Can China Rise Peacefully?

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.

In practice, this means China should do whatever it can to signal to the outside world that it has benign intentions and does not plan to build formidable and threatening military forces. In terms of rhetoric, Chinese leaders should constantly emphasize their peaceful intentions and make the case that China can rise peacefully because of its rich Confucian culture. At the same time, they should work hard to keep Chinese officials from using harsh language to describe the United States and other Asian countries, or from making threatening statements toward them.

In terms of actual behavior, China should not initiate any crises with its neighbors or the United States, or add fuel to the fire if another country provokes a crisis with China. For example, Beijing should go out of its way to avoid trouble over sovereignty issues regarding the South China Sea and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. It should also do what it can to limit defense spending, so as not to appear threatening, while working to increase economic intercourse with its neighbors as well as the United States. Chinese leaders, according to this logic, should emphasize that it is all to the good that China is growing richer and economic interdependence is on the rise, because those developments will serve as a powerful force for peace. After all, starting a war in a tightly connected and prosperous world is widely believed to be the equivalent of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Finally, China should play an active and cooperative role in as many international institutions as possible and work with the United States to keep the North Korean problem under control.

While this approach is intuitively attractive, it will not work in practice. Indeed, we already have evidence that China cannot successfully employ Deng Xiaoping’s prescribed foreign policy over the long run. Before 2009, Beijing did a good job of keeping a low profile and not generating fear either among its neighbors or in the United States. Since then, however, China has been involved in a number of contentious territorial disputes and is increasingly seen as a serious threat by other countries in Asia.

This deterioration in China’s relations with other countries is due in part to the fact that, no matter what Beijing does to signal good intentions, they cannot be sure what its real intentions are now, let alone in the future. Indeed, we cannot know who will be in charge of Chinese foreign policy in the years ahead, much less what their intentions will be toward other countries in the region or the United States. On top of that, China has serious territorial disputes with a number of its neighbors. Therefore, China’s neighbors already focus mainly on Beijing’s capabilities, which means they look at its rapidly growing economy and increasingly formidable military forces. Not surprisingly, many other countries in Asia will become deeply worried because they know they are probably going to end up living next door to a superpower that might one day have malign intentions toward them.

This problem is exacerbated by the “security dilemma,” which tells us that the measures a state takes to increase its own security usually wind up decreasing the security of other states. When a country adopts a policy or builds weapons that it thinks are defensive in nature, potential rivals invariably think that those steps are offensive in nature. For example, when the United States moves aircraft carriers near the Taiwan Strait—as it did in 1996—or when it redeploys submarines to the western Pacific, American leaders honestly believe those moves are defensive in nature. China, on the other hand, sees them as an offensive strategy of encirclement, not as part of a defensive strategy of containment. Thus, it is not surprising that the Economist reported in 2009, “A retired Chinese admiral likened the American navy to a man with a criminal record ‘wandering just outside the gate of a family home.’”

All of this is to say that almost anything China does to improve its military capabilities will be seen in Beijing as defensive in nature, but in Tokyo, Hanoi, and Washington it will appear offensive in nature. That means China’s neighbors are likely to interpret any steps it takes to enhance its military posture as evidence that Beijing not only is bent on acquiring significant offensive capabilities but has offensive intentions as well. And that includes instances where China is merely responding to steps taken by its neighbors or the United States to enhance their fighting power. Such assessments make it almost impossible for Chinese leaders to implement Deng Xiaoping’s clever foreign policy.

In addition, China’s neighbors understand that time is not working in their favor, as the balance of power is shifting against them as well as the United States. They therefore have an incentive to provoke crises over disputed territorial claims now, when China is relatively weak, rather than wait until it becomes a superpower. It seems clear that Beijing has not provoked the recent crises with its neighbors. As Cui Tiankai, one of China’s leading diplomats, puts it, “We never provoked anything. We are still on the path of peaceful development. If you look carefully at what happened in the last couple of years, you will see that others started all the disputes.” He is essentially correct. It is China’s neighbors, not Beijing, that have been initiating most of the trouble in recent years.

Nevertheless, it is mainly China’s response to these crises that has caused its neighbors as well as the United States to view China in a more menacing light than was the case before 2009. Specifically, Chinese leaders have felt compelled to react vigorously and sometimes harshly because the disputes “concern China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and there is strong public sentiment on these issues.” As Suisheng Zhao notes, since 2008, the Chinese government “has become increasingly reluctant to constrain the expression of popular nationalism and more willing to follow the popular nationalist calls for confrontation against the Western powers and its neighbors.”

This means in practice that Beijing boldly restates its claims and emphasizes not only that there is no room for compromise but that it will fight to defend what it considers to be sovereign Chinese territory. In some cases, the Chinese feel compelled to deploy military or paramilitary forces to make their position crystal clear, as happened in April 2012, when a crisis flared up between China and the Philippines over control of Scarborough Shoal, a small island in the South China Sea. The same kind of intimidating behavior was on display after September 2012, when China and Japan became embroiled in a crisis over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The Chinese government has also shown little hesitation in threatening or employing economic sanctions against its rivals. Naturally, such hard-nosed pronouncements and actions raise the temperature and undermine Chinese efforts to pursue a low-profile foreign policy.

Finally, at the most basic level, the United States and almost all of China’s neighbors have powerful incentives to contain its rise, which means they will carefully monitor its growth and move to check it sooner rather than later. Let us look more closely at how the United States and the other countries in Asia are likely to react to China’s ascendancy.


The historical record clearly demonstrates how American policymakers will react if China attempts to dominate Asia. Since becoming a great power, the United States has never tolerated peer competitors. As it demonstrated throughout the twentieth century, it is determined to remain the world’s only regional hegemon. Therefore, the United States will go to great lengths to contain China and do what it can to render it incapable of ruling the roost in Asia. In essence, the United States is likely to behave toward China largely the way it behaved toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

China’s neighbors are certain to fear its rise as well, and they, too, will do whatever they can to prevent it from achieving regional hegemony. Indeed, there is already substantial evidence that countries like India, Japan, and Russia, as well as smaller powers like Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam, are worried about China’s ascendancy and are looking for ways to contain it. In the end, they will join an American-led balancing coalition to check China’s rise, much the way Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and eventually China, joined forces with the United States during the Cold War to contain the Soviet Union.

Uncle Sam versus the Dragon

China is still far from the point where it has the military capability to make a run at regional hegemony. This is not to deny there are good reasons to worry about potential conflicts breaking out today over issues like Taiwan and the South China Sea; but that is a different matter. The United States obviously has a deep-seated interest in making sure that China does not become a regional hegemon. Of course, this leads to a critically important question: what is America’s best strategy for preventing China from dominating Asia?