For decades, the world has been debating whether China’s rise will be peaceful or threatening, or perhaps a combination of both. This is a relevant discourse, precisely because China’s rise is perhaps the question of the century. “It’s not possible to pretend that [China] is just another big player,” Singapore’s legendary leader Lee Kuan Yew argued in the early years of the post-Cold War period. “This is the biggest player in the history of man.”
In the economic realm, China has arguably been a net-positive force for Asia and the global economy, reinforcing the ‘peaceful rise’ narrative forwarded by Beijing and its sympathizers. Much of the world has accepted the fact that China, poised to become the largest economy in the near future and already the world’s largest trading nation, is the new center of gravity in economic terms. This proud civilization can once again credibly claim to be the Middle Kingdom.
The Philippines’ 11th hour decision to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is a poignant reminder of how even Beijing’s most alienated neighbors can’t ignore its economic pull. Despite vigorous American lobbying against the fruition of the AIIB, all of its major allies, with the exception of Japan, have joined the China-led multilateral institution.
But the ‘peaceful rise’ narrative is severely under question when one looks at China’s behavior in the geopolitical realm, particularly with respect to its weaker neighbors. In an effort to augment its sovereignty claims over what it considers as its national “blue soil,” China has inadvertently encouraged a growing number of nations to coalesce against it. One could argue that China has overplayed its hand, unleashing a dangerous strategic dynamic that threatens the whole region.