China Ascendant: Is Conflict Inevitable?

December 17, 2013 Topic: Grand StrategyGreat PowersRising PowersSecurity Region: China

China Ascendant: Is Conflict Inevitable?

The ADIZ is one more reminder that China has the strength to challenge the regional order. A deep look at where this might lead.

Those who insist that a unipolar world abides compile charts and graphs showing that the United States has vastly more economic power (its GDP in 2012 was nearly twice that of China: $15.7 trillion versus $8.3 trillion) and military might (a defense budget of $682 billion compared to $166 billion in 2012 current dollars) than China tend. But such statistics miss this point. In a remarkably short time, China has forced the East Asian states that have trusted in American primacy to wonder how reliable it is now—and, more so, what its value will be two decades hence.

From a global vantage point, we are a long way from witnessing Pax Americana yielding to Pax Sinica, and Walter Russell Mead’s recent claim, in his “The End of the End of History,” that a latter-day Triple Alliance comprising China, Russia, and Iran is remaking the international order exaggerates both the reach and versatility of these countries’ power, and more so their long-term prospects for unity. In East Asia, however, a power shift is underway, and no region matters more to China. That the United States can still prevail over China in “a force-on-force” war there is true for now but also beside the point because it is an unlikely scenario. What Beijing has done, and with considerable success, is to reset the calculations of risk, thereby casting doubt on Washington’s capacity to provide reassurance and protection during lesser contingencies at a cost it deems acceptable. Beijing’s East China Sea ADIZ and its tough words and deeds relating to islands and bodies of water it claims are all about creating this new context. China challenges. Washington offers symbolic reassurance. Regional states realize on each such occasion that the ratio of relative power is shifting.

The second trend, still only dimly discernible, is closely connected to the first. It has to do with the strategies that the states that feel most exposed to Chinese power will adopt to adjust to the eastern power transition. Through its still-nascent “Look East” policy India, whose security depends on China not having free rein in East Asia, has begun to beef up strategic cooperation with states in that region that are adjusting to China’s surging power. New Delhi formed a “strategic partnership” with Indonesia and bilateral ties have grown, including in the military sphere. India has been intensifying security consultations with Japan and Australia, deepening defense cooperation with Vietnam, and participating in naval exercises with the United States, Japan and Australia. And it has revamped its relationship with the United States: the suspicion and intermittent hostility that marked the Cold War era have given way to a gradual strategic convergence. No matter what the two proclaim publicly their new course is in large part a reaction to China’s rise.


Japan is slowly rethinking its generation-long military minimalism for the same reason. It is common to read that cultural constraints (a legacy of the atomic bombardment, defeat and occupation endured at the end of World War II) rule out a change in Japan’s national security strategy. This conclusion overlooks the extent to which the attitudes and norms within countries that relate to national security, while important, are reshaped by what happens beyond their borders. Besides, Japan’s choice is not binary: sticking with status quo despite the adverse effects that increasing Chinese power could have on its security or ramping up military spending recklessly, flexing its newly-acquired muscles, and scaring the neighborhood. With defense spending that’s long averaged barely 1 percent of GDP, cutting-edge technological capabilities, and the wherewithal to manufacture an array of major armaments, Japan can increase its military strength selectively without sowing panic, especially if it retains the alliance with the United States and forges alignments with other states rattled by China’s rising power.

Among the challenges Japan faces in creating new alignments is its troubled relationship with Russia and South Korea. Opening a new chapter with Russia will require reaching a compromise on the territorial dispute over the South Kurile/Northern Territories island cluster, perhaps by using the ultimately unsuccessful 1956 formulaas a baseline. Mending fences with South Korea presents a far bigger challenge given the legacy of Japanese colonization and the simmering dispute over the Takeshima/Dokdo islands. But inimical countries have redefined their relationships before. China and the United States moved from enmity to alignment after 1969 in response shared anxiety over the expansion of Soviet power. China and the Soviet Union, divided by ideological polemics and disputes over their vast border from the late 1950s till the latter part of the 1980s, forged a strategic partnership in 1996. The United States and Vietnam have—in large part due to the growth of China’s power—embarked on military cooperation, and port calls by US naval vessels are now routine. These examples hardly establish that a new relationship between Japan on the one had and Russia and South Korea on the other will be easy, let alone inevitable, only that it ought not to be dismissed as impossible.


