Saturday, August 30, 2003

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Everything old is not new again

From today's New York Times news analysis on China's role in the North Korea talks:

Beijing's decision to broker the nuclear talks reflects alarm in the top ranks of the Communist Party that the North Korean problem could spiral out of control, with both the North and the United States locked in polar positions. Experts said China had decided that it was uniquely positioned to make a difference because of longstanding ties with North Korea, a neighbor and onetime political and military ally, and its improving relationship with the Bush administration.

Yet its assertiveness may also reflect a new sense of engagement with the world that offers some parallels to the emergence of the United States as a dominant power nearly a century ago, experts say.

"China is starting to act like a big power, with interests it has to defend even outside its borders," said Yan Xuetong, a influential foreign policy expert at Qinghua University in Beijing. "I expect these talks to be remembered as an important milestone in history for that reason."

This is a standard line among many Sinologists, pointing to China's growing economic and military power. And indeed, the article gives several examples of China's growing global influence -- oh, wait, I'm sorry, every single example cited in the article takes place on China's borders.

By comparison, peruse Fareed Zakaria's excellent first book, From Wealth to Power, and you'll see that a hundred years ago the U.S. was projecting power far beyond its borders, including the deployment of U.S. forces on the Chinese mainland.

My point here is not to denigrate China's rising power, but rather to put things in the proper perspective. As a regional actor in Asia, Beijing can not and should not be ignored. As a global actor, its profile remains relatively small, even compared with the Unitred States a century ago.

posted by Dan on 08.30.03 at 04:49 PM


This is a standard line among many Sinologists, pointing to China's growing economic and military power. And indeed, the article gives several examples of China's growing global influence -- oh, wait, I'm sorry, every single example cited in the article takes place on China's borders.

I think that particular Sinologist party line carries farther into the discipline than you're giving it credit. Wouldn't Mearsheimer and other classical-minded realists say about the same thing? And the power transition folks have been chomping at the bit to call China a "rising power" for years, so this has to be Big News™ to them as well.

Regardless, the most important question to ask about China's hegemonic aspirations concerns the fungibility of China's economic power. Yes, the Middle Kingdom is on track to become the world's largest economy, but will that translate into a qualitative military advantage? (China already has a quantitative advantage, at least in terms of army stength.)

Many newbie realists -- and some scholars! -- make the mistake of thinking that economic power can be directly converted into military power, without paying attention to the sectoral allocations of economics. For instance, the EU bloc is in no position to become a global military powers because so much of its spending goes towards the welfare state. In the case of China, the stumbling block may be a lack of adequate high-tech fields.

Technologically speaking, the Chinese are where the Soviets were in the 1970s -- if not farther behind in terms of nuclear deterrent -- and by the time they catch up to where we are now, the American military will have undergone multiple qualitative leaps (unless isolationist politicians capture and hold the White House and Congress for a long period of time). Unless there's a huge leap in China's defense R&D spending that breaks China away from its Soviet defense structure mindset, I won't invest too much faith in the "global China" argument, either.

P.S. I agree with you about the Times article's faulty characterization of the rise of American power. The more accurate comparison between America and China is the America of two centuries ago. It's not inconceivable that within the next three decades, China may attempt to issue its own "Monroe Document" in Asia. (Japan and India will be none too thrilled, I would imagine.)

posted by: Matthew on 08.30.03 at 04:49 PM [permalink]

China is a nationalist power, concentrating on developments within and on its borders, much like the US was before we were caught up in the internationalist impulse of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. It has good reason for this attitude, as it faces enormous challenges at home and from its neighbors.

The Party is trying desparately to maintain its legitimacy as a Socialist concern, all the while it is encouraging economic growth by adopting whatever aspects of private business and international trade is deemed "non-threatening".

Therefore, assembly plants are good, computers and satellite hook ups are bad. This used to be called "cognitive dissonance", and they seem to have it with a vengeance. It remains to be seen if a rising middle class, and increasingly educated populace, will long endure such a clumsy and fearful entity to manage their affairs.

One must remember the disaster of the Cultural Revolution, and the lost generation, falling standard of living, et al, to understand the people's forebearence with the timid moves of the state toward the modern world. The last thing the Chinese people want is another round of social turmoil to knock the train off the tracks.

Also, China is surrounded by threats along its borders, such as Japan, India, Russia, and Vietnam, whether real or imagined. The US has had the good fortune to be bordered by benign neighbors, who, even if they don't always like us, are no threat in military terms.

Now that the Cold War is effectively over for China as well as Russia vis-a-vis the US, there is little interest on the part of Chin'a struggling leadership to get involved in too much costly foolishness in some far flung corner of the world. They are too busy wining and dining the latest round of factory builders and bankers looking for a good deal.

The 21st Century may well be the Asian century for the US, as our focus clearly shifts from a disinterested and moribund Europe to the bustling economies that seem to be growing on the Pacific Rim. Even Japan might finally take the bitter medicine needed to get going again. At any rate, the huge trade potential is where the masses of peasants becoming middle class wage earners is happening, and that is where we must pay close attention.

posted by: veryretired on 08.30.03 at 04:49 PM [permalink]

In fact, it could be argued that nowadays China is less of a global player than it was, say, 30 years ago. Under Mao, it supported radical guerrilla movements in various parts of the world, especially in Africa and was able to get the occasional rogue state aligned, e.g. Albania. Of course, this was during the Cold War where the global balance of power was quite different.

Karl Heinz

Hamburg, Germany

posted by: khr on 08.30.03 at 04:49 PM [permalink]

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