CERTAIN experts begrudge China of looming superpower status because its economic ascendancy is state-led and at the expense of political and individual freedoms. They ignore the fact that the Soviet Union was accorded superpower status without it ever passing such criteria. What seems to be more germane is the possession of massive resources translated into a superior military and economic posture enabling a country to exercise a critical influence in world affairs.
China has not only undertaken a phenomenal military buildup of late but its recent unveiling of economic and development assistance programs of unparalleled magnitude for the Asian region and the Third World leaves little doubt that superpower China is almost here, nearer than anybody thinks. Negotiations are reportedly ongoing for the establishment of an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, led by China, which, with the already setup China Development Bank could overshadow the Bretton Woods and regional development and financing institutions.
China has indeed announced this project as motivated by political and strategic considerations, as part of the search for a new “security architecture” in Asia and the world. The Chinese admission as well as the US’ reported negative reaction and lobbying with its allies not to join the AIIB prove once more that economic or development assistance in general, outside of humanitarian assistance, has never been purely altruistic nor for the common good, and more often than not, has instead been based on national strategic interests.
The new security architecture proposed by China does not appear to be altogether new. It calls for moving away from cold-war politics toward a new multilateral cooperation following the five principles of mutual respect, non-aggression, noninterference, equality and cooperation, and peaceful coexistence. These principles became the first basic principles of the Non-aligned Movement. (While China, along with India, is credited with enunciating these founding principles of the Movement, China has remained a mere observer in the Movement.) This security architecture can then be considered a mere affirmation of the aspirations of developing countries.
But the sincerity of China’s adherence to these five principles can be suspect especially to those countries like the Philippines in dispute with China over claims to parts of the South China Sea and to whom China’s sweeping claim based on dubious historical grounds smacks of lebensraum policies of the Axis powers in WWII.
China’s insistence on bilateral negotiations which have proved to be bullying platforms and its refusal to submit the dispute to impartial international arbitration would appear unsuited to a responsible superpower.
To the currently sole superpower, the US, China’s new security architecture would of course appear to supplant its present global strategy.
China has actually put in place development assistance programs in many parts of the Third World. According to Kevin Gallagher, the China Development Bank and the Export Import Bank of China now provides more loans to Latin American governments than the World Bank and the InterAmerican Development Bank as well as more loans to Asia than the World Bank and the ADB. These programs again have not been born solely of China’s solidarity with the Third World but appear to be attempts to establish footholds for China’s “security architecture.”
Together with the rest of the diplomatic corps in Islamabad I was at the inauguration of the port in Gwadar, Pakistan, mentioned by Brahma Chellany in his report on the network of ports built in South Asia with Chinese funds. Because it was surrounded by desert for as far as the eye could see, Gwadar’s commercial potentials were less apparent to us than its strategic importance at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz.
Already, China’s development assistance programs have threatened Asean solidarity behind the Association’s members claiming parts of the South China Sea, as shown by Cambodia’s refusal when it was host to the Asean Summit to issue a joint communiqué unfavorable to China on the issue of the South China Sea. Recalling how JICA programs in developing countries have made unbeatable Japanese candidatures to UN bodies, one may fear the Philippines might find itself deserted by Third World friends who are Chinese aid beneficiaries in case of voting on a resolution condemning China’s refusal to respect an arbitration ruling in favor of the Philippines claim to the West Philippine Sea. There might be a rush among them to pass the time of voting in the bar or the comfort room.
As Gallagher points out, China’s AIIB project fills the wide gap between the needs of developing countries for infrastructure projects and poverty alleviation and the capital provided by Western-backed financial institutions for these purposes. US allies despite Obama’s lobbying have thus found it foolish not to join. The AIIB is envisioned to fund China’s New Silk Road initiative which by itself is an attractive and laudable idea. It will provide and strengthen trade connectivity between China, Asia and Europe through expressways, intercontinental railways, oil pipelines, and industrial zones. It has a counterpart in Southeast Asia in the Maritime Silk Road which does not yet include the Philippines.
The Philippines, if it follows the US line on the AIIB, may find itself isolated from a project that might prove to be the Marshall Plan of the 21st century and miss the boat plying a new and future direction of development in Asia. Philippine diplomacy with China faces the challenge of separating its pursuit of the country’s claims in the West Philippine Sea and the business of regional development. With statements from leaders of the Philippines and China that the South China Sea dispute does not account for the totality of their relations with each other, this task should not be impossible.
A retired diplomat, Jaime J. Yambao last served as Ambassador to Pakistan and concurrently on non-resident basis Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrghiztan.