China's leadership transition has the Asia-Pacific on edge
Beijing has plans for regional supremacy, whether its by peaceful means or not. Photo: Reuters
Now the US elections are over, Asia's attention is focused on China where a once-in-a decade leadership transition is underway.
Will it result in significant changes in policy that might make the rising giant of Asia more assertive in advancing its territorial sovereignty claims or more accommodating?
The answer affects the interests of two other major Asian powers, India and Japan. They have conflicting claims with China to large amounts of land and maritime territory respectively. Also directly affected are several south-east Asian countries that contest Beijing's sweeping assertion of control over much of the South China Sea in the maritime heart of south-east Asia.
Other interested parties with strong stakes in Asia-Pacific peace and stability include the US, ASEAN, South Korea and Australia.
The main political outcome in China has been prepared in advance.
As the new leader of the ruling Communist Party of China, Vice President Xi Jinping will take over as state President from Hu Jintao in March. However, he may have to wait longer before assuming the top job in the Central Military Commission, the party body that supervises China's armed forces.
Mr Xi will head a collective leadership with established policies. But if, as widely anticipated, he and his colleagues prioritise economic reform to ensure China grows fast enough and in a more equitable way, would it mean a more conciliatory approach to the territorial disputes that could erupt in conflict with neighbouring countries?
Mr Xi spoke recently about what many analysts see as the dilemma facing China over the seemingly contradictory strategies of sustained and rapid economic development on the one hand and an expansive foreign and military policy around China's periphery on the other.
At a China-ASEAN business and investment summit in Nanning on September 21, he noted the more progress China made in development and the closer its links with the region and the world, the more important it was for the country to have a stable regional and international environment.
Mr Xi declared that China would never seek hegemony or behave in a hegemonic manner.
However, he added: ''We are firm in safeguarding China's sovereignty, security and territorial integrity and are committed to resolving differences with neighbours concerning territorial land, territorial sea and maritime rights and interests peacefully through friendly negotiations.''
Elizabeth Economy, a China specialist at the US Council of Foreign Relations, wrote on November 8 that one of the great surprises in recent years has been the unravelling of Chinese foreign policy.
''After more than a decade of earning kudos for a relatively sophisticated and nuanced approach to the rest of the world, China has become the backyard bully of the Asia-Pacific,'' she said.
''It is a problem largely of China's own making, and includes: serious, occasionally violent, conflicts with the Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan; disaffection (with Chinese behaviour) in Canberra and Singapore; and a new degree of unpredictability in relations with previously stalwart supporters Burma/Myanmar and North Korea.''
Yet Beijing's entrenched view is that the territory it claims from neighbours was illegally taken from China when it was weak by stronger countries, mainly the US, Japan and European colonial powers. All it is doing, so the official line runs, is seeking to recover stolen property and valuable resources now it has the economic and military clout to do so.
In an article on November 2 in the People's Daily, published by the Chinese Communist Party, Wang Yusheng, Executive Director of the Strategic Research Centre at the China Institute of International Research, put it this way: ''The parties concerned know clearly that China advocates building a harmonious neighbourhood, but has inviolable ''red lines,'' he wrote.
''If necessary, it will resort to force after trying peaceful means.''
And to make it official, China's Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun, said: ''should anyone want to challenge China's bottom line on the issue of sovereignty, China will have no alternative but to respond forcefully so as to remove disturbance and obstacles, and move steadily on the path of peaceful development.''
What are these inviolable ''red lines'' or ''bottom lines?'' Chinese officials have referred to them as ''core interests'' of national sovereignty, the settlement of which can be delayed but never compromised?
This clearly has major implications for China-US relations and American engagement in Asia, where the US has alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia. Speaking on a visit to Washington in February, Mr Xi said history shows that ''when we properly handle each other's core and major interests, China-US relations will grow smoothly. Otherwise, they will be in trouble.''
He mentioned only three issues in the context of this reference to Chinese ''core interests:'' Taiwan, Tibet and Tibet-related issues.
The latter concerns some Indian analysts because it suggests China now regards recovery of the disputed north-east Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing calls southern Tibet, as a vital interest.
China's muscle-flexing over the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea with Japan, and in the South China Sea with the Philippines and Vietnam has set alarm bells ringing in south-east Asia, the US and Australia about the evident extension of China's core sovereignty interests into those areas as well.
Major non-Chinese players in Asia and the Pacific await clarification from the Xi leadership about the application of China's core interest doctrine. The signs so far are that assertiveness will prevail.
With the US and Japan in economic decline, China appears confident it will gain Asia-Pacific primacy, with or without a fight.
If that is to be so, forget any power-sharing between China and the US in the region. Dominant power and influence will be wielded by China.
The writer is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.