China Ascendant: Is Conflict Inevitable?

December 17, 2013 The National Interest (

Thucydides’ purpose in his great epic was to account for “what led to this great war falling upon the Hellenes.” He acknowledged that what we know as the Peloponnesian War was produced by many different disputes and depicted them masterfully, laying bare their specificities. But, in the opening pages, he warns us that dwelling on the particulars obscures “the real reason” for carnage that ruined Hellas. “What made war inevitable,” he tells us early on in his masterpiece, “was the growth of Athenian power and the fear it caused in Sparta.” He might have added, for his account makes it abundantly clear that such was the case, “and in Sparta’s closest allies as well.” Among the lessons offered by Thucydides is that we ought not to dwell on the trees and risk missing the lines of the forest—the larger trends that drive politics and war.

Thucydides’ epic has inspired many explorations of what in international-relations scholarship is referred to as “power transitions.” Not a few of these studies conclude that these mega-shifts are among the most perilous periods in the politics among nations. Why? Because the established, dominant power fears that, even if it is has not yet been surpassed and may not be anytime soon, the margin of its advantage over an ascendant rival, which it has long watched uneasily, is diminishing—and will likely continue to do so. The rising power, having lived under a political-military-cultural-institutional order that reflects the preponderance of the reigning hegemon, and that therefore protects and advances its interests, grows in confidence. Eager to demonstrate to itself and others that a new era is nigh, it begins to probe and to push so as to assay the reaction and explore the possibilities.

Shifting circumstances and the attendant uncertainty make power transitions hazardous. The leaders of the dominant power whose position is being eroded feel that they must show that their side is still supreme. That impulse arises from the need to retain legitimacy among their citizenry and to show the challenger that they still have plenty of power and resolve and should not be underestimated. The leaders of the ascendant rival, on the other hand, are no less eager to show their own people, the hegemon, and the latter’s allies, that a new arithmetic of power is emerging. One side’s fear and the other side’s hubris produce a volatile mix. The result need not be, as it was in Hellas, a catastrophic war. A shifting balance of power could instead create a more benign context, though one conducive to apprehension, limit-testing, crises, misperceptions, and strategic reassessments prompted by uncertainty and fear.

The latter denouement is worth keeping in mind when one assays the origin and significance of recent events involving the assertion of China’s power in East Asia. One of these was Beijing’s proclamation on November 23 of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) extending into the East China Sea and covering islands that Japan and South Korea control but that China claims. An ADIZ is standard practice and thus hardly an illegal or belligerent act, but China’s version is more stringent than is customary. It requires aircraft passing through to file flight plans with the Chinese authorities and to be under the guidance of Chinese air-traffic controllers, even if the plane is not heading to China. Moreover, it overlaps with Japan’s ADIZ, covering the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which both China and Japan claim.

The United States, followed by Japan and South Korea, flew military aircraft through the Chinese ADIZ to demonstrate that they didn’t accept its legitimacy; but various commercial airlines (Singapore Airlines, Qantas, Korean Airlines, Asiana Airlines and American air carriers, as per an FAA directive), in an understandable decision designed to ensure their passengers’ safety, agreed to comply with China’s stipulations. South Korea subsequently expanded its ADIZ, extending it into China’s, to underscore Seoul’s claim to (and control of) the Ieodo (Suyan Rock in Chinese parlance), which is disputed by Beijing. Yet these defiant gestures by Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul do not change the reality that has emerged, which is that China’s action, taken from a position of unprecedented confidence and capacity stands. The question is whether Beijing will follow up with an expansive ADIZ to back its claims in the South China Sea.

The ADIZ decision is but one example of China’s determination to stake its maritime claims. As far back as 1974, it defeated Vietnamese forces, taking control of those parts of Paracel/Xisha archipelago that it did not occupy already. More recently, China has continually dispatched naval patrols into the waters surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and staged naval exercises in nearby waters, prompting Japan to follow suit. Beijing has also taken a tough line on the Spratly/Nansha Islands, asserting its legitimate ownership, rejecting the competing claims of Taiwan, Vietnam, and various other Southeast Asian states, combining tough rhetoric and actions (patrols in disputed waters, surveillance), notably against the Philippines over Huanyang Island/Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, but not just there.

