Balance of power strategies involving U.S., China

China’s stature in the international political power structure has been rising since the late 1970s, largely because of market reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping. Given the level of success, China’s ascent could cause a dramatic power transition within the international system, possibly challenging the U.S. role as the region’s preeminent security provider. Therefore, managing the rise of China during the next few decades is critically important to U.S. interests. Developing successful policies toward China, however, requires an understanding of China’s past and present approach to providing for its security.

Based on a recent study by RAND regarding China’s overall strategy, that examines China’s security strategy from a historical, empirical and theoretical perspective, it identifies the major features and factors that influence how the strategies are likely to evolve. Thus the United States needs to devise policies that encourage the emergence of a cooperative China while safeguarding U.S. interests in the region.

Let us examine China’s security objectives based on its history. From the consolidation of China as a unified state under the Han Dynasty (3rd century B.C.) through the emergence of the present Communist government, Chinese regimes have faced a common set of security problems.

China has over 10,000 miles of border to defend against local and distant threats. During the imperial era that went from the 3rd century B.C. until the mid-19th century, raids by nomadic tribes threatened the Chinese periphery. During the early modern era from the mid-19th century onward, the periphery was threatened by great imperialist powers, including Russia, Germany, Great Britain and France. Since World War II, such countries as India, Russia, Japan and even the United States have posed different levels of security threats to its periphery.

China’s domestic political system has always been marked by a personality-based pattern of rule in which ultimate authority comes from the power and beliefs of individual leaders, not from legal and organizational norms and processes. In such a system, policy content and behavior, including external security policy, often become tools used by senior leaders in the evolving and endless domestic power struggle. This tends to cause volatility within the government and internal political strife.

Regardless of China’s geopolitical strengths, it thinks of itself as a great power, which is based on China’s historical role as a central political player in Asia and on its tradition of economic self-sufficiency. During imperial times, Chinese regimes usually held a deep-seated belief in China’s political, social and cultural superiority over its neighbors. In modern times, China has evolved into a major economic and military power that is at least equal to the capabilities of other major powers except the United States. At present, we are and continue to be the leading world power having twice the GNP that China has, even though they are trying to catch up.

Given China’s evolving geopolitical, economic and military strategies, they have a continued need to control the periphery and ward off threats to the ruling regime; preserve domestic order and well-being in the face of different forms of social strife; and attain and maintain geopolitical influence as an evolving major power.

Historically, imperial regimes used military force to advance their security objectives when they were strongest, generally during the first one-third of the regimes’ existence. As they matured, strong, stable regimes increasingly employed complex mixtures of force, diplomacy and cultural norms. Although China’s basic security objectives have not changed substantially during the modern era, the challenges posed by the industrialized world have spawned new security strategy considerations. China’s modern regimes have employed hybrid strategies that use force and diplomacy selectively.

During the last few decades, this hybrid strategy has evolved to protect China from external threats as it pursues its geopolitical ascent. Furthermore, it will allow China to continue to reform its economy and evolve into a major world power. If successful, the strategy will buy China the breathing room it needs to improve domestic social conditions, increase the legitimacy of the governing regime, expand the nation’s economic and technological capabilities, strengthen its military, and enhance its standing and influence in the international political order, all of which are important elements in achieving its long-standing security needs.

China wants to win support from all the other major world powers, by focusing on developing and maintaining friendly relations with the major powers and convincing them that the rise of China will be a stabilizing force in Asia. By garnering this cooperation, it improves China’s access to the world’s wealthiest economic markets.

Regarding military matters, China aims to reduce its existing vulnerabilities while increasing the ability of its military forces to secure diplomatic and political leverage. Its military modernization programs regarding both nuclear and conventional forces are proceeding forward slowly and steadily because a rapid military buildup might alarm China’s neighbors and the major powers. Further, a sudden buildup would detract from China’s current emphasis on civilian economic development.

As far as territorial claims are concerned, China wants to avoid using force to settle territorial disputes. Rather, it dictates that China pursue a good-neighbor policy designed to strengthen or mend ties with its neighbors and to delay resolving disputes, at least until the regional balance of power shifts in favor of China.

It seems that China’s response to international regimes is to participate in such areas as economic development, trade, technology transfer, arms control and the environment strictly on a case by case basis.

When considering the employment of all of China’s combined strategies, they are to encourage foreign collaboration in underwriting China’s rise to power, while temporarily removing external threats that could distract Beijing from its uninterrupted ascent. This will remain China’s approach for the next few decades until Beijing has completed its ascent into a position of economic, military and political strength. When this occurs, probably not before 2015-2020, a more assertive China is likely to emerge.

The question is how does the United States respond to these events? If China is completely successful, an intense United States-China rivalry may be inevitable by at least the 2020 timeframe. Yet, China’s rise to greatness coupled with its gradual move towards expanded assertiveness is far from assured. It would seem that the present-day challenge for U.S. policymakers would be to devise policy aimed at influencing China’s behavior to constrain its aggressive tendencies towards at least its neighbors as it continues to expand geopolitically, economically and militarily.

We don’t want to provoke aggression, nor do we want to appease China too much where we begin to give away too much. It is a fine line to walk on.

In my way of thinking with regard to China, we need to attain deeper levels of understanding, stronger mutual trust and confidence to enhance Chinese integration into the international system. At the same time, U.S. policy should discourage or prevent China from acquiring capabilities that could unambiguously threaten the United States’ core national security interests in Asia and beyond.

Overall, the United States should remain prepared to cope with a more assertive and militant China in the medium and long terms.

William J. Chevalier lives in Peterborough.

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