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China: the ugly duckling or a smart owl of Asian politics?

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If I were to describe the Asian security order just in a few words, I would apply a modified version of the renowned "Flying Geese" (FG) paradigm, which was developed by Japanese scholars1 to explain the economic growth and regional agglomeration in East and Southeast Asia (Ozawa, 2009). The Flying Geese model employed in the aspect of security would differ from its economic prototype in a way that the geese would be accompanied by a hawk, flying above to protect them (mainly from themselves). As the wind of history twisted the wings of the leading goose, she rotated back and another goose, too weak to lead alone, took her position with the support of the hawk. Now when the goose – hawk tandem became exhausted, the former leading goose is back, stronger than ever after the period of recovery. The same wind broke the wings of another goose, and now she can only continue flying with the group owing to the (nuclear) chain in which her legs are tied up to the legs of the strongest geese and the hawk. This terminally ill goose threatens the rest of the group that if she falls, she will pull down the whole formation. Some argue that without the hawk, the formation will turn into a Peking duck or a headless chicken; others believe that wild geese are smart by nature and free, therefore they do not need a zookeeper. Everybody is suspicious of the character of the currently leading goose, speculating whether she is an ugly duckling or a smart owl.2

The security order in Asia is undergoing transformation along with the shifts in economic and military spheres of leading powers. The dichotomy of rising China and stagnating Japan/U.S. is the chief force shaping regional relations in Asia. Robert Gilpin3 and Paul Kennedy4 argued that "international relations are often destabilized when a rising power challenges a declining great power" (cited in Er, 2006). The rise of China has become the hottest topic of research on this part of the world, and hectoliters of ink and tons of paper have been utilized to analyze the implications of China’s growth in power to the point that the phrase "the rise of China" has become a cliché. Avery Goldstein pointed out three categories of theories that could be applied in speculations on China’s intentions. The first category includes theories based on the notion that states make the most of power in order to strengthen their security, e.g. power-transition theory. The second category groups theories that stress the attributes of states rather than their capabilities. The third category comprises of theories that evolve around the notion that states must interact regardless of their nature and capabilities, e.g. neorealist balance-of-power theory or institutionalist theory. The pessimists cite the Taiwan case, territorial conflicts with Japan in the East China Sea (e.g. the recent September 7 territorial spat over the fishing boat around Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands), and contentions in the South China Sea as proofs that the power-transition theory should be applied, whilst the optimists opt for the institutional theory emphasizing China’s enthusiastic participation in multilateral institutions and overall cooperative attitude as the evidence confirming its appropriateness.

One of the often cited proponents of the institutionalist theory, David Kang, contended that East Asian countries are not balancing, but accommodating China (although with no intention of kowtowing), and see more advantages than threats in China’s strategic growth (Kang, 2007). Furthermore, Kang claims that, "most East Asian states view China’s return to being the gravitational center of East Asia as inevitable" (Ibid, p.50). Kang backups his argument of the perception of reemergence of China as a major regional power as natural by referring to history. Accordingly, there have been a stable number of countries with similar boundaries in East Asia since 1200, whilst Europe went down from five hundred independent units in 1500 to roughly twenty in 1900. For six centuries (1300-1900) China’s dominant power had never generated balancing conduct among its neighbors until the Western intrusion a century ago. "With the Western powers dividing up China and limiting its ability to act, the system broke apart. Japan was able to seize the initiative and attempt to become the regional hegemon" (Ibid, p.49). Kang’s argument is at odds with the concerns of ASEAN member states, expressed by Carolina Hernandez during her presentation at Waseda University.5 In view of that, the security of Asia depends on the level of its rise. If China is still rising, it will keep on requiring a peaceful and stable regional and global environment. However, if it has risen, this type of environment may no longer be necessary, principally if it has risen to the extent that China is assertive enough to challenge the regional security status quo.

On the other hand, Li Mingjiang emphasized that predicting the directions of China’s security policy by utilizing any single theoretical framework is inadequate, and "obscures the reality and complexity in China’s strategy in East Asia" (Li, p.123). Li described Beijing’s security strategy as ‘cooperation for competition arguing’ that "China has essentially learned to employ liberal institutions and social constructivist means for realist purposes". Wang Ming analyzing the nature of Chinese approach to the external pressure regarding poor human rights records, insisted that "Beijing still plays human rights diplomacy as traditional power politics, and its rights exchanges with the West have mainly led to adaptive learning about how to fend off Western pressure rather than to cognitive learning about the importance of human rights per se."(2001, p. 2). In other words, the Chinese leadership has mastered the game and now is beating its opponents with their own arguments, producing the so-called shadow reports on the state of human rights in the U.S. and playing the card of the phenomenal progress in the field of economic and social rights, with the biggest poverty alleviation in history over 400 million people lifted out of misery. Beijing is trying to prove its legitimacy by putting greatest efforts to convince the society that although "it doesn’t matter if it is a white cat or a black cat, as long as it catches mice", a cat that catches mice fastest is a red cat (a common sense somehow parallel to the Orwell’s logic, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others"). In the light of the abovementioned arguments I am convinced that the "cooperation for strategy" framework proposed by Li is highly convincing.

The chief shortcoming of this framework is that it only confirms the thesis that China is not seeking confrontation with the U.S. at the moment and it is acknowledging the status quo of the present security system. It does not offer a final solution, but suggests implication for the U.S. that a good strategy would be developing the American version of the "charming offensive" strategy.


Er, P.L, (2006). Japan’s relations with China: facing a rising power. Routledge.

Ikenberry, J.G. (2007). Grand Strategy as Liberal Order Building. Retrieved on January 23, 2011 from http://www.princeton.edu/~gji3/Ikenberry-Grand-Strategy-as-Liberal-Order-Building-2007-word.pdf

Kang, D.C. (2007). China rising: peace, power, and order in East Asia. New York: Columbia University Press. Retrieved January 23 from http://www.usip.org/files/qdr/qdrreport.pdf

Li, M. (n.d.). Cooperation for competition: China’s approach to regional security in East Asia
Ozawa, T, (2009). The Rise of Asia: The ‘Flying Geese' Theory of Tandem Growth and Regional Agglomeration. Edward Elgar Publishing.

Ross, R.S. (2006, July). Balance of Power Politics and the Rise of China: Accommodation and Balancing in East Asia.
Security Studies, Vol. 15, Issue 3, pp. 355- 395. Rutledge.

Shambaugh, David L. (2004/05) China Engages Asia: Reshaping the Regional Order
International Security - Volume 29, Number 3, Winter 2004/05, pp. 64-99

Wan, M. (2001). Human rights in Chinese foreign relations: defining and defending national interests.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

  • 1 The multi-tier hierarchical "Flying Geese" paradigm was developed by a Japanese economist Kaname Akamatsu in1935.
  • 2 Hawks and owls are about the only predators geese need to worry about.
  • 3 Gilpin, R. (1981). War and change in international politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • 4 Kennedy, P. (1987). The rise and fall of the great powers. New York: Random House.
  • 5 "China’s Rise and Martime Concerns in East Asian Waters:a Perspective from ASEAN",GIARY "Political Integration and Identity" Seminar, Waseda University, November 2, 2010

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