The Dragon Awakes

The Dragon Awakes

Mini Teaser: Demand for resources will be the flashpoint in U.S.-Chinese relations.

by Author(s): Ian Bremmer

Napoleon's prediction is coming to pass: China's awakening is moving the world around it. China is building its military capacity at a pace that has Washington's attention. The added muscle allows Beijing to more aggressively pursue regional territorial interests to an extent that worries the White House. The recent heightening of tensions on both sides of the Taiwan Strait has U.S. diplomats working overtime to protect the status quo there. And Washington is becoming increasingly irritated with China's inability or unwillingness to pressure North Korea to abandon its destabilizing nuclear ambitions.

But it is China's urgent need for secure, long-term access to energy supplies and raw materials that is driving Beijing to define China's national interests much more broadly--and well beyond China's traditional sphere of influence. That dynamic is bringing U.S. and Chinese interests into conflict in unprecedented ways. It is also creating the biggest change in the strategic structure of world politics since the end of the Cold War.

In recent weeks, Washington has gone public with its worries that China's military power has become a threat to U.S. interests. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 17 that he was alarmed by China's growing military capacity and the role its "dictatorial system" might play in Asian affairs. Later in the week, during his first major briefing to Congress, CIA Director Porter Goss warned that China's military buildup not only tilts the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait, it threatens U.S. forces elsewhere in East Asia. At the end of the week, a meeting of the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance, a cornerstone of U.S. national security interests in the region, focused on concerns in Washington and Tokyo that the regional military balance is shifting steadily toward China. In response, China accused both of provocation.

The "Taiwan lobby" in the U.S. Congress is also sounding an alarm. On February 16, Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate proposed a joint resolution to resume diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The proposal would have proven political dynamite if it had any chance of passing. It did not. While the Bush Administration resolutely opposed the move as a dangerous encouragement of Taiwan's independence movement, China treated the resolution as a grave insult.

The pressure points in the Sino-U.S. Asian security relationship are well known. On-again, off-again tensions between China and Taiwan are presently on again. Despite the lack of formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, Washington has pledged to protect the island nation from attack and to arm Taiwan, via the Taiwan Relations Act. Washington has established a clear policy on the China-Taiwan conflict: It opposes any challenge from either side to the status-quo stalemate. But the White House has had only limited success in persuading Taiwanese officials to drop threats to amend Taiwan's constitution, to change the official name of the country to reflect a move toward sovereignty, or to call for a referendum on independence from the mainland. Nor was Washington able to dissuade Beijing from going ahead with a March "anti-secession law", which provides a quasi-legal basis for invasion should Taiwan declare formal independence.

And Washington has not had much success persuading Beijing to help ratchet up pressure on its notional ally, North Korea, to open itself to the Complete Verifiable Irreversible Denuclearization (CVID) the Bush Administration demands. The Bush team has little leverage with Kim Jong-il's reclusive regime. It counts on China, North Korea's major supplier of food and energy, to press Pyongyang to renounce the nuclear brinkmanship it uses to destabilize the region and gain concessions for its ruined economy. But China's near-term interests are not perfectly aligned with Washington's. More than ongoing U.S.-North Korean tensions, China fears that a North Korean collapse would flood China's already restive Jilin and Liaoning border provinces with sick and starving North Korean refugees. Some Chinese officials also worry that a premature (in Beijing's estimation) Korean reunification might take place on American terms. Finally, because Pyongyang is well aware of Beijing's fears, Chinese leaders fear North Korea might not respond to their pressures or their entreaties.

As if China's growing military capacity weren't already worrisome, the Bush Administration was alarmed earlier this year when senior European diplomats began discussing a plan to lift Europe's embargo on the sale of weapons to China, imposed following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. On a tour of Asian capitals in March, an uncharacteristically blunt Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned Europe more than once not to lift the ban and reminded the European media, "It is the United States--not Europe--that has defended the Pacific."

