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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.

Finally, China has land border disputes with Bhutan and India. In fact, China and India fought a war over the disputed territory in 1962, and the two sides have engaged in provocative actions on numerous occasions since then. For example, New Delhi maintains there were 400 Chinese incursions into Indian-controlled territory during 2012 alone; and in mid-April 2013, Chinese troops—for the first time since 1986—refused to return to China after they were discovered on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control. It appears that China has been stepping up its cross-border raids in recent years in response to increased Indian troop deployments and an accompanying growth in infrastructure.

Given the importance of these territorial disputes to China, coupled with the apparent difficulty of resolving them through the give-and-take of diplomacy, the best way for China to settle them on favorable terms is probably via coercion. Specifically, a China that is much more powerful than any of its neighbors will be in a good position to use military threats to force the other side to accept a deal largely on China’s terms. And if that does not work, China can always unsheathe the sword and go to war to get its way. It seems likely that coercion or the actual use of force is the only plausible way China is going to regain Taiwan. In short, becoming a regional hegemon is the best pathway for China to resolve its various territorial disputes on favorable terms.

It is worth noting that in addition to these territorial disputes, China might become embroiled in conflict with its neighbors over water. The Tibetan Plateau, which is located within China’s borders, is the third-largest repository of freshwater in the world, ranking behind the Arctic and Antarctica. Indeed, it is sometimes referred to as the “third pole.” It is also the main source of many of Asia’s great rivers, including the Brahmaputra, the Irrawaddy, the Mekong, the Salween, the Sutlej, the Yangtze, and the Yellow. Most of these rivers flow into neighboring countries, where they have a profound effect on the daily lives of many millions of people.

In recent years, Beijing has shown much interest in rerouting water from these rivers to heavily populated areas in eastern and northern China. Toward that end, China has built canals, dams, irrigation systems, and pipelines. This plan is in its early stages and has yet to change the flow of these rivers in a meaningful fashion. But the potential for trouble is substantial, because the neighboring countries downstream are likely to see a marked reduction in their water supply over time, which could have devastating economic and social consequences. For example, the Chinese are interested in diverting the Brahmaputra River northward into the dying Yellow River. If this happens, it would cause major problems in India and especially in Bangladesh. China is also working to redirect water from the Mekong River, a diversion that is almost certain to cause big problems in Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

In its efforts to begin rerouting the rivers flowing out of the Tibetan Plateau, China has acted unilaterally and shown little interest in building international institutions that can help manage the ensuing problems. Given that water is becoming an increasingly scarce resource in Asia, this problem is likely to get worse with time and, given the enormous stakes involved, might even lead to war between China and one or more of its neighbors.

In addition to pursuing regional hegemony, a rising China will have strategic interests outside of Asia, just as the United States has important interests beyond the Western Hemisphere. In keeping with the dictates of offensive realism, China will have good reason to interfere in the politics of the Americas so as to cause Washington trouble in its own backyard, thus making it more difficult for the U.S. military to move freely around the world.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union formed a close alliance with Cuba in good part for the purpose of interfering in America’s backyard. In the future, relations between the United States and a country like Brazil will perhaps worsen, creating an opportunity for China to form close ties with Brazil and maybe even station military forces in the Western Hemisphere. Additionally, China will have powerful incentives to forge ties with Canada and Mexico and do whatever it can to weaken America’s dominance in North America. Its aim will not be to threaten the American homeland directly, but rather to distract the United States from looking abroad and force it to focus increased attention on its own neighborhood.

This claim may sound implausible at present, but remember that the Soviets tried to put nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba in 1962, had more than 40,000 troops in Cuba that same year, and also provided Cuba with a wide variety of sophisticated conventional weapons. And do not forget that the United States already has a huge military presence in China’s backyard.

China will obviously want to limit America’s ability to project power elsewhere, in order to improve Beijing’s prospects of achieving regional hegemony in Asia. However, China has other reasons for wanting to pin down the United States as much as possible in the Western Hemisphere. In particular, China has major economic and political interests in Africa, which seem likely to increase in the future. Even more important, China is heavily dependent on oil from the Persian Gulf, and that dependence is apt to grow significantly over time. China, like the United States, is almost certain to treat the Persian Gulf as a vital strategic interest, which means Beijing and Washington will eventually engage in serious security competition in that region, much as the two superpowers did during the Cold War. Creating trouble for the United States in the Western Hemisphere will limit its ability to project power into the Persian Gulf and Africa.

To take this line of analysis a step further, most of the oil that China imports from the Gulf is transported by sea. For all the talk about moving that oil by pipelines and railroads through Myanmar and Pakistan, the fact is that maritime transport is a much easier and cheaper option. However, for Chinese ships to reach the Gulf as well as Africa from China’s major ports along its eastern coast, they have to get from the South China Sea into the Indian Ocean, which are separated by various Southeast Asian countries. The only way for Chinese ships to move between these two large bodies of water is to go through three major passages. Specifically, they can go through the Strait of Malacca, which is surrounded by Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, or they can go farther south and traverse either the Lombok or the Sunda Strait, each of which cuts through Indonesia and leads into the open waters of the Indian Ocean just to the northwest of Australia.

Chinese ships then have to traverse the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea to reach the Persian Gulf. After that, they have to return to China via the same route. Chinese leaders will surely want to control these sea lines of communication, just as the United States emphasizes the importance of controlling its primary sea routes. Thus, it is hardly surprising that there is widespread support in China for building a blue-water navy, which would allow China to project power around the world and control its main sea lines of communication.

In brief, if China continues its rapid economic growth, it will almost certainly become a superpower, which means it will build the power-projection capability necessary to compete with the United States around the globe. The two areas to which it is likely to pay the greatest attention are the Western Hemisphere and the Persian Gulf, although Africa will also be of marked importance to Beijing. In addition, China will undoubtedly try to build military and naval forces that would allow it to reach those distant regions, much the way the United States has pursued sea control.

Why China Cannot Disguise Its Rise

One might argue that, yes, China is sure to attempt to dominate Asia, but there is a clever strategy it can pursue to achieve that end peacefully. Specifically, it should follow Deng Xiaoping’s famous maxim that China keep a low profile and avoid becoming embroiled in international conflicts as much as possible. His exact words were “Hide our capacities and bide our time, but also get some things done.” The reason it makes sense for China to bide its time is that if it avoids trouble and merely continues growing economically, it will eventually become so powerful that it can just get its way in Asia. Its hegemony will be a fait accompli. But even if that does not happen and China eventually has to use force or the threat of force to achieve hegemony and resolve its outstanding disputes, it will still be well positioned to push its neighbors and the United States around.

Starting a war now, or even engaging in serious security competition, makes little sense for Beijing. Conflict runs the risk of damaging the Chinese economy; moreover, China’s military would not fare well against the United States and its current allies. It is better for China to wait until its power has increased and it is in a better position to take on the American military. Simply put, time is on China’s side, which means it should pursue a low-key foreign policy so as not to raise suspicion among its neighbors.