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China Crosses the Rubicon

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By Wen Liao

LONDON ― For two decades, Chinese diplomacy has been guided by the concept of the country's ''peaceful rise." Today, however, China needs a new strategic doctrine, because the most remarkable aspect of Sri Lanka's recent victory over the Tamil Tigers is not its overwhelming nature, but the fact that China provided President Mahinda Rajapaska with both the military supplies and diplomatic cover he needed to prosecute the war.

Without that Chinese backing, Rajapaska's government would have had neither the wherewithal nor the will to ignore world opinion in its offensive against the Tigers.

So, not only has China become central to every aspect of the global financial and economic system, it has now demonstrated its strategic effectiveness in a region traditionally outside its orbit. On Sri Lanka's beachfront battlefields, China's ''peaceful rise" was completed.

What will this change mean in practice in the world's hot spots like North Korea, Pakistan, and Central Asia?

Before the global financial crisis hit, China benefited mightily from the long boom along its eastern and southern rim, with only Burma and North Korea causing instability. China's west and south, however, have become sources of increasing worry.

Given economic insecurity within China in the wake of the financial crisis and global recession, China's government finds insecurity in neighbouring territories more threatening than ever.

Stabilizing its neighbourhood is one reason why China embraces the six-party talks with North Korea, has become a big investor in Pakistan (while exploring ways to cooperate with President Barack Obama's special representative, Richard Holbrooke), signed on to a joint Asia/Europe summit declaration calling for the release from detention of Burmese opposition leader Daw Aung Suu Kyi, and intervened to help end Sri Lanka's 26-year civil war.

The calculus behind China's emerging national security strategy is simple. Without peace and prosperity around China's long borders, there can be no peace, prosperity, and unity at home.

China's intervention in Sri Lanka, and its visibly mounting displeasure with the North Korean and Burmese regimes, suggests that this calculus has quietly become central to the government's thinking.

For example, though China said little in public about Russia's invasion and dismemberment of Georgia last summer, Russia is making a strategic mistake if it equates China's public silence with tacit acquiescence in the Kremlin's claim to ''privileged" influence in the post-Soviet countries to China's west.

Proof of China's displeasure was first seen at the 2008 summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (a regional grouping that includes former Soviet countries that share borders with China and Russia).

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev pushed the SCO to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But the SCO balked. The group's Central Asian members ― Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan ― would not have stood up to the Kremlin without China's support.

At this year's just-concluded SCO summit, the pattern continued. The brief appearance of Iran's disputed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may have gained all the headlines, but China's announcement of a $10 billion fund to support the budgets of financially distressed ex-Soviet states, which followed hard on a $3 billion investment in Turkmenistan and a $10 billion investment in Kazakhstan, provides more evidence that China now wants to shape events across Eurasia.

Vladimir Putin famously described the break-up of the Soviet Union as the greatest geo-political catastrophe of the twentieth century. From China's standpoint, however, the Soviet collapse was the greatest strategic gain imaginable.

At a stroke, the empire that had gobbled up Chinese territories for centuries vanished. The Soviet military threat ― once so severe that Chairman Mao invited President Richard Nixon to China to change the Cold War balance of power ― was eliminated.

China's new assertiveness suggests that it will not allow Russia to forge a de facto Soviet Reunion and thus undo the post-Cold War settlement, under which China's economy flourished and security increased.

So far, China's rulers have regarded emerging strategic competition with India, Japan, Russia, and the United States as a jostling for influence in Central and South Asia.

China's strategic imperatives in this competition are twofold: to ensure that no rival acquires a dangerous ''privileged influence" in any of its border regions; and to promote stability so that trade, and the sea lanes through which it passes (hence China's interest in Sri Lanka and in combating Somali pirates), is protected.

In the 1990s, China sought to mask its ''peaceful rise" behind a policy of ''smile diplomacy" designed to make certain that its neighbours did not fear it. China lowered trade barriers and offered soft loans and investments to help its southern neighbours.

Today, China's government seeks to shape the diplomatic agenda in order to increase China's options while constricting those of potential adversaries.

Instead of remaining diplomatically aloof, China is forging more relationships with its neighbours than any of its rivals. This informal web is being engineered not only to keep its rivals from coalescing or gaining privileged influence, but also to restrain the actions of China's local partners so as to dampen tension anywhere it might flare up.

China's newfound assertiveness, rather than creating fear, should be seen as establishing the necessary conditions for comprehensive negotiations about the very basis of peaceful coexistence and stability in Asia: respect for all sides' vital interests.

In recent years, such an approach ran counter to America's foreign-policy predisposition of favouring universalist doctrines over a careful balancing of national interests. With the Obama administration embracing realism as its diplomatic lodestar, China may have found a willing interlocutor.

Wen Liao is chairwoman of Longford Advisors, a political, economic, and business consultancy. For more stories, visit Project Syndicate (


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