CANBERRA – Two parallel geopolitical narratives have dominated the twenty-first century so far: the relative decline of the United States since the end of the post-Cold War period; and the rise of China as an economic, political, and military power. How China behaves on the world stage will thus be a defining geopolitical factor in the decades ahead.
Looking forward, China’s strategic vision will most likely mirror that of its president, Xi Jinping, who has now consolidated his position as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. In his marathon address to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) on October 18, Xi proclaimed a new era of Chinese national strength, self-confidence, and global power.
Xi envisions a world in which China, having achieved geopolitical parity with the US, asserts itself diplomatically and assumes a larger role in writing the rules of the international system. Accordingly, the world should prepare for a surge in Chinese foreign-policy activism. To understand what form that activism will take, and what effects it will have on international relations, the insights of Project Syndicate commentators, who have long chronicled China’s emergence as a regional and global power, provide an invaluable resource.
Minding the “Thucydides Trap”
In its clear-eyed pursuit of parity with the US, China will surely benefit from the fact that the West is, according to former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, “increasingly self-absorbed, self-satisfied, and internationally complacent.” But as the global balance of power continues to shift away from the West, China will have to be mindful of new and growing risks.
For example, Harvard University’s Graham Allison and his co-author Arianna Huffington warn that China and the US could fall prey to the “Thucydides Trap,” so named for the classical Greek historian who observed that, “It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this instilled in Sparta, that made war inevitable.” According to Allison and Huffington, what was true in the lead-up to the Peloponnesian War remains true today. “Over the last 500 years,” they write, “in 16 cases where a rising power threatened to displace a ruling power, 12 led to war.”
Given that the Asia-Pacific region is now the dynamic heart of the world economy, it stands to reason that China and the US will continue to jostle for strategic influence there. But could this game of power politics really escalate to the point of war? On one hand, China has built and fortified islands in the South China Sea; expanded its naval presence in the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, and the Gulf of Aden; and established a naval base in Djibouti. And it now surpasses all other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council in its troop contributions to UN peacekeeping operations in Africa.
On the other hand, given the significant gap between China’s desire to project power to safeguard its far-flung economic interests and its ability to do so, Chinese leaders may not want to go too far in challenging the US. They are, says Keyu Jin of the London School of Economics, “well aware of how the Thucydides Trap has ensnared both the dominant power and the challenger, even after the challenger might seem to have won.”
They also know that China has been a principal beneficiary of the existing rules-based order, which is why Xi used his appearance at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in January to defend the global trade system against protectionist rhetoric emanating from the US. And at the CPC congress, Xi affirmed that, “No country can retreat to their own island, we live in a shared world and face a shared destiny.” Such considerations would seem to rule out China’s emergence as a revisionist world power.
But former US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution would rather not take any chances. The US must demonstrate such clear resolve in maintaining the international status quo that China will be deterred from disrupting it. Steinberg and O’Hanlon call on the “US and its partners” to develop “a broader range of responses that would enable them” to “demonstrate a willingness to impose meaningful costs without triggering counterproductive escalation.” And they recommend an “adaptation of America’s longstanding ‘engage but hedge’ strategy,” whereby the US gives “China incentives to rise peacefully, while maintaining robust military capabilities in case engagement proves unsuccessful.”
Still, while the US will be the dominant power in Asia for the foreseeable future, it cannot maintain full military, economic, and normative primacy there indefinitely. And Donald Trump’s presidency has called into question the future of the US-led postwar international order itself. Yet even before Trump announced his candidacy, Yoon Young-kwan, a former South Korean foreign minister, pointed out that China’s leaders have long believed “that the 2008 economic crisis and the high costs of two foreign wars have left the US in no position to exercise international leadership.”
