China: Could a Western “Gravity Machine” Prevent War?

By working together economically, the EU, US and Japan might be able to force China to deeper dependence on the present international order.

Tensions in the Asia-Pacific have escalated sharply in the past three months. China announced its air defense identification zone (ADIZ) on November 23; on December 5, a U.S. Navy warship had to maneuver to avoid colliding with a Chinese vessel in the South China Sea; three days later, South Korea announced that it was expanding its own ADIZ; and, most recently, China has begun giving warnings to foreign military planes that breach its ADIZ. The immediate source of concern in the region is the escalating war of words (and actions) between China and Japan. At this month’s World Economic Forum, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe warned that “with China we don’t have a clearly explicit roadmap” for reducing bilateral tensions. Even more ominously, he acknowledged that there “may be some conflict or dispute arising out of the blue or on an ad hoc level or inadvertently.”

That the prospect of a military confrontation between the two countries has gone from nearly inconceivable to “merely” improbable is distressing when one considers the potential impact of such a clash on the international system. It is also sobering that an area with such limited assets (mostly fishing grounds) could be become grounds for war. A recent letter to the editor of the Financial Times summarizes the bewilderment of many observers: “One might very well ask how the world’s second and third largest economies have come to the brink of war over two and a half square miles of uninhabited islets and rocks.” Some have suggested that China and Japan might fight to preserve their national honor or to gain greater access to the prodigious reserves of energy that are believed to lie beneath the Senkakus/Diaoyus. In no considered analysis, however, do any such gains begin to approach the costs.

There was greater optimism about the Asia-Pacific’s trajectory a decade earlier, some of which was premised on the presumption (or hope) that China’s economic development would lead to greater peace regionally and globally. In an influential September 2005 essay, Chinese grand strategist Zheng Bijian explained that “China [would]…strive for peace, development, and cooperation with all countries of the world.” He went on to argue that “China’s development depends on world peace—a peace that its development will in turn reinforce.” America’s posture was expressed in a speech that Robert Zoellick gave the same month, in which he “urge[d] China to become a responsible stakeholder.” “[T]he international system sustains their [responsible stakeholders’] peaceful prosperity,” Zoellick explained, “so they work to sustain that system.”

China’s economic ties with its neighbors have soared, as has its dependence on global markets for vital commodities; its behavior, however, has increased apprehensions, not diminished them. Edward Luttwak argues that China’s rise is bumping up against the “logic of strategy”: “adversarial reactions are bound to be evoked as China’s economic and military growth continue…beyond the culminating level of unresisted Chinese achievement.”[1] What if China has concluded, however, that it can defy this alleged logic?

Given the fractiousness of Chinese policymaking, it is hard to do more than speculate. But if the center of gravity within the leadership has indeed reached this conclusion, part of the explanation would lie in what Orville Schell calls the Chinese “gravity machine”: in essence, the strategic leverage that one acquires over others when one has the world’s largest consumer base and the highest growth rate of growth of any major power. China has assessed that its economic heft gives it a leg up over Japan: as a recent commentary in Xinhua explained, “Japan should face the fact that China has become ASEAN’s biggest trade partner and the largest export market since 2011, which means China is becoming more and more relevant in the region. There’s no reason for ASEAN countries to risk ties with Beijing out of gratitude to Tokyo.”

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