China is playing down U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s recent visit to Vietnam, where he announced plans for a ramped-up U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific. Yesterday a spokesman at China’s Foreign Ministry called the plans for more U.S. warships “out of keeping with the times,” a blasé reaction to Washington’s new grand strategy. Similarly, Lieutenant General Ren Haiquan of the People’s Liberation Army distanced the PLA from a military faceoff with American forces, saying China would “intensify its vigilance, but not lash back, in response.”A slightly sharper note was sounded in other comments by Liu Weimin, a foreign ministry spokesman quoted by Voice of America:
“All parties should contribute to maintaining and promoting peace, stability and development in the region,” Liu said. “Deliberately highlighting the military and security agenda, deploying more military forces and strengthening military alliances in the Asia-Pacific region are inappropriate.”
Another commentary in the English-language, government-linked People’s Dail Online seems to be taking direct issue with some points we’ve made at Via Meadia.
some Western media’s opinions, China is strengthening its economic ties with its surrounding countries because it wants to enlarge its sphere of influence, Japan is increasing its investment and support to Myanmar because it wants to make sure that Myanmar will not be pulled over to China’s side, and Indian Prime Minister’s visit in Myanmar is aimed at “competing for international influence with China.”Regarding the seemingly sharp and in-depth analyses by Western media, it is necessary for us to emphasize two points.First, the so-called “sphere of influence” is an old phrase that does not fit the current times. China, which insists on a peaceful development road, has completely different diplomatic ideas from past hegemonies, and current small and medium countries also will not give their own destinies to the hands of big countries.Second, there are indeed competitions among big countries, but as long as these competitions are based on internationally-accepted principles, these competitions are virtuous and will not lead to turbulences. On the contrary, they will promote the regional and even global economic development.
Of course, this non-confrontational attitude isn’t because Beijing likes what it sees in the U.S. Asia pivot; rather China has concluded that it can’t stop new U.S. deployments, and Beijing’s diplomats are smart enough to know that railing against something you can’t affect makes you look petulant and weak. (Perhaps their U.S. counterparts could take this lesson to heart in dealing with the Syrian question.)But even if more liberal and (in our view) forward-thinking analysts in China are ready to embrace the kind of non-zero sum thinking behind the People’s Daily commentary, other powerful forces in China will not take America’s maneuvering lying down. It will be a long time if ever before China can challenge the U.S. militarily, so look for Beijing’s next move in the sphere of economics. China can attempt to mobilize an army of lobbyists and consultants into a force that could pressure the U.S. government on issues of interest to Beijing. By promoting the well-being and power of friends in governments abroad, Beijing can convince its neighbors to further a pro-China agenda.There’s no doubt that China sees its economic clout as a reliable form of soft power—and soft power works. For example, in 2009, China overtook the U.S. as Africa’s chief trading partner; now Africa is China’s second largest overseas labor market and fourth largest destination for outward investment, according to China Daily. China’s diplomats now get a much more respective hearing in many African capitals than they used to and the European powers who long thought of Africa as their back yard have had to move over and make room for China.Military deployments and stronger strategic ties with allies in Asia are a first step in an American grand strategy for the region, but without complementary economic steps (including a renewal of the power of America’s own economy), China’s counter moves will become increasingly effective over time and increase the risks that a healthy competition could become more dangerous and less stable.