Stories about the “rise of China” were the most widely read news items of the twenty-first century, garnering more attention than 9/11, the Arab Spring, the death of Osama bin Laden, or the British Royal wedding. Yet while China’s opening in the 1970s was widely hailed in the United States, its rise since then has generated growing consternation. Today opinions range between nervous hope that everything will turn out all right to outright fear that things will be worse than we can possibly imagine.
Part of the fear stems from the fact that the U.S. and China are both literally and figuratively worlds apart, with vastly different political and cultural histories. For the U.S. the national story has always been about winning and safeguarding individual freedom. For China, the national story has always been about creating and maintaining collective stability—whether it was the success of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, in uniting warring territories and beginning the Great Wall in 221–210 BCE, Mao’s improbable and successful Communist revolution of 1949, or Deng Xiaoping’s crackdown on Tiananmen protesters in 1989. Political time runs in different increments, too. In the U.S., long-term thinking often means next year; in China, long-term more typically means decades or longer. While many young Americans have a hard time remembering the Cold War, their Chinese peers have a hard time forgetting the century of humiliation by the West that started in 1842. Even the same words mean different things. When U.S. officials first used the term “engagement” in diplomatic meetings with Chinese officials, the Chinese were said to be baffled about whether the Americans meant “marriage proposal” or “exchange of fire.” This is no “special relationship”, à la Great Britain. The Sino-American relationship was forged in the Cold War by hard-nosed realists on both sides who saw benefits to balancing against the Soviet Union, not shared interests or beliefs in democracy, capitalism, or universal values.
There is another explanation for why Americans should look warily at China’s rise, and it has to do with fundamental uncertainties about whether China will be a strong power or a fragile one.
From the outside, China’s rise provokes anxiety for three very good reasons—two that have to do with China and one that has to do with us. First, China’s economic development has fueled a dramatic military modernization campaign. The story of China’s economic miracle is widely known: In just 25 years, half a billion people were lifted out of poverty, making China the most successful development story in human history. In 1982, per capita GDP was just $200. In 2012, it hit $6,000.
What is less well-known outside the Beltway is just how much China has invested its newfound wealth into military capabilities. China now spends more on its military than any nation on earth except the United States. In 2012, the Economist forecasted that if trends continued, China would outspend the U.S. on defense by 2035. Starting in the 1990s, China embarked on a long-range, strategic modernization program focused on advanced weapons systems, improving information technology, developing a larger and more sophisticated navy, and improving training, education, and doctrine. Developments include advanced cyber capabilities and anti-ship missiles that are often referred to as “carrier killers.” To be sure, China is nowhere close to having a blue water navy that can rival that of the United States. China’s annual defense expenditures may have increased by double digits over the past two decades each year, but its defense budget is still less than 25 percent of U.S. military spending. Corruption in the PRC remains rampant, consuming what one well-respected Chinese military analyst estimated to be 40 percent of defense spending.1 And even with his consolidation of military power, President Xi Jinping faces an uphill battle to lessen the grip of the large and bureaucratically dominant People’s Liberation Army in order to foster the continued modernization and jointness of China’s navy, air, and land forces.
Nevertheless, when military capabilities increase dramatically, political ambitions usually are not far behind. Rising powers have historically sought greater control and power projection, and there is little reason to expect that China will behave any differently. For all the happy talk of China’s becoming a “responsible stakeholder” in the international order and the binding effects of the global economy and international regimes, the uncomfortable truth is that like all great powers, China will not be content to leave the international order alone. It will seek to uphold and shape laws, regimes, organizational arrangements, and norms that serve its own interests, and it will circumvent, disregard, or upend the ones that do not.
We are already seeing this dynamic unfold with internet governance and territorial claims in the Asia Pacific region. China has consistently opposed the U.S.-backed “global commons” model of internet governance, instead advocating the state’s sovereignty over the information flowing to and from its citizens. China’s vision, of course, legitimates state suppression of free speech internally—but many experts also believe it threatens the openness that is essential for the internet and the global economy. China’s view of internet governance has gained traction with Russia, India, Brazil, and others, particularly since Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s surveillance programs and efforts to undermine global encryption standards. Earlier this month China hosted its first United Nations international meeting to discuss cyber and information security. The future of internet governance remains very much in doubt.
China has also grown far more assertive in its own neighborhood during the past few years, claiming sovereignty over a large swath of islands, shoals, and waters in the South China Sea—disputed territories also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam—and over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are also claimed by Japan. China’s strategy has been to press legal claims in bilateral diplomatic negotiations while simultaneously leveraging its military superiority to assert de facto control of contested areas. Recent provocations include moving a billion-dollar oil rig just off the coast of Vietnam, ramming and sinking a Vietnamese ship near the rig, restricting Philippine access to the Scarborough Reef, and declaring an air defense zone in the East China Sea encompassing islands that both China and Japan claim. These and other recent territorial moves, which have been called “destabilizing” and “unilateral” by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, are designed to assert China’s power and diminish American influence in the region by sowing tension with key U.S. allies and testing American resolve.
The second reason Americans should be concerned is related to the first: how China and the United States define the status quo. As Karl Eikenberry has noted, in the long arc of history the “status quo” in the Asia Pacific region features a dominant China. Indeed, for 1,800 of the past 2,000 years, China has been the region’s major power. By contrast, U.S. regional dominance has lasted only the past sixty years. What looks like the status quo from Washington is an historical anomaly from Beijing’s perspective. The difference between de-stabilizing and re-stabilizing lies in the eyes of the beholder.
