CONVENTIONAL WISDOM has it that the China juggernaut is unstoppable and that the world must adjust to the reality of the Asian giant as a—perhaps the—major global power. A mini-industry of “China rise” prognosticators has emerged over the past decade, all painting a picture of a twenty-first-century world in which China is a dominant actor. This belief is understandable and widespread—but wrong.Sponsored Ads
Recall that not so long ago, in the 1980s, similar forecasts were made about Japan being “number one” and joining the elite club of great powers—before it sank into a three-decade stagnation and was shown to be a single-dimensional power (economic) that did not have a broader foundation of national attributes to fall back on. Before that it was the Soviet Union that was said to be a global superpower (an assumption over which the Cold War was waged for a half century), only for it to collapse almost overnight in 1991. The postmortem on the USSR similarly revealed that it had been a largely single-dimensional power (military) that had atrophied from within for decades. In the wake of the Cold War, some pundits posited that the expanded and strengthened European Union would emerge as a new global power and pole in the international system—only for the EU to prove itself impotent and incompetent on a range of global challenges. Europe too was exposed as a single-dimensional power (economic). So, when it comes to China today, a little sobriety and skepticism are justified.
Alarm bells ought be ringing more loudly in Washington. Ultimately, it will be up to the United States to staunch China’s mounting revisionism. But this will first require a sober recognition that the old theories of how to shape China’s rise aren’t working. This is a difficult conversation to have in Washington because acknowledging Chinese behavior for what it is—undeterred and unapologetic assertiveness—will necessitate a more serious American response than we have seen to date.
This doesn’t mean forgoing the cooperative elements of the “hedge” and committing to a highly competitive relationship with China. We’re not there yet. And besides, there’s a big difference between determining that China is presently undeterred versus determining that it is patently undeterrable. Before definitively drawing the latter conclusion, the immediate task for U.S. policymakers is to test the elasticity of Chinese decision-making.
This calls for greater attention to cost-imposition strategies that attempt to shape the relative value of continued revisionism for China. Washington will have to explore the full potential range of economic, military, diplomatic and political points of leverage over Beijing (and there are many) to increase the costs of Chinese assertiveness, including areas that directly impinge on the interests of China’s leaders. The United States will also have to develop more tailored options for responding directly to maritime coercion in ways that repel specific acts of revisionism, rather than simply exacting lateral forms of punishment after the fact.
A collection of over 100 of the world’s communist, Islamist, and socialist tyrants, along with some elected but mostly corrupt Third World regimes, gathered in Bolivia at the G77 plus China summit to demand what they called a “New World Order to Live Well.” United Nations boss Ban Ki-moon joined the anti-American, anti-freedom, anti-national sovereignty, anti-free market festivities, calling on the assembled rulers — the biggest bloc at the UN — to keep pushing “sustainable development” and global-warming alarmism with the goal of foisting global governance on humanity. Despite its significance, the historic 50th anniversary G77 summit went largely unnoticed in the establishment press.
In their final declaration, signed by more than 130 rulers from around the world, the regimes called for what amounts to global tyranny, central planning, and massive wealth redistribution from Western taxpayers to oppressive Third World governments. Everything must be in “harmony” with “Mother Earth” under a “sustainable” UN “international climate change regime,” they said. From a stronger UN better able to implement its “mandates” to empowering the UN General Assembly as an “emblem of global sovereignty” and advancing a global reserve currency run by the IMF, the radical screed demands a dramatic planetary transformation.
“That’s taking us back to the geopolitics that got us into two World Wars in the 20th century, and made a hash of the late 19th century.”
“Putin is the single most powerful leader in the Kremlin since [Joseph] Stalin, because he doesn’t even have to deal with the [communist-era] Politburo,” said Strobe Talbott, who helped manage U.S.-Russian relations in the 1990s as a senior State Department official in the Clinton administration. “So the largest country on the planet in now engaged in territorial expansion and aggressive nationalism, and that country also happens to be one of the two major nuclear weapons powers,” said Talbott, speaking recently at the Brookings Institution where he is president. “That’s taking us back to the geopolitics that got us into two World Wars in the 20th century, and made a hash of the late 19th century.”
