What's in a Motto?


Jun 24, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in South China Morning Post on June 24, 2004.

The mainland recently conducted a quiet but important policy debate over the country's strategic direction in global affairs. In newspapers, magazines and internal papers, mainland officials and scholars argued whether the concept of "China's peaceful rise" should be adopted as the motto for its rapidly expanding role in international politics. This debate is a reminder of China's effort to shape external perceptions, as its power and influence expand.

Beginning late last year, senior Chinese leaders and prominent analysts began promoting the notion of "peaceful rise" as the new pathway and the strategic choice for China in the coming decades.

Recognising that China's expanding international influence is generating concern among major powers and other Asian nations alike, Chinese leaders have begun pitching this concept to the world.

"Peaceful rise" is China's way of acknowledging the historical problems associated with being a rising power, and signalling to the world that Beijing seeks to manage this process to prevent conflict.

In many ways, the promotion of this idea is Beijing's long-delayed answer to the "China threat" debate. Following Premier Wen Jiabao's first use of the term at a speech at Harvard University last December, the phrase rapidly became part of the new Chinese lexicon for talking about the nation's evolving role in world affairs.

Unlike in past years, when the Communist Party was the dominant force in foreign-policy discourse, "peaceful rise" did not automatically enter China's vaunted orthodoxy of foreign-policy expressions, such as "peace and development" and "one country, two systems".

Many Chinese scholars and analysts questioned the meaning and accuracy of the new expression. International observers have also begun to notice some of its weaknesses, such as its unclear and potentially contradictory treatment of the Taiwan issue.

China's internal debate centered on a few arguments. Some argued it was too early to talk about rising - a far too optimistic characterisation of China's current socio-economic evolution, in their view.

Others objected to the use of "rise", because it connotes a China-led power transition in the region, and possibly the emergence of a new power centre in Asia. Such terminology would do little to assuage the concerns of neighbouring nations.

Furthermore, a small but vocal minority opposed China's commitment to a rise that is peaceful. This group -more than just the military - argued that committing to a peaceful rise could undermine China's ability to deter Taiwan from moving towards formal, legal separation from the mainland.

Last month, a turning point occurred in the debate on peaceful rise. During a speech at the Boao Forum for Asia held on Hainan Island - China's version of the annual World Economic Forum - President Hu Jintao used the expression "peaceful development" to refer to China's external strategy. Mr Hu's non-use of the term "rise" indicates his agreement with analysts who favoured a less confrontational phrase.

The future evolution of China's new external strategy of peaceful rise is unclear.

It reflects an encouraging recognition by Chinese policymakers that they need to define how China will use its expanding global influence in ways conducive to regional and global stability. Whether Chinese leaders can translate this new expression into tangible policies, and deeds of reassurance, remains an open question.

Evan Medeiros is a political scientist in the Washington office of the RAND Corporation, a non-profit research organization.

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