The third reason has to do with us and our national sense of decline. China appears to be peaking while the U.S. is sliding toward rock bottom, with unprecedented debt, partisanship, and gridlock in Washington. Recent data from the World Bank indicates that China will likely surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy sometime in the next year. Yet it is telling that most Americans thought this already happened three years ago. In 2013, for the first time in forty years of surveys, a majority of Americans said that the U.S. played a less important and less powerful role as a world leader than it did a decade ago. The view from here isn’t that China is rising; it’s that China is catching up and may soon leave us behind. And because power is the ability to get others to do what you want them to do, these kinds of perceptions matter.
The upshot is that from the outside, China’s rise does not look so peaceful or responsible when it comes to U.S. interests. China is spending its way to a modern military, developing sophisticated cyber warfare, theft, and espionage capabilities that give it asymmetric advantage as well as naval capabilities designed to deny American dominance in the Asia Pacific region. At the same time, China is flexing its diplomatic muscle to press claims internationally that serve its interests, insisting on the 9-dash line in the South China Sea and demanding the internet be governed as sovereign state territory rather than a global commons for free and unfettered trade, innovation, and transmission of ideas. These are not peripheral policy issues. Escalating tensions in the South and East China Seas run a serious risk of misperception, miscalculation, and military conflict that could quickly involve the United States. And challenging U.S. leadership over internet governance could ultimately threaten the dynamism of the global economic order. A strong China, in short, looks kind of scary.
Peering within, though, we see a fragile China. This is scary, too. China spends more money on its internal security than it does on defense. The regime, above all, has to worry about defending itself from its own people. As many have noted, China’s leadership faces a serious dilemma: If economic growth slows, its primary pillar of legitimacy may start to crumble. On the other hand, if growth continues, the political system will likely need to be reformed to deal with profound economic and social changes that include a rapidly aging population that is a ticking demographic time bomb; a severe inequality gap, particularly between rural and urban areas; rampant environmental degradation; widespread corruption; and weak central control over provincial and local governments. Today, already half a billion “netizens” are on the internet discussing topics that were unthinkable even a few years ago. Time, it appears, is not on the regime’s side.
What does all of this mean for U.S. foreign policy? Three things. First, American policymakers would be wise to anticipate the prospect of instability in China. China’s rise is less inevitable than it appears, and the Chinese Communist Party’s stability is more tenuous than it seems. China’s domestic weakness could ultimately prove more destabilizing and dangerous externally than its current strength; the tried and true strategy to shore up support at home is to stoke nationalism by demonizing and engaging enemies abroad. Vladimir Putin’s recent moves in Ukraine illustrate all too well the risks of this dangerous mix of domestic politics and foreign policy, and the difficulty of inoculating even nascent democratic societies from its effects. In particular, if China’s rise sputters, territorial disputes over who has sovereignty in the East and South China Seas are likely to grow worse, not better. And that’s to say nothing of the future of Taiwan.
Second, it’s not at all obvious that a democratic China would be more stable or pursue policies more aligned with U.S. interests than the current regime. Indeed, the aftermath of the Arab spring and Burma’s opening suggests that democratic transitions are not so pretty, fast, or irreversible. And developments in Afghanistan and Iraq remind us that democratic regimes often are not oriented toward furthering American interests, even when Americans risk substantial blood and treasure to create and support them.
Third, America’s Asia Pacific strategy needs a reboot to focus more on aggressive diplomatic and economic efforts and less on the largely symbolic military “pivot.” Instead of landing a small contingent of Marines in Australia, the United States needs to land the Trans Pacific Partnership free trade agreement. In addition, the U.S. should pursue a more robust, sustained campaign of tending to existing alliances (particularly Japan and South Korea) to reassure and restrain these key partners at the same time, developing a deeper strategic relationship with India, and building multilateral regional institutions across a host of policy areas to provide a stronger, collective voice to the region’s smaller powers and to signal America’s commitment to remain a leading Pacific (and pacific) power. In the post 9/11 world of asymmetric threats, military dominance isn’t what it used to be. And in the current budget era, military spending isn’t what it used to be, either. While an American military presence in the region will continue to be essential, diplomacy and trade are likely to provide more potent and less costly ways of asserting American leadership and maintaining regional stability, particularly given fiscal constraints.
Some may ask, “Why bother?” The answer is that the Asia Pacific region is home to vital American interests, including longstanding defense commitments to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan; and protection of the shipping routes that carry approximately 50 percent of the world’s oil tanker shipments (that’s three times greater than the tanker traffic passing through the Suez Canal) and more than half of all goods consumed on the planet.2 The broader Indo-Asia-Pacific region also includes four of the world’s nine nuclear powers, and not the good ones. Two of them (India and Pakistan) have already come close to waging nuclear war against each other; one (Pakistan) is riven by internal conflict with powerful Islamist terrorist groups; and one (North Korea) is ruled by an unstable twenty-something leader who appears untethered to Beijing and determined to keep developing long-range missiles capable of striking the United States.
The U.S. has always been in Asia, but Asia has never been our first priority despite declarations since Teddy Roosevelt’s Administration that it should be. European countries remain America’s allies of first resort, and Middle Eastern crises still consume a disproportionate share of policy attention. This strategic orientation toward Europe and the Middle East is increasingly out of whack with political, economic, geographic, and military power realities. Regardless of whether China continues to rise or eventually falters, Asia will be the most important strategic region for American national security in the 21st century.
1Remarks at Hoover Institution conference, China’s Evolving Military and the Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy, May 7-8, 2012.
2Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, III, Speech at the Surface navy Association Conference, January 15, 2014.