Chinese Dominance Isn't Certain

April 22, 2014 Topic: SecurityGreat PowersRising Powers Region: China

Chinese Dominance Isn't Certain

It's too soon for fatalism about China's rise.

Both Dyer and Kaplan explain that China feels entitled by history to project its authority onto smaller states in its region. The authors liken Beijing’s position to that of Washington in the era of the Monroe Doctrine and compare the South China Sea to the Caribbean. But as Dyer points out, unlike China’s current power-projection efforts, “The Monroe Doctrine was not imposed on an unwilling hemisphere: in much of the region, it was welcomed.” And as Kaplan reports:

One high-ranking official of a South China Sea littoral state was particularly blunt during an off-the-record conversation I had in 2011, saying, “The Chinese never give justifications for their claims. They have a real Middle Kingdom mentality, and are dead set against taking these disputes to court. China,” this official went on, “denies us our right on our own continental shelf. But we will not be treated like Tibet or Xinjiang.”

Dyer and Kaplan are thus at their strongest when they are explaining conditions on the ground in the region and drawing on history to offer context for today’s competition. But Dyer stumbles when he jumps on the anti-arms-race bandwagon, warning:

Toward the end of the Cold War, the arms race ultimately bankrupted the Soviet Union before the pressures of high defense spending began to seriously undermine the U.S. But if a deeper arms race were to develop between China and the U.S., it is not at all clear that Washington would be starting from a stronger financial footing.

In fact, the Pentagon’s strategy in the Cold War was not to provoke ever-greater Soviet defense expenditures across the board but rather to try to stimulate the Soviets to spend in particular areas that were relatively less threatening to us and likely to be less productive for them. Of course Washington can’t hope to drive the Chinese bankrupt through defense expenditures and wouldn’t want to because increased Chinese defense spending—in the abstract, at least—is a frightening prospect. What we can try to achieve through our own behavior is to influence the investments that China makes in response. But to formulate a cogent strategy toward Beijing will require avoiding defeatism or alarmism, something that these two contributions should help to accomplish.

Jacqueline Newmyer Deal is president and CEO of the Long Term Strategy Group, a Washington-based defense consultancy, and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Image: Flickr/mxiong. CC BY.