China Should Abide By the Wisdom of Deng Xiaoping

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Deng Xiaoping
Deng Xiaoping

As the South China Sea territorial conflict expands to include Chinese claims on Indonesian territory, increasing the chances of a conflict, its leadership might be advised to heed the wisdom of Deng Xiaoping, who opened China to foreign investment and stabilised relations with the US and the West.

According to Hu Jintao, Deng Xiaoping once stated “If one day China should seek to claim hegemony in the world, then the people of the world should expose, oppose and even fight against it. On this point, the international community can supervise us.” That day approaches, given recent developments.

China’s actions in the South China Sea create friction with neighbours and making its stated “peaceful rise policy” seemingly a lie. It’s engaged in maritime territorial conflicts with South Korea, Taiwan and Japan in Northeast Asia. In Southeast China, its territorial claims in the South China Sea have created friction with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and more recently the bulwark of ASEAN, Indonesia.

It’s also engaged in border tensions with India and Bhutan to the south. To the north, chronic issues affect their border with Russia, such as illegal labour migration, smuggling and illegal fishing by Chinese citizens.

CCP Control of the PLA

There are also question about how much Beijing controls the Chinese military. Developments in recent years hint that communications between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aren’t as coherent as they might seem. Some incidents are the surprise stealth fighter test during former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ visit in 2011 and the 2007 anti-satellite test.

Andrew Scobell argued that a “civil-military gap” existed, with two possibilities at play:

  1. Potentially serious differences between the attitudes and perspectives of civilian and military elites, based on different life experiences and career paths.
  2. Possible “loose civilian control of the military.”

The PLA detests political intrusion by the CCP into its institutional affairs, striving for greater autonomy.The claim that CCP leaders have adopted a hands-off approach to PLA operational affairs seems an apt description of the current state of affairs between the military and the civilian leadership. In fact, outgoing President Hu Jintao hinted in 2012 the chain of military command “…might be more fragile than commonly understood.”

China’s Situation

For China itself, these conflicts can impact of public perception and the ability of China to project its soft power. Similarly, in the long run it can disrupt the long-standing and heretofore effective policy of the peaceful rise to becoming a Great Power. The correct response? Return to the foundation of the “Deng Xiaoping Theory.”

What China does in the South China Sea will answer the question of whether China will inherit and surpass the legacy of Deng Xiaoping. Progressing forward or moving backward?

A senior CCP official, Zheng Bijian, sought to explain China’s growing power and influence to the rest of the world, promulgating the “peaceful rise” concept in a 2005 Foreign Affairs article. Zheng argued China’s rise was based on the mutual benefit of China and other nation-states, rather than exploitation.

But many of China’s neighbours disagree. China frames its “peaceful rise”  as a counterpoint to colonialism and imperialism. But promising a peaceful rise implies a promise of  promising not to use force to expand its territory, which seemingly doesn’t apply to the South China Sea.

Apparently, China’s idea of a “peaceful rise” doesn’t apply where China’s sovereignty is at risk, despite being illegal and illegitimate under international law or otherwise. Applied outside territorial disputes, China’s emphasis on its peaceful rise seems to carry more policy weight.

When Deng Xiaoping was in power, China maintained a harmonious relationship with the US, Japan and Taiwan. Despite serious problems on occasion, Deng  restored relationships by making concessions, while maintaining and protecting China’s principles and core strategic interests. For instance, Deng ceased intermittent bombardment of Taiwan’s Jinmen after rising to power and opened relations with Taiwan.

So in the current context, where will China go? Creating friction with multiple neighbours around its borders, as well as ignoring international law, is both unwise and misguided, especially in the long run. But does its government understanding the long-term impact of its actions?

Already, its actions in the South China Sea frustrate ASEAN members and plant the seeds for potential conflict in the future. Despite diplomatic efforts, no consensus over sovereignty and conduct in the South China Sea matters without the PRC adhering. The outcomes will be frustration all around, which benefits China.

China operates under the assumption its long-range position will improve, with tactics of little import. China won’t deliberately incite danger in the South China Sea. But anything drawing India and Japan together or reengaging the US delays Chinese control by decades, as well as endangering China’s position elsewhere. Because Beijing feels it owns the future, it has tremendous freedom in the short and medium term.

Singapore’s Stake

In a local context, apparent marginalisation of Singaporean Malays, and possibly other minorities, influences perceptions locally. We’re a country based at the confluence of a maritime Silk Road, with a mixed cultural heritage rooted in China, India and Southeast Asia. Are we a Chinese outpost or an ASEAN nation?

Singapore must balance its strategic self-interests with broader geopolitical developments, while maintaining close relations with close neighbours (i.e. Indonesia). A more transparent immigration policy at home would be beneficial, both socioeconomically, culturally and demographically.

Singapore’s government should be aware domestic campaigns promoting the use of the Mandarin and the apparent preference for ethnic Chinese immigrants might impact external perceptions of Singapore. Given the proximity of Muslim-majority states in the region and the history of ethnic and cultural conflict regionally, this is a crucial matter.

The last thing Singapore needs is to be perceived as a Chinese outpost and ethnic Chinese enclave in the middle of Southeast Asia, or that it’s aligned with China. History shows us how such a perception can negatively impact Singapore. What’s needed is a balance of power in Southeast Asia.

And Singapore is in an ideal position to facilitate this balance, being at the crossroads of the maritime Silk Road of East and West. Engaging India and Japan, both Great Powers, via methods such as enabling either to project their naval power into the Indo-Pacific sphere, as we have done for the the USA. Engaging and balancing foreign powers in Southeast Asia is crucial to Singapore’s long-term interests.