That the disputes over these various island groupings—many of them uninhabited rocks—in several instances pits China against allies of the United States or countries with longstanding and close ties to Washington hasn’t deterred Beijing. To reassure its partners, the United States has dispatched diplomatic luminaries, issues statements of solidarity, and conducted naval exercises with some of China’s coclaimants. None of these steps has made Beijing any less hesitant to assert its claims. Its uncompromising stance has created doubts in the region about whether American protection is now worth what it once was. The standard explanation of what motivates China in the quarrels over these islands and their surrounding waters invokes the importance of sea lanes essential to Northeast Asia’s trade and defense and bountiful offshore oil and gas deposits. While scarcely irrelevant, these considerations don’t explain why China has been acting with particular assurance in recent years, the latest example of which occurred on December 5, when a Chinese naval vessel and an American warship nearly collided when the former crossed in front of the latter at close quarters in the South China Sea.

The islands’ economic and strategic value is not new. What’s different is that China now wields unprecedented economic and military power, thanks to the breakneck pace of its economic growth and technological modernization since 1978, its purchases of an array of manner of advanced Russian armaments, and its progress in across-the-board military modernization. China has long been determination to erase the humiliation it endured with the onset of nineteenth century. Having been a center of cultural splendor and wealth for centuries, it became a plaything of the Western imperial powers and of Japan, enduring more than a century of exploitation, coercion, humiliation and occupation. The memories of this dark period are ensconced in the minds of Chinese, both rulers and the ruled. Part of Beijing’s swagger in East Asia stems from the determination to bury this painful past and to ensure that it never repeats itself. That enterprise necessarily entails challenging Washington’s long-held primacy in region. It’s not, therefore, just about energy, strategic outposts, waterways and other such tangibles. It’s as much, if not more so, about casting off the burdens and demons of the past.

This helps explain why nationalism has sidelined Marxism/Maoism as Beijing’s legitimating ideology. The latter has little to offer when it comes to the managing and modernization of a twenty-first century economy, and may even be an impediment. Besides, for the well educated, tech-savvy, and materialistic members of Chinese middle class and intelligentsia, especially the younger individuals among them, regaining respect and righting wrongs has a resonance that chiliastic programs devoted to revolutionary transformations and utopia simply lack. The Mao suit is now a sartorial curiosity, the Red Book a dusty relic, another victim of the Internet’s richer offerings. If there’s one group that’s more nationalistic than the Chinese leadership, it’s China’s educated young urbanites, who take to chat rooms and websites to issue denunciations and demands for toughness whenever China’s pride is injured.

There are two trends that bear on China’s role in the world and that therefore have consequences for America and its allies and friends. The first is that, over the past two decades in particular, China has raised the risks that Washington will have to assume to protect, or even reassure, states that have relied on preponderant American power for protection. Russian arms sales to China, which cover just about every category (including surface ships, submarines, fighter jets, air defense and anti-ship missiles, surveillance and fire control radars, and helicopters) and have amounted to $31 billion between 1992-2012. They have played a pivotal part bringing about this change, and the projected sale of the Su-35 multirole fighter will extend Beijing’s capacity to patrol the vast South China Sea and to project power with greater effect. Washington’s allies and friends still believe that America can be relied upon to defend them in an-all out war with China. But when it comes to skirmishes, the controlled application of force, and displays of power designed to intimidate, the value of the American connection as a counterbalance to China is diminishing. States in the region understand that the United States will risk confronting China only under exceptional circumstances and so the cumulative effect of carefully calibrated displays of strength, and the accompanying disregard for American power, will inevitably have psychological repercussion across East Asia that work to China’s advantage.

Those who insist that a unipolar world abides compile charts and graphs showing that the United States has vastly more economic power (its GDP in 2012 was nearly twice that of China: $15.7 trillion versus $8.3 trillion ) and military might (a defense budget of $682 billion compared to $166 billion in 2012 current dollars) than China tend. But such statistics miss this point. In a remarkably short time, China has forced the East Asian states that have trusted in American primacy to wonder how reliable it is now—and, more so, what its value will be two decades hence.

From a global vantage point, we are a long way from witnessing Pax Americana yielding to Pax Sinica, and Walter Russell Mead’s recent claim, in his “The End of the End of History,” that a latter-day Triple Alliance comprising China, Russia, and Iran is remaking the international order exaggerates both the reach and versatility of these countries’ power, and more so their long-term prospects for unity. In East Asia, however, a power shift is underway, and no region matters more to China. That the United States can still prevail over China in “a force-on-force” war there is true for now but also beside the point because it is an unlikely scenario. What Beijing has done, and with considerable success, is to reset the calculations of risk, thereby casting doubt on Washington’s capacity to provide reassurance and protection during lesser contingencies at a cost it deems acceptable. Beijing’s East China Sea ADIZ and its tough words and deeds relating to islands and bodies of water it claims are all about creating this new context. China challenges. Washington offers symbolic reassurance. Regional states realize on each such occasion that the ratio of relative power is shifting.

