China is seeking to become the major power in Asia by 2050. Under the rationale of its so-called New Security Concept (NSC), it is intent on replacing the United States as the preeminent military power in the region and achieving economic dominance in Asia by establishing a regional market dominated by the yuan.* Thus, while Beijing claims to seek a peaceful international climate so as to concentrate on domestic development, it is pursuing a long-term, potentially destabilizing strategy to radically alter regional power relationships that have contributed to the prosperity and relative stability of East Asia for the past fifty years. Clearly, China’s aspiration has implications not only for its neighbors, but for U.S. foreign policy, as well.
THE NATIONAL STRATEGY
China’s NSC is purportedly based on the principles of peaceful coexistence, first articulated by Premier Zhou Enlai at the Bandung Conference in 1955: mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, nonaggression, noninterference in the internal affairs of other states, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. The NSC also stresses the themes of mutually beneficial economic cooperation, elimination of inequalities and discriminatory trade relations, and the promotion of security through dialogue and cooperation rather than by forming alliances against specific threats. Indeed, according to official Chinese pronouncements, the world is increasingly characterized by peace and development, and is moving towards multipolarity and economic globalization. In general, the international security situation is improving.
For its part, China, in its 2000 Defense White Paper, asserts that it “is devoting itself to its modernization drive, [and the country] needs and cherishes dearly an environment of long-term international peace, especially a favorable peripheral environment.” China dismisses its efforts to build the most powerful military force in the region as merely “pursuing a national defense policy that is defensive in nature, and its national defense construction (resources and funds) is in a subordinate position to and in service of economic construction.”
However, the White Paper also contains a warning:
The world is far from peaceful…. No fundamental change has been made in the old, unfair, and irrational international political and economic order. Hegemonism and power politics still exist…. Certain big powers are pursuing “neo-interventionism,” “neo-gunboat policy,” and “neo-economic colonialism,” which are seriously damaging the sovereignty, independence, and developmental interests of many countries, and threatening world peace and security…. Only by developing a new security concept and establishing a fair and reasonable new international order can world peace and security be fundamentally guaranteed.
Such statements are instructive, because they reflect the lack of trust that the Chinese still have of the outside world. China has never accepted the contemporary geopolitical system in the region, which is characterized by American bilateral military alliances, forward-based troop deployments and Western, mainly American, preeminence in global economic decisionmaking. Hence, the NSC, which is both a new post-Cold War concept and an Eastern creation, by virtue of its basis in the Bandung Principles, is China’s attempt to establish a regional alternative to Western dominance. This effort resonates with Chinese intellectual arguments of earlier periods that sought salvation from foreign domination in Marxism as an alternative to Western-style capitalism.
China’s ambition to become a prosperous and powerful nation includes reacquiring its “lost territories”, those lands ceded to the Western powers by the Qing dynasty, that is, areas in the Russian Far East. Additionally, China has ongoing border and territorial disputes with India, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Russia and Vietnam. It went to war with India in 1962 over border claims, clashed with Vietnam in 1988 over the Spratlys and with the Philippines over the same area in 1995. And, of course, there is the issue of Taiwan. While some of these claims have a weak historical basis, they nonetheless figure prominently in China’s sense of national identity. Thus, China may profess not to seek hegemony in Asia, but its determination to reclaim lost territories, exert political control over Taiwan, and become the preeminent power in the region can only be achieved at the expense of the status quo.
Clearly, in light of China’s blatant ambitions and growing economic and military power, the U.S. must redefine its policy of engagement. Indeed, the Bush administration has already demonstrated that it is committed to a tougher stance with China. To this end, however, further steps are necessary. China must be made aware that there are consequences for its failure to cooperate on issues important to the U.S. and its allies, such as proliferation, South Asia, the Korean situation, the environment, human rights, and international crime. It should also be made clear that any attempt to “outgun” the U.S. in the region will be matched and topped. Ultimately, Beijing must know that in waging an arms race with Washington, it risks almost certain economic collapse, which would in turn mean regime collapse. The lesson of the Soviet Union has not been lost on either side.
Likewise, the PLA must be left with no doubt that the United States will provide military support to Taiwan, if it is attacked. Statements to this effect by the Bush administration, as well as other initiatives, such as the first invitation, since de-recognition in 1979, to the Taiwanese minister of defense to visit the United States and meet with senior State and Defense Department officials, coupled with offers to sell long-denied weapons systems (submarines, patrol aircraft and advanced destroyers), should have established beyond reasonable doubt a policy of strategic clarity on U.S. support of Taiwan. However, lest China should question American commitment, the United States must continue to supply Taiwan with state-of-the-art defensive weapons and proceed with TMD and AEGIS deployments to neutralize the PLA missile threat. These measures will send a strong message: A military move against Taiwan or attempts to reshape the strategic balance in the Pacific will fail.
Finally, a new policy of engagement should also explicitly challenge China’s often-stated intent to displace the United States as the major power in the Western Pacific and Asia. This would include proactive policies to reinforce the system of bilateral alliances that have ensured regional stability, since the end of World War II. Such alliances with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand should be strengthened, and the network expanded to include India, Mongolia, Singapore and Vietnam.
China’s national security strategy is on a collision course with U.S. goals and interests in the Pacific region. The United States, therefore, must put its China policy on a new footing. China is not a strategic partner; it never will be. It is, in fact, a competitor for regional dominance. Thus, China must no longer be the primary focus of an Asian policy in pursuit of markets that have yet to materialize, notwithstanding China’s admission to the World Trade Organization. Indeed, fostering trade and development with the other nations of the region could prove more productive, especially if China’s economic reforms falter in a WTO-dominated trading system. China’s importance in the region cannot be denied, but it is only one of many important nations in the region.
Engagement should continue, but it must be based on a doctrine of military superiority and a realistic appraisal of the costs and benefits to America’s national interests and those of its allies. In the end, a harder U.S. line will promote regional stability, because China will quickly discover the boundaries of acceptable behavior, and Asian allies of the United States will be reassured by its consistency of purpose.
Note: See PRC 2000 Defense White Paper for details of NSC.
[A version of this paper was presented at the 31st Sino-American Conference on Contemporary China, National Chengchi University, Taipei, June 2-4, 2002.]
Michael E. Marti is a senior research professor in the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University. The views presented are the author’s and do not represent those of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
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