While Russia rejects the U.S.-led world order, China is challenging it as a rapidly rising power that demands more influence in international affairs. With its sustained and meteoric economic growth China has replaced Japan as the world’s second largest economy, and it may surpass the United States as the number one economic power this decade. Beijing has increasingly thrown that power around by staking claims to disputed islands in the South and East China Sea, proclaiming an air defense zone that no one recognizes, and pushing back against the U.S. military presence in Asia.
“The Obama administration is probably right that a geopolitical alliance between Russia and China will not prove lasting, but we should be worried that Moscow and Beijing are both reacting to what they perceive as a combination of American provocation and weakness, which is dangerous,” said Dmitri Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest. Before World War II, he noted, Western politicians and commentators rightly predicted that an alliance between a communist Soviet Union and a fascist Nazi Germany was unlikely and unsustainable. “And they were right, the Hitler-Stalin alliance only lasted a couple of years,” he said. “But in that short time Germany conquered Poland and occupied France, and created an entirely different geopolitical reality. Likewise, even a short-term Sino-Russian alliance, if mishandled by the United States, could cause us huge problems.”
From Manila to Washington, experts are trying to answer what Rory Medcalf, an Asia security expert at the Lowy Institute, describes as the “billion dollar question”: why is China taking a more assertive stance over territorial claims in the South China Sea that have, in most cases, existed for decades?
Where some see an emerging power flexing its new naval muscles, others view a bolder ambition to push the US navy out of the western Pacific where it has been dominant since the second world war. The tensions are mounting at a pace that worries everyone from military planners in the Asia-Pacific region to multinational retailers and global energy companies.
“It is naive to believe that a strong China will accept the conventional definition of what parts of the sea around it are under its jurisdiction,” Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father, said in March.
“why is China taking a more assertive stance over territorial claims in the South China Sea that have, in most cases, existed for decades?”
Ah, because something has changed. China is a different country. It is a strong, rising power. It is time to correct past injustices inflicted upon China by its neighbors and the West. The past drives China forward with no end in sight.
“The tensions are mounting at a pace that worries everyone from military planners in the Asia-Pacific region to multinational retailers and global energy companies.”
First there was a military build up. Then the tension slowly started rising. Now the tension has started accelerating in the last couple of years. It appears that what is happening today has been part of a plan hatched 30 years ago by Deng Xiaoping.
Less biding and hiding | The Economist [Dec. 2010]
… Under Mao, China had often bullied its neighbours, but had now subordinated this part of its foreign policy because co-operation with America was more important. Under Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s eventual successor, China even reluctantly accepted America’s continuing arms sales to Taiwan.
When the Soviet threat evaporated, China continued to put foreign policy second—this time for the sake of economic development. Again, that required co-operation with America, the best source of demand, technology and investment. Deng summed up the policy in a famous slogan: “Coolly observe, calmly deal with things, hold your position, hide your capacities, bide your time, accomplish things where possible.” When the world began to worry about China’s surging power, a senior official tried to calm fears, pledging a heping jueqi (peaceful rise). Even that had to be watered down, as the jue in “rise” suggests “towering as a peak”. These days Hu Jintao, China’s leader, prefers the deliberately bland “harmonious world”.
In the early 1990s Deng Xiaoping introduced the 24 Characters strategy: keep cool-headed to observe, be composed to make reactions, stand firmly, hide our capabilities and bide our time, never try to take the lead, and be able to accomplish something. What does “hide our capabilities” and “bide our time” mean? Just like the word “jihad”, there are different interpretations. The story below provides one chilling possibility. It suggests that America is in trouble.
