Written by Harsh V. Pant.

As India and China came eyeball to eyeball over their disputed Himalayan border ahead of a visit to New Delhi later this month by the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, China’s larger foreign policy behaviour has been coming under global scrutiny. It is not only Delhi that has been the target but a range of neighbours have become part of China’s new strategy of asserting itself in its periphery. China is involved in an increasingly bitter stand-off with Japan over the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China, which lie atop of possibly large energy reserves. According to Japanese media reports, Chinese military planes, mostly fighter jets, made more than 40 flights close to Tokyo-controlled islands on a single day recently. In response, fighter planes from an airbase on the Japanese island of Okinawa scrambled to intercept the Chinese aircraft which flew in waves towards the islands.

China has been virtually occupying Panatag shoal (Scarborough Shoal) since last year after President Benigno Aquino III of the Philippines ordered the withdrawal of the country’s vessels following a tense standoff triggered by the apprehension of Chinese fishermen and seizure of their fishing vessels by the passing Philippine Navy flagship while conducting illegal poaching and illegal fishing activities in the area last year. Chinese surveillance ships deployed within the Philippines’ Panatag Shoal have now started imposing a 15-mile fishing restriction around the contested area.

The Chinese military was forced to admit in March that one of its ships fired at a Vietnamese fishing boat near the disputed Paracel Islands after chasing the vessel, although it insisted that only flares were shot. China also sent a naval flotilla at the southern tip of China’s expansive “nine-dashed line”, angering Brunei and Malaysia as they too have claims there.

In response, Southeast Asian nations have stepped up efforts to engage China in talks to resolve maritime tensions, agreeing to meet to try to reach common ground on disputed waters ahead of planned discussions in Beijing later this year.

After suggesting that their nation intends to rise peacefully, Chinese political leaders are finding it hard to maintain that pretence. The myth of China’s peaceful rise is being challenged by China’s own actions as it expands its interests and asserts its power in the neighborhood. Chinese restrictions on exports of crucial ‘rare earth’ minerals, first to Japan and then to the US and Europe in 2010, underscored for its trading partners China’s propensity to use its dominant economic position as a political weapon. Complaints about China’s undervalued currency have only grown louder. China’s lack of democracy is also emerging as a major concern. China is the only non-democratic power of the world’s six biggest powers and that will have profound consequences for the way other powers view China’s rise.

Meanwhile, China’s neighbors are busy rejuvenating old alliances and reaching out to new partners to better defend their interests against the rising great power in their vicinity. Changing perceptions of China’s rise were clearly articulated by Yoichi Funabashi, Japan’s most important foreign affairs commentator, when in a letter sent to his high-ranking friends in China in response to Sino-Japanese tensions in 2010, he suggested that if China continued to undermine its “peaceful rise” doctrine, then “Japan would discard its naïveté, lower its expectations, acquire needed insurance and, in some cases, cut its losses.” In a way, he summed up the fundamental challenge that China faces as it continues its ascent in the global inter-state hierarchy.

China’s rise in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century is a return to the status it held for most of the past 2000 years, as East Asia’s economic and military giant as well as the center of high-technology and culture. It should not be surprising then that Beijing has started dictating the boundaries of acceptable behavior to its neighbors and laid bare the costs of great power politics.

The rise of China is now a structural reality that other states in the international system are trying to come to grips with. For its part, China is merely following in the footsteps of other major global powers who have asserted themselves abroad more forcefully in order to secure their interests as their economic and military capabilities increase. There is only one kind of great power, and one kind of great power tradition. China is not going to be any different. A superpower is a superpower, and it is time to shed the sophomoric naivety behind the mistaken belief that China’s ascent to power will be any different; power is necessarily expansionist. The sooner the world acknowledges this, the better it will be for global stability.

This also applies to India. A stable foundation for the future of Sino-Indian relations cannot be laid by feigning total ignorance of Chinese activities that have adversely affected Indian national interests in the past. Pranab Mukherjee, India’s former external affairs minister and now the nation’s President, had suggested that ‘we [Indians] would need to develop more sophisticated ways of dealing with these new challenges posed by China . . . as China seeks to further her interests more aggressively than in the past.’ Yet being the quintessential argumentative nation, it’s talking that India does best while China can go ahead and accomplish the tasks at hand. China can run rings around India because half of the Indian political leadership has lost its intelligence and the other half has lost its nerve.

The idea—that many in India share—that only if India provokes China would China threaten India, is fundamentally flawed. Given the rapidity of China’s rise, it is beyond Indian hands to shape the future of Sino-Indian relations. China will react to its own strategic environment and if it finds that it is not commensurate with its rising prowess, it will feel provoked. India’s weakness, in that case, would do more harm than good and China will continue to needle India on the boundary and elsewhere.

Harsh V. Pant is Reader in International Relations, Department of Defence Studies, King’s College London.

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