The Debate

China’s Rise as a Predator State

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The Debate

China’s Rise as a Predator State

Recent developments have dispelled the myth that China’s rise will be peaceful.

China’s Rise as a Predator State
Credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Corporal J.J. Harper

China’s land grab and subsequent militarization of “islands” in the South China Sea have finally dispelled the myth that its rise will be peaceful. Indeed, these developments point to an unwelcome fact – that China has become a predator state.

Rand’s Michael Mazarr wrote about predator states in the late 1990s. He argues that what distinguishes a predator state above all is “territorial aggression” – the predisposition to grab territory and resources. China is one of two contemporary examples; the other is Russia in Europe. The best historical examples are Napoleonic France, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, and more recently Iraq under Saddam Hussein. These examples teach us that predator states cause wars.

Predator states are buoyed by an expansionist ideology – the active promotion of the idea that neighbouring territories (both land and maritime) belong by rights to the predator. Such states often possess a sense of historical grievance or victimization that can only be “righted” by territorial grabs. Indeed, a Mazarr contends, the “politics of memory operates powerfully…causing [predator states] to react by forming aggressive, predatory instincts.”

Besides territorial aggression, predator states exhibit several other distinguishing features.

First, national policy demonstrates very high levels of militarization. Predator states divert large quantities of national resources into military expansion for purposes of power projection. The emphasis in military planning and weapons acquisitions is inherently offensive rather than defensive and is geared to intimidating potential adversaries and winning offensive wars. The flipside domestically is, as Mazarr writes, that “military, nationalistic, and territorial issues continue to play a large role in domestic politics and in the states’ approach to the world.” In China’s case, nationalism has overtaken Marxism and more recently developmentalism as state ideology.

Second, predator states adopt a strongly strategic perspective on national advancement and display an associated willingness to use all the institutions and instruments of the state over which they maintain control – economic, cultural, military, technological, resource, trade, legal, media – in the pursuit of this overwhelming important strategic objective. China, for example, deployed a broad range of retaliatory instruments against Japan over the Senkaku Islands affair in 2010, including restricting the export of rare earth metals.

The use of such “strategic” instruments extends beyond such punitive acts of state retaliation to a whole range of long-term, so-called “market-based” investments. These include foreign acquisitions in strategically important and sensitive areas such as land, resource and water assets and critical infrastructure as well as in private-sector developments and industries. The “strategic” element cannot be discounted in these acquisitions because the line between private enterprise and state-owned enterprises in the Chinese case is imprecise given the complex interweaving of business and state actors. In the end, everything becomes “strategic” in the sense of supporting national advancement and security.

Third, predator states are not democracies where there exist checks and balances and other moderating influences that negate the potential for predation against other states. Predator states have authoritarian governments with low levels of accountability. Political leaders are only answerable to other power cliques and display a willingness to engage in political repression, including imprisonment and even murder of their opponents. In such states, there is no real separation of the executive from the judiciary and, in that sense, no rule of law.

Levels of domestic lawlessness are matched by international lawlessness. Predator states do not respond to appeals to international laws or norms because they are inherently lawless themselves – they understand and respect only power in international affairs. China’s actions in the South China Sea clearly demonstrate that it does not support a rules-based regional or global order; nor does it believe that you can fight power with rules as other states are attempting to do in dealing with this issue.

Finally, predator states show a predisposition to act unilaterally rather than multilaterally. Multilateral cooperation is entertained only where it fits with the long-term strategic interests of the state. Moreover, there is little willingness to trade off state interests for larger collective interests in the international community. In that sense, predator states are not interested in providing international public goods and should not be considered as potentially benign hegemons.

How should other states deal effectively with predator states? First of all, they need to recognize what they are dealing with and react accordingly. Predator states demand tough responses starting with vigilance, deterrence and containment. At the very least there must be reinforcement of surveillance regimes, the formation of counterbalancing coalitions, and a willingness to act across a whole range of spheres – military, economic, financial, trade and diplomatic – so that predator states’ actions are not cost-free.

Other states must also accept that doing nothing is not an option. This only invites further provocation, which increases the risk of serious conflict.

Aurelia George Mulgan is professor of Japanese Politics, University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra, Australia. Her latest book (co-edited with Masayoshi Honma) is The Political Economy of Japanese Trade Policy (Palgrave Macmillan 2015).