From China's point of view, the U.S. strategic position in Asia remains strong. Washington's geostrategic response to security threats emanating from the War on Terror has American troops in forward positions in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan--just across the Chinese border. Washington removed the Taliban from power and has established a friendly regime in Afghanistan. U.S. relations with both Pakistan and India, China's traditional regional rival, are closer than at any point in decades. In March, the Bush Administration announced it was ready to sell F-16 fighter aircraft to both.

But most worrisome and irritating for China is the durability of the U.S.-Japanese security alliance. Washington has Tokyo's virtually unqualified support for the defense of Taiwan and for its determination to pressure North Korea. Never in modern history have China and Japan enjoyed warm relations. China knows that Japan, which boasts the world's second-largest economy, has the financial resources to become a serious military rival if it opts to shed the pacifist profile it has maintained since the end of the Second World War. Japan's deployment of its Self-Defense Forces to Iraq did not go unnoticed in Beijing. Suspicion of Japan's military intentions features prominently in Chinese official public statements.

The suspicion is mutual. In Japan's December 2004 Defense Program Outline, Japan identified China as a potential security threat for the first time. Tokyo's decision was in response to a series of military confrontations with China in disputed areas of the East China Sea. On November 10, 2004, the Japanese navy confronted a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine in Japanese waters off the Okinawa islands and chased the sub for two days. Beijing quickly apologized for the incursion, but Japan caught a Chinese research vessel in its waters soon after. China reportedly violated Japan's maritime territory 34 times in 2004, up from eight in 2003.

In other words, the security tensions Washington has worked hard to contain are building in East Asia. China's growing military capacity will only up the stakes.

These Chinese-U.S. tensions are based largely on competing short-term interests. But nearly all these issues are resolvable. The United States, China and Taiwan all hope China and Taiwan will one day peacefully reunify. And while the terms of reunification differ fundamentally in Beijing and Taipei, all recognize that military confrontation in the Taiwan Strait is in no one's interest. Washington hopes it can maintain the delicate balance it has supported for decades: a one-China policy grounded in a U.S. resolve to prevent either side from acting to upset the status quo.

Beijing would prefer an economic annexation of the island to a military one. As China's economy grows, Taiwan's appears to be slowing. More than a million Taiwanese have migrated to the mainland to make money, and they have invested an estimated $100 billion of capital there. China's strategy is to facilitate this movement. China doesn't need capital from anywhere these days; the nation is swimming in cash. But they continue to do everything possible to pull investment dollars away from Taiwan, because they believe economic ties will eventually bind Taiwan to the mainland.

Taiwan's leaders believe Taiwanese democracy will outlast the mainland's anachronistic political structure and that reunification will only come once China has become a democracy. In the meantime, most Taiwanese want to avoid unnecessary confrontation with the mainland. They have confidence that their lobbying power in Washington guarantees their security.

In other words, both sides believe it is in everyone's interests to manage tension and to ensure neither side ever gets so close to the brink of an all-out conflict they can't pull back. This shared understanding prevents Taiwan from becoming an issue that should ever pit China and the United States directly against one another.

Nor does anyone in Washington or East Asia want a nuclear exchange on the Korean Peninsula--especially not the bellicose North Korean leadership, whose very existence depends on avoiding one. China's short-term interests do not align completely with America's, but both sides know a nuclear-arms race in East Asia is bad for everyone. All sides understand that Kim Jong-il stirs up trouble only to gain the necessary concessions to keep North Korea on life support. All sides know that Kim is a rational, if somewhat peculiar, strategist. Beijing knows as well as Washington that Kim's primary goal is to preserve North Korea long enough for one of his children to inherit it. China chooses to cope with Kim's pot-stirring, while Washington prefers a more comprehensive resolution to the threat of a nuclear Korean peninsula. But their long-term interests are the same: All want sustainable stability.

Essay Types: Essay