China's Power Paradox

China's Power Paradox

Mini Teaser: China has striven to moderate at least the appearence of its global ambitions.

by Author(s): Warren I. Cohen

Avery Goldstein, Rising to the Challenge: China's Grand Strategy and International Security (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), 274 pp., $57.95.

Alastair Iain Johnston and Robert Ross (eds.), New Directions in the Study of China's Foreign Policy (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), 448 pp., $24.95.

David Shambaugh (ed.), Power Shift: China and Asia's New Dynamics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 383 pp., $24.95.

Robert G. Sutter, China's Rise in Asia: Promises and Perils (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), 297 pp., $24.95.

Nancy Bernkopf Tucker (ed.), Dangerous Strait: The U.S.-Taiwan-China Crisis (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 272 pp., $39.50.

THE NATIONAL goals of the People's Republic of China are obvious and unsurprising: China intends to become a great power, to expand its wealth and influence and to achieve regional pre-eminence in East Asia at the expense of the now-dominant United States. What China's leaders and the officials and intellectuals who comprise the country's foreign policy elite have been debating is the question of how to get there from here.

In the beginning of the 1990s, the prevailing view among Chinese analysts was that American power was declining and the emergence of a multipolar international system was imminent. Michael Pillsbury followed the conversation as it appeared in China's open-source material in his China Debates the Future Security Environment (2000). Pillsbury found only one dissenter, a scholar at the Institute of American Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who contended that America's decline was at least three decades away. By the mid-1990s, to the dismay of China's leaders, it was apparent that the United States was in fact growing stronger. China had no choice but to attempt to achieve its goals in an American-dominated unipolar world--and in an environment where Beijing perceived a threat from the United States. This is why Deng Xiaoping had advised his comrades to hide China's capabilities, to build national power patiently. A relatively weak China had to avoid provocation while its economy developed and its strength grew.

In his essay in Alastair Iain Johnston's and Robert Ross's New Directions in the Study of China's Foreign Policy, Deng Yong, a scholar at the U.S. Naval Academy, indicates that a number of Chinese analysts recognized the security dilemma: As China's ability to defend its interests increased, its offensive potential would be disquieting both to its neighbors and the United States. An arms race like the one that had contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union might follow; meanwhile, the Americans already were bolstering their alliances in the region. It was essential to minimize anxiety abroad during the era of transition as China moved to claim great power status. China needed a good working relationship with the United States to maintain the economic growth essential to domestic stability, as well as to achieving its national goals.

The policies Chinese leaders chose in the mid-1990s are sufficiently coherent for Avery Goldstein, in Rising to the Challenge, to label them as parts of a "grand strategy", which he defines as the combination of military, economic and political means that the men in Beijing have chosen to serve their national interest. He has no secret document in which the Chinese spell out their strategy, but rather extrapolates an overarching vision from the course they have followed consistently since the mid-1990s.

To reduce widespread apprehension about the potential impact of China's "rise", Beijing engaged in a wide range of multilateral activities designed to demonstrate that China was a responsible member of the international community. Goldstein points to its participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, its signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, its support for American efforts to cope with the North Korean nuclear threat, and its announcement during the Asian financial crisis of 1997 that it would not devalue the yuan (although he notes that China had economic as well as political reasons for the currency decision). The Chinese also demonstrated new flexibility in managing differences with ASEAN states over the resources of the South China Sea.

In addition, Chinese diplomatists devised a variety of "partnerships" with major powers, through which they hoped to constrain the United States and hasten the arrival of the longed-for multipolar world. With Russia they crafted a "strategic cooperative partnership" that they insisted was not an alliance and not directed at any third country. Neither Moscow nor Beijing could risk antagonizing Washington. Chinese leaders sought to develop similar ties to Britain, France and Germany, anticipating a future strategic relationship with the European Union. However haltingly, they worked toward partnerships with Japan and India, but, as Goldstein notes, carving out a stable relationship with the United States was the highest priority: They needed the American market, American technology and some sort of a modus vivendi on Taiwan.

The Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996, when the People's Liberation Army bracketed Taiwan with missiles and the United States responded by ordering two carrier battle groups to the area, prompted a major effort by Chinese and American leaders to reduce tensions between their countries. Presidents Jiang Zemin and Bill Clinton met in Washington in 1997, and the two men agreed to work toward a "constructive strategic partnership", despite the unhappiness of each with many of the other's policies and the disinclination of either to change the offending practices. Clinton's visit to China in June 1998 confirmed the American desire to avoid further confrontation, specifically when he gave the Chinese leaders the public assurances they sought on the limits of American support for Taiwan (the "Three Nos"). All of the major elements of Beijing's grand strategy appeared to be in place--and working effectively--until events in the spring of 1999 caused many in the foreign policy establishment to question this approach.

Challenges to the regime's strategy erupted publicly in what David Finkelstein called "the Great Peace and Development Debate of 1999." In April, Clinton mishandled Premier Zhu Rongji's efforts to win American acceptance of China's entry into the World Trade Organization, giving aid and comfort to those Chinese leaders who contended Zhu was being too accommodating. But far more disruptive to the policy consensus in Beijing was the American use of NATO forces to attack Serbia during the crisis over "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo. The Chinese were profoundly troubled by the willingness of the United States to bypass the UN Security Council. They were even more upset by the precedent for interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign state: Might the Americans consider similar action on behalf of the Tibetans or the Uighurs of Xinjiang? Worst of all was NATO's accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese. Anti-American demonstrators, abetted by their government, besieged the U.S. embassy in Beijing and set fire to the home of the American consul-general in Chengdu.

For the next several months, Chinese analysts critical of the regime's effort to seek a partnership with the United States gained unprecedented access to the media. They argued that forces hostile to China had gained control of American policy. Some called for the creation of an anti-hegemony coalition. Jiang Zemin's grand strategy was under attack. The debate raged until late summer, when it became apparent that Jiang had prevailed and there would not be a change of course.

Taiwan provided the first test of Jiang's "stay the course" approach when, in March 2000, Chen Shui-bian, candidate of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, was elected president. Happily, a new strait crisis did not occur. Beijing provided the obligatory threats but did not unleash the PLA. The Clinton Administration quickly warned Chen against provocative action, and the senior American diplomat in Taipei helped in the preparation of his inaugural address in which he promised not to declare independence or cross any of the red lines Beijing had drawn.

The arrival of George W. Bush in the White House was the second test. The president's advisors argued that Clinton had been too accommodating to the Chinese, that they were strategic "competitors" rather than partners. They were eager to confront China and to demonstrate that they would not tolerate any challenge to American influence in East Asia. Bush deliberately excluded Jiang Zemin from the list of leaders to whom he placed courtesy calls after his inauguration.

The April 2001 episode in which an American spy plane collided with a Chinese interceptor, resulting in the death of the Chinese pilot and the forced landing of the American plane on Chinese territory--and the initial effort by Bush to intimidate the Chinese into returning the plane--inflamed nationalist, anti-American feeling in China. The Bush Administration quickly evinced a more realistic understanding of how to deal with Beijing. Perhaps more striking was Jiang's willingness to ignore popular anger and to accept something less than the apology he had demanded. His strategy was working, and he saw no reason to abandon it. The crisis was defused quickly. Then came 9/11, which in the popular mind led to major improvements in the Sino-American relationship. But Goldstein argues that the Chinese-American rapprochement that accelerated in September actually began after April. No matter when the improvement began, David Shambaugh, in his introduction to Power Shift, contends that the United States and China are now enjoying the best relationship in years.

Essay Types: Book Review