China’s Peaceful Rise?

Chinese Military

Peaceful rise. We hear that term a lot nowadays to describe China’s economic development ambitions. What does it mean? Is this possible? How will the world be different in thirty years? Twenty? Ten? Will it be more, or less peaceful? Will our children and grandchildren enjoy the freedoms many now take for granted. Freedom of speech. Freedom of religion. Free to live where you want. To pursue happiness.

Deng Xiaoping understood what the communists in the Soviet Union did not. He believed the best way to move his country forward was to encourage economic growth. He knew that continuing a state controlled economy would keep his people impoverished for many generations. In 1978 Deng gambled when he opened up the Chinese economy and allowed the provinces relative economic autonomy. His gamble has certainly paid off handsomely. Foreign direct investment combined with an indigenious economy that has been exposed to, and is competing with, the fiercest of global competition has built an economic juggernaut of historic proportions.

As China grows stronger economically, it is natural that it will want to protect its interests, as we do. To do this, the Chinese military will have to become larger, and increasingly forward deployed. It will require a blue water Navy to secure trade routes. It may garrison forces in places like Africa, the Middle East, perhaps even South America, to protect strategic relationships with suppliers of key energy resources and raw materials.

How will America respond to this? These are steps nations, such as ourselves, took in the early, rapidly developing stages of our development. Will we welcome a new near peer, and potentially (eventually?) peer power? Or will we be fearful and self-fulfill the doomsday prophecy of a New Cold War, or worse?

Here is what today’s thought leaders think about the topic;

  • In the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, Thomas Barnett’s 2004 book The Pentagon’s New Map became an extremely popular read. He divides the world’s countries into the Functioning Core, and The Non-Integrating Gap. Barnett tells the story of making the rounds at the Pentagon presenting what he began to call “The Brief'”, to ever more senior levels of military and political leadership. Barnett theorizes that nation states no longer need to wage war with one another. As members of the ‘functioning core’, they are too economically integrated to consider attacking one another. Everybody loses when the apple cart is upset. War is relegated to Functioning Corers cleaning up zealots in the Non-Integrating Gap. 
  •  Dr. John J. Mearsheimer, the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, on the other hand believes the U.S. and China are destined for conflict as an ever more powerful China attempts to establish regional hegemony and push the United States out of Asia.
  • Dr. Susan Shirk, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and Professor, University of California, San Diego wrote a book in 2007 titled China; Fragile Superpower. In it she claims the U.S. has more to fear from a weak China.

Although China looks like a powerhouse from the outside, to its leaders it looks fragile, poor, and overwhelmed by internal problems. But China’s massive problems, instead of reassuring us, should worry us. It is China’s internal fragility, not its growing strength that presents the greatest danger. The weak legitimacy of the Communist Party and its leaders’ sense of vulnerability could cause China to behave rashly in a crisis involving Japan or Taiwan, and bring it into a military conflict with the United States.

If economic growth slows and problems multiply, there is a possibility that China’s leaders could be tempted to “Wag the Dog” – mobilize domestic support by creating an international crisis. More likely, however, is that when confronted with a crisis, the leaders make threats they can’t back away from because of their fear of appearing weak to the domestic audience. Only by understanding the dangers of China’s domestic tranquility and incorporating this understanding into their policies can Chinese and American decision makers avoid a catastrophic war

  • Dr. Suisheng “Sam” Zhao, Professor and Executive Director of the Center for China-US Cooperation at the University of Denver, is concerned that domestic chaos could cause China’s Communist Party (CCP) leadership to pursue an aggressive foreign policy to stir nationalistic enthusiasm and deflect attention from the CCP. Further, Dr. Zhao believes these domestic forces could begin to fester if economic growth slows below 6% – 7% per year. American’s can only dream of that pace of growth today. If China slows to this level, Dr. Zhao believes their economy will no longer be able to absorb the historic migration of population from farms to cities. This will cause large numbers of young, unemployed people, to begin to question the CCP’s decisions that brought their country to this point. Aggressive foreign policy could take the form of flexing their newly enhanced military muscle to further intimidate Taiwan, clash with the Japanese over oil drilling rights in the East China Sea, or challenge U.S. dominance in their backyard.

I highly respect each of the scholars I’ve mentioned above. With these, and many other disparate voices out there; what are we to believe? How do we prevent ourselves from being acted upon? What can we do to influence positive outcomes? I do not profess to have the answers to these big questions. I have many, many more questions than I do answers.

 GlobalWonk intends to convene a “No New Cold War” conference within the next eighteen months. We will bring together today’s thought leaders to discuss key issues in the U.S./China relationship. We’ll work together to develop meaningful steps that individuals and communities can take to have a positive impact on this most important of relationships.


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