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The Chinese Are Coming!

A ceremony in Sichuan Province, China, sending off an engineer battalion of the People’s Liberation Army on a peacekeeping mission to Lebanon, January 2011

The day after the Russian parliamentary elections in early December, the Chinese publication Global Times, an English-language newspaper and website managed by People’s Daily, the official organ of the Communist Party official, ran an editorial on how little credit the West gave to Vladimir Putin’s Russia for becoming a democratic country. “Russia’s transition to democracy has cost it dearly,” the editorial said, attributing a lot of Russia’s problems, including its failure to achieve prosperity and its “brutal wars” in Chechnya, to its adoption of a “Western-style election with a multi-party system.” The lesson is clear. China shouldn’t make the same mistake of trying to curry favor with the West by becoming a multiparty democracy itself. “The West doesn’t really have an interest in promoting democracy to the world,” the editorial avers. “Its scheme is to expand its interests hidden behind that process.”1

It doesn’t take a very deep survey of the Chinese press to find the theme that the real goal of American policy toward China, and in particular its criticism of the country for such matters as the imprisonment of dissidents, is a subversive one—to undermine the legitimacy of the ruling authorities, and thereby to obstruct China’s rise to great-power status. Last June, to give another example, China Daily, another English-language newspaper reflecting what China would like foreigners to read about it, carried an editorial entitled “Subversion in a Suitcase,” which held that the United States is creating “secretive cell phone networks” to help people circumvent government control of their electronic communications, an effort framed as support of “free speech and human rights” but whose real purpose is to help opposition forces “overthrow their legitimate governments,” thereby enabling the United States to “maintain…global dominance.”

The Chinese interpretation of American behavior may seem defensive and a touch paranoid, but there’s more than a grain of truth to the main point. After all, the long history of American criticism of China for human rights violations and its implied wish for China to become democratic amount to a demand that the country’s leaders give up their monopoly on political power, which, in their view, is akin to wishing for regime change.

This has frequently produced a certain amount of tension in the Chinese–American relationship, though rarely has the level of distrust seemed quite as high as it has in the past few months, as the United States and some other countries have observed that China is in the midst of one of the harshest repressions of domestic dissent in its recent history. It has also engaged in unusually bellicose behavior in the territorial and other disputes it has with other Asian countries, including American allies like Japan and the Philippines. For example, it has declared the entire South China Sea, one of the most important shipping lanes in the world, to be one of its “core interests.”

At the same time, China has been the main protector of regimes now under sanctions by the United States and the West, whether Iran, Sudan, or Zimbabwe, even as it has courted foreign leaders who have been branded as pariahs. At the end of this past June it accorded a warm welcome to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, even though Bashir has been indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, which wants him arrested.

The view has emerged among American commentators that China’s growing self-confidence, sustained in part by its emerging largely unscathed from the financial crisis of 2008, has made its leaders more certain of the path they’ve chosen for China, including its one-party system, and more defiant and publicly angry over criticism than they have been in the past. The solution to the mood of mutual animosity, according to Chinese commentators, is relatively simple. It’s for the United States to stop acting to impede the country’s “peaceful rise” to great-power status. As Wu Xinbo, the deputy director of the Center for American Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University, wrote in June, “If the United States eases its policies toward China’s core interests, this could, in turn, encourage China to respect US core interests and foster cooperation as China’s material power and international influence are both growing.”

Many China experts in this country would more or less agree with that statement. Certainly it has been a strongly held view among some prominent American China experts that carping about human rights and about China’s domestic policies has chilled the atmosphere even as it has failed to help the victims of Chinese repression. These experts have tended also to be dismissive of what has come to be called the “China threat theory,” the notion that as China grows in power it will inevitably challenge American supremacy in Asia; that notion, they say, is panicky and overwrought, reflecting a false cold war analogy. China, after all, unlike the former Soviet Union, is not a missionary power eager to spread its ideology to other countries. It doesn’t arm rebels striving to overthrow pro-Western governments. It is an economic success and it wants to stay that way, in part by avoiding a conflict with the United States. In other words, China’s rise is a big event in world history, but the United States has no real strategic conflict with it and while it may be prickly and uncooperative at times, there’s no reason for either country to see the other as an enemy.

