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.
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.”