China started to focus on economic and military modernization programs in the late 1970s. This modernization has elevated China's profile at both the regional and global levels.
The rise of China can be seen since the launch of the Fourth Modernization program in 1978, and specifically in the late 1980s and 1990s. The rise of China has also become one of the major issues in the new dynamics of contemporary international relations.
There are of course many questions that can be raised in determining and assessing the scope, significance and implication of this development in the near future. Will China continue its peaceful rise and to what extent will this have any impact on the region?
Many countries have paid much attention to the rise of China and its possible impacts both at the regional and global levels.
The United States has particularly expressed its concern by saying the rise of China will "pose the greatest uncertainty" at the global level. While the Council of Foreign Relations has stated that "China poses significant economic, military and political challenges for the U.S. and for the nations of Southeast Asia".
The above statements clearly show that the U.S. perceives China as a potential threat to its national security. Further, the U.S. is very concerned about the possible challenge from China to its regional hegemony. However, is it correct that China is a potential threat to Southeast Asian countries?
Taken individually, Southeast Asian countries have varying perceptions of the possibility of China as a threat in the region. Yet, China still has existing territorial disputes with several countries in the region, namely Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam over the South China Sea. China also has overlapping territorial claims with Indonesia in the Natuna Islands. The South China Sea disputes continue to serve as a potential major flash-point in China-Southeast Asian relations.
However, Southeast Asian countries, taken as a whole, perceive the rise of China as a great opportunity rather than as a serious threat. In economic relations, China and ASEAN can become "partners in competition". There is also a widespread perception in the region that "China will be the new engine of growth for the entire region". Trade between ASEAN countries and China will be more significant and it will see ASEAN trade more with China than with the U.S. or the EU. In other words, Southeast Asia will become more dependent on China.
There are of course some options that ASEAN has in dealing with China. In short, ASEAN must take some issues into consideration in further engaging China in the region, as follows: Southeast Asia must learn to see China as a rich source of opportunity rather than merely as a potential threat. One of the possible opportunities is to boost the level of defense cooperation with China. This was quite obviously the main topic of discussion during the recent visit of China's defense minister to Indonesia.
There is also a need to create a stable balance in the Asia-Pacific region. This is no longer a balance of power in the traditional sense, but a balance of legitimate interests more in keeping with realities of interdependence. China must be comprehensively engaged, not militarily but in diplomatic, political, economic, functional, social, cultural intercourse; and not just by the U.S., but more importantly by Southeast Asian countries.
The creation of a new post-Cold War architecture or arrangements for international, economic and political relations must involve China, without necessarily revolving around it.
By engaging China in many aspects of regional cooperation, we can at least be sure that we can reduce the level of uncertainty in the region, which can be useful for further regional cooperation in this new era of international relations.
The writer is a Professor of International Relations, Parahyangan Catholic University, Bandung.