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

Reasons for Pessimism

OPTIMISTS on the China challenge are often guilty of contradictory arguments. On the one hand, they argue that China will only become a dangerous enemy if the United States treats it like one. At the same time, they attempt to demonstrate why China will not be able to develop the military capacity to pose any appreciable threat to us for a very long time. How can China be both hopelessly weak and potentially dangerous?

There are ways to square this circle by asking the right questions. China can pose security challenges to the United States even if it is unlikely to narrow the gap in military power. This is true because of geography; because of America's reliance on alliances to project power; and because of China's capacity to harm U.S. forces, U.S. regional allies, and the American homeland, even while losing a war in the technical, military sense.

Optimists are correct to focus on Chinese intentions and the potentially pacifying influences that the United States and other international actors can have on China. But they often assume too much about the positive effects of globalization, interdependence and political liberalization, because they underestimate the role of nationalist emotion and the possibility of misperceptions and inadvertence in war. They also forget that interdependence is a two-way street that restrains not only the Chinese, but China's potential adversaries as well.

In addressing the China challenge, the United States needs to think hard about three related questions: first, how to avoid crises and war through prudent, coercive diplomacy; second, how to manage crises and fight a war if the avoidance effort fails; third, how to end crises and terminate war at costs acceptable to the United States and its allies.

In terms of coercive diplomacy, the United States needs to balance deterrence and reassurance, recognizing that, on the one hand, deterrence is complicated by the increasing capabilities of the PLA, and that, on the other hand, if certain core interests of China are disregarded by the United States, even a relatively weak China might resort to force. The essence of deterrence and war planning lies in considering military responses-- including crisis management and diplomacy--to a Chinese attack. It might be advantageous to have the capacity to sink a Chinese destroyer pre-emptively before it launched its missiles, but an American admiral might never receive authorization to do so in a real crisis. Similarly, it might be beneficial to have the capacity to strike theater missile sites pre-emptively, but such action might cause unwanted escalation and alienate needed allies. This is one reason that effective local missile defenses are a good idea, even though they may be much less effective and much more expens ive than "shooting the archer."

The United States also needs to consider for how long and at what cost it is willing to fight for certain goals. For how long would the United States be willing to fight to keep Taipei from an agreement with Beijing in which Taipei maintains a very high degree of military and political autonomy, but is nonetheless, in terms of abstract sovereignty, part of China? (In answering this question, remember that the United States made similar concessions to Belgrade regarding Kosovo after defeating Yugoslavia militarily.) It is better to ask such questions about the end of a war before the unpredictable forces of emotion regarding sunk costs and reputation take hold after a war breaks out.

China's growing power causes so many headaches largely because its strategic implications are not fully clear. But before one laments the rise of Chinese power, one should consider an even more uncertain alternative: Chinese weakness and collapse. Nothing ordains that China's march to great power status cannot be derailed. Severe economic dislocation and political fragmentation could throw the country into disorder, and the central government could prove too crippled to use external adventures to rally support and maintain unity. Hard-bitten realists should hesitate before hoping for such developments, however. The last time China was weak and disunified--in the era of warlordism and revolution in the first half of the twentieth century--it was a disaster, not only for China, but also for international peace and stability.

Richard K. Betts is director of the Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Thomas J. Christensen is associate professor of political science and a member of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Essay Types: Essay