China’s non-hegemonic narrative being rewritten

Beijing: China has decided to review it’s force deployment outside of it’s borders policy following the deadly Paris terrorist attacks and the Mali assault by Islamic extremists on 20 November. Three Chinese citizens, executives of the state-owned China Railway Construction Corporation, were among more than 20 victims in the Radisson Blu hotel assault in Bamako.

President Xi Jinping described the attack as “cruel and savage”. He added, “China will strengthen cooperation with international society to resolutely fight violent terrorist activities that hurt innocent lives, to maintain world peace and tranquility.”

Just hours earlier, Chinese leaders condemned the execution of Chinese citizen Fan Jinghui by Islamic State (IS) in Syria on 18 November. The foreign minister vowed to bring the IS perpetrators “to justice”.

After this spate of attacks, the Foreign Ministry sources confirmed that President Xi Jinping has instructed relevant departments to strengthen security preparations “outside of China’s borders”.

Such statements are understandable, but just what can China do to protect its citizens around the world, and how can it prosecute a war on IS?

Communist leaders often repeat the mantra that China will not seek hegemony. Indeed, this year’s Defense White Paper reiterated, “China will unswervingly follow the path of peaceful development, pursue an independent foreign policy of peace and a national defense policy that is defensive in nature, oppose hegemonism and power politics in all forms, and will never seek hegemony or expansion.”

Such statements are a way of pointing a finger at the USA, which possesses a worldwide network of military installations and forces. “We will not behave this way,” China is saying. Thus, there is no chance we will see the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deploying forces to Syria as Russia recently did.

Nevertheless, China’s long-held position is changing following these terrorist acts. As Beijing becomes more powerful, it has the ability to expand its global reach, plus there is public perception at home that the government must do more to protect citizens and national interests abroad. Unsurprisingly, this is beginning to conflict with China’s non-hegemonic stance.

This growing internal tension is to be expected as China’s influence and power intensify. However, the question for China’s leaders is how it will adapt its position after boxing itself into a corner. It has vowed to fight Islamic terrorists, but how can it do so without becoming more hegemonic?

China has been operating a naval task force in the Gulf of Aden since late 2008, and on several occasions it has used these vessels to intervene in regional crises such as civilian evacuations from Libya and Yemen. This experience has reinforced to Beijing the desirability, even the necessity, of having forces deployed abroad.

China’s progress towards creating a permanent port facility in Djibouti is thus of intense interest in showing the way that China will move forward. Incidentally, China has soldiers in the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) peacekeeping contingent. However, they were too far away to participate in the hostage rescue mission in Bamako, nor did they have UN approval to do so.

Nearer home, China is facing stiffer pushback over South China Sea territorial claims, where some commentators accuse Beijing of hegemonic actions. At the 18th ASEAN-China summit in Kuala Lumpur last weekend, Premier Li Keqiang put forth a five-pronged proposal to reduce South China Sea tensions.

These were: committing to observing UN Charter principles and jointly safeguarding peace and stability; sovereign countries peacefully settling jurisdictional disputes through consultation; full implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea; outside countries refraining from actions that may cause tension; and upholding freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.

How odd it is then that ASEAN has taken 13 years – and counting – to implement this aforementioned code of conduct! China says it wants it, yet it has dragged its feet the most to date, simply because it will have the most to lose. It exposes an essential dichotomy in what China says and does, with a refusal to compromise when it sees itself in a position of strength.

The same applies to border tensions with India. Chinese leaders constantly talk about solving issues through dialogue, but no progress is ever made. The recent visit of General Fan Changlong, vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, to Delhi is a case in point.

At the ASEAN summit, Li promised USD10 billion in infrastructure loan sweeteners to member nations. Cash handouts are being used as a means of smoothing ruffled feathers and diverting blame over the South China Sea issue from itself. There should be no surprise there, as every country with the means does the same to advance its own agenda; however, it does underscore China’s ‘hegemonic hypocrisy’ by trying to economically influence others.

