Due to unprecedented economic growth, the actions of China have become increasingly scrutinised in recent years. With an expanding military, economy and population, is this rise peaceful or menacing? And to who?
The question whether the rise of China is peaceful or menacing is quite the quandary, and hardly a simple task. If anything, it spurs more questions for clarification. What is considered ‘peaceful’ or ‘menacing’? According to whom would China be considered a threat? In order to narrow the discussion, this article will assess how China’s unprecedented industrial growth is a threat in relevance to the United States, the seemingly gradually waning superpower. It would also look into how China may not be a real actual threat, but rather a fabricated fear produced by the US’s tendency to overly place importance on its national security, and consequently projects and campaigns its insecurity in a global fashion.
The perceived threat of China’s novel superpower status will be described through a number of factors: economic, military, ideological and national stability. Economically, the magnitude to which China stands as a threat to the US relies on the nationalistic belief that any potential challenge to US’s global economic dominance would be considered ominous. According to a poll by CNN, about 58 percent of Americans presently see China as an economic superpower, and believe it is a threat to the United States. And rightfully so. Within the past three decades, China surged from a poor and stagnant country to one of the world’s major economic power states. Between 1979 and 2006, China increased its gross domestic product (GDP) continuously on an average annual rate of nearly ten percent, resulting its economy to grow 11-fold, its per capita GDP to grow 9-fold, and move its world ranking as a trader from 27th place to 3rd. Presently, China overtook Japan’s second place and will probably become ranked first within the next decade.
As miraculous and grand this growth may be, US policymakers are wary of its rapid development. Some are concerned that China will surpass the US in the next few years as the world’s largest trade economy, and even become the world’s overall largest economy in the coming decades. With this thought, China’s rise translates to American’s decline by the American people. In addition, the growing US trade deficits with China are worrisome as they have increased considerably within two decades, from $10.4 billion in 1990 to an astounding $232 billion in 2006. Some Members of Congress state that this indicates that China is employing unfair trade practices in terms of undervaluing the currency, subsidizing to domestic producers and failing to protect US intellectual property rights, flooding the US markets with low-cost goods. It is feared that this would restrict US exports and, in turn, drastically affect the US economy by limiting jobs and decreasing wages. Analysts caution that the scenario would worsen when China decides to lean towards manufacturing and exporting of more high-value products, such as electronics and automobiles.
The United States Trade Representative (USTR) stated in the 2006 China World Trade Organization (WTO) compliance report that most of the problems in China’s implementation of its WTO obligations comes from its reluctant transition to a free market economy. Recently, the attempts by the Chinese state-owned firms to merge and acquire US businesses and collecting of US Treasury securities are becoming alarming for the US government. As a result, the advancing apprehension projected pessimistic congressional outlooks of China’s economic practices and influenced the creation of many defensive bills. Such bills suggest imposing sanctions against China until it amends its industrial and foreign policies, like the currency policy that would allow countervailing laws on Chinese goods. Overall, it is clear to state that US views China as a foreboding figure that would threaten the US’s economic security.
On the contrary, the International Monetary Fund Managing Director, Christine Lagarde, stated last month that China’s economy is actually slowing. China has set a lower goal of 7.5% of growth instead of the usual 8% in the previous years. Even though the actual growth will be higher than the set goal, it is predicted it would still be below last year’s great reach of 9.2%. Last year, China’s gross domestic product fell below 3%, a far cry from the 10% reported in 2007. Household disposable income fell from 65% of GDP in 2000 to less than 60% in 2010. Although IMF’s recent declaration of China’s currency being undervalued emphasized the debate by the American policymakers about how China continuously undervalues its currency in order to enjoy a trade advantage, the IMF also refer to the trade data by the World Bank that the Chinese government have made considerable progress to rebalance its economy away from exports and investment and more towards domestic consumption.
Due to China’s decline in external economic balance that reflects a weaker global demand (it posted a $31.5 billion trade deficit this past February), domestic consumption is now considered the alternative route that would help sustain China’s development. As China expressed interest in the stability of the global economy, the Chinese central bank published a three-step strategy that described the nation’s goal to loosen the government’s strict capita controls. In turn, this would allow foreign investors to become much bigger players in the Chinese stock and bond markets and make the currency, the renminbi, take on a bigger international role. Although such reform would take a while to initiate, this could mark as China’s economic rise to be of a peaceful outlook, rather than an envisioned menacing one the US creates.
