Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Trickle-Down Hegemony? China's "Peaceful Rise" and Dam Building on the Mekong

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Trickle-Down Hegemony? China's "Peaceful Rise" and Dam Building on the Mekong

Article excerpt


After its rise, will China display restrained or self-interest maximizing behaviour toward its neighbours? This question is at the heart of the propaganda line that was espoused by the Chinese leadership from 2003 until mid-2004: the theory of China's "peaceful rise" (helping jueqi). The government, anxious that smaller states on its periphery will react negatively to growing Chinese economic and military power, built a new line out of old themes, stressing that China's rise will not turn it into an aggressive hegemon who uses its power strictly to maximize its own interests. Instead, all nations will benefit in the "win-win" situation created by the Middle Kingdom's new power. While the actual term "peaceful rise" appears to have been shelved, the basic themes it encompasses have not: China continues to portray itself as a status quo power whose increasing stature will not negatively affect those around it. Nor does the apparent disappearance of the term "peaceful rise" itself diminish the importance of the analytical question: namely, how will China act towards its neighbours as it gains more power?

This article asks: how can we know whether Chinese protestations of its "peaceful rise" are more than just empty words? How can we know whether China will help its neighbours, or is actually a wolf in sheep's clothing, luring its neighbours into complacency or working them into relationships in which China is the principal beneficiary ("playing possum", in the words of one China expert)? This article suggests a framework for evaluating Chinese behaviour. Clearly, there is a need to look not only at Chinese words, but also at their actions. But which actions? This essay argues that some issue areas will prove more illuminating about future Chinese behaviour than others. After laying out the framework, it focuses on one under-studied issue in China's multilateral relationship with ASEAN countries: agreements (or lack thereof) to manage the Mekong's water resources. China's relationship with Southeast Asia is chosen principally because some analysts have asserted that China's new multilateral diplomacy and "charm offensive" (see Medeiros and Fravel 2003; Beeson 2003; Stubbs 2002) are succeeding in drawing Southeast Asia into a proto-Chinese sphere of influence. Therefore, the purpose of this article is both to lay out a framework for assessing Chinese actions as well as to call attention to an important issue often below the radar of Western experts on Asian security.

The Theory of the "Peaceful Rise"

From 2003-2004, Chinese government officials, academics, and the press promoted a new propaganda term: China's "peaceful rise". The theory was formulated explicitly to reassure countries, particularly smaller ones on its periphery, that China's increasing economic and military power will not pose a threat to them. Zheng Bijian, the dean of the influential Central Party School, agreed with an interviewer's assessment that "the concept of a 'peaceful rise' initiated by China has forcefully addresses [sic] 'the China threat theory' and the 'China collapse theory' and also allows China's neighbouring countries and various countries in the world to feel more relief". (1) While the term "peaceful rise" itself is apparently no longer in vogue, the basic ideas it encompasses continue to reflect the image China wants to project to its neighbours. Indeed, the "peaceful rise" theory itself was not particularly new, but rather a slightly extended version of Deng Xiaoping's "peace and development" line, The theory has three key points.

The first point amounts to not much more than a restatement of the standard "peace and development" line. Zheng Bijian writes that China is "both striving for a peaceful international environment in which to develop ... and also to safeguard world peace through China's development". (2) The key problems China faces are domestic, and the answer to these problems is the development of the economy. …

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