Stanley's blog

Chas W. Freeman Jr spoke to the Global Strategy Forum on 20 January 2010 on the mounting speculation about China’s emergence as a global hegemon to rival and, perhaps in time, surpass the United States. This is the thrust of what he said:

The US – which spends more on its military than the rest of the world combined – has enjoyed absolute military superiority in every region of the globe. Some imagine China as a “peer competitor” for global dominance.

Since 1974, when Deng Xiaoping, China has been at pains to deny any possibility that it might seek such dominance. As the Chinese defence “white paper” put it last year: “China will never seek hegemony or engage in military expansion now or in the future, no matter how developed it becomes.”

Why has China, alone among nations, felt obliged to assert that it does not aspire to regional or global hegemony? Is this simply propaganda? Is it a contrite repudiation of imperial China’s past hegemonic status in East Asia? Or is it sincere counsel to future generations of Chinese not to bully their neighbours or the world? If so, is there something unique about China?

China has no messianic ideology to export; no doctrine of “manifest destiny” to advance; no belief in social Darwinism or imperative of territorial expansion to act upon; no cult of the warrior to animate militarism or glorify war; no exclusion from contemporary global governance to overcome; no satellite states to garrison; no overseas colonies or ideological dependencies to protect; no history of power projection or military intervention beyond its immediate frontiers; no entangling alliances or bases abroad.

China has a very persuasive explanation of its national interests. It says it needs domestic tranquillity and peace on its borders in order to pursue its continued modernization and economic development. It seems very comfortable with a multipolar world order, where peace and economic growth prevail.

But anyone with experience of negotiating with the Chinese can attest that they are capable of both haughtiness and petulance.

How a still-more-powerful China conducts itself in the future will be decided in part by Chinese realities as shaped by Chinese history. But Chinese behaviour will also reflect how the rest of the world, including most notably the incumbent hegemon – the United States – reacts and interacts with China as China rises. And future Chinese conduct cannot be separated from the character of China’s domestic politics. An autocracy that feels free to ignore the rule of law at home is unlikely to defer to international law and procedure abroad.

Whatever the meaning of China’s assurances that it will not pursue hegemony or engage in military expansionism in future, we cannot be certain that it will not. There are grounds for optimism, especially with respect to China’s use of military power. China’s history includes examples of aggressive actions along its borders – especially in Korea and Vietnam. But overall China has been notable for its cautious, defensive, and inward-looking national security posture.

The PRC has used force when measures short of war have proven inadequate to secure its borders or strategic interests (as in Korea, India, and Vietnam), but, by marked contrast with India in Goa or Indonesia in Timor-Leste, it gave diplomacy the decades needed to resolve the Hong Kong and Macau issues without bloodshed. Beijing has shown a similar preference for negotiations rather than the use of force to settle the Taiwan issue. Cross-strait tensions are lessening. It should be encouraging that China has insisted on UN authorization for its military activities abroad, which are directed at peacekeeping and against piracy.

Still, China is modernizing its military at a peculiar moment of history. The US has embraced the neo-conservative agenda of sustaining this superiority at all costs. But rising Chinese defence capabilities erode American supremacy. China’s new anti-carrier weapons endanger US force projection capabilities in the Western Pacific; its anti-satellite programmes imperil US global surveillance and communication capabilities; its growing operations in cyberspace menace US government operations and the economy of the American homeland alike. These are serious challenges not just to American hegemony but to core US interests. They have begun to draw a response.

The result is a deeply troubled Sino-American military relationship. China will persevere in its efforts to build a credible counter to American coercion. The US will not soon abandon its obsession with the retention of absolute military superiority everywhere. A less hegemonic objective would allow the US to accommodate a more powerful China while retaining the ability to prevail in any conflict with it. As things are, increasingly overt military confrontation between China and the US is likely.

China has a vital interest in the perpetuation of a global economic order open to trade and investment. China is now enmeshed in multilateral organizations in which it must daily demonstrate its dedication to the sovereign equality of nations, great and small. All this enforces the respect for comity that is the essence of a “responsible stakeholder”.