Militarily, much speculation spurred when China increased their military spending up into the double-digit range within in recent years. It is not doubtful that China is rapidly modernizing its armed forces. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reported that the defense spending increased from $30 billion in 2000 to nearly $120 billion in 2010. The US’s defense budget still exceeds China’s budget by four and a half times more, but SIPRI noted that if China continues its trend of increasing its budget, China’s military budget would overtake the US’s in 2035.
The US government fears that the increased spending will change the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The PLA is the largest army in the world, consisting of almost 2.3 million soldiers. Twenty years ago, China’s military primarily was consisted of numerous ground soldiers in arms. The traditional tactic was to combat an enemy in a face-to-face manner. But now, there is much suspicion in Washington that China is attempting to obtain jargon A2/AD, also known as “anti-access/area denial” capabilities. This tactic focuses on using targeted ground attack and anti-ship ballistic missiles, develop a fleet of more modernized submarines and cyber and anti-satellite arms to exterminate or disenable another state’s military bases from afar. In America’s eyes, this would pinpoint or jeopardize American aircraft-carrier groups and air force bases in the Western Pacific, such as in South Korea, Japan, and even Guam. It is then deemed that this would limit American military power in Asia considerably, as well as be more costly and riskier, hindering American allies’ faith in America’s capability to deter any hostility or fight against subtle forms of coercion. But such fear is exaggerated.
Overall, China is not a military threat to the United States. Unless Dr. Fu Manchu truly exists and is continuously plotting world domination with his army of hostile minions and chemical warfare, there is no real indication that China is a global threat by its military force alone. There are three factors that limit China’s potential and interest in military domination. First, unlike its Russian neighbour during its Soviet Union days, China has expressed a genuine interest in the stability of the global economy. Many of its military leaders continuously state that the development of the nation that still resorts to median income and plagued with poverty is a more imperative matter than ambitions for military growth. If one takes out the defensive and emotional context placed by the US, the increase in military spending can simply reflect the growing Chinese economy, rather than solely to fulfil an interest in military world domination. China has always spent the same proportion of GDP on military and defense, using a little over 2% whereas the US spends approximately 4.7%.
The only real predicament of China’s intent to sustain a constant military budget will come when China’s economic growth begins to slow even further. In fact, Chinese officials are more concerned over internal threats rather than the external. For the first time, the internal security budget was higher than the military budget last year. With its huge senior population and impending health care complaints, focusing on the demand for better health care would probably become a higher priority than military spending. Like any other nation, China faces the “bread or guns” question, and it actually started to implement a new national health insurance system just last year. It is evident that China is finally unlocking its savings to more so uphold the plan to shift its economic outlook towards domestic consumption than concentrate fully on military expansion.
Second, the improvements to the PLA are not as threatening as it seems in the reports. Chinese military technology has deteriorated by the Western arms embargo imposed after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. China may be improving its military department, but it still remains unorganized, inefficient and too dependent on technological imports from Russia, who also exports to India and Vietnam, China’s local rivals. In terms of ground forces, the PLA does not have up-to-date combat experience. The last instance it faced a true military confrontation was during the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979. If anything, the US has the far advantage from the previous decade of wars by American forces that honed its military skill and performance. True, China holds 2.3 million personnel compared to US’s 1.4 million soldiers, but that is with the US holding less than a fourth of China’s population. China has approximately 8,000 miles of borders to patrol and oversee that also border Russia and India – not exactly the friendliest neighbours to have, especially considering their past history – compared to the American neighbours, Canada and Mexico.
Third, it is simply not surprising that a nation with such importance and influential history could possibly want a good standing in the world, thus create a worthy army to reflect this opinion. Its desire for a bigger army was very much guided and developed by past events. The idea of China becoming an emerging power was unfathomed a decade ago. As any country without a strong world footing, numerous international factors fed into the fears of insecurity. Nationalistic resentment was naturally spurred when the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was deliberately bombed by US and NATO in 1999. In its own backyard, heavy American forces are planted throughout the region with strong alliances with its Asian rivals. It was in this apprehensive environment that China is interested in improving its military capabilities to uphold any sort of global strategic interests it may have.
