Is China a threat? (III)

(I finally squeezed some time to finish the long dued part III of this post, in part prompted by the recent controversy of Maj General Zhu Chenghu's irresponsible comment.)

Continued from Part II...
We have now established the thesis that it is to China's best interest to pursue development under a peaceful international environment, whether China's GDP is below or above that of the US. We have also noticed that such belief resonates strongly with the Chinese leadership, as it is also evidently advocated by Deng Xiaoping himself. More recently, the doctrine of TGYH has been re-iterated, together with a new catch phrase of "Peaceful Development" by the Hu-Wen Leadership, which has replaced the short-lived phrase of "peaceful Rise" upon recommendation from the Foreign ministry and various academics (The Economist).

For those who are still wary of the possibility that the hawk minority in China (e.g. Maj Gen Zhu) might gain control of the country and turn China into an aggressive power, let's examine a few facts, and review a bit of the history. Let's first compare China's situation with that of WWII(aggression by greed) and USSR(exportation of ideology).

The aggression by Germany and Japan in the 1930s were due mainly to economic pressure and thirst for natural resources (esp. In the case of Japan). The world has changed much since then. A world market has formed so that one can use cash (instead of force) to buy up the resources. In China's case, unlike Japan, it is a self sufficient country except for a few items such as energy. Most of the "China threat" advocates have based their hypothesis on one premise: that China will become aggressive when it becomes strong and confident enough. But they have missed the fact that a developed country has no need to become aggressive and too much in stake to get involved in a war, Japan and Germany in 1930s suffered from severe internal economic problems. The aggressions in WWII has their roots in the failure to cope with fast transition into industrialization -- which could be avoided as long as China stick to its gradualism development strategy (Crossing the river by feeling stones, by stones)

As for the comparison with USSR. The communist ideology believes that to achieve the ideal society there will be no private property and no currency. The whole world needs to be brought under the same ideal system in order for it to work. Before that USSR (and PRC prior 1978) have to adopt socialism as a transition stage. As we have all seen in China today, whatever name the CCP call it ("socialism with Chinese characteristic"), there is no longer such global dream of commune, not to mention that communism is no longer mentioned even in party conventions. As the intrinsic global nature of the ideology has been abandoned and exportation of social system has been turned into importation, there is no longer any need to export China's system.

  • One of the key arguments from the "China threat" advocates cite the risk of China's government is not democratically elected, and is therefore "unpredictable". Let me remind them that both Hitler's Germany and to a certain extent Tojo's Japan were democratic countries, while Gorbachev's Russia was not. On the other hand, let's also notice that CCP is a collective leadership today, organized based on Soviet structure of collective leadership and has become more liberal and "collective" in the post-Deng era. Note also that China today in the most capitalistic country in the world by some measures. The party (CCP) still uses the words "communist" or "socialist" because they are the legacy they could not easily change without inviting challenges to their legitimacy to power. The risk of China becoming aggressive is as high as Pakistan or Malaysia gets. I would argue that it is a lot more likely that China goes the Gorbachev way.
  • As discussed in the previous post, the ideology of "forever peace" is now widely accepted by mainstream media and prominent academics in China (e.g., see links in Chinese: Int'l Herald China, quotes of Lee Kuan Yew, Chancellor OF CIEBS Liu Ji and chancellor of CCP University Zheng Bijian, update of Zheng bijian in Foreign Affairs). Liu and Zheng have pointed out a few important facts, including the the points that the only path to lead China to prosperity is to actively maintain peace in the international environment, and the fundamental difference between China and Japan/Germany in terms of intrinsic domestic differences and in international environments in a globalized trade setting.
  • In its 4000 years of recorded history, China has been defending its country by building a Great Wall. Most of the war to the north and to the west of its boundary were a result of securing its border (e.g. war against Hun/Mongolian in the Han and Tang Dynasties). When China expanded most in territory during the Yuan (Mongolia) and Qing (Manchurian)period, China was conquered by neighboring nomad tribes. The expansion was initiated and accomplished by the aggression of these nomad tribes, not the Han Chinese. As soon as these nomads moved into Beijing and assimilated with the Han Chinese culture, their drive for expansion were submerged. The last major war of aggression was the invasion of Korea in the 6th century, for which the Tang Emperor Li Shiming regretted deeply (the only war he was defeated).
  • The reason for the peaceful inclination is mainly due to the influence of Confuciusm, which is pacifist. But more fundamentally, it is due to China's inwardness, with a self sufficient agricultural economy, superior technology, and its arrogance -- Chinese despise their peripheral countries as barbaric. Even sending an official to a border province is viewed as a punishment (Su Shi of Song Dynasty was sent to Hainan)
  • What about Tibet and Taiwan? Let me first clarify that my personal view is that the local people should have the full right to determine their own fate, whether people in Beijing or Washington believe they should belong to China or otherwise. Now let me try to explain PRC's point of view. The current government believes they have inherited these two territories from Qing Empire (ROC of 1911-49 is a transition era in their definition). China's definition of peace is to maintain the status quo, no aggression to the neighbor. Tibet and Taiwan were both within the boundary of status quo to Beijing. It would be absurd if peace means giving up the territory it has effectively controlled for the last 400 years (arguably a brief period of self rule in the case of Tibet). Therefore, China is going to keep Tibet. China's position on Taiwan will not change. But China does not post a threat to the rest of the world or its neighbors just because it inherits Tibet from the Manchurian Empire (Qing). China does not claim any territory of its neighbor, even Mongolia which was also once ruled by Qing. Let's do not confuse geographically confined dispute (within its claimed territory) with aggression/threat (outside its claimed territory)
  • The label of "communist dictatorship": this definition, still used by CIA (see their web-site), is really outdated. First of all, China is not a communist state. It was a socialist state and it no longer is. It is more capitalistic than Hong Kong, or US by some measure, with legacy state owned banks and other assets, and definitely less socialistic that Sweden. More importantly, China has long abandoned the ideology of "communist internationale" since Deng came to power in 1978. This, together with the fading of communism in Eastern Europe and its failure to win the heart of the intellectual youth in the world, means the world is safe from "communist expansion". Finally, as explained above, China is already a social system importer, not an exporter.

