security ties with Australia, the Philippines, Vietnam and others.
Wang Guanzhong, the Chinese military’s deputy chief of general staff, publicly criticised Hagel’s message and tone, describing his words as “provocative”. Yet with the knowledge that a very significant proportion of Americans, along with a number of China’s neighbours, also consider China a real or at least potential threat to US interests, Hagel knew he was on a relatively safe footing.
After more than 30 years of strong and consistent economic growth, China is certainly more capable now than at any point in the last several centuries of exerting itself abroad. It occasionally acts aggressively towards its neighbours and is less transparent than it could be about its military spending in particular, which is suspected to be much higher than Beijing admits.
But aside from the fact that the Chinese government also acts co-operatively, and that when it does appear to act with aggression it is usually within the context of territorial disputes where blame can be attributed to two or more sides, Hagel’s speech exposes a strong element of hypocrisy in Washington’s attitudes and behaviour towards China.
The “destabilising, unilateral” actions for which Hagel denounced China should not be ignored, but they do not compare to the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq for example – against broad international will (apart form a small “coalition of the willing”). Indeed, the invasion was declared illegal by the then UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, and to label this war as destabilising to the country and the region would be a dramatic understatement; the estimated number of civilian casualties alone since the invasion now exceeds 120,000. The same argument can be made in the context of the disastrous war in Afghanistan and the wider “war on terror”.
Even the relatively low-key Pivot to Asia, which Washington argues is designed to maintain regional stability, is not unproblematic. If China were to announce its own “Pivot” to the Americas, establishing closer security ties with the United States’ neighbours, Washington would doubtless accuse China of seeking to destabilise its region. If Beijing began selling fighter jets and missile systems to Cuba and Venezuela and stationing troops in Mexico, Guatemala and Panama, many Americans would be outraged and demand an immediate response.
Yet not only is the US effectively pursuing a mirror image of this policy in Asia, it has been for decades since at least the close of World War II.
Disrupting the international order
Of course, the political contexts of the Americas and Asia are not easily comparable, and it is likely that an American presence in Asia has helped maintain relative peace there for more than half a century. Nevertheless, when American politicians criticise China for disrupting the “status quo” or the “international order” and use this line to justify heavier involvement in Asia, we must be conscious that they are describing an imposed, US-engineered order. The same politicians should ask themselves how tolerant they would be living within a Chinese-led order and how keen they would be to modify or even disrupt it.
The West in particular has become accustomed to the size, contours and application of American power. It is familiar and ingrained, which can make changes to it appear alien and unnerving. This is what makes terms like “status quo” and “international order” so powerful and politically useful, especially when they are presented as vulnerable to being “destabilised”. As Hagel insisted in Singapore: “The United States will not look the other way when fundamental principles of the international order are being challenged.”
Simplifying the issue of China’s development, so that we think of it merely as a “rising power” within a stable system or order which is now vulnerable to disruption, is useful for rallying support in the US, Japan, the Philippines and elsewhere. Yet it is also misleading. Washington’s Pivot to Asia, not to mention its recent record of unilateral and destabilising actions around the world, is evidence that international “systems” and “orders” are constantly in flux and vulnerable to manipulation by all – not least the United States itself.
China, like all states, is certainly guilty of disruptive behaviour but, as a “rising power”, its transgressions are frequently amplified. Hagel’s hypocrisy points to disruptive US behaviour which is viewed very differently. The US, meanwhile, can present itself as the logical defender of a known order, while simultaneously manipulating and even tearing apart that order from within.
Until we acknowledge the United States' mismatched rhetoric and behaviour (and that of the West in general), overly simplistic representations of China’s “rise”, such as those recently peddled by Hagel, will continue to thrive, with almost inevitably unhelpful results.