The distinct differences in ideological and cultural factors of China compared to the West make it a threat. For neo-conservatives like President George Bush, the fact that China still retains remnants of a communist perspective makes other democratic states instantly view it as an adversary. China’s ideology includes Marxist-Leninist and Maoist components that are against democratic values. This includes: a belief that conflict and competition are inevitable, the opposition to imperialism, a motivation to spread communism through the Chinese model, and the potential revival of the concept of Maoist insurgency in the 21st century.
An example of an unfavourable outcome due to Chinese ideological influence would be the Nepali civil war. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) managed to overthrow the monarchy of Nepal and establish the Federal Republic of Nepal. Some scholars consider this as a sign of a “revival” of Mao in correlation of China’s growing power. Currently throughout central India, many armed Maoist groups have considerably control over a broad range of territory, violently fighting against the Indian government’s endeavours to make the resource-rich forests area safe for mining and other commercial affairs. Even domestically within China, there have been reports of some citizens proudly rekindling the Maoist concept by parents sending their children to universities in the countryside to decrease foreign influence, texting to each other Mao Zedong quotes via mobile devices, and broadcasting the eerily familiar “Red” songs on the state-owned television and radio channels.
But those are events of conflict occurring outside of China in destitute regions and limited reports of innocent nostalgia of the past by elder citizens. Indeed, it is true that concepts of Maoism may exist in China’s foreign policy, but China’s overall perspective seems to have changed. Dr. Kang Ziaoguang, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing, argues that Confucianism is becoming China’s new state religion. As enthusiasm for communism is gradually waning, movements for the return of Confucianism – the ethical and philosophical system of humanism – is widely present throughout China, from political ideas to personal ethics. Study of Confucian ideas has increased in the Chinese education system, ranging from kindergarten to universities. What is more evident is the adaptation to Confucian ideas by the Communist Party. President Hu Jintao has always promoted his campaign with slogans that ring with Confucian undertones of balance, harmony, and order since 2002. The party may be more inclined to accept Confucianism that dictates to respect authority and not to challenge its rule. Also, unlike communism, Confucianism is a home grown religion.
Samuel Huntington gives a concise illustration of the perceived threat. He says the “unholy alliance between Islamic and Confucian civilizations” is the most feared “clash of civilizations” and is perceived as a great crucial threat to the West. For nations that follow this belief – such as the US – a short-term, predictable and immediate response to this would be a containment policy with the possibility of confrontation, if needed. With the many conflicts between the US and the Middle East and now anticipating China’s power in its weakened state, it is no surprise that US’s fear is thriving. A long term aim would be an attempt to spread a peaceful transformation within China.
China has shown many signs of moving its rise towards a peaceful route. The incredible economic growth and sudden political governance caused sincere concerns over China throughout the world. As intense global attention increased, Chinese leaders are well aware that they have to quickly attempt to calm these concerns and prepare an amicable environment within the international community for its ascendancy. To appease the concerns of its rise, the Chinese government has sponsored many PR events, which includes holding exhibitions abroad, promoting the Chinese language through numerous programs and making official public announcements about China’s reformations to its policies.
In December 2003, the current Chinese head, Wen Jiabao, made a speech with the thesis of “China’s peaceful rise” at Harvard University. During this speech, Premier Jiabao addressed a couple of points. The first main point stated that the maintenance of China’s successful development depends on peaceful world relations. Secondly, China will utilize peaceful and fair methods for its development. Third, China will turn to more domestic consumption, relying more on its own resources and market. Fourth, China is willing to work hard in a long-term process, which could last for several generations, to sustain its newly gained economic prosperity. The last point was directed more towards the West where it stated that although China has risen to the near top within these past few decades, China does not have any interest in seeking a hegemonic status or stand as a threat to any nation in the world.
To provide evidence to these claims of “China’s peaceful rise,” the Chinese government has been active at the diplomatic level in many ways. The first step the government took was to form “strategic partnerships with the second-tier powers.” China has reportedly signed treaties with Russia, India, and even the EU, in order to strengthen their diplomatic relationships. The Chinese government has also made it a priority to seek cooperation with the international community and avoid any confrontation with the United States. Chinese officials were sent to Washington to directly pass on a clear message that China is a conservative power and holds no interest to disrupt the status quo (US being the sole worldly hegemonic power). Not forgetting its Asian counterparts, China dedicated itself to promote a “good neighbour policy” in the Asian Pacific region. The policy helped China become an important trader within the region by increasing friendly trade and also allowed the surrounding Asian states to appreciate trade surplus with China. But it is important to recognize that China already initiated friendly relationships with its neighbouring Asian countries through various mechanisms of regional cooperation in the past. During the 1997 financial crisis in the Asia, China received positive praise for refraining from devaluing its currency and contributing to stabilize the regional economy by using its foreign currency reserve.
