Day By Day

Monday, May 23, 2005

China Rising -- Interpretations

We have been seeing a lot of stories about China lately and it is a good time to stop to consider what they mean.

In the latest issue of the Atlantic Robert Kaplan views with alarm Chinese naval development that promises soon to give it a significant blue water capability. He writes:

The Chinese navy is poised to push out into the Pacific—and when it does, it will very quickly encounter a U.S. Navy and Air Force unwilling to budge from the coastal shelf of the Asian mainland. It's not hard to imagine the result: a replay of the decades-long Cold War, with a center of gravity not in the heart of Europe but, rather, among Pacific atolls that were last in the news when the Marines stormed them in World War II.

Read the article here. [subscription required]

This alarmist view is perhaps overstated.

Thomas P.M. Barnett has dismissed Kaplan's argument, which focuses on naval threats, as sheer propaganda generated by the US Navy for use in the upcoming budget battles. The Navy, he argues, stands to lose funding, bases, and manpower unless they can gin up sufficient anxiety about the Chinese naval threat. Read him here.

But China has indeed been building a blue water navy, especially nuclear submarines, to supplement its coastal and amphibious capabilities. This has been intepreted by many experts as an attempt to do two things:

1) gain the capacity to interdict US assistance to Taiwan in case of an outbreak of hostilities there.

2) to protect Chinese oil supplies in case the US attempts in a crisis to interdict them.

This is something far more immediate and less threatening than Kaplan's prediction of a new cold war, and it is something that is being taken seriously in Washington. In recent weeks the US and Japan have declared a common interest in maintaining the independence of Taiwan -- a clear warning to Beijing.

But Washington is clearly concerned by much more than Taiwan. One indication is the fact that the Bush administration has begun to build a strong strategic relationship with India.

The Australian
, over the weekend, reported:

ITS logic is inescapable yet the idea has been inconceivable: a strategic partnership between the two great democracies, the US and India, long divided by distrust and the Cold War.

Yet it is happening. George W. Bush has reached out to India and one of the coming debates in global politics will be over the manner and meaning of his decision to support India's quest to become a global power.

The Bush administration, far more cohesive with Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State, has launched a diplomatic offensive with India that is stunning in its rhetoric and serious in its content. "India's relations with the US are now the best they have ever been," says Rajiv Sikri, the senior official on East Asia at India's external affairs ministry.

In a calculated State Department briefing in Washington on March 25 (now famous in New Delhi), the real US purpose was made explicit. The spokesman said that Bush and Rice earlier this year "developed the outline for a decisively broader strategic relationship" between the US and India. When Rice went to New Delhi she presented this outline to Singh, its purpose being "to help India become a major world power in the 21st century", the abiding dream of the Indian elite.

Events are moving fast. The US is offering India a top-of-the-line version of the F-16, hi-tech defence and space co-operation in terms of satellites and launch vehicles, Patriot and Arrow missiles, and access to civilian nuclear technology. (India's aim is to generate 25 per cent to 30 per cent of its huge energy needs from nuclear.)

"The strategic dialogue will include global issues, the kinds of issues you would discuss with a world power," the State Department spokesman said. The US was prepared to "discuss even more fundamental issues of defence transformation with India, including transformative systems in areas such as command and control, early warning and missile defence."

After Rice's visit, US ambassador to India David Mulford said the US and India "are poised for a partnership that will be crucial in shaping the international order in the 21st century".

Read the Australian article here.

This is an extraordinary shift in policy -- one that testifies to the seriousness with which the Bush administration views recent developments in China. A set of "containment" alliances is emerging -- US, Britain, Australia, India, S. Korea, Japan, and possibly Russia, aimed at limiting the spread of Chinese power. This is very much in line with Kaplan's argument.

So, are the stories in the press part of a long preparation for a new containment strategy like that outlined in Kaplans article, or are they just propaganda issued by the military seeking to justify budget hikes? The evidence seems to favor the former position. Washington is taking the Chinese threat seriously and is making long-term preparations to meet it.

An alternative position was sketched out by Fareed Zakaria, writing in Newsweek. He argues that China poses no real threat to the US or its interests in Asia. Instead, he writes, the US and China have lots of areas of common interests where they can work cooperatively toward common goals.

The most immediate such area of common concern is the threat of nuclear proliferation. Zakaria argues that all that stands in the way of a joint US-China policy is the Bush administration's insistence on regime change in North Korea. If the US would just back off, he suggests, the US and China could work together to manage relationships throughout East Asia.

The immediate benefits of such an accommodation, Zakaria implies, would be both a lessening of tensions with North Korea that might lead to disarmament and a peaceful reconciliation between the mainland and Taiwan.

Read Zakaria's article here.

Where Zakaria urges appeasment and cooperation Robert Kagan sees inevitable conflict. He writes:

The idea that we can manage China's rise is comforting because it gives us a sense of control and mastery, and of paternalistic superiority....

The history of rising powers, however, and their attempted "management" by established powers provides little reason for confidence or comfort. Rarely have rising powers risen without sparking a major war that reshaped the international system to reflect new realities of power....

He warns that, rather than seeking to accommodate itself to western style liberalism, it is

possible that China does not want to be integrated into a political and security system that it had no part in shaping and that conforms neither to its ambitions nor to its own autocratic and hierarchical principles of rule? Might not China, like all rising powers of the past, including the United States, want to reshape the international system to suit its own purposes, commensurate with its new power, and to make the world safe for its autocracy?

Whatever the outcome, Kagan insists,

we need to understand that the nature of China's rise will be determined largely by the Chinese and not by us.

Read Kagan's article here.

So there we have the three major positions so far articulated in the American press [of course there are variations on each of these]. Zakaria argues for a carefully managed future in which China and the US work cooperatively toward common goals; Kagan argues that such management is probably not possible and fears armed conflict as China attempts to expand its influence at American expense; and Kaplan sees a strong possibility of a long period of antagonism, not unlike the Cold War, in which a gradual mutual accommodation will be painfully worked out over the course of several decades.

Which interpretation will be borne out by future experience -- who knows? But it seems that the Bush administration as well as Beijing are preparing for something like Kaplan's vision. One thing is certain -- the future of China's development will hold many surprises for us.

Stay tuned....

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