Why the West Should Relax About China
Image Credit: REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic

Why the West Should Relax About China


Westerners are nothing if not breathless about China. Books describing its rise often have titles like When China Rules the World, Contest for Supremacy, Eclipse(of the U.S. by China), and so on. China is such a preoccupation that the U.S. has now “pivoted” to Asia. And the U.S. Department of Defense, eager to cash-in on the China hype in an era of sequestration and domestic exhaustion with the “Global War on Terror,” tells us now that the U.S. must shift to an Air-Sea Battle concept (ASB).

In a not-so-amazing coincidence, ASB is chock of full of the sorts of costly, high-profile, air and maritime mega-platforms the military-industrial complex adores. China’s single, barely functional aircraft carrier—the second one is not due for awhile—is a god-send to hawks and neo-cons everywhere. Even as the U.S. scales back in the Middle East, defense can seemingly never be cut. Indeed, the terrible irony of the pivot to Asia from the Middle East is that ASB platforms like satellites, drones, up-armored aircraft carriers, stealth jets and littoral ships will cost so much that staying focused on the Middle East may well be less expensive. (For a running debate on ASB, start here.)

Before the U.S. goes down this path, with the obvious tit-for-tat arming spiral it may provoke, it is worth noting how many other hurdles China’s rise faces beyond the U.S. military in the western Pacific. Richard Haas recently argued that “foreign policy begins at home.” As the U.S. pivots out of the Middle Eastern quagmire, perhaps America can take some time off to “nation-build at home,” as the president promised, before it rushes headlong into this expensive, provocative ASB posture. The U.S. foreign policy community’s zeal to always find something to do with U.S. power should not blind us to the many local obstacles China faces. The pivot to Asia, like the war in Iraq, is not a necessity; it is a choice. And U.S. voters who would like resources to go to schools, health care, infrastructure, deficit reduction, and so on, should know this:

1. Japan. This is the most obvious reason China will never become hegemon in Asia, much less genuinely challenge the U.S. at the global level. Westerners tend to downplay Japan, because of its terrible deflationary funk over the last two decades. It is true that Japan has slipped far from its glory days when Paul Kennedy put it on the cover the Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. But Japan is still the world’s third-largest economy. Its military, although numerically smaller than China’s, is far better trained and technologically proficient. And China’s recent replacement of Japan as the world’s second-largest economy seems to have galvanized Japanese voters to a new level of seriousness about getting Japan back on track under Abe.

Sino-Japanese competition goes back to the 19th century, or arguably the Ming dynasty when Japan was the troublesome, badly behaved “little brother” to Confucian China. This hardly means that the two nations are fated to come into conflict. But it does suggest that Japan will not acquiesce to anything like Chinese hegemony or a Sinic Monroe Doctrine. For all the talk about the Middle Kingdom coming back, recall that only one Japanese shogun (Yoshimitsu) ever acknowledged Japan’s inferior status in the older tributary order. Certain Chinese officials, unaccustomed to speaking in front of responsible media, may say foolish things, but in a strictly balance-of-power sense, we can expect the Japanese to go eye-to-eye before accepting Chinese regional primacy.

Like almost everyone else in Asia, Japan is eager to trade with China, but not to be dominated by it. Chinese may say Japan is being “unleashed” (as one colleague once put it at a conference I attended), but so what?  Japan is not the revanchist or imperialist China says it is. As Jennifer Lind has noted repeatedly, Japan has come a long way. Bushido militarism is two generations dead, and Tokyo restricts itself to a defense spending cap at just one percent of GDP. Indeed, China shamelessly uses such rhetoric for domestic legitimacy purposes, as well as to deter Japanese re-armament. But if China does not like it, well, too bad? Either they can behave better or face a tougher, more heavily armed Japan. World War II cannot be a permanent, go-to excuse for China to dredge up whenever it wishes to block Japan and grease its own rise. Japan is highly unlikely to roll over for anything like Chinese dominance because of a war seventy years ago.

December 19, 2013 at 13:16

Professor Kelly has some points on why China is unlikely to be able to completely reestablish its historical dominance (hegemon) in the region (at least in the foreseeable future – having done graduate studies in history and international relationships, it would be naïve to say never). By far away, the main reasons are all domestics related and where China is in its development. When we look at many of the golden eras in imperial China, the Central Kingdom was strong not only in terms of its economy, science and military; it had enormous soft power appeal. Its political bureaucracy and high Confucian culture were the benchmarks that many of its neighbors looked up to, even attempted to emulate. Hard power can strike fear but it is soft power that gains respect and sustainability. For China to gain credibility, it requires major political reform as well as a more developed society. The maturity of those developments will take considerable amount of time, perhaps generations. The region’s history over the past two millennium has shown that ultimately it is all about China’s domestic development and not reaction from Japan or other countries in the region as they’re simply too small to pose any serious challenge.

December 2, 2013 at 05:00

Good trap to seduce some blaring out of the ‘China threat’…

That’s the only worth this piece had :)

September 29, 2013 at 14:34

Why do I only see Filipino people post such superficial comments?

September 25, 2013 at 08:37

“Like almost everyone else in Asia, Japan is eager to trade with China, but not to be dominated by it.”

If Japan really wants to maintain trade with China, it cannot antagonize China.   The animosity of the Chinese consumers toward Japan, per se, will be the key. China will roil up animosity toward Japan with the greatest ease. Comes 2040, when waves of unarmed Chinese boat people attempt to land on the disputed islands, what will Japan do, with maintaining trade with China in mind?

China has 11 times the population of Japan; how can Japan avoid eventual Chinese domination? Domination here simply derives from arithmetic. Would the Chinese not attain half the per capita GDP by 2040? 2050? Eventually?

Brett Champion
September 17, 2013 at 08:17

Spending 4% of our GDP on defense is something that the US can easily do and still "nation build" at home. The problem lies not with the defense budget but with the wasteful spending that you get at places like the Department of Commerce and Department of Education and NASA, all things that we could cut completely from the federal budget and not miss them at all.

September 17, 2013 at 06:14

Dr. Kelly,

I just wanted to thank you for your excellent insight in the geopolitical state-of-affairs in the Asia-Pacific with regards to the influence of a rising China. I have shared this article with other colleagues and have enjoyed your measured perspective.



nixon de jesus
September 16, 2013 at 07:50

while china would not go head to head with either the usa or japan, she however will bully smaller nations to its wills.  she knows these countires are economically and militarily weak like the philippines and vietnam; she knows other countires will not dare touch or run against her for fear of her economic influence

September 12, 2013 at 11:17


There are impersonator here putting words into my mouth.  The Diplomat can check that the two e-mails are different.

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