Can China Rise Peacefully?

October 25, 2014 Topic: SecurityGrand Strategy Region: ChinaRealismAmerica

Can China Rise Peacefully?

If the China continues growing rapidly, the US will once again face a potential peer competitor, and great-power politics will return in full force.

The discussion up to now has assumed that Confucianism is essentially peaceful and does not advocate initiating war for any reason. But that assumption is not true. As Yan Xuetong makes clear, the high premium Confucianism places on morality does not rule out employing war as an instrument of statecraft. Indeed, it mandates that China be willing to wage just wars when another country is behaving in ways that China’s leaders deem immoral. Yan writes, “Some claim that Confucius and Mencius advocate ‘no war’ and are opposed to all war. In fact, they are not opposed to all war, only to unjust wars. They support just wars.” He further says, “Confucius thinks that reliance on preaching to uphold the norms of benevolence and justice is inadequate. Hence he thinks the way of war should be employed to punish the princes who go against benevolence and justice.”

Of course, this justification for war is remarkably pliable. As almost every student of international politics knows, political leaders and policymakers of all persuasions are skilled in figuring out clever ways of defining a rival country’s behavior as unjust or morally depraved. Hence, with the right spinmeister, Confucian rhetoric can be used to justify aggressive as well as defensive behavior. Like liberalism in the United States, Confucianism makes it easy for Chinese leaders to speak like idealists and act like realists.

And there is abundant evidence that China has behaved aggressively toward its neighbors whenever it could over the course of its long history. In his survey of Chinese foreign policy since the second millennium BCE, the historian Warren Cohen writes, “In the creation of their empire, the Chinese were no less arrogant, no less ruthless, than the Europeans, Japanese, or Americans in the creation of theirs.” He adds, “Historically, a strong China has brutalized the weak—and there is no reason to expect it to act differently in the future, to behave any better than other great powers have in the past.” The political scientist Victoria Tin-bor Hui observes that when we look at Chinese foreign policy over time, what we see is “the primacy of brute force rather than ‘humane authority.’” She notes, “It is difficult to understand such prevalence of military conflicts throughout Chinese history from only the perspective of Confucian thought.”

Numerous other scholars make similar arguments. Yuan-Kang Wang, for example, writes, “Confucian culture did not constrain Chinese use of force: China has been a practitioner of realpolitik for centuries, behaving much like other great powers have throughout world history. . . . Chinese leaders have preferred to use force to resolve external threats to China’s security, take on a more offensive posture as the country’s power grew, and adopted expansive war aims in the absence of systemic or military constraints.” Finally, the historian Hans J. van de Ven writes, “No one even with only a casual interest in Chinese history can be unaware that China’s capacity for war in the last few centuries has proved truly awesome. . . . It is plain that China’s history has in fact been at least as violent as Europe’s.”

One might concede that China has done little more than pay lip service to Confucianism in the past, but argue that it has undergone an epiphany in recent years and now embraces that peaceful worldview while rejecting balance-of-power logic. There is little evidence, however, that such a change has taken place. Indeed, it is not unusual for experts on China to note that realism is alive and well there. Thomas Christensen, for example, argues that “China may well be the high church of realpolitik in the post–Cold War world,” while Avery Goldstein says, “China’s contemporary leaders, like their predecessors in Imperial China, prize the practice of realpolitik.”

In sum, there is little basis for the claim that China is an exceptional great power that eschews realist logic and instead behaves in accordance with the principles of Confucian pacifism. Almost all of the available evidence indicates that China has a rich history of trying to maximize its relative power. Furthermore, there is no good reason to think China will act differently in the future.

Make Money, Not War

Probably the most frequently heard argument that China’s rise can be peaceful is based on the theory of economic interdependence. This perspective has two components. First is the claim that China’s economy is inextricably bound to the economies of its potential rivals, including Japan and the United States. This linkage means not only that China and its trading partners depend on each other to keep prospering but also that prosperity in turn depends on peaceful relations among them. A war involving them would have disastrous economic consequences for all the belligerents. It would be tantamount to mutual assured destruction (MAD) at the economic level.

Second, prosperity is the main goal of modern states. Publics today expect their leaders to deliver economic growth; if they fail, they are likely to be thrown out of office. In some cases, there might be significant unrest at home and the regime itself be threatened. This imperative to get rich means no rational leader would start a war. Indeed, even security competition among the relevant countries is likely to be moderate, not just because leaders prefer to concentrate on maximizing their country’s wealth, but also because of the danger that an intense rivalry might inadvertently lead to war. In a world of economically interdependent states, leaders have a marked aversion to conflict, for fear it will put an end to prosperity as well as their political careers.

It would be wrong to argue that economic interdependence does not matter at all for the fostering of peace. Leaders do care greatly about their country’s prosperity, and in certain circumstances that concern will help dampen any enthusiasm they might have for war. The key question, however, is whether such calculations are likely to decisively influence policymakers in a wide variety of circumstances. In other words, will the impact of economic interdependence be weighty enough to serve as a firm basis for peace between China and its potential rivals over a long period of time? I believe there are good reasons to doubt that concerns about mutual prosperity will keep Asia peaceful as China grows more powerful.

At the most basic level, political calculations often trump economic ones when they come into conflict. This is certainly true regarding matters of national security, because concerns about survival are invariably at stake in the security realm, and they are more important than worries about prosperity. As emphasized, if you do not survive, you cannot prosper. It is worth noting in this regard that there was substantial economic interdependence and prosperity among the European great powers before 1914. Nevertheless, World War I happened. Germany, which was principally responsible for causing that conflict, was bent on preventing Russia from growing more powerful while at the same time trying to become a hegemon in Europe. Politics overwhelmed economics in this important case.

Politics also tends to win out over concerns about prosperity when nationalism affects the issue at stake. Consider Beijing’s position on Taiwan. Chinese leaders have stressed that they will go to war if Taiwan declares its independence, even though they believe the ensuing conflict would damage China’s economy. Of course, nationalism is at the core of Chinese thinking on Taiwan; that island is considered sacred territory. One might also note that history is littered with civil wars, and in almost every case there was substantial economic interdependence between the combatants before the fighting broke out. But political calculations proved to be more influential in the end.

There are three other reasons to doubt the claim that economic interdependence can sustain peace in Asia in the face of an increasingly powerful China. The theory depends on permanent prosperity to work, but there is no guarantee there will not be a trade war or a major economic crisis that undermines that assumption. Consider, for example, how the ongoing euro crisis is doing serious damage to the economies of many European countries. But even in the absence of a severe global economic downturn, a particular state might be having significant economic problems, which could put it in a position where it had little to lose economically, and maybe even something to gain, by starting a war. For instance, a key reason Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990—despite their close economic ties—is that Kuwait was exceeding its OPEC oil production quotas and driving down Iraq’s oil profits, which its economy could ill afford.

Another reason to question economic-interdependence theory is that states sometimes start wars in the expectation that victory will bring them substantial economic and strategic benefits and that those prospective benefits will be greater than the prosperity lost from damaged inter-dependence. For example, it is widely believed there are abundant natural resources on the floor of the South China Sea. However, China and its neighbors disagree significantly over who controls that large body of water. Although it is unlikely, one can imagine a more powerful China using military force to gain control over the South China Sea so that it can exploit its seabed and fuel Chinese economic growth.