China: Getting the Questions Right

December 1, 2000 Topic: Security Regions: Asia Tags: AcademiaBusinessNew Left

China: Getting the Questions Right

Mini Teaser: The usual questions about the China threat are increasingly unproductive. The authors suggest some new ones of their own.

by Author(s): Richard K. BettsThomas J. Christensen

The global economy does indeed change logical incentives to
compromise in political conflict, but not to the degree that it makes
Beijing likely to be more "reasonable" than anyone else. Economic
globalization does not eliminate the high priority that nations place
on their political identity and integrity. Drawing China into the web
of global interdependence may do more to encourage peace than war,
but it cannot guarantee that the pursuit of heartfelt political
interests will be blocked by a fear of economic consequences.

Will China Become Aggressive?

Whether China has aggressive motives is what most policymakers want
to know about Beijing's strategic intentions. Optimists say the
answer is no, because the PRC is ideologically anti-imperialist and
seeks only respect as a status quo great power. Pessimists say the
answer is yes, because a seething set of Chinese grudges and
territorial ambitions are on hold only for a lack of confidence in
capability, or simply because all great powers tend to become
aggressive when they get the chance.

But such focusing on the unlikely odds of deliberate aggression
diverts attention from possibilities that are both much more likely
and almost as dangerous. Most countries viewed as aggressors by their
adversaries view their own behavior as defensive and legitimate.
Whether Beijing is a tiger in waiting, about to set out deliberately
on a predatory rampage, is not the most relevant question. No
evidence suggests that Chinese leaders have an interest in naked
conquest of the sort practiced by Genghis Khan, Napoleon Bonaparte or
Adolf Hitler. The model more often invoked by pessimists is Kaiser
Wilhelm's Germany. Like Germany a century ago, China is a
late-blooming great power emerging into a world already ordered
strategically by earlier arrivals; a continental power surrounded by
other powers who are collectively stronger but individually weaker
(with the exception of the United States and, perhaps, Japan); a
bustling country with great expectations, dissatisfied with its place
in the international pecking order, if only with regard to
international prestige and respect. The quest for a rightful "place
in the sun" will, it is argued, inevitably foster growing friction
with Japan, Russia, India or the United States.

Optimists do not have a hard time brushing off this analogy to a
state of a different culture on a different continent at a different
time, a long-gone era when imperialism was the norm for civilized
international behavior. Their benign view, that economic development
and trade will inevitably make China fat and happy, uninterested in
throwing its weight around, strikes them as common sense. It could
turn out to be true. It is more an article of faith, however, than a
prediction grounded in historical experience. The United States, for
example, is quite interested in gaining the goodies from
globalization, yet on the world stage it sometimes throws its weight
around with righteous abandon.

Indeed, the most disturbing analogy for China's future behavior may
not be Germany but the United States. If China acts with the same
degree of caution and responsibility in its region in this century as
the United States did in its neighborhood in the past century, Asia
is in for big trouble. Washington intervened frequently in Mexico,
Central America and the Caribbean for reasons most Americans consider
legitimate, defensive, altruistic and humane. The United States and
its allies in Asia, however, would see comparable Chinese regional
policing as a mortal threat. Even if China does not throw its weight
around, the fact that there are others who can respond to the growth
of Chinese power sets up the possibility of a classic spiral of tense
actions and reactions. China faces alliances involving the United
States, Japan, Australia and South Korea, and potential alliances in
Southeast Asia.

Would Chinese Liberalization Guarantee Peace?

Many assume that as long as democratization accompanies the growth of
Chinese power, China will not necessarily pose a security challenge.
This would hold true even if China proves able to maintain high
levels of economic and technological growth, a healthy degree of
government accumulation of the increasing national wealth, and,
thereby, military modernization. This theory of the democratic
peace--that developed democracies virtually never fight one
another--is currently the most influential political science theory
among American foreign policy elites.

Even if we accept the democratic peace theory at face value, there
are several problems with applying it to China. First, as Fareed
Zakaria has noted, the theory really applies only to liberal
democracies on the Western model, ones with restraints on government
action and guarantees of minority rights. Democrat-ization in China
could just as conceivably turn in an illiberal direction, on the
model of post-Tito Yugoslavia, Iran or other unpleasant examples of
violent activism.

