Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the prestigious Australian National University, is reportedly of the view that the 21st century belongs to China, considering that it’s projected economic output will far outstrip that of the United States at $42 trillion for China to $24 trillion for the United States by about 2030. Whether or not this will eventuate is difficult to say because there are a number of variables in play, as we shall see later. However, there is no doubt that under President Xi Jinping, who was recently anointed the country’s supreme leader for an indefinite period, China has decided to march forward to what, it might consider, its destiny as the old Middle Kingdom. Its ambitious One Belt, One Road project appears to interconnect the world with and from China in all directions. And in South China Sea, it has virtually served notice to the world that it is already virtually its own lake. It is true that the US is challenging this by occasional naval and aerial patrols, but China is now in actual control with a wide array of military facilities and weaponry. And some of the regional countries, even with their own sovereignty claims over some of the South China Sea islands, seem to be adjusting to the realities of the situation. But they are not happy with the situation. Malaysia, under its new government, is an apt example. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has sought to express this discontent by dissociating from his predecessor’s cozying up with China. He has done this at two levels. First, he has suspended themulti-billion dollars projects to be built with Chinese assistance, apparently as part of China’s One Belt, One Road project. These projects involved two energy pipelines and a rail project along peninsular Malaysia’s eastern coast. Malaysia however is not keen to enter into a debt trap. At another level, Mahathir has urged China to respect the free movement of ships throughout the South China Sea. He has cautioned against further militarizing the contested waters by permanently stationing warships. To quote Mahathir, “We are all for ships, even warships, passing through, but not stationed here [in South China Sea]. It is a warning to everyone. Don’t create tension unnecessarily.” As China is emerging as a pre-eminent regional power with tremendous economic and military clout, it is not a good sign that two of its neighbours — Malaysia and the Philippines — have publicly voiced their concern And Mahathir is not alone. The Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte, under whom the country had made peace with China by going quiet on his country’s sovereignty claims despite a ruling in its favour by an international tribune, has also expressed concerns about China’s activities. He reportedly said in a recent speech that China’s claim to airspace above newly built islands and surrounding waters in the disputed South China Sea “is wrong.” He added, ‘That it is wrong because those waters are what we consider international sea [where] the right of innocent passage is guaranteed. Nobody needs any permission to sail through the open seas.’ He expressed the hope that “China would temper…its behaviour” lest “one of these days a hothead commander there will just press a trigger.” Mahathir and Duterte have both been careful not to confront China. Indeed both have sought economic cooperation with China. Duterte praised China for its readiness to provide help, apparently referring to help economically. At the same time, Mahathir has been visiting China to explore avenues for economic cooperation. But by being critical of China in some ways, they seem to have broken a regional taboo. China is said to have transformed seven disputed reefs into islands using dredged sand and is claiming sovereignty over surrounding waters and space, and the Philippines patrols have been warned off the area for “endangering the security of the Chinese reef.” The Filipino air force plane was told to, “Leave immediately and to keep off to avoid misunderstanding.” Even when China is emerging as the pre-eminent regional power, with tremendous economic and military clout to punish regional neighbours that might create trouble, it is not a good sign that two of them, Malaysia and the Philippines, have publicly voiced their concern. And if this gathers momentum, China might need to consider if there is an overreach in its policy to turn the South China Sea into its private lake. At home, China is facing difficulties created by its large internal economic debt, estimated to be 250 per cent of its GDP, and pressures from the tit-for-tat tariffs between the US and China. Politically too, an online essay by XuZhangrun, a law professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, has delivered a critical broadside over the country’s direction. Xu reportedly wrote, “People nationwide, including the entire bureaucratic elite, feel once more lost in uncertainty about the direction of the country and about their own personal security, and the rising anxiety has spread into a degree of panic throughout society.” Xu, who has a PhD from the University of Melbourne and is a visiting senior research fellow at its Asian Law Centre, reportedly urged Chinese lawmakers to reverse the vote in March that abolished a two-term limit on Xi’s presidency. At the same time, China is facing international criticism over the treatment of its Uighurs Muslim population in the Xinjiang region. It has, though, rejected allegations raised by a United Nations panel that as many as 1 million Uighurs may be held in internment camps in its Xinjiang region. To add to all this, the much promoted One Belt, One Road project is likely to run into problems with recipient countries owing huge debts they might not be able to service, with China acquiring all those foreign assets with all sorts of problems. Could it be that China is doing too many things at the same time, creating more problems than solutions? The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia Published in Daily Times, August 27th 2018.