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:

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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.

2. The rest of China’s neighbors. Sticking with geopolitics for a moment, consider China’s encirclement. Even its coastline is hemmed in by Japan, Taiwan and ASEAN, while its continental situation is like Germany’s—surrounded by many states, almost all wary of domination. Even Myanmar has begun to tack away. Should China genuinely act dangerously – although again, we should be wary of listening to military figures unaccustomed to speaking to uncowed foreign audiences – building a containment ring around China, with the U.S. lurking off-shore, would not be that difficult. It is a commonplace to compare China to Wilhelmine Germany, but the Germans lost, twice, and the Chinese know that.

3. Nondemocratic China cannot credibly commit to restraint, so it will never be trusted. Nondemocracies have a hard time credibly committing their good intentions to neighbors. Because their policy process is closed and opaque, and given to unpredictable swings as poorly understood elites take power, other states inevitably hedge against even their best behavior. The little goodwill toward China accumulated despite a decade of cautious “peaceful rising” is a good example. Suddenly, a few years ago, China swung toward belligerence in its maritime disputes, and its neighbors, even Myanamar, turned rapidly against it.

Indeed, the great irony of Chinese power is how ideologically limited it is. China has no friends; even Kim Jong Il reportedly told a U.S. official that he did not trust China. True, China has business partners in democracies like South Korea, Australia and Japan. But these states will never be China’s friends, or, in geopolitical terms, enter into a “security community” with it. So long as China is an autocracy with political prisons, poor human rights protections, and no elections, its outreach will be limited to the strictly utilitarian. It can bully Hollywood into saccharine portrayals, but it will never build affective relations akin to those between the U.S. and Canada, or Germany and France.

4. Domestic caps and restrains. Finally, it is increasingly understood that China can no longer maintain its headline growth rates at breakneck speed. Many China domestic specialists have argued this for a long time. Communist party rule is perpetual unstable; it was widely noted recently that China spends more on internal than external security. Someday, the crisis will come, as it does to all autocracies. Meanwhile, population inversion, huge environmental problems, and rising health care issues like obesity and heavy smoking will curb the medium-term ability of China to project power in a local environment of fearful neighbors. As is happening in the U.S., a population that is older, sicker and fatter will increasingly demand welfare expenditures that crowd out military spending. This may not produce a democratic peace so much as a “diabetic peace,” but the outcome is similar.

In my own experience teaching Chinese students, they are acutely aware that China is surrounded, friendless, and facing enormous domestic hurdles. They worry that China will be besieged by a U.S.-pushed local bloc, and no one believes for a moment that the pivot is anything but squarely directed at China. Given China’s large regional and internal problems, ASB will inevitably provoke Chinese paranoia and is unnecessary at the moment.

Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly) is an associate professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University. More of his work may be found at his website,

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