James Holmes

What To Fear: China’s Strength or Weakness?

The Naval Diplomat’s “Excellent Adventure” at Duke University takes an interesting turn.

To follow up on yesterday’s dispatch from Durham, North Carolina, here’s the second question put to the panelists this week:

This question was asked of Jon Huntsman when he came to Duke in September and I would be interested to know what you make of it. The question is this: do we in the United States have more to fear from China’s strength or China’s weakness?

And my response:

Let me start with a caveat, namely this: there are many indices of strength and weakness. I waffled on this question before deciding my answer is strength—specifically military strength. Chinese military power could pose problems for the United States and its allies if China is politically stable and economically robust. It could also pose problems if China is politically weak and economically stagnant.

American officials hector Beijing incessantly to be “transparent,” or candid, about its intentions. In my view China has been very forthcoming about its purposes and principles. It wants to modify the Asian system to better suit China’s interests. This is what great powers do. The United States modified the system in the Western Hemisphere during the age of the Monroe Doctrine. A strong, confident China will use military power and the diplomatic clout that flows from it to uphold its core interests. Recovering every inch of soil once ruled by dynastic China is one goal. So is modifying the law of the sea so that coastal states exercise the same prerogatives throughout their exclusive economic zones that they exercise in their territorial seas. In effect Beijing would repeal the freedom of the seas of which Grotius once wrote—in Asia, at least. Carving out a zone of maritime exceptionalism also sits at the top of the agenda. If successful, this strategy would upset the liberal order over which the United States and its navy have presided since 1945. So, it appears a strong China will use its strength for purposes diametrically opposed to American and allied purposes.

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Clausewitz notes that the best policy is to be very strong in general, and especially at the decisive point on the map at the right time. Thus, the most worrisome adversary is a power that meets these standards. It’s worth pointing out that China need not match overall U.S. military power to accomplish its goals in Asia. It only has to build up sufficient power to outmatch the largest contingent of forces Washington is likely to station in the region. Local superiority or supremacy would be enough. That’s why a century ago, Americans were content with a navy second to none except for Britain’s Royal Navy: Britain had imperial commitments spanning the globe, not to mention rivals to face at home in Europe. It was very unlikely to station enough of the Royal Navy in the New World to overpower the unified U.S. Navy fleet. And if it did, we could do the British fleet enough damage to set back the British Empire’s world status significantly—driving the costs of confrontation above the value of any likely British political objectives. The same logic—the logic of the home-court advantage, something you’re familiar with here at Duke—works in Beijing’s favor today.

When I mentioned that Chinese military strength could pose dangers amid political or economic decline, I meant that Beijing could be tempted to use the People’s Liberation Army in foreign adventures—distracting attention from domestic woes, locking in China’s strategic gains before Chinese military power starts to wither, or both. A pattern in Chinese history is for the regime to accommodate neighbors around the periphery in times of decay. But the Chinese Communist regime could break that pattern. History is not a straitjacket. Lashing out is a time-honored way for rulers to rally the populace. This is a prospect that bears watching.