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.

Although maximizing its prospects of survival is the principal reason China will seek to dominate Asia, there is another reason, related to Beijing’s territorial disputes with some of its neighbors. As Taylor Fravel points out, China has managed to settle most of its border conflicts since 1949—seventeen out of twenty-three—in good part because it has been willing to make some significant concessions to the other side. Nevertheless, China has six outstanding territorial disagreements, and there is little reason—at least at this juncture—to think the involved parties will find a clever diplomatic solution to them.

Probably China’s most important dispute is over Taiwan, which Beijing is deeply committed to making an integral part of China once again. The present government on Taiwan, however, believes it is a sovereign country and has no interest in being reintegrated into China. Taiwanese leaders do not advertise their independence, for fear it will provoke China to invade Taiwan. In addition, China has ongoing disputes with Vietnam over control of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, and with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam over the Spratly Islands, which are also located in the South China Sea.

More generally, China maintains that it has sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea, a claim disputed not only by its neighbors but by the United States as well. Farther to the north in the East China Sea, Beijing has a bitter feud with Japan over who controls a handful of small islands that Tokyo calls the Senkaku Islands and China labels the Diaoyu Islands.

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.