Russia’s choices are even more complicated. On the one hand, increasing flows of Russian oil and gas to China, China’s massive purchases of Russian arms (the volume has diminished as China’s military modernization has advance), and compatible worldviews (created by a belief in the sanctity of sovereignty, the opposition to humanitarian intervention, and the distrust of America’s power and motives) have created an entente of sorts. But, if China’s ascendancy is not interrupted by political instability and economic crises (neither can be ruled out), Russia will be overshadowed and risks becoming Beijing’s adjutant. In Central Asia, which Russia has dominated for over 150 years, China’s influence, especially in the economic realm, is already displacing Moscow.

Given the vast Sino-Russian border, and the Russian Far East contains a mere 7 million people (perhaps fewer) and adjoins four Chinese provinces that alone contain more than 130 million people, China’s power is proximate. Its centers of power in its northeast, while Russia’s are in its European regions, thousands of miles from its Far Eastern extremity. Russia’s vulnerability will bring about a strategic adjustment. The most likely one, which perhaps seems implausible given the sparks that fly between Moscow and Washington these days, will result in a reconfigured Russian-US relationship with the substance that the Obama administration’s vacuous “reset” lacks.

Despite the Sino-Russian strategic partnership, Moscow has no illusions about Beijing, something its military exercises in its eastern regions and the distribution of its military forces makes clear. The two giants’ relationship has undergone several twists and turns since the mid-nineteenth century, and some Russian commentators have warned that a strong China will eventually make Russia less secure and even draw it into its orbit. This raises the question of whether the (admittedly lucrative) business of building up China’s military capabilities serves Russia’s long-term interests, not only because Chinese arms could eventually compete with Russian weaponry in the global arms bazaar, but also because China could turn into an adversary some day. Seen thus, the Washington’s current spats with Moscow ought not to be extrapolated into the future.

None of the realignments I have discussed need happen if China wields it increasing power lightly and wisely, reins in its rising confidence so that it does not beget callousness, and uses noncoercive forms of power adroitly to coopt and divide its neighbors so that they do not coalesce against it. The problem is that power tempts and memories of past injustices generate patterns of behavior that seem justifiable to those who engage in it but provoke and threaten those who observe or experience them. Some respected experts, Henry Kissinger among them (in his recent book, On China), imply that the wisdom and self-assurance bequeathed by a great and ancient civilization will help China’s leaders to avoid this timeless trap. Perhaps so. But history suggests that such confidence may prove misplaced. Sinophilia is no less a barrier to clear thinking on China than Sinophobia.

It’s not just the arrogance that expanding power tends to breed that could make China overreach. The discourse of nationalism could as well. The Chinese leadership will crank it up during internal crises and instability or external confrontations because it appeals to the pride and sensibilities of millions of Chinese citizens. But the recourse to nationalism will create problems for China’s leaders. A nationalistic Chinese public expects them to stand tall in defense of the country’s interests, and they will have limited room to back down, let alone yield, during confrontations. The continuing advances in social media (hundreds of millions of Chinese now use cell phones, the blogosphere, chat rooms, and the homegrown version of Twitter) and the rising pace of urbanization will make popular mobilization easier, enabling public pressure to manifest itself more rapidly and dramatically. These social and technological changes could increase the danger that regional crises that pit China against its neighbors could become more frequent and also harder to tame because they are more likely to feature such gambits as chicken, tit-for-tat, and one-upmanship.