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The potential decline of the US-led international order, along with Xi’s bid to assume a larger leadership role on the world stage, immediately raises a host of critical issues. For starters, unlike nineteenth- and twentieth-century European powers, China has no historical, philosophical, or literary tradition upon which to base its conduct in a great-power system. Its inheritance is that of the Middle Kingdom, to which vassal states paid tribute. Similarly, the US has no experience in dealing with a rival like China. Even at its height, the Soviet Union was essentially a one-dimensional military superpower, whereas China is quickly emerging as a multidimensional power with a globally competitive economy.
Of course, another crucial difference between China and the Soviet Union is that the former has shown little inclination to export its authoritarian model, Xi’s rhetoric notwithstanding. China’s main focus, rather, has been on promoting political stability and domestic economic growth, by securing access to resources and markets abroad. The ultimate embodiment of this approach is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which, Shang-Jin Wei of Columbia University explains, “aims to develop physical infrastructure and policy linkages connecting more than 60 countries across Asia, Europe, and Africa.”
In Wei’s view, the BRI is exactly what the world needs now that the US and other “influential countries are turning inward, talking about erecting trade barriers and constructing border walls.” Similarly, former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans acknowledges that Australia and other US allies and partners in Asia “can no longer – assuming we ever could – take coherent, smart American leadership for granted.” And he encourages all governments to “recognize the legitimacy of China’s new great-power aspirations, and engage with it non-confrontationally.”
Trouble on the High Seas
But Evans also warns that China needs to be resisted when it overreaches, not least in the South China Sea, where it has continued to defy a July 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague invalidating its territorial claims. Just this summer, Brahma Chellaney of the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research observes, China “threatened to launch military action against Vietnam’s outposts in the disputed Spratly Islands,” in order to prevent the Vietnamese government from “drilling for gas at the edge of China’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.”
China’s seemingly random maritime provocations do not always intimidate other governments to the point of backing down. But they do test America’s will and capacity to support its allies and strategic partners. In deliberately keeping its actions below the threshold of open warfare, China is seeking gradually to induce strategic fatigue in the US and its partners. The strategy seems to be paying off. In 2017 alone, the Philippines agreed to sizable trade and investment deals with China, Malaysia purchased Chinese warships, and Vietnam took steps to strengthen its diplomatic and military ties with China.
But that is not to say there hasn’t been pushback. According to Le Hong Hiep of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, China’s actions in the South China Sea have prompted Vietnam and Japan to deepen the “strategic partnership” that they forged in 2009. Hiep reports that Japan has pledged to provide Vietnam with “patrol boats to support its defense activities in the South China Sea,” in addition to selling Vietnam “two advanced radar-based earth observation satellites,” and possibly “second-hand P-3C anti-submarine and maritime surveillance aircraft.”
And Vietnam is not alone. According to Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, China’s “rapid emergence as the foremost threat to regional stability” is driving an arms race in Asia. In fact, as of last year, the region accounted for “almost half of the world’s arms expenditure, which is more than twice the total arms expenditure of countries in the Middle East and four times greater than that of Europe.”
Trump’s past statements that US allies should see to their own defense certainly haven’t helped matters. But the real problem, Pongsudhirak argues, is the absence of a regional “framework to prevent, mitigate, and resolve territorial disputes.” Such a framework will never be viable without China’s participation; to secure it, Pongsudhirak recommends that “other interested parties step back a little and give China space to recognize the dangers of its own aggression.”
But even if China did see the error of its ways, Evans notes, it is “unlikely to abandon occupancy of any island, reef, or rock where it currently has a toehold.” He proposes a compromise that would allow China to save face. Among other good-faith gestures, Chinese leaders should be encouraged to put further reclamation activities on hold, and to agree to a negotiated code of conduct with other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Alternatively, if the hardliners in Beijing prevail and China continues its aggressive behavior, Australia and others could decide to conduct freedom-of-navigation operations (FONOPs) within 12 nautical miles of disputed areas under Chinese control. As Harvard University’s Joseph S. Nye reminds us, the US already set a precedent in 2013, when it flew two B-52 bombers through an Air Defense Identification Zone that China had declared unilaterally and without warning over the disputed Senkaku/Daiyou Islands in the East China Sea.
