In understanding China’s rise in Asia, it’s worth reflecting on what the United States’ post-Cold War “unipolar moment” might have to teach us about power transitions, war, and peace. The U.S. could have used its undisputed spot as the global hyperpower to abrasively pursue its strategic goals worldwide, pushing over weaker states in the process. Indeed, some critics of U.S. policy would argue that it did do exactly that in response to 9/11, but I’m hesitant to go that far.
Instead, what the U.S. did was show weaker states that as long as they abided by the post-Second World War liberal order, and did not actively attempt to undermine U.S. national security, it would, for the most part, engage with them peacefully. The United States’ prosperity during the Clinton-era reminds us that this posture largely succeeded. The Bush years are more uncertain given that U.S. strategy underwent shock-therapy in late 2001, but on balance, the argument stands that the U.S. has been more friendly than abrasive in the two decades following its unipolar moment (North Korea and Iran may disagree).
Princeton’s G. John Ikenberry made this argument most completely in “Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and Persistence of American Post-War Order.” According to Ikenberry, the reason for our era of liberal-democratic peace and prosperity since the early 1990s is the U.S. decision to secure its position as superpower by moderating its potential for unilateral domination. In effect, the U.S. chose to be less powerful than it could have been in the 1990s in exchange for securing global trust. If we believe Stephen Walt’s assertion — and I do — that states balance against perceived threats and not against mere power itself, then the U.S. couldn’t have played its cards better. It mitigated the resurgence of a global arms race among weaker states to “hedge” against the U.S. going rogue.
Now what’s a Chinese strategist to learn from all this? True, China won’t have its global “unipolar moment” anytime soon, but its position in greater Asia has bestowed on it a sort of “local unipolarity.” China is powerful, and every Asian foreign ministry cares about its position vis-à-vis Asia’s great economic hub. In the story of its rise, more so than the U.S. case, raw economic performance is key. If you believe that China’s elites — certainly the Communist Party leadership — derive their legitimacy from China’s economic performance, then a stable, peaceful and prosperous Asia should be at the top of China’s strategic agenda for Asia. War did help the U.S. exit its Great Depression, but for an economy attempting to wean itself off its reliance on manufacturing and exports, and move into demand-driven growth, China has little to gain from war. China’s military capabilities, while increasingly impressive, remain untested.
As readers will be aware, Chinese strategy has largely been the opposite of much of what I’ve argued for here. This doesn’t particularly make good sense for China; its current policies, particularly regarding its territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas, have curried nationalist sentiment at home which does benefit the national leadership in the short term. But, if the CCP leadership is interested in its own long-term survival, it needs to steer Chinese policy in a direction that will result in an Asian environment where China is seen as less of a threat and as more of a willing partner. A counterargument, of course, is to look at the economic numbers that have been coming out of China for the past decade. Asia has been willing to do business with China, just as the world was with the United States after the Cold War. A key difference, however, is the almost ubiquitous balancing against China across Asia.
From India through to Japan, the Asia-Pacific is distrustful of China. The PRC’s promise of a “peaceful rise” should not only focus on the means of its rise, but also on the ends. It’s evident in China’s approach to territorial disputes that one can be peaceful and yet destabilizing. One important exception that significantly complicates China’s story is the deep endurance of historical pain in Asia. Asian international relations have resisted the rational elegance of a Bismarckian game of chess. Despite its propensity for abrasion with its Asian neighbors, Beijing continues to have a choice in its rise to power. Its foreign policy choices, more so than those of any other state in the Asia-Pacific, will determine whether Asia heads towards war or towards peace and prosperity.
Ankit Panda is Associate Editor of The Diplomat. You can follow him on Twitter at @nktpnd.