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China’s “Peaceful” Rise?

In recent weeks, China announced a 12.6% increase in its defense spending; America’s CIA director, Porter Goss, testified about a worsening military balance in the Taiwan Strait; and President George W. Bush pleaded with Europeans not to lift their embargo on arms sales to China. Yet Chinese leaders have spoken of China’s “peaceful rise” or, more recently, its “peaceful development.”

Analysts such as John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago have flatly proclaimed that China cannot rise peacefully, and predict that “the United States and China are likely to engage in an intense security competition with considerable potential for war.” Optimists point out that China has engaged in good neighbor policies since the 1990’s, settled border disputes, played a greater role in international institutions, and recognized the benefits of using soft power. But skeptics reply that China is merely waiting for its economy to lay the basis for future hegemony.

Who is right? We will not know for some time, but the debaters should recall Thucydides’ warning more than two millennia ago that belief in the inevitability of conflict can become one of its main causes. Each side, believing it will end up at war with the other, makes reasonable military preparations that are read by the other side as confirmation of its worst fears.

In fact, the “rise of China” is a misnomer. “Re-emergence” would be more accurate, since by size and history the Middle Kingdom has long been a major power in East Asia. Technically and economically, China was the world’s leader (though without global reach) from 500 to 1500. Only in the last half-millennium was it overtaken by Europe and America.