Second, the democratic peace theory does not apply clearly to civil
war. Democracies must recognize each other as democracies for the
theory to apply. They also have to view each other as legitimate,
independent and sovereign states. No matter how many Americans and Taiwanese
believe that Taiwan is or should be a sovereign state, this view is widely
rejected on the mainland (and is not a premise of past
or current U.S. policy).

Third, while liberal democracy is pacific, the process of becoming a
democracy can be violent and destabilizing. This is particularly true
of democratizing states that lack developed civil societies,
independent news media, healthy outlets for popular grievances, and a
marketplace for ideas where countervailing views can be debated. This
gives elites incentives to manipulate populist or nationalist themes
and to adopt tough international policies as an electoral strategy.

The Chinese Communist Party has behaved like many authoritarian
regimes, but with much more success. It has systematically prevented
the rise of both an independent press and a civil society. Although
the foreign press has penetrated China, domestic political
publications are still strictly circumscribed by the state. As the
recent crackdown on the Falun Gong demonstrates, the Party is afraid
of any group that organizes for any purpose without state sanction,
regardless of how apolitical it appears to be.

The Chinese government's concerns about its legitimacy are not mere
expressions of paranoia. The intensity of criticism of the leadership
that one hears privately in places ranging from taxi cabs to
government offices is astonishing. Awareness of its unpopularity
gives the government in Beijing incentives to use nationalism as a
replacement for the now hollow shell of communist ideology. But the
Party is also aware that nationalism is not an inert tool to be
pulled out of a kit and manipulated at the whim of the government. It
is double-edged. Volatile and potentially uncontrollable, especially
on emotional issues such as relations with Japan and Taiwan,
nationalism is powerful enough to prop up a communist party in a
capitalist society, but it could also severely damage the party if it
were turned against the state. Officials in Beijing are aware that
nationalism was a major force in the Communist Party's overthrow of
the Kuomintang, as it was in the 1911-12 revolution that overthrew
the Qing dynasty. This is probably why, during the row with Japan
over the Senkaku Islands in the summer of 1996, the Party actively
prevented students and workers from marching in protest to the
Japanese embassy.

According to one prominent Chinese foreign affairs expert, since the
May 1999 NATO bombing of the embassy in Belgrade, the authorities in
Beijing have been very concerned about an increasing trend in public
opinion that views the leaders as soft in responding to international
humiliations, and sees them even as "traitors" (maiguo zei)
interested only in business prospects. He and others argue that the
protests outside the American embassy in Beijing were not so much
instigated by the Communist Party, as many in the West assumed, but
rather were managed, controlled and ultimately suppressed by the
Party. One retired Chinese military officer touched on a similar
theme during the 1996 Senkaku crisis. He maintained that, if the
Party allowed the people to protest unhindered, the first day they
would be protesting against Japan, the next day against the lack of
response by the government, and on the third day against the
government itself.

In the early phases of democratization, China should be ripe for
jingoism. Hypernationalism could be exploited to mobilize popular
support and to deflect criticism of the state, especially given the
existence of irredentist claims, and the danger of ethnic and
regional "splittism" on the mainland and in Taiwan. If
democratization were to occur in the current context of weak
institutions, political leaders and opposition parties would have
incentives to appeal to nationalism in ways that could destabilize
the region. In fact, this is a favorite, though perhaps cynical,
argument offered to foreigners by communist opponents of multiparty

There are, however, plausible scenarios in which Chinese
democratization might reduce international conflict. Democratization
could make the mainland more imaginative with regard to the
frameworks for unification offered to Taiwan, thus making meaningful
cross-strait political dialogue more likely. Political liberalization
might also make the prospect of eventual accommodation with the
mainland more palatable to Taiwan and discourage the island's
diplomatic adventurism. But that possibility is not necessarily more
likely than its opposite: a renewed belief by Taiwan that the island
has its own national identity, that unification with the mainland
under any circumstances is unacceptable, and that democratization on
the mainland is a threat to Taiwanese goals. Taiwan may see a closing
window of opportunity, with the hopes of gaining true independence
reduced as the West's sympathy for Taiwan's opposition to unification

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