China and the World: A Case for Panda Diplomacy

By Tommy Koh, Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Singapore

The simultaneous rise of China and India is the biggest growth story of the 21st century. It has the potential to change the power and civilisational balance of the world. The rise of China has inspired both admiration and fear.

Lessons from History

I believe that if we want to understand China’s worldview, we must begin by understanding China’s history. A country’s past often provides one with a key to interpreting its present and predicting its future. What strikes one most about China’s long history, is that it was often invaded.

From the Khitans in the 10th century to the Jurchen in 12th, from Mongols in the 13th century to the Manchus in the 17th, China has been ruled by foreigners for long stretches in its history.

Of greater salience, of course, is China’s recent history. Many Chinese today remember the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century as a period of great humiliation for China. It was invaded by the Western imperial powers and Japan and subjected to unequal treaties. This unhappy period ended only in 1949, with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

China was not, however, always the victim of aggression. During the Yuan dynasty, the Mongolian rulers of China conquered Korea and, using Korea as the launching pad, tried to conquer Japan twice, but unsuccessfully. The Mongols destroyed Pagan in Myanmar and invaded both Vietnam and Java.  However, when China was ruled by Han rulers, it was not an aggressive or expansionist state.

What China wants from the World

What the Chinese people want is for China to be a strong nation-state, able to defend Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity and her far flung interests. China wants to be respected by the world. It wants a seat at the top table.

I do not think China is a revolutionary power seeking to export Chinese communism or the Chinese model of development, the so-called Beijing consensus. I do not have the impression that China is seeking hegemony, whether at the global or regional level. I am also not persuaded by the view that China is scheming to exclude the United States from Asia.

China wants and needs a peaceful external environment to concentrate on internal development. It would, however, oppose any attempt by any country or group of countries, to contain or impede China’s rise.

China’s Economic Power

In 2010, the Chinese economy is about US$5 trillion, just ahead of Japan, at $4.9 trillion. China is, however, still quite a distance behind the United States, at US$14.2 trillion, and the EU at US$18.4 trillion. If China continues to grow at 7+ per cent per annum, it will catch up with the US in 20 to 30 years. China is, however, still a relatively poor country. Its per capita income is only US$3,500, compared to over US$45,000 for the US. By size of economy, China ranks No. 2 in the world.  However, by per capita income, China ranks No. 100.

China is a major player in international trade, accounting for 7.3% (2009) of world trade. She has replaced Germany as the world’s No. 1 exporter.

China is both a recipient of FDI and an exporter of FDI. The size of FDI hosted by China is estimated at US$92.4 billion (2009). Chinese FDI abroad is estimated at US$55.9 billion (2009).

China enjoys both a trade surplus of US$348.9 billion (2009) and a current account surplus of US$426 billion (2009). China’s foreign exchange reserves, of US$2.4 trillion (2009), is the largest in the world.

China’s growing prosperity is beneficial to its neighbours and to the world economy, as long as it continues to be open to the world and plays by the international rules governing trade, investment and monetary policy.

China’s Military Power

Since 1989, China has been devoting significant resources to the modernisation of its armed forces. In 2010, China’s declared military budget is US$78 billion. The US has alleged that this does not capture the totality of China’s military expenditure.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has suggested that China’s total military expenditure could be as high as US$84.9 billion. The US spends US$607 billion, or 41.5 per cent of total world military expenditures.

China’s total military personnel is 2.3 million. China’s nuclear warheads are estimated by SIPRI to be between 100 and 400. The US Defence Intelligence Agency has estimated that China has between 1,330 and 1,660 ballistic and cruise missiles, mostly deployed near Taiwan. China’s space technology has made several major breakthroughs. In 2003, China sent its first astronaut into space. In 2007, China shot down a satellite with a missile.

In its 2009 annual report to the US Congress, the US Department of Defence stated that although China has increased its capabilities for local and regional operations in certain areas, a number of limitations have persisted. For example, according to the Pentagon, the PLA is only capable of the sealift of one infantry division and the delivery of 5,000 parachutists in a single lift. Therefore, in military terms, China is not yet a global power and is in no position to challenge US military supremacy.

China’s Soft Power

In recent years, China has done an excellent job in projecting its soft power to the world. The spectacular success of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games earned the admiration of millions of people who watched the Games on television. The 2010 Shanghai Expo is another success story.

China is blessed with a rich and ancient civilisation. It has started the Confucius Institute to disseminate its language and civilisation to the world. There are now 282 Confucious Institutes in 88 countries. An estimated 40 million foreigners are learning the Chinese language. There are 223,000 foreign students studying in China.

China has tried to be a responsible global citizen. It provides help to other developing countries. The US Department of State has estimated that China’s official development assistance is between US$1.5 and US$2 billion.

I want to make a point here about China’s soft power. China’s economic and military power will continue to grow. In this context, the wise use of soft power by China will make her less threatening and more inviting and attractive.

I want to conclude with three points on what the world wants from China:

What the World wants from China

First, the world expects a powerful China to continue to practise a policy of good neighbourliness towards her smaller neighbours and to refrain from any attempt to bully them. In this context, the conduct of China in the South China Sea will be watched closely by Southeast Asia and by the world. China’s doctrine of peaceful rise is at stake.

China has recently announced that the South China Sea is part of China’s core interests. It has claimed sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and her adjacent waters. The Spratly Islands are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan. The US has stated that she has an interest in ensuring the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The US statement could have been provoked by the Chinese map with nine broken lines.  The map is not consistent with China’s note to the UN and could give rise to the legally untenable implication that China is claiming all the waters enclosed by the lines as China’s historic waters or territorial sea.

Singapore is not a claimant State and we will not take sides in the disputes between the claimant states. Our interest is to ensure that the region remains peaceful, that the good relationship between China and Asean will continue, that the parties concerned comply faithfully with international law and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the 2002 Asean-China Declaration on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea and the disputes are resolved peacefully.

We urge the claimants to resume their negotiations and to heed Deng Xiaoping’s wise advice to set aside the sovereignty disputes and to focus on the joint development of the disputed areas.

Second, China should continue to play a constructive role in various international organisations, in global governance, and in upholding the rule of law in the world. China has benefitted from the rules-based multilateral system. As its power grows, the world has a right to expect that China will shoulder a greater burden of international responsibility.

Third, China should redouble her efforts to deal with her many environmental problems and to embrace sustainable development. China has made impressive progress in harnessing solar and wind energy and in transiting to a low carbon economy. A clean and green China would not only benefit the people of China, but the people of the world.  I hope that China will play a positive and constructive role in the ongoing negotiations on global warming and climate change.

There are two animals which represent China: the dragon and the panda bear.  I hope that a powerful China will be viewed by the people of the world as a lovable panda and not a fearsome dragon.

This article was originally published in the Straits Times and can be found here.


1 comment for “China and the World: A Case for Panda Diplomacy

  1. September 23, 2010 at 10:12

    Are all the historical references really necessary preface to outlining what the world wants from China today?

    The Chinese need straight talk. In fact, I think they appreciate it. There is a great line in Kissinger’s third memoir where he characterizes Deng’s diplomatic style as follows: “Deng’s attitude was that we were both there to do our nations’ business and adult enough to handle the rough patches without taking matters personally.” There is no reason to softpeddle our problems. We’re all adults.

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