What China’s Big Nation Complex Means for the Future of Asia

By Shannon Hayden —

Soldiers of the People's Liberation Army 1st Amphibious Mechanized Infantry Division stand for review. Source: TheJointStaff's flickr photostream, U.S. Government Work.

Soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army 1st Amphibious Mechanized Infantry Division stand for review. Source: TheJointStaff’s flickr photostream, U.S. Government Work.

In two years on the China desk in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, colleagues and I had frequent interactions with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). They were our counterparts out of China’s embassy in Washington, and we had a cordial and productive working relationship. Our job was to help manage the defense relationship between the United States and China, which was characterized by growing cooperation and frequent high-level visits. As representatives of our respective governments, we also communicated on thornier aspects of the relationship.

The PLA members sometimes offered clues to their mindset regarding their neighbors in the region. These hints didn’t come off as malicious, just presumptuous, and manifested mostly in asides and off-the-cuff remarks. Of course Vietnam should defer to its “big brother” and be silent. Yes, we can discuss the South China Sea, but the other countries’ claims are a joke. You could feel the frustration coming from our PLA counterparts when we pushed on any number of points. Their response, with varying levels of exasperation —“China is a big country. X is a small country. What more is there to say?” China does not see its neighbors as peers. This thinking is the result of thousands of years of experience and its position as the Middle Kingdom. How does this square with modern concepts of international law and dispute settlement?

Read Shannon’s full piece over at War on the Rocks where it was first published here.

Ms. Shannon Hayden is associate director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS. Follow her on twitter @ShannonKHayden

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