The Parable of Goujian
The story of the king [Goujian] who slept on sticks and tasted gall is as known to the Chinese as George Washington and the cherry tree are to Americans. He has become a symbol of resistance against the treaty ports, foreign concessions and the years of colonial humiliation.
King Goujian (Yue) was defeated by King Fuchai (Wu) and taken prisoner. He worked in the royal stables and gradually won the respect of Fuchai. Later he was allowed to govern his old kingdom under Fuchai. Goujian quietly bided his time and hid his capabilities over eight years until he was strong enough to finally attack and defeat Fuchai. During the eight years he quietly undermined Fuchai and facilitated Fuchai’s growth of debt.
Taken like that, the parable of Goujian sums up what some people find alarming about China’s rise as a superpower today. Ever since Deng Xiaoping set about reforming the economy in 1978, China has talked peace. Still militarily and economically too weak to challenge America, it has concentrated on getting richer. Even as China has grown in power and rebuilt its armed forces, the West and Japan have run up debts and sold it their technology. China has been patient, but the day when it can once again start to impose its will is drawing near.
War Between Wu and Yue
The war between Wu and Yue comprised several separate phases. It was started when a Yue princess, who was married to one of the princes of the neighbouring State of Wu, left her husband and fled back to the country of Yue. This became the spark for the war to come.
Upon the death of Yunchang and the accession of Goujian, King Helü of Wu seized the opportunity and launched an attack on Yue. At the Battle of Zuì L? (????), however, Yue defeated Wu, and King Helü was mortally wounded; before his death he instructed his son, King Fuchai of Wu, “Never forget Yue!” Yue would be defeated three years later by a resurgent Wu, and Goujian captured, to serve as Fuchai’s servant for three years until he was eventually allowed to return to his native state.
Upon resuming his rule King Goujian quickly appointed skilled politicians as advisors, such as Wen Zhong and Fan Li, to help build up the kingdom. During this time, his ministers also worked to weaken the State of Wu internally through bribes and diplomatic intrigue.
All the time, whilst ruling his kingdom, Goujian never relished in riches as a king, but instead ate food suited for peasants, as well as forcing himself to taste bile. This way, he could remember his humiliations while serving under the State of Wu. There is a Chinese idiom, ???? (Pinyin: wò x?n cháng d?n, literally “sleeping on sticks and tasting gall”), the second half of which refers to Goujian’s perseverance.
After ten years of economic and political reforms the last phase of the war began, by which time the State of Yue had come a long way from its previous defeat; as described in the Shiji, Ten years of reforms; the state is rich, the warriors well-rewarded. The soldiers charge in the face of arrows like thirsty men heading for drink… making use of Fuchai’s expedition to struggle with Jin for hegemony Goujian led his army and successfully attacked the Wu capital, killing the crown prince. In the 24th year of his reign (473 BC), Goujian led another expedition, laying siege to the capital for three years before it fell; when a surrender from Fuchai was refused he committed suicide, and Wu was annexed by Yue. After his victory, he ruthlessly killed Fuchai’s scholars and his own scholars who helped him, not allowing himself to make the same mistake Fuchai did by letting his enemies live.
King Goujian’s army was known for forcing their front line, composed of criminals sentenced to death, to commit suicide by decapitation to scare their enemy before battle.
You see the answer is simple. Chinese leaders are liars. While they have been talking peace for 30 years, they have been plotting war. To be more precise, they have been plotting their comeback. Anyone, and I mean anyone, who stands in their way will be destroyed. And that includes Japan, and that includes America.
A dangerous calculation
Unfortunately, the consensus in Washington is that Beijing is not really serious about challenging US leadership in Asia because it is not willing to risk a confrontation with America that it would assuredly lose. If they are right, then China’s conduct is clearly foolish. But I’m pretty sure it’s not.
Both Washington and China are steadily upping the stakes in their rivalry as China’s provocations of US friends and allies become more flagrant and America’s commitments to support them become more categorical. Both believe they can do this with impunity because both believe the other will back down to avoid a clash. But there is a disconcertingly high chance that they are both wrong.