Is that view still tenable, if it ever was, or does China’s recent behavior signal a definitive departure from a sometimes contentious but essentially cooperative relationship with the United States to one of real enmity? In A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia, Aaron L. Friedberg provides the most informed, cogent, and well-developed warning of the Chinese threat that I have seen. Friedberg is a former adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney and now a professor at Princeton recently appointed to Mitt Romney’s foreign policy team, focusing on Asia and the Pacific. He says that he is not a “card-carrying member of the China-watching fraternity,” which he believes to be guilty of a certain complacent optimism regarding China, a tendency to take its soft and reassuring rhetoric about its “peaceful rise” at face value. Friedberg’s view is this: “The United States and the People’s Republic of China are today locked in a quiet but increasingly intense struggle for power and influence, not only in Asia but around the world.”

It is a contest, moreover, that “we are on track to lose.” Because of China’s naval and missile development, in particular, Friedberg says, “the military balance in the Western Pacific is going to start to tilt sharply in China’s favor.” This would make it more difficult for the United States to extend its security guarantees to Japan, Korea, and other US allies. That in turn could lead to a “bandwagoning” effect in China’s favor such that eventually we too “would likely feel compelled to seek an accommodation with China and to acknowledge it as the preponderant regional power.”

This is a threatening development, Friedberg argues, somewhat abstractly, because it has always been an axiom of American foreign policy “to prevent the domination of either end of the Eurasian landmass by one or more potentially hostile powers,” which could deny the United States “access to markets, technology, and vital resources.” Why is China a potentially hostile power? Friedberg’s answer to that question gets to the crux of his thesis. It is China’s status as an opaque, secretive, corrupt, self-perpetuating, one-party state that makes it a danger to the United States, and vice versa. “The United States,” Friedberg writes,

aims to promote “regime change” in China, nudging it away from authoritarianism and toward liberal democracy, albeit by peaceful, gradual means…. It is largely because [China’s leaders] see the United States as the most serious external threat to their continued rule that they feel the need to constrict its military presence and diplomatic influence in the Western Pacific, pushing it back and ultimately displacing it as the preponderant power in East Asia.

Friedberg’s corollary assumption is that if China did become more democratic, then the contest for supremacy very likely wouldn’t take place. A democratic China, he says,

would certainly seek a leading role in its region…. But it would be less fearful of internal instability, less threatened by the presence of strong democratic neighbors, and less prone to seek validation at home through the domination and subordination of others.

China, of course, would strenuously deny any intention of dominating and subordinating other states—Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan being, in its fiercely held view, parts of historic China. And indeed, contrary to Friedberg’s vision of things, China, with the important exception of the islands and atolls of the East and South China Seas and some minor areas on its Indian frontier, does not have any territorial quarrels with other countries and no discernible ambition to expand its own boundaries.

Over what particular issue then would Friedberg’s contest for supremacy be waged? A decade and a half ago the answer to that question among the theorists emphasizing a Chinese threat was Taiwan, where pro-independence forces seemed poised to take power, while China carried out missile-firing exercises off the island’s coast in an attempt to intimidate them. (The pro-independence party won Taiwan’s presidential elections in 2000 and 2004 but made no formal effort to split from the mainland.) China continues to build up an enormous arsenal of mobile medium-range missiles pointed at Taiwan, which is a powerful reminder that the island could be obliterated if it defies Beijing’s wishes. But in recent years, Taiwan’s pro-independence forces have been voted out, even as a thriving and multifarious economic relationship with China has continued to grow. A war over Taiwan seems less likely now than at any time since the Communists came to power sixty-two years ago.

A more likely area of contention now is the South China Sea, where China has two goals: one, to safeguard the sea lanes, which, from its point of view, could be threatened because of Beijing’s tense relations with nearby countries like Vietnam and the Philippines, and two, to gain control of reefs, atolls, and islands claimed by several Southeast Asian countries as well as China and presumed to be rich in oil and gas. Here is one region where the steady build-up of China’s navy is worrisome both to Friedberg, who describes it in considerable detail, and American military planners. In Friedberg’s view, China doesn’t aim to overtake the United States in naval prowess or to confront it directly, but to build its forces sufficiently to deny American forces access to regional waters in case of conflict. “Unless it acts soon to counter recent Chinese advances,” Friedberg writes, “the United States will find it increasingly dangerous in a future crisis to deploy its air and naval forces across a wide swath of the Western Pacific.”

  1. 1

    Russian Democracy Receives Little Applause,” Global Times, December 5, 2011. 

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