Back in April I bemoaned the United States’ obsession with trying to convince China it isn’t seeking to contain it. Not only does Beijing not believe this nor will it ever, but Washington’s assurances that it won’t contain China are useless until it first defines what China and its own regional objectives are.
For example, I have little doubt that the U.S. will not try to contain China if Beijing aspires to be America’s junior partner in upholding the current U.S.-led regional order. However, if China’s objective is to administer the state of California, then of course the U.S. is going to try to contain it. Without some frame of reference, the U.S.’ assurances about containment are just rhetorical devices being used to avoid having the kind of serious strategic discussions that could prevent a U.S.-China conflict.
Truth be told, China is guilty of the same thing. Whereas the U.S. assures China it is not trying to contain it, Beijing endlessly assures everyone that it seeks to rise (and develop) peacefully.
I have no doubt that this is true. There is little evidence that Chinese leaders are sadistic individuals who enjoy violence for violence’s sake. Thus, so long as they are able to achieve “victory without bloodshed” in pursuing all their objectives, we should not expect Beijing’s rise to lead to any sort of armed conflict.
The issue is that China’s rise is almost certain to be resisted by its neighbors and the U.S., if only because resources are limited while states’ desires are infinite. Thus, Beijing’s rise will have to come at the expense of the status, honor, possessions, power, etc. of other states.
This is best seen in terms of China’s overlapping territorial claims with its neighbors. Both China and the Philippines desired the Scarborough Shoal, but only one state can own it.
In territorial disputes and other areas, if every state acquiesces in China’s taking of whatever they both claim, then Beijing is indeed likely to rise peacefully. But in the far more likely case that other states put up fierce resistance, then Chinese leaders’ interest in rising peacefully will have to be weighed against their desire to acquire what they believe their status as a rising power entitles them too.
What would Chinese leaders decide in different contingencies is thus crucial. If the history of other great powers is any guide, China is likely to be willing to exercise coercion or resort to force to achieve its major objectives.
For example, the U.S. in the 19th century wanted to become the regional hegemonic power of the Western Hemisphere without having to fight any European powers. Thus, when Napoleon offered to sell Louisiana at an absurdly low price, even a president as anti-expansionist as Thomas Jefferson graciously accepted. Similarly, when England’s need to handle a rising Germany back in Europe forced it to abandon its colonies in the West, the U.S. saw no reason to attack London on its way out. But when Spain selfishly clung to its few remaining colonies in the West, the U.S. ultimately deemed it worth going to war to forcibly remove Madrid.
Instead of abstract declarations about rising peacefully, then, Chinese leaders would further the cause of peace much more if they described what they value more than rising peacefully and are actually willing to fight violently to achieve.