China has, in recent decades, experienced a tremendous amount of economic growth after it opened its doors to foreign investments. Its newfound wealth has not only spurred the rise of a burgeoning middle class, but has also made it crave for international power and influence beyond economic terms. China’s desire to be a global superpower in light of its economic might is not an unreasonable one. It fact, it should not surprise anyone that China would one day desire for a powerful military apparatus to match the United States’ – which would inevitably be able to protect its interests, counter Western militaries, and project its influence around the world.
Having been relatively peaceful for the most part of modern history, China has managed an amicable relationship with its Asian neighbours – until recently when it decided that it wanted to be the ‘big boy’ at the playground. In the recent decades, flashpoints have begun to emerge as China seeks to exert its influence far beyond its shores. It has claimed sovereignty over numerous islands throughout the East and South China Sea, putting it in dispute with other claimants like Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines. Curiously, many of the islands that China has tried to seize in the South China Sea are so distant from its shores that one can only fathom its suspicious expansionist motives.
Territorial disputes are not uncommon – but the cause for concern is China’s approach that has raised as much tensions as eyebrows. China’s confrontational approach has created immense and unprecedented tensions throughout East Asia and South East Asia, as it routinely bullies its smaller and weaker neighbours over its overlapping claims. Its reluctance to engage in any form of regional dialogue or arbitration over the territorial disputes stems mainly from its narcissistic desire to appear tough while avoiding any potential situation whereby it could lose ‘face’.
As a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), China clearly understands that its claims over many island chains bear no legal basis, which could easily explain why it refuses to participate in international arbitration – simply because any ruling against it will result in it losing ‘face’ at an international level. It has rejected arbitration for the Senkaku Islands also claimed by Japan, insisting that there is ‘no dispute’, while denouncing the most recent Hague ruling against it as ‘ill-founded’ after the judges ruled in favour of the Philippines. China even went so far as to question the neutrality of the judges in a blatant show of contempt and ever-so-familiar disregard to the rule of law that it is so accustomed to back at home.
Like every despotic regime, looking weak would not make for great Chinese propaganda, unlike a show of military force complemented with a media blitz portraying rival claimants as ‘invaders upon Chinese sovereignty’ – never mind if China was in fact culpable. With a large disregard for regional peace and international law, confrontation and coercion have been the methods of choice by China to assert its claims in the East and South China Seas as it attempts to strong-arm its neighbours into submission. This includes harassing of fishing vessels, carrying out sabotage missions on foreign ships, and deploying troops and missiles on disputed islands. Such tactics that China employs not only threaten peace in the region, but also make its neighbours wary and distrustful of its intentions. All these actions point to the fact that China is not ready to sit at the adult table despite its longing to be treated like one.
China has often blamed the West for interfering in the affairs of Asia as it frequently accuses the United States of attempting to contain its rise with its ‘Asia Pivot’. However, China only has itself to blame for threatening its neighbours with its provocative rhetoric and territorial aggressions that more often than not run contrary to the ‘peaceful intentions’ it claim to possess. China has to understand that if it wants to be a world superpower it has to accept the responsibilities that come along with it – not by threatening smaller peace-loving nations over uninhabited islands, but by doing more to bolster regional security and by taking a tougher stance against the North Korean regime that it has propped up for the longest time. If it is sincere about being a credible superpower, it should start taking concrete actions to show it.