But America is out of practice at dealing with independent power centres – for the past 60 years indispensable arbiter of the “free world.” American politicians are unaccustomed to formulating policy through multilateral consultations with other nations. Beijing isn’t very good at this either, but seems more open to it than Washington. The US will, as always, do what must be done, after it has exhausted all of the alternatives. But this will take time and cost the US further prestige and influence. Meanwhile, China’s global role will grow, especially if Beijing sustains the modesty and competence for which its diplomats have become known, rather than the arrogance that some of its domestic officials increasingly exemplify.

The Chinese Communist Party has delivered prosperity to ordinary Chinese, which is why it enjoys their support. 86% of Chinese think their country is on the right track. Chinese see proof of the superiority of their political-economy in the apparent effectiveness of its response to the financial crash and its aftermath. Their government’s policies have so far succeeded in sustaining high rates of economic growth through programmes that enhance long-term economic and intellectual competitiveness. The contrast with the muddled self-indulgence of Washington’s response to the crisis, in particular, is striking. Americans have so far shrunk from the hard decisions necessary to restore fiscal integrity to their government or to reverse serious decay in their nation’s human and physical infrastructure. The recession has joined foreign wars and continuing deterioration in relations with the Islamic world as a factor accelerating American decline.

China seems certain to emerge from the crisis with a much larger and more competitive economy. The generation born under the single-child policy is coming of age. It is far more inclined to consumption than its frugal predecessors. A faster transition to growth driven by domestic consumption than many have thought possible seems in prospect. China’s imports are now rising much more rapidly than its exports. Its balance of payments surplus, huge as it still is, fell by half in 2009. Continuing economic growth, deepened ties with Asian neighbours, the progressive internationalization of a yuan that is rising in value, all promise domestic stability and greater international stature for China in coming years.

The current self-congratulatory mood in China is therefore entirely understandable. Yet it masks the underlying weakness of the Chinese political system. Government in contemporary China derives its legitimacy almost entirely from its ability to deliver continued rapid economic growth. It stands for no credible values, neither trusts nor is trusted by those it rules, suffers from a high level of corruption, and has no clear vision for self-improvement. If America’s politics are widely viewed as so venal as to be dysfunctional, the Chinese system is seen as cynically manipulative and of questionable legitimacy.

Without political reform, China will remain vulnerable to unrest should the economy falter. If there is no rule of law in China, Beijing’s word will be doubted abroad. Despite its economic successes and growing defence capabilities, China’s international influence will remain limited as long as it fails to evolve an attractive political system. It is not impossible that it may do so but there is no evidence at present to suggest that it will.

A Chinese perception that the US is attempting to leverage its military superiority to keep China down could goad Beijing into efforts to dislodge America from its position of global dominance. Given the continuing disparities in national power, the ensuing struggle would be a long one. The trigger would probably be some incident derived from US military operations offshore China or from the Taiwan issue, to which Sino-American relations remain hostage. This is unlikely, but, unfortunately, it is not impossible to imagine.

China is actively considering how to put effective pressure on the US to halt arms sales to Taiwan. China wants Washington to live up to Ronald Reagan’s commitment to restrain and reduce such sales in return for credible pursuit by Beijing of a peaceful settlement of its differences with Taipei. Sanctions on selected American companies – modelled on those the US Congress has imposed on Chinese companies selling objectionable items to others – are apparently among the options before China’s leaders. In the current economic climate, any such move by China could trigger a nasty confrontation and unleash an orgy of American protectionist retaliation that would likely set off a trade war. Such a development is not considered likely. If nothing else, however, the possible consequences of miscalculation by Beijing or Washington illustrate the global stake in continuing prudent management of the Sino-American relationship by both sides.

It is important to see China as it is, not as we wish or fear it to be. In 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt declared that China “has become one of the great Democracies of the world.” That was nonsense, of course. But so, I believe, are perceptions of China as an emerging anti-democratic hegemon. The more likely prospect is that China will take its place alongside the United States and others at the head of a multilateral system of global governance. In such an oligarchic world order, China will have great prestige but no monopoly on power comparable to that which the US has recently enjoyed.