Unfortunately, with more FONOPs and similar operations, the likelihood of military incidents will increase. All parties would do well to heed the warning issued by former Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos when he served as a special envoy to China after the 2016 PCA ruling: tensions in Asia are not just about “rocks and atolls”; they are matters of “war and peace.”
The View From Beijing
Westerners might like to think that China’s deepening regional and global economic integration would prevent it from risking a conflict. But China does want to restore its historical status as a regional hegemon, not least through military rebalancing in Asia. And Chinese leaders might even be willing to bet that US leaders would back down rather than risk a costly confrontation. Many a corpse-filled river has run deep with such assumptions.
But it is important to view the situation from China’s perspective. As Steinberg and O’Hanlon remind us, China has a “history of vulnerability to foreign intervention.” And today, observes Minghao Zhao of the Charhar Institute in Beijing, “its coasts are, to some extent, encircled by Japan and the Philippines, both US allies, and Taiwan, with which the US maintains security ties.” Moreover, Zhao explains, Chinese leaders are not blind to America’s containment strategy in the region. Over time, the US system of “hub-and-spoke alliances” has morphed into a “networked security system across the Indo-Pacific theatre.”
Owing to this transformation, Zhao notes, Japan has greater “autonomy in security affairs,” South Korea has become host to an American missile-defense system, and India and Vietnam have been drawn closer into the US fold. And Chinese leaders certainly could not overlook America’s vain effort to stop its allies from participating in the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Under these circumstances, Zhao explains, “China feels that it has no choice but to prepare for worst-case scenarios – an approach that is reflected in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s so-called ‘bottom-line concept.’”
In this context, China’s increased assertiveness in the East and South China Seas, and its flag demonstrations around Indonesia and Australia, could be viewed as attempts to push back against Western containment in its own region. The Chinese leadership, notes Bill Emmott, a former editor of The Economist, “believes that China ought to be able to project military power and defend what it regards as its strategic space – just like the US.” This poses a strategic dilemma for the US. A rising China cannot be expected to tolerate indefinitely the US’s intrusive military presence in the region. But a US policy of accommodation could unsettle its allies in the region, and signal a loss of resolve and credibility as a security guarantor.
Asia’s Great Game
Nowhere is the fear of American complacency more pronounced than in Japan and South Korea, the two countries where “today’s arms race in Asia might escalate beyond conventional weapons,” notes Yuriko Koike, a former Japanese Minister of Defense who is now Governor of Tokyo. Even before Trump arrived on the scene with his “muddled jingoism,” Koike explains, Chinese provocations had given Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe enough political space to push for revisions to the pacifist clause of Japan’s post-World War II constitution.
Meanwhile, China has also stepped up its provocation of India. Chellaney reports that “this year, China decided to withhold [hydrological and meteorological] data from India, undermining the efficacy of India’s flood early-warning systems – during Asia’s summer monsoon season, no less.” And this summer, India and China were locked in a tense standoff, owing to China’s “stealth incursions” into India’s Himalayan borderlands. Just as “China’s naval forces follow fishermen to carve out space for the reclamation of rocks or reefs” in the South China Sea, Chellaney notes, so do its land forces follow in the wake of civilian “herders, farmers, and grazers.”
On August 28, China and India announced a diplomatic resolution to the Himalayan conflict. But it is anyone’s guess how long the peace will last. Over the past decade, China has been far less generous in accommodating a rising India than the US has been in accommodating China. Shashi Tharoor, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, sees a worrying pattern in China’s behavior, whereby its leaders respond to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “efforts at outreach with a series of insults.”
