But Beijing demands respect as first-rank state
The 10 Asean states and Japan are responding to what they see as China’s growing assertiveness on the China Sea. Meeting at the Summit in Tokyo in early December, they pledged to cooperate to ensure the freedom of over-flights and navigation on East Asia’s great inland sea.
It’s ironic that Japan should be leading this effort, since resurgent China’s drive for “wealth and power” mirrors its own effort—beginning in the late 1800s—to build a “rich country and a strong army.”
The same motive force moves the two peoples: to redress their “humiliation” by the imperialist powers during their periods of weakness. President Hu Jintao in 2005 quoted a Chinese saying, “Backwardness incurs beating by others.”
The Chinese date this era from the First Opium War of 1840, when the British seized Hong Kong. For the Japanese, it began in 1854, when an America seeking its Pacific “Destiny” forcibly opened their country to western trade under unequal treaties.
In the 26 years between the Meiji Restoration (1868) and the Sino-Japanese War (1894), Japan progressed from feudalism to industrial-power rank. But not until 1949 could Mao Zedong proclaim: “China has stood up.”
Tokyo’s proactive pacifism
After six decades of playing down its war potential, Japan is gearing up for what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe calls “proactive pacifism.” Tokyo is starting up a five-year defense plan to ready itself for a limited maritime conflict in the East China Sea.
Ominously, Abe is co-opting Japanese nationalism in his effort to amend the 1949 peace constitution. His government is also trying to whitewash Japan’s Pacific War history in grade-school textbooks.
Earlier in December, Abe visited Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni shrine formally. Its revered war dead includes “Class A” Pacific War criminals. That visit Beijing cannot but interpret as a gesture of contempt for the Chinese victims of Japanese atrocities.
China’s world view
China’s assertiveness comes from its triumphalist view of the world. It sees itself as rising dramatically in military and economic power and in global diplomacy. This perspective is based on four assumptions:
One: The power gap between the United States and China is closing. China is already a first-class power—worthy of respect by the world community, and especially by its neighbor-states.
China has just shown off its missile technology by soft-landing a robot on the Moon—a feat only the US and the Soviet Union have managed. It, too, has drones and stealth bombers; meanwhile, it is building a “blue-water navy.”
The US in long-term decline?
Two: The United States is in long-term decline. This is evident from its loss of economic vigor and its structural unemployment, as middle-class jobs migrate to cheaper countries; its grievous social inequality; its dysfunctional politics and its stumbling foreign policy; and its mediocre education system (Shanghai students beat all others in math and science).
Three: A new world order is evolving, as the center of global gravity tilts from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Not only China but also other ascendant powers—India, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Iran—are challenging western dominance.
Four: China’s development model—which combines the dynamism of the market system with the long-term stability of State direction—is becoming a workable alternative to America’s “winner-take-all” capitalism for the emerging countries.
A decisive role for the market
To China, then, will belong the future. Meanwhile, it must focus on overtaking the U.S. In 2003, the US GDP was 8 times as large as China’s: in 2012, it was less than 3 times larger.
But China’s export strategy no longer suffices to deliver the headlong growth of the past generation. To avert the slowdown it anticipates as the economy matures, the Communist Party leadership has just agreed on two key measures.
The first is to give the market system a “decisive” role in the domestic economy and to depend on consumption and technical innovation to propel growth.
The second is to carry out the mass urbanization of China’s interior regions—to keep them abreast of the booming coastal provinces. Over the next 12-15 years, China is to move 250 million rural people to growth poles in big cities. Mass urbanization will have the side effect of broadening China’s tax base—generating more State revenue for capital investment and military spending.
These twin-strategies—if successful—could easily make China the Number One economy well before 2030.
A new great-power relationship
Over the near future, the China Sea tensions are liable to continue. Beijing’s deepest motives in the China Sea are not economic but strategic and military. China needs to control the China Sea if it is to break through the American chain of bases and alliances and irrupt into the world ocean.
Throughout history, the rise of a new power, by disturbing the balance of forces, has set off a conflict with the status quo power. China and the United States are searching for a new “great power relationship” because, in our time, there is no alternative to an understanding between them. As the historian John Mearsheimer notes, “Nuclear weapons are a powerful force for peace.”
That there is no deep ideological cleavage between the two—as there was between the US and the Soviet Union—will help. The developing situation is simply that, as China’s wealth and power grow, it will tolerate less and less the containing wall the US and its allies have built along its 6,000-kilometer border.
We may also expect Beijing to want to create its own sphere of influence in East Asia, by exploiting the rivalries between the smaller powers.
Can China win without fighting, as the classic strategist Sun Tzu advises? “Supreme excellence [lies]in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
A rejuvenated China recovered Hong Kong and Macau without much bother—Britain and Portugal had become too weak to defend them. And already China’s growing capabilities are forcing changes in US deployments; notably, Washington is building up a strong point on Guam. But over an issue like Taiwan, the US alliance will not yield.
To prevent a catastrophe, Washington and Beijing must therefore reach a grand bargain that enables them to live peacefully—and in mutual respect. And that understanding must be based on “strategic trust”—the components of which their two governments are negotiating.