In the past decade of the US-led “War on Terror,” China has always been careful (and successful) in handling internal nationalism and American unilateralism. But there are some indications that show this temporary peaceful relation could end. As the US shifts its policy to focus from the Middle East to now China, a slight conflict may soon surface in the Sino-American relationship. Noting America’s past to immediately react to challenges and exert a coercive policy; such defensive and aggressive attitude could disrupt China’s intent for a peaceful rise. This week, a study ordered by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission reported that the US has miscalculated China’s military growth and grossly underestimated its development of anti-ship missiles and stealth fighter jets. This could entice the American government to react, as the Obama administration – like the Bush administration – already adopted a policy of containment against China’s economic and politic influence, such as creating broad outlines of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement with eight Asian nations.
Indeed, the US tends to label any distasteful nation it clashed with in the past as a serious threat if it feels challenged in any sort of way. The hegemony has always shifted from demonization to romanticization of China, from containment to engagement, by still retaining a dualistic and militaristic Cold War thinking patterns. The relationship between these two countries has always led to confrontation, to competition and then back to conflict, without any real effort to cooperate with one another. The reason for this “sweet and sour” Sino-American relationship is described by Leon Sigal, who states such relations truly reveal the fundamental nature of America’s foreign policy. Sigal analyzed and interpreted US diplomacy and noted that US foreign policy discouraged cooperation with its strong deterrent stance and has always promoted a “crime and punishment approach,” continuously naming unfavourable nations as “threats.” As General Yao Yunzhu of the Academy of Military Science stated, “We are criticized if we do more and criticized if we do less. The West should decide what it wants. The international military order is US-led—NATO and Asian bilateral alliances—there is nothing like the WTO for China to get into.”
Despite China’s reassurances to the world that the new and improved China would like to create friendly diplomatic relationships based on mutual trust and support, the world is not entirely convinced. Its concern is not about China’s rising, but rather apprehension about what happens after China has risen. The Chinese had faced major criticisms in regards to its policies towards Myanmar and Darfur. As China gains an unfamiliar broad audience, the close attention brought many of its domestic problems to light, such as its problem with Tibet and human rights.
China’s military build-up and great additional defense spending strike as a contradiction to China’s international message of peace. Critics argue that China will eventually become increasingly opportunistic and shed its multilateral approach with global engagement. Thus, its publicized “goodwill” will probably only remain as long as its interests are not jeopardized. China’s confidence levels transformed from insecurity to assertiveness as it continuously participates in international politics power play as an equal and recognize it can actually create the rules of the politics game. Its international interests are legitimized by the international community, and only time would tell if it remains on a diplomatic route or will derail to a more egotistical behaviour. If China ever wants the world to fully accept its plan for a peaceful rise, China still has to allow greater transparency so it can directly prove its intentions. Without it, no matter how diplomatically charming China may behave, it would be difficult to truly convince its audience otherwise.
There is also the fall of China to take into consideration. Contrary to the previous illustrations of China’s rise to power, some scholars are concerned that China would not be able to handle the sharp rise in power and would be a great global disaster waiting to happen if it suddenly collapses into a sudden Soviet-style death. If so, several crises would unfold. The population of China alone – making up nearly 20 percent of the world – would create an incredible refuge problem. Furthermore, the failure of the country and other concerns – such as internal conflicts, rise in crime, and nuclear proliferation – would be a bag of complexities the world is not equipped to manage simultaneously.
It is possible to view the “rise of China” in these recent years as a quintessentially political process.
After the Cultural Revolution irrevocably changed the country and produced three exigencies of ideological belief, faith in the Communist Party of China (CPC), and uncertainty for the future, the CPC looked to underscore their legitimacy as a nation. As the world became increasingly globalized and integrated as an international community, the CPC recognized that performance-based legitimacy was the last resort to perpetuate its rule, and focused on economic development as its highest priority. As a result, the success of its economic development ensued political assumptions, China being cautiously monitored by its neighbouring states and particularly, the United States. So far, China is deemed as a peaceful rise, and the US is criticized of being overly defensive. But the maintenance of this declared peaceful rise is yet to be determined as the situation settles after the storm.