The Changing of the Guard

The Changing of the Guard

Mini Teaser: Rajan Menon evaluates the latest works on the future of East Asia and its impact on the world. Is Pax Americana in decline, and are we on the verge of a Pax Sinica?

by Author(s): Rajan Menon


Anthony H. Cordesman and Martin Kleiber, Chinese Military Modernization: Force Development and Strategic Capabilities (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2007), 226 pp., $24.95.

Bates Gill, Rising Star: China's New Security Diplomacy (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2007), 267 pp., $28.95.

Susan L. Shirk, China: Fragile Superpower (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 336 pp., $27.00.

Gordon Chang, The Coming Collapse of China (New York: Random House, 2001), 346 pp., $26.95.

Kenneth B. Pyle, Japan Rising: The Resurgence of Japanese Power and Purpose (New York: PublicAffairs, 2007), 420 pp., $29.95.

Richard J. Samuels, Securing Japan: Tokyo's Grand Strategy and the Future of East Asia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007), 277 pp., $29.95.


THE VIEW that sometime during this century a "changing of the guard" will occur, when China will displace the United States in much the same way as America did Britain, is widely held. It unites liberals and conservatives, optimists and pessimists, most of whom accept the proposition that "the East is back", with China leading the pack. The debate is over when the shift will happen and what a world that currently bears an American stamp will look like after China has become Mr. Big.

The main problem with the narrative about China's challenge to American supremacy (the limits of which are being illustrated in Iraq, just as they were thirty years earlier in Vietnam) is its linear, deterministic quality. Even under the most favorable conditions, China has a long way to go before it catches up with the United States. Consider some typical measures of power. China's GDP, rendered in current exchange rates, was $2.5 trillion in 2007, less than one-fifth of America's $13.2 trillion. The gap is even wider if one takes account of those states (India, the major West European states and Vietnam) most likely to join the United States in a countervailing coalition against a "revisionist" China. Then there is the matter of America's peerless capacity for technological innovation; China is in no position to close that gap anytime soon.

The same disparity is evident in military power. The American defense budget was $518 billion in 2005, roughly 43 percent of global military spending and equal to those of the next 47 countries combined. By contrast, China's was $81 billion. Even assuming that Chinese spending is understated by 50 percent, the American military budget is four times larger. True, money is not the measure of all things, but a meticulous assessment of the Chinese armed forces by Anthony Cordesman and Martin Kleiber demonstrates that China lags far behind in more specific elements of military power as well. The People's Liberation Army relies heavily on armaments that are knockoffs or modernized variants of Soviet systems from the 1950s and 1960s and are no match for their American equivalents in range, firepower, speed, accuracy and overall technological advancement. The Chinese leadership's dogged efforts to create a modern military force by cutting manpower; upgrading the technological caliber of armor, aircraft, missiles and ships (with massive purchases from Russia); and investing in electronic and information warfare have not changed this picture-and will not for decades to come.

The one advantage that Beijing has is that the United States has chosen to assume worldwide military commitments, while China concentrates its forces closer to home. The most important consequence of this contrast, itself indicative of the gap in power between America and China, is that while China would still be defeated in any confrontation over Taiwan, it has raised the risk that the United States would have to run to protect Taiwan.


THE CHINESE leadership would have to be extremely reckless and willing to jeopardize China's galloping economic growth to initiate a war with the United States, and there is no evidence that it is made up of wild-eyed gamblers. Rather, Beijing, as Bates Gill shows, has chosen moderation of late and has sought to allay regional fears about its ascendancy by stressing that it is engaged in "peaceful development", taking a leaf right out of Bismarck's playbook.