Referring to China’s reclaimed islands in the South China Sea, deputy foreign minister Liu Zhenmin said, “Those islands and reefs are far from China’s mainland; it is necessary to maintain and build necessary military facilities.” Liu promised China will continue to develop these facilities over the next few years, despite opposition from some neighbors. Is this not a form of hegemony?

Despite China’s insistent protestations that it has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea, it does not. Several neighbors dispute Chinese claims, but China has proceeded simply through sheer force of personality and superior investment.

Liu added, “But one should never link such military facilities with efforts to militarize the islands and reefs and to militarize the South China Sea.” Is this not a contradiction? Building military facilities does not equate to militarization, simply because China says it is so?

Some countries are not helping as they simply roll over in the face of Chinese influence. Malaysia, for example, is sending out mixed signals. Last month its armed forces chief criticized China for “unwarranted provocations” in the South China Sea, but last week Malaysia said Chinese warships were welcome to use Kota Kinabalu port not too distant from the contested Spratly Islands.

China’s unilateral announcement of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea in November 2013 could also be interpreted at a regional attempt at hegemony. Creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Xi’s landmark One Belt, One Road initiative may not equate to military hegemony, but they could well be construed as financial hegemony.

China purports to uphold freedom of navigation rights in the South China Sea, yet in the same breath it described the passage of the US Navy (USN) destroyer USS Lassen near Subi Reef as a “provocation”. Chinese naval vessels shadowed USS Lassen through these waters, but what was not well publicized was the presence of several merchantmen and fishing vessels that “were not as demure as the Chinese navy,” according to one USN official.

These Chinese vessels had anticipated the passage of Lassen, obviously cued by the PLA Navy. Civilian vessels are regularly used as government proxies to harass foreign vessels. Andrew Erickson, associate professor at the US Naval War College, commented, “If you look at it rationally, it’s pretty clear the operators of those fishing boats were maritime militia, especially to have done that maneuver around the destroyer’s bow.”

Erickson noted, “China is trying to use these government-controlled fishermen below the radar to get the bonus without the onus to support its South China Sea claims. It’s a phenomenon little-known or understood in the US.”

There is no doubt China uses militia forces to frustrate and deceive the USA and other nations. This is how the incident involving the surveillance ship USNS Impeccable played out in March 2009 too. Erickson noted, “The militia, often drawn from local workers or demobilized troops, are organized in a somewhat complex manner, reporting initially to local People’s Armed Forces Departments. When activated, though, they could report directly to naval authorities.”

China is clearly not observing international norms at sea, so what about in the courtroom? China has already dismissed the legitimacy of the International Court of Arbitration’s authority to handle a case Manila brought against it.

It will thus be interesting to see what measures China enacts to internationally combat terrorism and to boost the PLA’s global reach. China is busy stepping up efforts against Islamic terrorism at home. Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, “China is also a victim of terrorism, and cracking down on ETIM [East Turkestan Islamic Movement] should become an important part of the international fight against terrorism.” Beijing will take the opportunity afforded by overseas terrorist attacks to push its own agenda against Uighur separatist groups.

Interestingly, information has emerged of an anti-terrorism agency under the auspices of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), a semi-military body responsible for conducting counterterrorism and other policies in China’s far west. The XPCC was established by Mao Zedong in 1954 with demobilized soldiers on work farms.

The little-known anti-terrorism leading group in the XPCC has apparently existed for a long time but has attracted no attention. It is a provincial group, whereas the national anti-terrorism leading group chaired by Minister of Public Security Guo Shengkun was established in August 2013.

Chinese media are cranking up the propaganda machine, praising Chinese forces for cracking down on terrorists in Xinjiang. Can we expect diplomats and state media to do the same abroad, expressing the need for China (and its armed wing, the PLA) to become more involved internationally?

China’s stance on non-hegemony is indeed being squeezed, and cracks are appearing in its carefully orchestrated narrative.