There are risks though. For example, in extreme circumstance the hawks might launch a coup and take control, unlikely but not impossible if prompted by Taiwan's declaration of independence. Lee Kuan Yew, in his speech in Fudan University a couple years ago, had spelled out his concern and reasoning very well. Messr. Lee believes the older generation, having been through the difficult time, would treasure what they have achieved today. It is the new generation, who grows up after 1978 (incidentally also the spoiled generation as single child in the family), that LKY worries about. This new generation, with no baggage and no memory of tough days in the Cultural Revolution, and provoked by "China containment" and "Japanese revisionist", are the most likely supporters of the new hawks. (We can draw parallel to the new generation of Japanese leader borned after WWII, who have taken control of Japanese Diet today) LKY believes China needs to focus on education on the new generation. More international exposure will also help. Let's also hope the government is on the path to become more liberal and democratic, by then the Taiwan or Tibet issues will resolve by themselves. I am optimistic.

I have tried to illustrate the points from China's perspective and from the historical and current thinking within Chinese academics and strategist. A numbers of western observers have recognized similar pattern from their own observations (Benjamin Schwarz of The Atalntic, Sebastian Mallaby of Washington Post, Barnett, etc). My blog focuses on business and economic issues. Unfortunately the issue of "China threat" theory has emerge persistently to muddle with economic issues. I shall return to the originally intended theme of this blog after this post, but comments, questions and challenges are more than welcome.

P.S. As Washington is finishing its Report on China's Military Status, and is expected to again bring back the "China threat" theory on the agenda, I hope the Chinese links I quoted (and paraphrased) can offer a view into the current debates within China, and in particular, the debate within China's academics and strategists, hence some insight into where China is really heading.

Update (Sep1): China's White Paper on Arms Reduction

defense spending as % of GDP, as % of budget

X-axis: US, Russia, UK, France, Japan, China


Sun Bin said...

"China's development is an opportunity instead of a threat to the world. That is becoming the consensus of the international community," Foreign Minster Tang said.

Now Tang used the word "development". Yahoo still obstensible use "rise" in its title.

Sun Bin said...

Richard Fisher's speech:
"The World Economy: Sharpening Our Peripheral Vision" has a insightful comparison of China and US, from his first hand experience.

also WaPo and NYT both ran good opinions today.

Sun Bin said...

NYT editorial Aug 11

Sun Bin said...

Der Spiegel link for Lee KY interview

"It's Stupid to be Afraid"

Singapore's first-ever prime minister, long-time government head and current political mentor Lee Kuan Yew talks about Asia's rise to economic power, China's ambitions and the West's chances of staying competitive.

Sun Bin said...

Wang Jisi's article in Foreign Affair: China's Search for Stability with America

Sun Bin said...

good analysis on Zhu Chenghu and NFU

Jay@Soob said...

I read your 3 part essay having followed your link to it on your 1/12/07 post and so wasn't sure where I should leave my comment.

At any rate, your analysis is excellent. I'm certainly no strategist but I've found the mainstream American vision of China's "threatening, hegomonic rise to power" to be both short sighted and intellectually spastic. I guess for some the old Cold War roots run deep and their want for a global foe brings them some perverse sense of comfort.

