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Foreign policy debates are normal in any big and influential country. The best minds in the country are tapped by the government to assess different views to elicit opinion what the people want, what the external environment portends and, finally, prepare responses and actions. China, as a one party state may not have problems of opposition parties snapping at its heels like in India, but unlike in Maoist era today Chinese leaders have to take into consideration different voices within the system represented in the Party’s politburo and its 9-member standing committee.

According Li Wei, a lecturer at the Renmin University of China’s School of International Studies (Feb 20, 21st Century Business Herald), an intense debate is currently on in the country’s foreign policy establishment examining whether Deng Xiaoping’s dictum “hide your strength, bide your time” is still relevant.

It is not for the first that Deng’s policy has been questioned. He crafted this policy, which has more advise, around 1991-92 when China was isolated internationally following the June, 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. Deng decided to build an economically and militarily powerful China in a stable atmosphere. His special advice was not to confront the USA. To many Chinese experts, China has achieved that status especially after replacing Japan as the world’s No.2 economic power this year. Again, a section among China’s foreign policy elite, especially the military establishment, began to show bravado from the very early years of this century. It may be recalled that around 2004, a theoretical proposal was mooted by a Chinese scholar that the region between the Middle East to western pacific should be controlled by China.

Currently, however, China is at another major transformation in history following the 1978 policy of reform and opening, again steered by Deng Xiaoping. The once in ten years leadership transition is to take place in autumn, this year. It has been hit by serious scandals like the Bo Xilai incident in February-March, and the more recent case of blind activist Chen Guangchen who took asylum in the US embassy in Beijing for six days. The USA’s Asia-Pacific “pivot” has heightened China’s security concerns and challenges its ambition to dominate the region.

Therefore, practicing or discarding Deng’s dictum is engaged in the debate on two fundamental questions, “is the US in decline?” and “what is the basic direction of China’s diplomatic strategy?”.

Accordingly to Li Wei’s article, Professor Wang Yizhou, author of the book “Creative Involvement: a New Direction in China’s Diplomacy”, sees three basic issues that confronts China.

First, China’s power growth leaves no room for vigorous development, and China is a source of growing concern and expectation in the international community. There is growing international responsibilities as per its power. If China fails to respond, it will fundamentally damage its “soft power”. Next, China faces a series of pressing diplomatic issues. Can it shelve disputes now with its current power?

Third, the traditional diplomacy of hiding strength and biding time is proving incapable of protecting Chinese interests abroad.

The above three points are brief statements of Prof. Wang’s thesis especially when China has entered the global stage in full regalia. Therefore, China can no longer remain in a position where it plead that it is still a developing country and avoid international responsibility, and claim great power status at the same time to make the best out of the business leaving others to do the dirty job.

Li Wei described the two sides in the debate as “internationalists” and “realists”. Both agree that Deng’s policy is no longer relevant and support China’s active involvement in international affairs; the two groups have fundamental differences over specific diplomatic approaches and strategies. The internationalists disapprove the use of force, urge self-restraint, advocate compliance with international norms, and utilize the international system to participate in global governance while putting emphasis on the role of society – not just sovereign power.

The realists strongly favour strong military power and demonstrate strength to the international community, if necessary. This view represents the assertive behaviour of China that has been witnessed recently, especially in the context of territorial disputes in the South China Sea and to a lesser extent in the East China Sea. This opinion advocates securing the growing Chinese interests overseas that are direly needed to keep the development machine growing. Today, China is sorely dependent on import of energy and raw material like iron ore.

The weakness in China analysis is the fact very little is known about what is happening in the 9-member Politburo Standing Committee that lays down finally what is to be done. Certainly, the Party General Secretary, currently Hu Jintao, holds the deciding vote. But Hu is not Mao, and not even Deng. Although the final decision of this group is to be carried out, there are certainly differences. Interest sections are stronger today than they were two decades ago, and influence decisions. The military holds a much higher position and say in strategic foreign policy like territorial issues than the foreign ministry does. In Li Wei’s definition the military falls in the group of realists.

The test of the influence of the two groups appears to have been reflected to an extent by China’s postures with the Philippines over the sovereignty of the Scarborough Shoal or Huangyan islands in the South China Sea.

On May 7, Ms. Fu Ying, China’s Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs summoned the Philippine Charde d’Affairs Alex Chua in Beijing and warned that China had made all necessary preparations to respond if the Philippine side caused the situation over the Huangyan islands to escalate. On May 8, the authoritative People Daily commentary served an ultimatum to the Philippines that when it was intolerable there was no need for restraint. The PLA newspaper, the Liberation Army Daily, warned (May 10) in the same context, that China will not give up half an inch of China’s territory. Senior PLA leaders like Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan also went on the offensive.

There was, however, a sudden de-escalation of rhetorics from the Chinese side. A war with the Philippine was ruled out for now by the Ministry of Defence. But the impression left was Beijing was not willing to go by international rules and laws on territorial disputes it claimed as its own. This, from all accounts, was a temporary respite. The Philippine also backed down.

Beijing’s decision to calm down the situation was dictated by the US interest in the region. The US and the Philippines have a military alliance, though it is ambiguous if the US will intervene militarily if the Philippines were attacked. The US and the Philippines conducted a joint military exercise in April which included retrieving an island occupied by a foreign force. The message was unmistakable to China.

Further, the new US-Vietnam relationship which has extended to military contacts from 2011 has disturbed China. Beijing sees an US initiated move to create an alliance with the weak countries in South East Asia to counter China. Beijing’s thrust is the East China Sea over the sovereignty of the Senkaku islands with Japan has created another tense situation. But East China Sea situation is different. The countries concerned, Japan and South Korea are no weak countries. Both also have strong military alliance with the US, and Washington has military presence in both countries.

These considerations must have influenced China and its realists to make a temporary withdrawal. But these are festering issues. The future still seems unstable. The international focus has truly shifted to Asia and the Asia Pacific region. (The writer, Mr.Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New Delhi;

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