How to keep a rising China in line
Thomas J. Christensen opens his newbook by observing that post-1978 China has achieved economic progress that is “unprecedented in world history” and has registered “equally dramatic” advances in its economic and diplomatic ties abroad. Since the mid-1990s, moreover, its official military budget has grown even faster than its economy.
It was perhaps inevitable that such a dramatic rise — or resurgence, from China’s perspective — would elicit exaggerated analysis. Especially in the United States, to whose preeminence that phenomenon poses a singular challenge, one tends to encounter depictions of China as either a fearsome juggernaut or a paper dragon. Christensen, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, avoids both fallacies, offering instead a model of judicious analysis: Carefully deconstructing the economic, military and diplomatic balances between the United States and China, he reveals the magnitude of the latter’s challenge without inflating it.
First, the bad news: While China’s conventional and nuclear capabilities are a long way from approximating America’s, they pose growing threats to U.S. interests, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. Christensen notes that an increasingly confident China “enjoys military superiority over most, if not all” of America’s regional allies, three of which (Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan) have intractable territorial disputes with China.
Of greater long-term concern, in his estimation, is enlisting its support in upholding the liberal world order that has been so instrumental to its ascent: “No government has experience . . . persuading a uniquely large developing country with enormous domestic challenges and a historical chip on its national shoulder to cooperate actively with the international community.” Christensen focuses on the obstacles to U.S.-China cooperation in the arenas of nonproliferation, global economic management, peacekeeping and, most vexing of all, climate change.
Still, “The China Challenge” strikes a tone of cautious optimism, and Christensen makes a persuasive case that conflict between the United States and China is far from inevitable. The scale of economic interdependence world wide is unprecedented, and transnational production, a marginal feature of economic activity in the run-up to World War I, has exploded over the past quarter-century. In 2012, China’s trade with the United States, formal U.S. allies in East Asia and U.S. security partners in Asia accounted for roughly two-fifths of its overall trade (about a fifth of its gross domestic product) and one-third of official foreign direct investment flowing into the mainland. Conflict would risk those benefits and compound China’s diplomatic isolation: Christensen observes that it “lacks any strategically important allies.”
Finally, while China regards today’s world order as more of a Western imposition than a just consensus— alternatively reacting with confusion and irritation to America’s exhortation to become a “responsible stakeholder” — it has neither a coherent alternative to offer nor a compelling rationale for posing a systemic revisionist challenge: Japan, Germany and the Soviet Union suffered greatly for undertaking that course in the 20th century.
Yet one wonders if America and China’s sensible rhetoric — about forging a new type of great-power relations and avoiding what Graham Allison calls the “Thucydides trap” (in his words, “the natural, inevitable inescapable discombobulation that accompanies a tectonic shift in the relative power of a rising and [a] ruling state”)— belies increasing pessimism about the trajectory of their relationship. Christensen notes that “John Mearsheimer is seen by many Chinese as the one honest American strategist, willing to admit that the United States has deep-seated national interests in delaying and halting China’s rise.” In the new, concluding chapter of “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics,” orginally published in 2001, Mearsheimer, a distinguished political scientist at the University of Chicago, warns that “if China continues to grow economically, it will attempt to dominate Asia the way the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere. The United States, however, will go to enormous lengths to prevent China from achieving regional hegemony.”
The path of least resistance, but also of greatest danger, would be for the two countries to conclude that they are prisoners of history. While implementing their shared desire for a constructive partnership will be among the most daunting projects of the new century, they must spare no effort in pursuit of that goal.
China’s military budget is growing quickly, though the nation’s conventional and nuclear capabilities are a long way from matching America’s, Thomas J. Christensen writes.
THE CHINA CHALLENGE Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power By Thomas J. Christensen Norton. 371 pp. $27.95