You mention Chinas gradual shift to a more liberal government and a greater democratic presence. My question:
In the long term as this phenomena manifests (assuming it does) itself do you see a possibility of fracture in the same sense the Soviet Union fractured? I understand the two are hardly alike (economic collapse as opposed to economic boom)but as the last generation of communists fades into obscurity is it fair to say it takes with it some degree of national cohesion?

Anonymous said...

I am sorry to interupt but I personally think its unlikely for China to fracture like the Solviet Union because the majority of the Chinese has been ruled by highly centralized states. Take a look at Chinese history, you will realize that the China always struggles to be "united". (Unification means peace, seperationism means conflict) As a matter of fact, after the death of Communist-idealogy, the newer generation (1978~) are binded together by the desire to prosperity and nationalism.
I personally favor decentralization because I am afraid that China will become homogenized culturally. However, decentralization is a long, long way to go and I do not see it happening anytime soon.

Agree on your analysis but I am not as positive over the Taiwan, Tibet and liberalization issues. As one member of the new generation, I think that some of the issues(ie, Tibet) have to be tackled before the older generation wither away. The recent books-ban show how sensitive CCP is about its past and it could be extremely dangerous.

Jay@Soob said...


Thanks for your response.

stevesadlov said...

What about the SCO? How does that enter into the equation?

Sun Bin said...

SCO will not be in the equation.

China has genuine concern about the terrorism from the Xinjiang separatists. Dozens of bombs were detonated in late 1990s in various parts of China, responsibility claimed by the terrorists.

US released some of the terrorists caught in Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan. China has good reason to seek anti-terrorism partners in the area.

Pagma said...

You wrote: "In its 4000 years of recorded history, China has been defending its country by building a Great Wall."
That is correct. The Great Wall should be the border of China because the Chinese have proved by building this wall that every piece of land inside the wall belonged to them and the territories outside the wall belonged to others, in this case to Mongols.
You said, "...When China expanded most in territory during the Yuan (Mongolia) and Qing (Manchurian)period, China was conquered by neighboring nomad tribes. The expansion was initiated and accomplished by the aggression of these nomad tribes, not the Han Chinese..."
Nomad tribes? This kind of contemptuous attitude is one of the reasons why Chinese are disliked by other nations, especially by those who had or still have neighborhood relationships with them. When Chinggis Khaan started to launch a campaign against China, Mongolia was no more "nomad tribes". Temujin has united all Mongol tribes and built a country named "Hamag Mongol" which means "All Mongol" and he was chosen as the Great Khaan. But it was his Grandson Khubilai who could complete the occupation of China.
You said, "...As soon as these nomads moved into Beijing and assimilated with the Han Chinese culture, their drive for expansion were submerged..."
Wrong again. In their ruling period in China Mongols never assimilated in Chinese culture, unlike the Manchu people who "disappeared" totally after their 300 year-rule in China. Maybe it was Khubilai's mistake to move his capital to now Beijing, only to be called later "Chinese" and claimed by Chinese. The Chinese distortion of history by claiming Mongol Khaans as "Chinese" and the 2 foreign occupations (Yuan and Qing) as their own dynasties, are really ridiculous. But still I see such propaganda everywhere. Do the Chinese people have no shame at all? Don't they understand that this nonsense makes them look funny and ignorant? In regards to mentioning of "submerging of drive for expansion", just want to remind you that Mongols have made many attempts to invade Japan and Vietnam etc.
You said, "...But China does not post a threat to the rest of the world or its neighbors just because it inherits Tibet from the Manchurian Empire (Qing)..."
China does not have the right to "inherit" Tibet, East Turkestan and so called Inner Mongolia. Why? Simple. China is not the successor of Manchurian Empire which was overthrown by Chinese in 1911. China declared independence and formed another type of state, so did Mongolia. Every country included in any forceful created empire has the right to gain independence if it wishes, after this empire collapses. Yeah, I know. The world lacks of justice and that is why we cannot live in peace.
You said, "...China does not claim any territory of its neighbor, even Mongolia which was also once ruled by Qing..."
Mongolia does not claim for China even it was ruled once by Mongols (Yuan). This kind of statements are just ridiculous. Like I said, any forceful annexation is illegal and to claim to be the successor of a foreign ruler is the most ridiculous thing on earth. If the Manchus have had conquered Korea and Japan, would the Chinese have claimed for their territories too? I am sure, you know about the occupation of Korea during the Yuan empire and annexing it to this empire. Mongols tried to invade Japan too, but it didn't work out. So Yuan empire consisted many countries, including the mainland Mongolia and so Yuan was just a part of Mongol Empire.
Lastly, the world is unfortunately still not enough "civilized" and certain countries still play by the rule "Those who have the most power are right". If it does not stop someday soon, in the long run we destroy ourselves by destroying the world. Then there will be no use of any wealth or land anymore.