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China’s Maritime Power, Territorial Claims, and the Neoliberal Trap (Part I)

On August 2, the Chinese newspaper Global Times published an article advocating the need for China to become a maritime power.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has championed efforts to build China into a maritime power at a study session with members of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee on Tuesday. Becoming a maritime power is a step that China must take. Its strategic significance will be displayed through this process.


According to the newspaper, which is owned by the People’s Daily and is close to the government, China’s desire to implement an expansion of its maritime military capabilities is the result of the assertive stance of foreign powers.

Only in recent years has China become aware of the importance of being a maritime power. Many Chinese still have to deepen their understanding of the meaning of this. As China develops, it is possible that China will become a maritime power […]. 

[T]hese last two years have told us that trouble will seek us out no matter how low-profile China tries to be. Beijing’s firm reaction surrounding the Huangyan and Diaoyu disputes has pushed the other parties backward. It remains to be seen whether it can be a new model for dealing with maritime disputes in the future. […]


Japan is regarded by the author of the article as the main threat to China, and the PRC needs to pursue a policy of deterrence through military strength:

China’s maritime competitiveness needs to overwhelm Japan’s. By then, Tokyo will be nowhere near as provocative as it is today.

On the same day the South China Morning Post, an independent Hong Kong newspaper, reported on the same issue, avoiding the simplistic and aggressive tone of the Global Times, but reiterating China’s quest for maritime power. According to the paper, Zhuang Guotu (莊國土), director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Xiamen University, stated that maritime security is becoming a major diplomatic issue. As the China’s maritime reach expands, conflicts with neighbouring countries intensify. 

China can’t afford to have its claims to waters off its borders challenged further, Zhuang said, warning that this could trigger a “setback” in the nation’s maritime expansion plans.


Is China a Threat or a Victim?


The problem for the present and the future of the world is that China is both a victim and a threat. She has been a victim of foreign aggression and exploitation, and she is the victim of constant smear campaigns in Western media. But at the same time she is an aggressive power whose foreign policy is driven by nationalist ideology and territorial claims. The inherent contradiction of China’s relations with the outside world is shown by an article published on August 2 on China Daily, an official government newspaper. The author, Beijing-based scholar Zheng Xiwen, argued that the West has completely misunderstood the concept of the “Chinese Dream” put forward by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Westerners might find it hard to understand the Chinese people’s extreme cherishing of national greatness, but China used to be one of the leading powers in the world. 1840 marked the beginning of more than a century of humiliation for the country and suffering for the people. It was not until 1949 that China regained full national independence […]. 

With millenniums of history, the Chinese nation has made lasting contributions to human civilization, but its falling behind the West in the past centuries has cast a shadow over its national pride. The nation’s renaissance is clearly defined, as the goal of the whole nation as the people hope that their traditions and culture can gain global influence as before and the country can become a leading member of the family of nations once again.


It is interesting that the author’s claim that the West does not understand China is followed by arguments that actually reconfirm Western fears. In fact, Mr Zheng

1) portrays China as a victim of foreign aggression and as a great nation that had lost her due place in the world. This Chinese self-perception creates the image of a rightful and peaceful China that is surrounded by evil and aggressive powers. It therefore aims at giving China moral superiority. The Chinese government and nationalist intellectuals use the rhetoric of victimisation as an instrument to legitimise government policies and territorial claims. The image of a humiliated China appeals to the emotions, the frustration, the pride, and the anger of many Chinese.

2) employs an extremely simplistic concept of ‘the people’. Nationalist ideology is based on the naive idea that the myriads of individuals that form a nation have (or should have) one single will. This rhetoric disguises the fact that national political and cultural agendas are set by certain groups of individuals and lobbies, who subsequently denounce anyone who does not agree with their agenda as ‘unpatriotic’, or ‘treacherous’. In Zheng’s view, ‘the people’ is not the sum of complex individuals with their own ideas, opinions, and wills, but a mass of indistinguishable puppets driven by one sole will – which is the will of the government and of lobbies accepted by the government.

3) reaffirms the idea that China is rising and is striving to become a global power.

The power of this rhetoric lies in the fact that some of its assumptions are indeed true. It cannot be denied that today’s world order is unjust. It is a world order based on American and Western supremacy, a heritage of Western economic domination, colonialism and the Cold War. We are now confronted with a similar dilemma that plagued the British Empire before World War I. When Germany grew economically, German elites demanded equal status with Britain, and in order to achieve this goal they wanted an empire and a fleet. The British firmly opposed this claim. They did not understand the contradictions inherent in the world order they had created. If one country has colonies, why should other countries not have them, too?

At the end of the World War II, the United States became the hegemonic power in the capitalist world. It moulded international institutions according to its own will, and its military stretched over all continents. With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, American elites fantasised about global American supremacy and the superiority of the American economic and political system. This hierarchical world order in which the United States are at the top of the pyramid contradicts the very democratic principles of the United States. How do you explain to the Chinese that they have to accept this balance of power, that they have to accept American supremacy?

The Chinese side consequently mistrusts the United States and its true intentions. Chinese leaders and analysts suspect that the US is trying to Westernise and split China. Many Chinese resent American involvement in Taiwan, which China regards as a Chinese province, American military engagement in East and Southeast Asia, from Japan to South Korea, from Singapore to the Philippines, and American interference in domestic affairs such as the status of Tibet and human rights. Moreover, American analysts often warn of China as a menace. For instance, the USCC (United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission), a bipartisan commission set up by the US Congress, annually issues reports that portray China as a military and economic threat to American interests (see: Tang / Li / Acharya 2009, pp. 22-23).

As Professor Li Mingjian explained: 

A popular argument by many Chinese analysts is that the United States has been pursuing a two-pronged strategy in the post-Cold War era. On the one hand, Washington is keen to develop commercial ties with China in order to benefit from China’s economic growth and seek cooperation with China on major international traditional and nontraditional security issues. On the other hand, Washington has evidently pursued a hidden or partial containment policy, or, according to more moderate observers, a dual strategy of engagement and containment, to curb China’s influence (ibid., p. 24).


The ambivalence of the US attitude towards China can be clearly seen in the Taiwan issue. In July 1971 then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited the People’s Republic of China and met Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai. The result of that visit was the Shanghai Communique, in which the US government agreed that there is only one China (see Davison 2003, Chapter 6). At that time, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC) both claimed to be the sole legitimate government of China, and both agreed that Taiwan was a province of China. 

In 1971, the US still recognised the ROC as the legitimate government of China, but in 1979 the Carter administration shifted diplomatic recognition to the PRC, beginning from January 1st of the same year (see Su Chi 2009, pp. 2-3, Dillon 2010, p. 359).

Despite having broken off official diplomatic relations with the ROC, however, the United States maintained de facto diplomatic and economic relations with it via consulate and institutes, and it continued to supply Taiwan with arms, guaranteeing the island’s security against a possible Chinese invasion. This equivocal geopolitical game has always appeared suspicious to PRC’s politicians and public opinion at large. In fact, it seems that the US has always been very reluctant to treat the PRC as a friend.

However, the faults of Western diplomacy and media coverage of China should not lead us to the conclusion that the PRC is by its very nature a righteous and non-aggressive country.
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