China Power

China’s Zero-Sum Game

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China Power

China’s Zero-Sum Game

Comparative quiet in China’s neighbourhood has given it the chance to rise peacefully. Will it keep flexing its muscles?

The two decades since the demise of the Soviet Empire have been the most successful in the 90-year history of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Its threatening northern neighbour has been replaced by a weaker, semi-reformed Russian Federation. The jettisoning of the core principles of Maoism and communism by the late Deng Xiaoping haven’t only helped the Chinese economy and its people, but have also personally enriched the Party’s elite and their relatives. In addition, China’s wealth has also given them all the advantages that accrue to those who rule a rich and powerful nation. 

But the CCP remains vulnerable to a host of domestic threats arising from the imbalance between modernization and rising social mobilization and political institutions that are ill-suited to face these challenges. As a result, its continued hold on power – and China’s course of economic growth – is far from certain. There’s little doubt that in 20 years, countries like Australia or Japan will be liberal democracies, but no one can predict what China will look like in two decades, or even in a few years.

Fortunately for the CCP, the international environment has been particularly benign. Nations that grow more powerful frequently face the challenge of hostile neighbours and competitors. One can argue about the extent to which Germany in the decades between its birth in 1871 and World War I, and Imperial Japan from the Meiji era to 1945, brought upon themselves the animosity of other powers. But the fact remains that that many of the major actors in their regions didn’t appreciate their rise, and did all they could to stop it. 

China, on the other hand, has on the most part been welcomed by the world’s key players. From George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama, US presidents have done little to constrain China’s development, and much to promote it. Unlike what happened with Japan, when despite its status as an ally, the Reagan administration embraced ‘voluntary restraints’ on Japanese exports (a strange move by a president who was supposed to embrace market economics), US leaders have done as much as they could to fight protectionist sentiment. Even Congress, despite its greater vulnerability to populist demands, hasn’t generally embarked on massive China-bashing. On the military front, while remaining vigilant, the United States and its major regional allies haven’t embarked on aggressive measures to contain or ‘roll back’ China. Japan, the NATO nations of Europe, Australia, and Russia have also not sought to derail China’s progress. 

Indeed, not only have the United States and its allies not tried to hinder China’s growth, they have actually helped provide the CCP a stable regional environment free of charge. Thanks to the South Korean-US military alliance, the deployment of US forces on Korean soil and Japan, and rear-area support provided by Japan, the likelihood of a new Korean War is low. US, Japanese and Australian efforts in the Asia-Pacific region as a whole serve to minimize regional tensions. This is very much in Beijing’s interest, as it depends on a peaceful Asia to prosper economically. 

Moreover, all of the Western countries have welcomed China’s students to their universities (the likely next CCP secretary general’s daughter is said to be enrolled at Harvard, thus demonstrating both US openness and the party’s hypocrisy in praising ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ while shipping its offspring to the West). Students who then wish to work in Western countries or settle there are also generally welcomed, especially in the New World societies of North America and Australasia. 

Chinese economic development has very much been a win-win proposition for the rest of the planet. Intellectual and immigration flows serve the interests of western societies as well. The positive response to China’s post-Maoist growth isn’t the product of American and allied altruism, but it is nevertheless enlightened and helpful to the Communist Party. 

So how has China’s responded in the past several years? Chinese ‘leverage’ over North Korea is clearly limited for a host of reasons. But Beijing’s total lack of support for South Korean following the sinking of the South Korean Navy’s Cheonan patrol boat indicated a particular lack of interest in contributing to the stability of the Korean peninsula. (Publications by government-affiliated Chinese academic institutions claiming that the ancient Kokurgyo kingdom was Chinese – rather than Korean as is generally believed – had already fuelled suspicion in Korea about China).  

With regards to Japan, the Democratic Party of Japan government that came into power in 2009 has had a very positive attitude towards relations with China. But when the Japanese Coast Guard arrested a Chinese fishing boat captain for fishing in contested waters controlled by Japan, the Chinese reaction was incredibly violent. Beyond the expected diplomatic complaints, Japan was the victim of economic sanctions, i.e. restrictions on the export of rare elements to Japan and some additional restrictions on economic intercourse. Finally, four Japanese who were unlucky enough to be in China were arrested as de facto hostages to put additional pressure on Japan. 

