Here is part 2, on China as a ‘peaceful riser.’
I am in China right now for the first time for a conference on Asian security (what else?) at the Chinese Foreign Affairs University. I will post impressions on my return. A standard methodological quip in the social sciences is that you should never generalize about a country until you at least flew over it, so I guess I am paying my dues.
So I thought it might be useful to lay out the big running debate about China: whether it will be nasty as it gets more powerful, or will it play in the established global rules of things like the WTO? This is the ‘China threat’ vs the ‘peaceful rise’ school. I lean toward the former, but maybe going there will change my mind…
1. China’s internal politics are repressive: Falun Gong, democracy dissidents, Muslim Uighurs, Tibet. Why would you expect a regime that treats its own people that way to be nicer to the ‘foreign devils’ (the 19th century mandarin term for western traders) ? Why would you trust a regime that shoots its own people? When Iran and Zimbabwe do it, we worry. Why not with China? China is not a democracy.
2. While China is rising, it is vulnerable. It is benefitting enormously from the US/WTO-lead trading order. So of course they will say they want to rise peacefully. They won’t shoot themselves in the foot. They see how Germany’s belligerent rise in the late 19th century got it encircled and crushed in WWI. They aren’t stupid enough to say they want changes, but we shouldn’t be stupid enough to believe them either, especially given point 1 above.
3. China has a historical legacy of xenophobia and cultural supremacism. You can overcome history of course; the Germans did. But the Chinese aren’t there at all, and its historical reservoir of national myths clashes badly with just being ‘one more country.’
4. As countries grow and get wealthier, their perceptions of their national interests change, ie, grow. So yes, today, the Chinese do want to rise peacefully, and maybe they are sincere. But eventually, as its sense of its global role grows, and as the scope of its interests grow, it will become pushier and probably more belligerent. This usually happens when countries grow to new prominence. Britain in the 19th century intervened all over Asia. The US got more involved in Latin America and the Pacific. The USSR dabbled in all over the place during the Cold War. Maybe China is different, but the historical record of big states developing new ‘needs’ and ‘appetites’ is pretty clear. Expect it here.
5. What will they want after they get rich? James Fallows’ work at the Atlantic suggests that China just wants to get rich, and that’s true, but what happens after they get there? As states become richer and more influential, their perceptions of their national interests expand – particularly as states trade more and import resources more (as most rising states must). It is all but inevitable that China’s global footprint will expand as it already has in Central Asia, Africa, and the South China Sea. This does not mean it must be belligerent, but it does mean that there are more possible loci of conflict. The sheer size of China and its reach will insure friction and collisions – just as it did with the British Empire, the USSR, and the US.
Add to this China’s rather toxic internal politics. China is hypernationalist (the replacement ideology after Tiannamen), mercantilist, and repressive. I see nothing benign in that mix. If you were China, wouldn’t you be chafing at the bit, having to listen to Bush or Hillary lecture you about human rights and your exchange rate? And once the first missile lands on Tibet, all the talk of peaceful China will fly out the window. My first-cut schtick on the US and China is in galleys at Geopolitics for publication this fall; here it is in brief. For China’s muscle in the Northeast Asia, try here and here.
In short, I lean toward the view that China is a rising power likely to collide with the US, because its range of interests will expand as its power expands. In 20 years, when China has a bigger navy, it will suddenly ‘discover’ national interests in the South Pacific or Indian Ocean. Rome, Britain, the US, the USSR all went down this path. It is worse, because China has the Sinocentric history of informally dominating its Confucian neighbors. And the regime ideology is still fairly illiberal – mercantilism, hypernationalism, internal repression.