SEOUL – By the time China overtakes the United States as the world’s largest economy sometime in the next few years, it will have cemented its status as a major military power – one whose drive to assert itself strategically already is inspiring serious anxiety among its neighbors. But the truth is that China is a solitary, vulnerable rising power – one that faces potentially crippling domestic challenges.
China is currently encircled by US military installations and allies. While Asian countries are largely willing to maintain and even expand their economic ties with China, none (except North Korea, which depends on Chinese aid) is prepared to accept it as the region’s primary power. In fact, US allies like Indonesia and India have emerged as global players largely in response to China’s rise.
For its part, the US has shifted substantial military power toward Asia – with high-profile military deployments in Australia and the Philippines, and 60% of America’s naval capabilities now deployed in the region – and has enhanced its defense ties with Japan and South Korea. Moreover, it is helping to spearhead the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an economic and trade agreement that excludes China but includes many of its regional neighbors.
Against this background, US claims that its strategic rebalancing is not about containing China are not particularly convincing. Indeed, the US is pursuing a strategy of primacy in Asia, not a partnership between equals, and this, together with China’s own internal tensions, is undermining China’s ability to participate productively in regional and global forums.
As it stands, China lacks the confidence and experience needed to navigate the international arena. For example, it will not consider resolving in an international forum its dispute with Japan in the East China Sea over the Diaoyu Islands (called the Senkaku Islands in Japan). International law, China understands, is a double-edged sword that can be used against China in other territorial disputes, or even in its domestic affairs.
Similarly, China’s miserly initial offer of $100,000 in aid following the recent typhoon in the Philippines demonstrates how far the country is from being a mature member of the international community. As a Chinese official admitted at a recent seminar in Seoul, concepts like “regional order” have never been a part of the country’s political vocabulary.
With regard to Japan, China faces a conundrum. It is relatively content with Japan being a US security protectorate, because it fears the alternative: a Japan that expands its independent military reach. But US efforts to avoid precisely such an outcome cannot be good news for the Chinese, either, given that they entail a deepening of the bilateral defense relationship and support for upgrading Japan’s military capabilities.
In short, China’s regional exceptionalism has landed it in a strategic trap. It is unwilling to accept American leadership in Asia; but it is also reluctant to assume a more prominent role in promoting regional integration, fearing the concomitant pressure for more economic liberalization, adherence to international norms and rules, and a more transparent approach to its military buildup.
Even the proliferation of China’s economic ties in Africa, the Middle East, and South America may reflect vulnerability rather than imperial ambition. China’s voracious quest for new energy sources has already caused it to overstretch its limited ability to protect its sea lanes.
Despite bold reform plans – outlined at the recent Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party – China’s prospects remain compromised by deep-rooted contradictions. For example, the inherent tension between the social change that development demands and the imperative of political stability required by authoritarian rule makes the current situation unsustainable in the long run.
Likewise, if the reform outline’s promise of a “decisive role” for the market ends up raising wages for poor Chinese, domestic demand might increase, but China will lose its main competitive advantage in international markets. This kind of dilemma has contributed to the fall of other developing-country dictatorships.
China understands that, for now, US strategic primacy is an immutable reality. Even so, its leaders’ strategic anxiety was on display at President Xi Jinping’s June meeting with US President Barack Obama, where he demanded, with the vagueness characteristic of Chinese officials, “mutual respect” and recognition of China’s “territorial integrity.”
The ostensibly trivial expression “mutual respect” actually modulates China’s true desire: a return to the Westphalian principle of non-interference in states’ domestic affairs, particularly their human-rights records. China has staunchly opposed Western efforts, whether in Syria or in North Korea, to circumvent this principle with doctrines like the “Responsibility to Protect.”
Similarly, Xi’s call for the US to respect its “territorial integrity” carries a specific and pointed message. In China’s view, the US has increasingly been encroaching on its rights with regard to Taiwan, while refusing to recognize China’s many other territorial and maritime claims against US allies in the South China Sea.
Experience demonstrates the dangers that can arise when vulnerable powers act independently. One need look no further than Israel, with its penchant for overreaction on security matters, or Iran, with its insistence on enriching uranium, to see what can happen when an isolated power bases its actions on a sense of existential vulnerability.
China’s rise is fraught with fear and uncertainty. Encirclement by a foreign power that threatens to encroach on what it considers to be its inalienable sovereign rights is bound to drive it to become a revolutionary power bent on upending the status quo. Before China and the US overstep each other’s boundaries, they should abandon the concepts of “primacy” and “containment” in favor of a concert of Asian powers capable of resolving their differences.