On the Taiwan front, the KMT administration of President Ma Ying-jeou has been as sympathetic to the mainland as possible. Yet China has failed to reward Taipei with the additional ‘international space’ that many Taiwanese desire. Exaggerated rhetoric over US arms sales to Taiwan further indicates that Beijing doesn’t wish to ‘reward’ the Taiwanese electorate for voting the KMT back into power.

In the South China Sea, meanwhile, recent actions by Chinese vessels against a Vietnamese survey ship were another sign of aggressive behaviour. Regardless of the validity of Chinese claims, when the most powerful of the littoral states resorts to violence, it has highly dangerous consequences.

Last, but not least, there has been a series of potentially explosive incidents at sea involving Chinese vessels and US and Japanese vessels. In some cases, Chinese ships have impeded the activities of American survey ships in international waters.  Though some have argued that Chinese opposition to US intelligence operations outside Chinese territorial limits but within its EEZ is legitimate, the Chinese side has clearly opted for a risky policy of confrontation. In others, Chinese helicopters have flown dangerously close to Japanese naval ships.

The cumulative effect of all these events is to reinforce the position of the ‘hawks’ in Washington, Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, Hanoi, Canberra, and numerous other capitals, who see China as a threatening force that wishes to overthrow the status quote with force. Moreover, without getting into theorizing about escalation, it’s easy to see how a minor disturbance – say a Chinese naval helicopter crashing on a foreign vessel and killing crew members – could evolve into something bigger.  

The other question is what is Beijing’s goal? Is it actually willing to use violence – and thus risk war – to break the regional status quo?   If so, against whom?  Does it understand what the costs would be?    

The fact is that Chinese policy making remains a black box. Some see a highly unified and disciplined CCP running the country the way the Soviet Communist Party did there. Others point out to factionalism, while some note the growing role of a public opinion (fed a nasty diet of nationalistic-chauvinistic propaganda in public schools). Arguments have been made that in the case of the sanctions against Japan, the measures were first taken by local officials and then approved by Beijing, which felt it had no choice. Understanding the sources of Chinese conduct is essential in formulating a response.  But at some point, it becomes secondary. Regardless of who decided to embargo rare earth exports to Japan, the fact is that Japanese factories couldn’t get their orders fulfilled. Maybe young Chinese pilots find it fun to buzz the masts of foreign surface vessels, or possibly they are ordered to so by the senior leadership, but the probability of a lethal accident remains the same. 

Optimists will argue that the Chinese economy is now so intertwined with the rest of the world that it diminishes the possibility of armed conflict. They can also point to growing personal contacts in government between China and its neighbours (including the United States).  But as the US Civil War (the bloodiest war in American history), World War I in Europe, the Serbia-Croatia War, and many other conflicts indicate, in the end human instincts to kill can overcome the urge to make money. Even the closest of financial, academic, and personal connections can be destroyed.

The basic assumption that US and allied policymakers have made for the past two decades about China is that relations with the Middle Kingdom are a positive-sum game. As China grows richer, everybody benefits. So far, this has proven to be the case. But in the past, it seems that CCP policymakers – whoever they are – not only have a zero-sum game approach, but wish to alter the status quo. 

Logically, the CCP should be particularly wary of destabilizing actions. Though winning wars can help regimes, picking a fight with a strong set of enemies (essentially the United States and its main allies) with far stronger domestic institutions is very risky.  Maybe Beijing hopes that it can avoid military conflict, or just keep it limited to clashes with weak neighbours. But these are dangerous calculations that resemble Russian roulette.

In the end, the US and its partners might end up moving away from their positive-sum game mindset, and confrontation with Beijing may soon become the frame of reference for the United States and its Asian partners.  

Robert Dujarric is Director, Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University Japan Campus, Tokyo.