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Michael Vatikiotis: The West may fear China's rise, but alienating Beijing won't help

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A white Chinese coast guard vessel sails near a Vietnamese coast guard boat in the South China Sea off the Vietnamese coast.   © Reuters

With China rapidly on its way to becoming the world's largest economy, there is growing anxiety in the West about how to retain influence and primacy, not just in Asia, but globally.

China would have the world believe it has nothing to fear. But that anxiety has only been fueled by Beijing's recent display of histrionics after a United Nations tribunal ruled that the country's expansive claims in the South China Sea had no basis in law. China sent bombers aloft over disputed islands and threatened to declare an air defense identification zone.

But the larger point is that for the first time in 500 years, Asia is in the ascendant. The West, tired, overstretched and in stately decline, is gradually becoming a bystander.

A RATTLED WEST The metrics of geopolitical power are subjective. Asia now spends more on weapons than Europe does, but Asia's armed forces have less experience projecting power. The majority of wars that afflict the world are being fought in the Middle East and Africa, mostly entangling the West, not Asia, where peace generally reigns despite protracted internal conflicts on the margins.

All the same, the West is rattled, afraid on the one hand that it may be too late to contain China, and on the other worried that it stands to lose out commercially once confrontation ensues. Such is the hand-wringing that preoccupies Gideon Rachman, international affairs columnist for the Financial Times, whose new book, "Easternization: War and Peace in the Asian Century," is intended as a wake-up call to Western policymakers.

The "easternization" concept poses an important question: How does the West manage the inevitable shift in the world's center of economic and, eventually, political gravity to the East? What will a world overshadowed by Chinese capital, Chinese lending institutions, Chinese-built infrastructure and Chinese technology look like? Will the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, launched by China in 2014, supplant the World Bank that the U.S. launched to help rebuild the world after World War II?

The problem is that exhorting former Western powers and alliances to bulk up and confront a rising China plays into arcane containment strategies that are more likely to provoke conflict. The Philippines was encouraged to take its case to the U.N. tribunal at The Hague, and was financially supported in doing so by Western governments eager to check China's emerging primacy. Using the cloak of rule of law does not make this strategy any less apparent.

China is on the cusp of projecting more than military-backed power. Its tech companies are producing consumer services like WeChat, Weibo and Didi that rival and, in some cases, outsmart their Western counterparts like Uber, Facebook and Twitter. Chinese state media broadcaster CCTV has put in place a global newsgathering network that is well-financed and producing deeper coverage of news in Africa, the Americas and Asia than either CNN or the BBC.

Much of China's current trajectory looks like America's rise to industrial power in the last century. Often it seems that China is reading from a U.S. playbook from the 1960s by ignoring the rules and insisting on treating everyone bilaterally. It is only with the rise of China that Washington has started favoring multilateral forums in Asia for critical trade and security issues -- preferably excluding China. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which forms the cornerstone of U.S. President Barack Obama's "pivot to Asia," does not include China.

Like the U.S., China's military sees potential scope for operating globally. A senior People's Liberation Army officer wrote recently that he envisaged China's next war on land not in Asia, but perhaps in Africa or the Middle East, where China has access to valuable resources and increasing numbers of workers to protect.

But is the West really so threatened by the rise of powers in the East? Would a more militarily capable Japan, together with a unified Korea, not help maintain a balance of security in the East without having to rely on the U.S.?

For one thing, there is no parallel yet with the trans-Atlantic alliance, for all its woes. It stretches credulity to imagine Russia and China sustaining a deep strategic embrace, as Rachman hints at in his book. Japan is also problematic because the horrors of the Pacific War are still fresh in the collective memories of people in China and the Koreas.

India is touted as a coming global power, and indeed provides hope for those who fear easternization that it will help check China's ambitions. Much comfort in the West is drawn from India's democracy, even though some of the values that underpin the way India is governed are thoroughly illiberal. But India is for now a fair-weather ally, its foreign policy still shackled to Nehruvian principles that lay stress on the near neighborhood and the security of the subcontinent rather than Asia writ large.

NEW ORDER A visceral fear is that China, along with a more nationalistic Japan, a more assertive South Korea and an aggrieved Russia, will interfere with and reset the institutional center of gravity established by the Western powers after World War II through the Bretton Woods institutions. China is already the second-largest financial contributor to the United Nations after the U.S. and is keen to play a more proactive role in the Security Council instead of hiding behind Russia's positions.

But it was the launch of the AIIB in 2014, in which China has the majority stake, that really turned heads. The U.S. was unable to prevent the U.K. and other European countries from joining, in what was a clear break with the postwar order laid down 70 years ago.

One of the biggest fears staked out in the easternization thesis is the decline of the primacy of the Western way of doing things, in the liberal notions that underpin humanitarianism, financial transparency and political discourse. The erosion of the power that supports these values is forcing the fringes of Europe, such as Turkey, as well as much of Africa and the Middle East, to look East. This is something of an overstatement, since English remains the primary language of commerce and diplomacy, and global systems of exchange and standardization are all in the West. As Rachman puts it, "much of the world is still wired through the West."

For those of us in Asia, the central question is whether peace and security will prevail, whatever the dominant power equation and however the internet is controlled. Some fret that only with continued U.S. dominance is peace assured. China is doing a bad job of convincing us otherwise with its aggressive posturing in the South China Sea and table-thumping tactics at regional multilateral forums.

Longer term, the answer is that Asia needs to replicate the interlocking framework of alliances and agreements that still underwrites peace and security on either side of the Atlantic. China needs to be drawn in, not excluded -- and yes, that may mean China needs to be in the lead, however scary that appears to be in the region, or in Washington, Brussels and other Western capitals.

But for this to happen, Asia needs to extricate itself completely from the lingering post-colonial order that casts all issues of sovereignty and security in a Western strategic frame. We may not need to wait much longer, for the larger problem highlighted in easternization is not so much the rise of the East but the decline of the West.

Michael Vatikiotis is Asia regional director at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.

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