Confronting the China challenge

Prof. Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute

China’s emergence as a political and economic power has come with growing ambitions, including the attempt to position itself as a global leader and shape the international order. However, its rise is far from “peaceful,” with its questionable economic initiatives and aggression in the West Philippine Sea. Given the critical juncture that China is in today, its foreign policy direction will dictate the country’s global standing in the coming years.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted economies around the world, blindsiding China’s efforts to extend its influence. More than China’s complicated connection with Japan, Korea, and East Asia neighbors,

Beijing’s strategic focus on developing economies through aid assistance is indicative of its aggressive push toward global influence.

As mentioned in Murray Hiebert’s book “Under Beijing’s Shadow: Southeast Asia’s China Challenge,” published by Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic & International Studies, China’s ambitions through the Belt and Road Initiative is a carrot on a proverbial stick. While China uses the facade of a peaceful state, its rise underpins a calculative approach bearing hybrid tactics in navigating the current order. With the region’s economic interdependence, it exploits asymmetric advantage through the strategic and opportunistic play of power and influence, targeting the vulnerabilities of other states. In the South China Sea and the East China Sea, it uses the ambiguity of international law through gray zone operations.

Recently, a clutch of notes verbales submitted by China to the United Nations once again rejected all claims by Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia on parts of the South China Sea, under what Beijing calls its historic rights over the area. Simultaneously, China is leveraging economic interdependence, humanitarian efforts, and international participation to cushion or divert attention away from its political warfare and disinformation propaganda. This has been evident in the fight against COVID-19, with China’s vaccine diplomacy and other forms of assistance meant to divert attention from being the outbreak’s source.

In basic international relations, actors are mostly described as doves or hawks. China is a hawk causing speculation and fear among its intended state partners. While the intent to be the world’s partner is obvious, China’s overt acts are undesirable, and its statecraft has raised more questions and speculations than assurances and answers.

With the pandemic still spreading and the international system in disarray, this will be China’s only chance to either be a polarizing global actor or a unifying force under a common model of peace and development. However, its unpredictable actions and commitments, and unyielding stance on its claims, will undoubtedly continue to undermine its relations, polarize the region, and create drastic gaps in the global economy.

Specifically, what is needed is an equi-balancing force of smaller to middle powers such as the Asean and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue Plus (Quad Plus) to counter China. The collective strength of these powers can prevent a major disruption in the regional security order and architecture. Through minilateralism, states can address issue-specific impacts of the China challenge. The complex nature of the South China Sea issue, for instance, needs an “Asean minus X” formula to allow claimant countries to preserve territorial sovereignty without sacrificing their national security and interests. A key aspect of these collaborations would be to prevent any deadlock on only one specific aspect of the China challenge, whether military, economic, or diplomatic. Cooperation can be expanded to other states in the region to avoid any major dependence on China, lessen the intimidating factor of its political power, and promote the observance of a rules-based regional order.

To further allow China to dictate how the international order unfolds would be a direct threat to the rule of law and the democratic values on which the current status quo is established. The China challenge provides an opportunity for Indo-Pacific states to recalibrate their position as a collective, to bridge the gap between great power politicking and on-the-ground realities in the region.

This article was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

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