I have been to four conferences on East Asian (EA) security this year. All have had Chinese colleagues. This has been hugely helpful in my thinking on Asian security. In the US, I rarely met Chinese scholars. Studying Asia from a distance reduced it to a pool of cases to rummage through for evidence of this or that theory. Living here has given me a much greater sense of sharpness of the local disagreements, and especially of the punchy, rising strength of China.
David Kang has argued repeatedly that China’s rise is not spurring counter-balancing behavior in EA and that predictions that Europe’s past (nationalism, sharp territorial disputes, war) will be Asia’s future are overblown. I am certainly not the Asia expert he is, and in the US, I agreed with him. But after living here 15 months and going to these conferences and teaching Chinese (and Korean) students on these issues, I am really starting to think he is wrong.
Instead, I think this op-ed by Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times really nails it. (Rachman is excellent. You should read him regularly.) I think he really catches how much more assertive the Chinese are becoming, including toward the US (which we deserve, of course, because we can’t get our house in order). I certainly see the ‘rising China’ vibe here when I listen to the Chinese scholars at the conferences. At the last one, three Chinese participants all stressed how the US was becoming dependent on China and that China was becoming “rich and strong.” I should say that the scholars I meet are usually polite and pleasant in personal conversation over a beer or dinner, but in the presentations, they talk with new found, newly enjoyable strength given US troubles and China’s continuing growth through even this Great Recession. In August I attended a panel entitled ‘China is Back!: East Asia after the Beijing Olympics.’ That sums up the vibe quite well.
After hearing this now for a year, I worked it into an argument about Korean foreign policy in Seoul two weeks ago (see my last 3 blog posts). The Chinese think they are on the up-and-up. They see the US in decline. And they are ready to push harder now for “our legitimate national security interests in Asia.” In the Korean case, I think this means the Chinese are going to become heavily involved in the structuring any final settlement on the Korean peninsula. When NK does finally explode/implode/collapse/whatever, it seems increasingly unlikely to me that SK alone will set the terms of unification. China is growing, and it seems natural that they do not want a democratic, nationalist, unified, American-allied Korea on their border. China already has Russia to the north, India to the south, Japan and the US to the east. It is reasonable therefore to expect them to prop up NK as long as possible (which is what they are doing), and when the inevitable unification does come, they will clearly push to formulate its terms to their liking as much as possible.
Instructive here is the German re-unification case. The USSR was falling apart, and the US was at a peak of postwar relative power. West Germany was a great power with a larger economy than the Soviet Union’s. This balance of forces clearly favored German unification on West German and US terms. In the end, unified Germany was kept in NATO. The USSR had wanted its neutralization, but it was too weak to get it, and West Germany basically bought Soviet compliance.
Little of this applies in Korea. China is rising, and the US is in real trouble. The USSR was dependent on western credit and oil sales; today, the US is dependent on Chinese credit (purchases of US debt). And South Korea does not have nearly the strength that West Germany has. So if China pushes for unified Korean neutralization, as the USSR pushed for it in Germany, the Chinese are lot more likely than the Soviets to get their way. I argued this publicly two weeks ago, and it was controversial enough that it landed in Korea’s foremost newspaper. But honestly, I am surprised. Doesn’t it seem obvious that big, rising, neighboring China would try to structure Korean unification to fit its preferences?
Anyway, Rachman is right. The Chinese are getting stronger, and they are starting to talk that way to the rest of us. They are feeling their oats and starting to throw their weight around. Of course, that will hardly stop the US suicide course of borrowing $20 billion a month from them. *Sigh* We’ve been warned.