One might counter that talk is cheap and dismiss the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) soothing messages as proof of its well-honed propaganda skills. But beyond the words, there have been real changes in Beijing's deeds. Once suspicious of multilateral approaches to east Asian problems, China has begun to embrace them. For example, it has become an active participant in the ASEAN Plus-5 forum and an advocate of regional security structures for consultations. China has also begun to favor multilateral approaches to confidence building and territorial disputes. Beijing once derided the hypocrisy and double standard behind calls for nuclear non-proliferation but now supports efforts to stop the spread of nuclear arms and other Weapons of Mass Destruction; it has, for example, played a pivotal part in the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program. Likewise, it once viewed terrorism as a manifestation of class struggle and a weapon of the oppressed but now sees it as a scourge, no doubt partly because of sporadic attacks in the Turkic-Muslim Xinjiang Autonomous Region. By and large, this strategy of reassurance has worked, allaying east Asian fears that Chinese dominance will bring upheaval and bullying in its wake. Moreover, in some parts of the region, Washington, not Beijing, is deemed the greater threat to peace.

Yet the expectation that China will remain responsible rather than turn revisionist, even as the balance of power starts to tip in its favor, could be upended by events. For one thing, it does not allow for the unexpected, most notably a latter-day Sarajevo-style syndrome, in which a crisis spins out of control, culminating in a large-scale conflict that nobody wanted, or even anticipated. Susan Shirk offers the latest version of this argument, stressing the Chinese leadership's desire to exploit rising nationalism for its own ends. The CCP has done so because it faces a very big problem: It needs a new source of legitimacy. The arid slogans of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism have lost whatever appeal they may once have had for the populace, and the party has little to offer when it comes to building a 21st-century economic system and making it more innovative. With its censorship of the Internet and other dysfunctional proclivities, it is more of an obstacle to innovation than a spur. The party leadership has adapted by leaning heavily on nationalism, stoking it during crises, and using it more generally to articulate the theme that China under its stewardship has erased the humiliations of the 19th century and is fast becoming a front-rank power, respected by all, pushed around by none.

This is a risky gambit, though; China's materialistic youths are also very nationalistic (though hardly unique in that regard). They monitor whether the regime is delivering on its bravado and whether it is standing up to adversaries, especially Japan and the United States. Prominent examples include the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the war over Kosovo in May 1999, the collision between a Chinese fighter jet and an American EP-3 surveillance aircraft in April 2001, and Japanese leaders' visits to the Yasukuni shrine and sugarcoating of past imperialism.

Not only is the regime aware that it is judged by its performance rather than its pronouncements, it knows that mass demonstrations occasioned by perceived slights to China-and such large-scale protests occurred during the incidents just mentioned-could turn into mass protests aimed at the regime itself. This fear is not paranoiac; there is no dearth of kindling to stoke the fire. Today's China is rife with revolts, some involving clashes with the security services, by workers and peasants-and other segments of society-over a range of issues: job losses, land seizures, rising socioeconomic inequality, corruption, environmental degradation and the ineffectiveness of courts. Moreover, the protests are growing in number and size and are becoming better organized. According to official Chinese data, the number of protests increased from 58,000 in 2003 to 85,000 in 2005 (almost four million people took part in 2004), and the Ministry of Public Safety likened the sharp upswing since the latter half of the 1990s to a "violent wind." The true number-tightly guarded by the authorities-is quite likely to be much higher.1

The question is whether the regime will be able to ride the nationalist wave during crises by showing the toughness needed to placate its citizenry, while also avoiding a conflict with potential adversaries like the United States or Japan. This is something of a high-wire act, particularly because the ability of the Chinese population to mobilize itself has been transformed by the Internet and mobile phones, themselves important symbols of the modernization that has followed Deng Xiaoping's ditching of Maoist nostrums. Just recall how the Falun Gong faithful organized rallies and, following the regime's crackdown, used the Internet to publicize their plight.

The possibility of conflict is all the more unpalatable for Beijing because China's economic miracle is the result of shedding autarky and embracing economic interdependence or, in its turbo-charged variant, globalization. For example, if China were to unload its dollar holdings and opt for the euro as its main reserve currency, it would damage the American economy (the U.S. government would have to hike interest rates to keep attracting dollars). But Beijing would also wound itself. While Americans certainly benefit from the relatively inexpensive goods that U.S. companies export from China, it is no less true that a reliable American market is important to China. Its exports to the United States totaled $287 billion in 2006, making the United States the number one foreign destination for Chinese goods; on top of that, the United States is the fifth-largest source of foreign direct investment in China.

Essay Types: Book Review