Hugh White, the author, believes there is a substantial risk of a catastrophic clash unless some kind of power sharing agreement is reached. In my model of how the world works, once you reach a tipping point it is too late to fix the problem short of something big happening. For example, if there were a revolution in China that brought a democratic government. Short of a big change we are going over the cliff together.
Look at what he says about a power sharing agreement with China:
We can’t be sure exactly what power sharing with China would look like, how exactly this relationship would work, or even whether it would work. But we can be sure that the only likely alternative would lead to disaster.
So we’re headed for disaster short of an agreement that we have no idea will work. Can China and the US even agree on some kind of power sharing?
Since the prospects of the PLA accepting the territorial status quo seem nil, the question then facing the United States is how to sustain a robust balance of power that deters intimidation and aggression and reassures friends and allies faced with an overconfident and powerful China determined to establish its dominance on the continent and its adjoining waters. Peace and stability will prevail if major powers work for a multipolar Asia with inclusive multilateral institutions and dispute resolution mechanisms. However, competition, rivalry, and even conflict will result should bipolarity reemerge or should Beijing seek to reestablish a Sino-centric hierarchical order wherein the Middle Kingdom behaves in a hegemonic manner expecting obeisance and tribute from its neighbors.
Minor encounters such as these [the planes incident] can explode into major problems between nations, and a clash of the Asian titans is far from unthinkable. And perhaps it’s no coincidence that this year marks the 120th anniversary of the conflict that started it all: the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. That’s when a makeshift Japanese navy crushed China’s, allowing Imperial Japan to wrest land and a boatload of cash from China’s Qing Dynasty.
Strategists across East Asia are investigating that long-ago conflict for lessons relevant to today’s controversies. The first lesson is geopolitical: that limited conflicts can deliver sweeping gains. The 1894 Battle of Yalu — a minor duel between Chinese and Japanese battle fleets — gave Japan command of the Yellow and East China seas. The Treaty of Shimonoseki, signed in Japan in April 1895, compelled China’s rulers to relinquish Taiwan and its outlying islands, territory along the Asian coast, and to pay a massive indemnity to Japan. No longer could China oppose Japanese military movement up and down the Asian seaboard. With maritime command, then, came dominance of Northeast Asia.
China may be shifting its strategy from “reactive assertiveness” to proactive engagement.
The point is that as long as the tension endures, China’s “reactive assertiveness” sooner or later must evolve into a more proactive approach. It is still not clear yet whether China has decided to take a more comprehensive or even more risky approach to counter challenges in both the East and South China Seas. However, China does not seem to have much strategic room to maneuver while staying strictly within its preferred bilateral approach to solving territorial disputes. This can also be observed through the PLA’s increasing involvement, especially in the South China Sea disputes. At this moment, China may particularly need a boost from international public opinion.
Although more proactively and more comprehensively publicizing the disputes to the international community may win China a certain degree of understanding or even support, there is also a risk. Such a move may indirectly help to further extend and internationalize the disputes, which is exactly what China has previously expressed concern about. Besides, China also needs to account for a certain preconception in world politics: that a rising state (quite often a great power) will see disputes with its smaller neighbors as opportunities to extend its growing power.
China has shown that it may soon be ready to engage in conflict with Japan after warships of the People’s Liberation Army Navy were found aiming their fire-control radar at vessels and aircraft of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, reports China’s nationalistic Global Times tabloid, citing several Japanese media outlets.
US military sources told the Tokyo-based Nippon Hoso Kyokai on June 14 that Chinese fighters have followed and monitored the movement of Japanese aircraft at close range on a number of occasions. This began even before China established its controversial air defense identification zone in the East China Sea, the sources said, with the incidents taking place at open sea. The sources added that US aircraft are sometimes targeted by the PLA Air Force fighters as well.