China Flexing Regional Muscle: Structural Consequences for Southeast Asia

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Saeed Shokoohi

In the early 1896, one of the bestselling books published in Britain was entitled “Made in Germany,” written by Ernest Edwin Williams. In that book, the author warned that a huge country with its eyes fixed on global trade was threatening Britain’s welfare and well-being because it was competing with it for a bigger share of the global trade.

Before the World War I, the UK was considered the biggest naval power in the world while Germany was considered to have the world’s biggest army. These two countries were also economic partners. Nonetheless, Germany was engaged in a fierce competition with Britain aimed at reaping more benefits out of the global trade and to expand its colonies. This issue had stirred great concern among the British leaders.

However, when Kaiser Wilhelm, and the commander of his Navy, Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, started to develop the country’s naval fleet, thus challenging the naval supremacy of Britain, concerns in London suddenly turned into tension and extreme anxiety. That state of events finally leads to the breakout of the World War I.

A review of that situation will immediately bring to mind a similar scenario which is under way in contemporary times; that is, the current state of relations between China and the United States. At present and in military terms, the United States is the most powerful country of our time. However, China is making fast progress in the field of developing its military power, both in the area of the navy and the air force. This issue has led to great concerns, similar to those of the pre-World War I Britain, among the American policymakers and decision-makers.

Like the aforesaid book, Made in Germany, the US-based Foreign Affairs magazine published a similar commentary in late 2011. According to an opinion poll conducted by this magazine, the greatest concern and preoccupation for the US foreign policy in the coming decade will be the rise of China as a world-class economic and military power and a serious contestant for the United States. Like in the case of Britain and Germany, the United States and China happen to be among the biggest trade partners of each other. Of course, a similar development [like what happened before the World War I] is also underway. As was expected since many years ago, China (like pre-war Germany) is rapidly translating its economic power into military might. This is also another major issue which has taken the United States’ concern to a higher level of frightening anxiety.

The recent measure taken by the Chinese government in announcing a unilateral “Air Defense Identification Zone” clearly means that China is challenging the military power of regional countries as well as transregional players, including the United States. The declared zone lies over a number of islands which are claimed by both China and Japan. China has announced that any aircraft flying over the declared zone should identify itself to the Chinese military authorities. Beijing’s demand has been, of course, turned down by the United States and China’s neighbors. Although the United States flew two B-52 strategic bombers over the zone and the planes ignored Chinese officials’ request to identify themselves, Washington has nonetheless advised the American commercial airlines to comply with China’s demand in order to ensure the safety of their passengers. Some analysts believe that the recommendation to American airlines is, in fact, kind of concession given to China and is tantamount to recognition of China’s sovereignty over the air defense zone.

Since a few years ago, the United States has been concerned about the rising regional power of China. As a result, Washington has been shifting its foreign policy focus outside the Western Hemisphere from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. In doing so, the White House has made restriction and control of China’s power its main goal. This issue is by no means acceptable to China which is rising as a world-class economic and political power.

Therefore, Beijing has been trying to change the situation in the region around it by taking gradual, but steady measures. As put by Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, a big power cannot tolerate another big power having strategic alliance with other countries that are situated in its immediate neighborhood, unless it is able to forge similar alliances in the neighborhood of the first big power.

In fact, various measures taken by China such as declaring its sovereignty over swathes of disputed international waters, focusing on disputed islands, and unilateral announcement of the Air Defense Identification Zone, which overlaps with similar air defense zones enforced by Japan and South Korea and which also covers disputed regions, are examples of steady measures taken by China in order to challenge the existing political order and situation in its surrounding region.

It seems that China, is actually trying to be first recognized as a superior power in its own region because this can be a prelude to its recognition as a world power. This means if China managed to be recognized as a hegemonic power in a region such as Southeast Asia, it would be able to play a more important role at the international level and have its power recognized at a global level as well.

The China is apparently acting in line with the lesson it has already learned from the United States. When the United States decided to push British forces out of the Pacific Ocean and Latin America, it did not take any military measure. Washington, however, kept mounting pressure on Britain until the British leaders came to the conclusion that the cost of remaining in those regions was much higher than its benefits. Therefore, they left those regions in what was also a sign of the recognition of Washington’s military supremacy by London. China is following the same strategy being well aware that a country seeking regional hegemony should avoid of getting engaged in war. In view of the past experiences gained by Germany (in two world wars), Japan, and France under the rule of Napoleon, the Chinese have learned the valuable lesson that war under the existing conditions would be equal to catastrophe and total destruction.

On the whole, it is noteworthy that China aims to be recognized and respected as a hegemonic regional power. This could be a prelude to China’s leadership role at a global level and is similar to the path that has been already taken by other superpowers. The United States, as the world’s topmost power, will have to heed and respect China’s demand in the future. This will make changes in the structure of the global power more possible than any time before. It seems that in the not-so-far future, the world would be experiencing a post-American era in which the global political order would be multipolar as China, in parallel to the United States, would be showing off its power.

*Saeed Shokoohi is a visiting research fellow at the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies. He is also a Ph.D. student of International Relations in Allameh Tabatabai University. His research interests are Iran and great powers studies and the Middle East issues.

Key Words: China, Structural Consequences, Southeast Asia, US, UK, Middle East, Air Defense Identification Zone, Japan, South Korea, Post-American Era, Economic and Military Power, Shokoohi

Photo Credit: Tech Week

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