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The Chinese Are Coming!

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
Chinese paramilitary forces doing drills outside the venue of Bob Dylan’s first concert in the country, which was taking place the next day, Beijing, April 5, 2011

As part of a military build-up that has seen large annual increases in expenditures for the past twenty years, China has built a “constellation of reconnaissance, communication, and navigation satellites that permit it” to hit targets “anywhere in East Asia.” It can track enemy surface ships hundreds of miles out to sea and is installing underwater listening devices capable of tracking American submarines. Its network of medium-range ballistic missiles “will soon give it the option of hitting every major American and allied base in the region with warheads.”

China is also set to deploy land-based anti-ship ballistic missiles that could use space-based tracking systems to hit aircraft carriers—“the tip of the spear of America’s unique ability to project power”—even hundreds of miles from China’s coast. These anti-ship missiles, Friedberg argues, would be a “‘game-changer’…fundamentally altering the balance of power in the Western Pacific.”

China of course began its military modernization from a position very far behind the United States; ten or fifteen years ago, almost all military analysts were derisive about China’s military strength. As recently as six years ago, Robert Ross, in a study of China’s security needs, analyzed whether recent Chinese modernization involved any basic strategic change with respect to the United States, and his answer was a resounding “no.” The consequences of any actual combat between China and the United States, he concluded, would be “devastating” for China, which would lose its entire surface fleet, suffer irreparable economic harm, and lose its access to Western technology. The inevitable loss of a war with the United States would, in addition, be such a blow to the standing of the ruling party that it could well collapse.2

Moreover, the United States is highly unlikely to be unresponsive to China’s looming naval strength. Friedberg reports, for example, that the Obama administration has for some time adopted policies aimed at “balancing” the growth of Chinese power; it is reinforcing military cooperation with other Asian countries, including Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam, as well as deploying more long-range attack submarines in the Western Pacific and enhancing cyber-war techniques.

Indeed, the irony is that since his book was written, the current Democratic administration has undertaken the tougher line on China that Friedberg recommends. In November, President Obama announced that the United States would station 2,500 troops in northern Australia, a move that aroused an irritated response in Beijing. He sent Hillary Clinton to Burma to encourage that country’s modest steps toward freedom and away from being a vassal of Beijing. And during a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Indonesia in November, the United States was among sixteen of the eighteen countries present that voiced criticism of China’s way of handling the South China Sea dispute.3

Still, China is much stronger and much richer than it was before, and, given its growing economic power, it is going to continue getting stronger. This will mean ever greater costs for the United States in both money and political will if it is to maintain its military superiority and to avert what Friedberg thinks would be ruinous: a quiet withdrawal as the great power in Asia. If, as Friedberg asserts, China’s goal is “to displace the United States as the dominant player in East Asia, and perhaps to extrude it from the region altogether,” a world-class naval arsenal would be a very useful instrument.

But is China’s goal really to exclude American power from the region, or is it something more modest than that? In fact, questions can be raised about Friedberg’s thesis at every turn, and no doubt will be by Friedberg’s rivals in the pro-engagement camp of China experts. Certainly one major counterargument is that while China has grown at an astonishing rate and become more powerful in the past twenty years, it faces domestic problems of such magnitude as to render virtually ridiculous the idea that it has global ambitions or that it can achieve them.

This view has changed somewhat, though not fully in the direction of Friedberg’s arguments. In a much-noted article at the end of 2010, for example, Elizabeth Economy, a senior China analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote that China has relinquished its foreign policy pose of “hide brightness; cherish obscurity,” in favor of a far more aggressive and worrisome “‘go out’ strategy designed to remake global norms and institutions” and to advance its interests more boldly and aggressively than ever before.4

But Economy and others have also measured the staggering costs of China’s growth as well as the equally extraordinary scope of what it plans for the future, whether its high-speed train network or the proposed channel to transport water the thousand miles or so from the Yangtze River to the Beijing-Tianjin megalopolis. On the cost side are ruinous pollution, corruption that extends into every aspect of personal and national life, and very widespread social dissatisfaction stemming both from the pollution and the corruption.

These costs of development have provoked levels of social discontent that seem unprecedented even in a country that half a century ago experienced the largest famine in human history. China officially admits to some 90,000 protest demonstrations taking place across the country every year, which is close to 250 per day. No doubt some are quite small but they are increasing. In a recent talk at the National Committee on United States–China Relations in New York, Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, cited a series of internal social surveys conducted in the past year in China showing “that economic growth is no longer cutting it.” Formerly, he said, the government was able to assume that as long as it was able to engineer steady increases in China’s GDP, the ills of corruption and pollution would be accepted as part of the cost of the general welfare. But now, he said, “people are growing angrier at the government and losing trust in the government…and [the government] doesn’t know what to do about it.”

