Could China’s rise to power really be ‘peaceful’ and different to anything we’ve ever seen before?

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Xi Jinping’s ascension to power was a turning point in Beijing’s foreign policy decisions, analysts say.

China has developed at an unprecedented rate since opening up 40 years ago, lifting some 850 million people out of poverty and has becoming one of the largest contributors to global economic growth.

Key points:

  • China’s “peaceful rise” policy was initially introduced to counter perceptions of a “China threat”
  • Huawei and the South China Sea have raised concerns about a “peaceful” rise
  • Analysts say a power shift from the US to China in the Asia-Pacific is “inevitable”

Beijing has long maintained its rise will be “peaceful”, yet its exceptional growth as an economic, military and political power is commonly referred to as a “threat”, with experts calling its foreign policy “aggressive” and “menacing”.

In 2003, Chinese academic Zheng Bijian introduced the policy of a “peaceful rise” under the leadership of former president Hu Jintao, to assert that China is not a threat to global peace and security, in line with its Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.

The Five Principles:

  1. Mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty
  2. Mutual non-aggression
  3. Mutual non-interference in others’ internal affairs
  4. Equality and cooperation for mutual benefit
  5. Peaceful co-existence

Analysts also say the policies are China’s attempt to avoid the Thucydides trap, which predicts that a rising power will inevitably clashwith an incumbent dominant force, leading to war and conflict. 

However, the policy was criticised almost as soon as it was introduced due to the phrase “rise”, which could sound threatening to the country’s neighbours.

It was swiftly replaced with “peaceful development” in official documents and speeches, but that hasn’t swayed critics from seeing the country as a threat.

China’s ‘three warfares’

China's 'three warfares'

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Belt and Road, Huawei and the South China Sea

Pradeep Taneja, an expert in Chinese politics at the University of Melbourne, said Beijing’s “peaceful rise” policy was initially introduced to counter the “China threat” narrative.

“[It] was meant to directly address concerns that China’s economic and military rise will ultimately lead to a conflict between the sole surviving superpower, the United States, and China,” Dr Taneja told the ABC.

Paul Monk, a former defence intelligence analyst, told the ABC that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ascension to power was a turning point in Beijing’s foreign policy decisions.

The trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative has been accused as a “debt-trap diplomacy”,while the US has warned that Chinese telecoms giant Huawei’s 5G expansion posed a “national security risk”.

A satellite reveals China's Cuarteron Reef development in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, China’s militarisation of the islands in the South China Sea has become one of the main potential flashpoints, analysts say.

“In practical terms, the use of [the peace narrative] allows China to claim that it has no aggressive intent, while at the same time aggressively pursuing its strategic interests, especially in the South China Sea,” Dr Taneja said.

A woman browses her smartphone as she walks by a Huawei store.

The narrative of China’s peaceful nature and growth has been used by many of its leaders to argue that its rise will be different to other great powers of the past.

China’s economic resilience became evident after it rode through the 2007 global financial crisis relatively unscathed, and with time it became more willing to assert itself, especially under President Xi, according to Dr Monk.

While analysts recognise that it has been a long-term strategy for the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army to counter the US in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific, Dr Monk says such a shift is inevitable.

China’s contingency plans and ‘American assertiveness’

Soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army get ready for the military parade.

Andrew J Nathan, professor of Chinese politics at Colombia University, writes that the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence offer an alternative to the US-led world order, where international institutions often reflect US interests and values.

This Chinese alternative would allow nations to govern their own political systems and people as they see fit, and stresses that all nations are equal to do so without interference.

For example, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, China has commonly vetoed or abstained from voting on resolutions that require intervention or sanctions.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, dressed in camouflage gear, stands atop a military car during a parade.

Jane Golley, China expert at the Australian National University, told the ABC it is “natural and expected” for an emerging superpower like China to create plans to protect its own interests.

Dr Golley said the militarisation of the South China Sea “does not inherently contradict a peaceful development”, explaining that it is a security measure to ensure shipping lanes would be open in the event of war. 

“The costs of war would take away from China’s economic gains,” she said.

“What China is pursuing is economic power, and investment and economics is inherently peaceful.” 

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Ms Golley added that “American assertiveness” has led China — under President Xi — to build up its military “in line with its economic power”.

“Why wouldn’t a rising power prepare a contingency in the event of a conflict with a superpower?”

However, while China pursues a peaceful foreign policy unless provoked, domestically it is a different story, she said.

“Beijing is enacting policies which are certainly worrying,” Ms Golley told the ABC.

“You see it in Hong KongXinjiang and within its own borders, but I’m yet to see comprehensive evidence of aggression overseas.”

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Are we sleepwalking into WWIII?

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Dr Monk emphasised it is important to keep a “cool head” about comparing China’s rise to its great power predecessors.

He said the world’s former superpowers — including Europe’s colonial powers and Japan — have previously risen through “an unprecedented catastrophe”, such as world wars or the mass enslavement of peoples.

“The possibility of [similar conflict] occurring in the 21st century as a result of China’s rise is non-existent,” Dr Monk told the ABC.

“[China] has become integrated as a late starter in a mature international system of trade and investment, and if it messes that system up it would suffer egregiously.”