For example, in 2014, just after Modi welcomed Xi “to his hometown, Ahmedabad, on his own birthday,” Tharoor recounts, “Chinese soldiers promptly crossed the disputed frontier with India in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir, going so far as to pitch tents on land that India considers its sovereign territory.” China has also vetoed India’s bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and “built a ‘China-Pakistan economic corridor’ through Pakistan-controlled parts of Kashmir,” which “China itself recognizes” as disputed territory. And in April of this year, China lobbed a barrage of threats and recriminations at India after the Dalai Lama paid a visit to a historic Buddhist monastery in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.
To Lead, or Not to Lead?
To many observers, this year’s escalating contretemps between the US and North Korea over the latter’s nuclear program should be an occasion for China to demonstrate more responsible leadership than it has shown elsewhere. As Hiep explained when Xi and Trump held their first face-to-face meeting in April, Trump seems to think that by threatening trade action against China, he can force China to “rein in the North Korean regime’s nuclear ambitions.” But in Hiep’s view, the Trump administration has been “overestimating China’s influence over North Korea.” After all, Kim Jong-un’s regime has continued its nuclear and missile tests “despite Chinese sanctions, which have halted coal imports from North Korea – the regime’s main revenue source.”
And besides, China’s leaders are not letting their personal distaste for Kim distract from their larger geostrategic goals. As Korea University’s Lee Jong-Wha points out, for China to do more, “it needs assurances that it will not immediately lose its strategic buffer on the Korean Peninsula.” Without such a guarantee, it will likely remain uncooperative, even if doing so damages “its relationships with the US, Europe, Japan, and South Korea – all of which are ultimately more valuable partners than the unruly, impoverished North Korea.”
One way forward, notes former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, is for all parties involved to adopt a broader diplomatic approach that starts “by addressing a fundamental issue at the heart of the problem: namely, that no peace treaty has ever been signed to end the 1950-1953 Korean War.” Such a dialogue, Bildt argues, “could pave the way for broader discussions about nuclear escalation and other threats to regional stability.” With China still committed to peaceful negotiations, this course of action could deliver maximum benefits at minimum cost.
But Emmott points out that there is an alternative to negotiations or a US-led military strike: China itself could intervene militarily, either to provide a security guarantee to the Kim regime, or to carry out a more orderly regime change. This scenario may seem far-fetched. But Emmott contends that it is not just plausible; it is also “China’s best opportunity to achieve greater strategic parity with the US in the region, while removing a source of instability that threatens them both.”
The Danger of Falling Short
As China grapples with the demands of regional and global leadership, it will have to watch out for not just the Thucydides Trap, but also what Nye calls the “Kindleberger Trap”: “a China that seems too weak rather than too strong.” The idea, Nye explains, comes from Charles Kindleberger, an American historian who “argued that the disastrous decade of the 1930s was caused when the US replaced Britain as the largest global power but failed to take on Britain’s role in providing global public goods.”
Pax Britannica was built on a system of legal colonialism and territorial control, which allowed Britain to extract, process, move, and use or sell ownership of vast natural resource endowments around the globe. Pax Americana, by contrast, was built on a system of market-accessing regimes, which granted the US control over resources, and facilitated a global flow of capital, goods, and technology. By building global markets instead of a global empire, the US escaped legal responsibility for the security and welfare of its neo-colonial dependents. And it convinced others that “global public goods” were essentially an outgrowth of US hegemony.
After 1945, America wrote the rules of the international order, and policed them for 70 years. The question now is whether China is ready to accept that burden. China is extending its power and influence through the BRI and other initiatives, and these efforts have allowed it to cement diplomatic ties, boost trade, and create energy corridors.
So far, however, China has failed to make regional and global public goods synonymous with Chinese national interests. And as Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College points out, the CPC itself “has become practically irrelevant in the daily lives of ordinary Chinese.” That may, as Pei suggests, limit Xi’s power. But if China’s leaders are to succeed at positioning their country for global leadership, their focus should be on maintaining economic growth and social stability at home, while nurturing alliances and influence that serve to preserve the existing rules-based international order. Otherwise, China’s rise will disrupt that order, implying near-certain regional and global volatility for years to come.