Of course, what China’s leaders have done, especially in the wake of the Arab revolt, is step up the country’s already high level of political repression, and this is a reminder of Friedberg’s root assumption that the present and future “contest for supremacy” with China lies in its authoritarian ideology and in the perception of China’s leaders that the United States is out to overthrow them. “As seen from Beijing,” Friedberg writes, “the United States is a dangerous, crusading liberal quasi-imperialist power that will not rest until it imposes its views and its way of life on the entire planet.”

No doubt China’s leaders are mightily annoyed by the moralistic imperialism of the United States. Whether they actually see it as the sort of existential threat suggested by Friedberg is highly questionable. Friedberg’s stress on American hostility to China’s police state is in this sense puzzling. Paradoxically, it seems to put him into the camp of his policy rivals, the advocates of more engagement and less complaint about human rights who do not believe that there is a genuine strategic conflict between China and the United States. The logical implication of Friedberg’s argument would seem to be that the “contest for supremacy” is a product of the American tendency to engage in “subversion in a suitcase” and not of some intrinsic great-power conflict, which, of course, is exactly what some members of the engagement camp as well as writers like Wu Xinbo have been arguing. This is probably not Friedberg’s intended implication, and yet the lack of clarity on this point is a puzzling weakness in his book.

In many ways indeed it would be reassuring if the greatest danger of conflict between China and the United States did derive from China’s authoritarian nature, rather than from an intrinsic and unavoidable conflict of practical interests, a possible territorial clash, or some Chinese move to dominate or intimidate other countries in the region, thereby prompting an American response. Friedberg gives some consideration to the possibility that if China were to be more democratic, things might actually be worse for the United States. A more democratic China would be less able to restrain public tendencies toward a kind of aggrieved nationalism, with their components of anti-American and anti-Japanese sentiment. In addition, as some China experts have written, even if China were to become, miraculously, a liberal democracy, it wouldn’t relinquish the strategic interests it has in such areas as Tibet, Xinjiang, and even the South China Sea.5

The military buildup that worries Friedberg would surely be taking place even if the United States did not hector China on human rights, since it is aimed at achieving several goals, including keeping Taiwan from declaring independence, intimidating Japan, and protecting its access to natural resources. China’s keen interest in atolls and islands much closer to the Philippines and to Vietnam than to China itself derives from the 28 billion barrels of crude oil that the US Geological Survey has estimated lie under the waters near them, in addition to large deposits of natural gas. Likewise, China’s reluctance to impose sanctions on Iran or Sudan and the red carpet it rolls out for the unsavory likes of Omar al-Bashir are related to its ravenous appetite for oil and other raw materials to fuel its growth, a need it would have no matter what form its government took.

Still, Friedberg is surely right that a rising dictatorial power is almost inevitably more dangerous and more difficult to deal with than a rising democratic one. And that raises the question whether China might yet move away from the Leninist party-state toward something less authoritarian, which, in Friedberg’s scheme of things, would change everything. He offers very little hope of this happening, arguing that the ruling party is a vast, multi-armed organization, with numerous means of keeping a tight grip on power and many reasons not to loosen it. Friedberg concludes that despite years of predictions that economic growth would lead to political reform, the one-party state in China is there to stay. Certainly China’s leaders will deploy their vast resources of police power, censorship, and propaganda to assure that it is.

Friedberg may be right about this, but he may also be overly pessimistic. China Daily may rail against “the arrogant tendency” of the United States “to act as self-appointed guardians of human rights in other parts of the world,” but the very strenuousness of the regime’s efforts to try to stamp out dissenting views on human rights is a recognition that there is a constituency for these views. When the now imprisoned Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo circulated his Charter 08 petition calling for multiparty democracy, the document was signed in a rather short time by some 10,000 people, including some officials, which is no doubt one reason why Liu was imprisoned for “inciting state subversion.” Elizabeth Economy points out that the future urban culture of China, like urban cultures everywhere, will be likely to yearn more for intellectual and cultural freedom than China’s shrinking rural society. Neither Economy nor Friedberg can be confident that this will or will not occur, but it would also be wrong to rule it out.

  1. 2

    Robert S. Ross, “Assessing the China Threat,” The National Interest, Fall 2005. 

  2. 3

    Jackie Calmes, “Obama and Asian Leaders Confront China’s Premier,” The New York Times, November 19, 2011. 

  3. 4

    Elizabeth C. Economy, “The Game Changer: Coping with China’s Foreign Policy Revolution,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2010. 

  4. 5

    See Andrew J. Nathan, “The Great Debate,” nationalinterest.org, June 22, 2011. 

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