America has already lost its global political hegemony. But, for all the reasons mentioned, China is neither inclined nor capable of succeeding to this role. The Anglo-American financial model is much tarnished by recent events. But no alternative to it has yet emerged. It seems certain that whatever does replace it will be crafted by many hands, only some of which will be Chinese. American consumption is no longer the sole driver of the global economy. The Chinese market has come to play an important part in sustaining world growth. But China is not the only economy that is rising. In some areas of global trade and investment, China will be a dominant factor. In others, it will not be. In the military arena, even if fiscal limitations force retrenchment, the US will, for many years to come, remain the only power with global reach.

Americans will find it difficult to adjust to a world in which they are no longer all-powerful in all spheres. But they are a flexible and resilient people who can and will accommodate change. Neither they nor the Chinese will cease to pursue their national interests as they see them. In many instances, these views will more or less coincide. On such matters, if others agree, there will be global progress. Where there is disagreement, there will be pressure from others to search for common ground. Neither will be so powerful that they can ignore such pressure.

In short, the world in future will be more “democratic” and, likely, more muddled than in the past because many countries, not just the US or China, will share power in it. There will be ample opportunity for countries with trusted relationships with Washington and Beijing to influence how they participate in global affairs. There will be no hegemon, and there will be no “G-2.”

China is ratchetting up the stakes far too early. They are in no way capable of competing with the US now, or into the near future. None of the countries that are pariahs, such as Syria, Iran, DPRK have anything they really need from the US. China needs lots from the US. If the flow of technology were to run dry, it would hurt China’s development immensely. China’s urban middle class buys will not buy into this cold war rhetoric.

I stress that these are the views of Chas W. Freeman Jr, provocative in parts but a realistic appraisal of possible scenarios.

Recent poll

Almost 55% of Chinese people questioned in a poll believe that “a cold war will break out between the US and China”.This finding came after battles over Taiwan, Tibet, trade, climate change, internet freedom and human rights, which have poisoned relations in the three months since President Barack Obama made a fruitless visit to Beijing.

According to diplomatic sources, a rancorous post mortem examination is under way inside the US government, led by officials who think the president was badly advised and was made to appear weak In China’s eyes. The American response — which includes a pledge by Obama to get tougher on trade — is a reaction against its rising power.

An independent survey of Chinese language media for The Sunday Times found army and navy officers predicting a military showdown and political leaders calling for China to sell more arms to America’s
foes. The trigger for their fury was Obama’s decision to sell a $6.4 bn package of weapons to Taiwan.

Liu Menxiong, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, responded that: “We should retaliate with an eye for an eye and sell arms to Iran, North Korea, Syria, Cuba and Venezuela.” “We have nothing to be afraid of. The North Koreans have stood up to America and has anything happened to them? No. Iran stands up to America and does disaster befall it? No.”
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“This time China must punish the US,” said Major-General Yang Yi, a naval officer. “We must make them hurt.” Luo Yuan, a major-general in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) said that more missiles would be deployed against Taiwan. Colonel Meng Xianging, a PLA strategist, said that China would “qualitatively upgrade” its military over the next 10 years to force a showdown “when we’re strong enough for a hand-to-hand fight with the US”.

Talking tough with each other is popular. Geoff Dyer puts it well (today’s Financial Times), when he says that:

“Beijing’s more abrasive approach risks undermining a decade or so of highly successful diplomacy that has helped sustain China’s booming economy. Beijing has managed to neutralize a lot of potential tensions about the “China threat” by settling border disputes, increasing its participation in international organizations and distributing aid. In Africa, people talk about “stadium diplomacy” because of all the Chinese-built football pitches. The cornerstone of this strategy was making sure relations with the US did not become too fraught.”

“But if Beijing follows through on some of its sabre-rattling, it could lead to a cascade of tactical adjustments on how to deal with China. In its first year, the Obama administration emphasized engaging China but it could lean more towards containment. Japan, Australia and India, for instance, might be pulled in a similar direction and neighbours in central Asia and south-east Asia could become more wary of being dominated by China. The result would be to make it more difficult for China to do energy-supply deals and open new markets for its products.”

“China is too powerful to keep following statesman Deng Xiaoping’s advice to “adopt a low profile” and having a louder international voice will inevitably ruffle some feathers. But as China’s leaders ponder how to exert more influence abroad, they need to ask: “Is it really worth tearing up a winning strategy?”

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