The second trend, still only dimly discernible, is closely connected to the first. It has to do with the strategies that the states that feel most exposed to Chinese power will adopt to adjust to the eastern power transition. Through its still-nascent “Look East” policy India, whose security depends on China not having free rein in East Asia, has begun to beef up strategic cooperation with states in that region that are adjusting to China’s surging power. New Delhi formed a “strategic partnership” with Indonesia and bilateral ties have grown, including in the military sphere. India has been intensifying security consultations with Japan and Australia, deepening defense cooperation with Vietnam, and participating in naval exercises with the United States, Japan and Australia. And it has revamped its relationship with the United States: the suspicion and intermittent hostility that marked the Cold War era have given way to a gradual strategic convergence. No matter what the two proclaim publicly their new course is in large part a reaction to China’s rise.


Japan is slowly rethinking its generation-long military minimalism for the same reason. It is common to read that cultural constraints (a legacy of the atomic bombardment, defeat and occupation endured at the end of World War II) rule out a change in Japan’s national security strategy. This conclusion overlooks the extent to which the attitudes and norms within countries that relate to national security, while important, are reshaped by what happens beyond their borders. Besides, Japan’s choice is not binary: sticking with status quo despite the adverse effects that increasing Chinese power could have on its security or ramping up military spending recklessly, flexing its newly-acquired muscles, and scaring the neighborhood. With defense spending that’s long averaged barely 1 percent of GDP, cutting-edge technological capabilities, and the wherewithal to manufacture an array of major armaments, Japan can increase its military strength selectively without sowing panic, especially if it retains the alliance with the United States and forges alignments with other states rattled by China’s rising power.

Among the challenges Japan faces in creating new alignments is its troubled relationship with Russia and South Korea. Opening a new chapter with Russia will require reaching a compromise on the territorial dispute over the South Kurile/Northern Territories island cluster, perhaps by using the ultimately unsuccessful 1956 formula as a baseline. Mending fences with South Korea presents a far bigger challenge given the legacy of Japanese colonization and the simmering dispute over the Takeshima/Dokdo islands. But inimical countries have redefined their relationships before. China and the United States moved from enmity to alignment after 1969 in response shared anxiety over the expansion of Soviet power. China and the Soviet Union, divided by ideological polemics and disputes over their vast border from the late 1950s till the latter part of the 1980s, forged a strategic partnership in 1996. The United States and Vietnam have—in large part due to the growth of China’s power—embarked on military cooperation, and port calls by US naval vessels are now routine. These examples hardly establish that a new relationship between Japan on the one had and Russia and South Korea on the other will be easy, let alone inevitable, only that it ought not to be dismissed as impossible.


Russia’s choices are even more complicated. On the one hand, increasing flows of Russian oil and gas to China, China’s massive purchases of Russian arms (the volume has diminished as China’s military modernization has advance), and compatible worldviews (created by a belief in the sanctity of sovereignty, the opposition to humanitarian intervention, and the distrust of America’s power and motives) have created an entente of sorts. But, if China’s ascendancy is not interrupted by political instability and economic crises (neither can be ruled out), Russia will be overshadowed and risks becoming Beijing’s adjutant. In Central Asia, which Russia has dominated for over 150 years, China’s influence, especially in the economic realm, is already displacing Moscow.

Given the vast Sino-Russian border, and the Russian Far East contains a mere 7 million people (perhaps fewer) and adjoins four Chinese provinces that alone contain more than 130 million people, China’s power is proximate. Its centers of power in its northeast, while Russia’s are in its European regions, thousands of miles from its Far Eastern extremity. Russia’s vulnerability will bring about a strategic adjustment. The most likely one, which perhaps seems implausible given the sparks that fly between Moscow and Washington these days, will result in a reconfigured Russian-US relationship with the substance that the Obama administration’s vacuous “reset” lacks.

Despite the Sino-Russian strategic partnership, Moscow has no illusions about Beijing, something its military exercises in its eastern regions and the distribution of its military forces makes clear. The two giants’ relationship has undergone several twists and turns since the mid-nineteenth century, and some Russian commentators have warned that a strong China will eventually make Russia less secure and even draw it into its orbit. This raises the question of whether the (admittedly lucrative) business of building up China’s military capabilities serves Russia’s long-term interests, not only because Chinese arms could eventually compete with Russian weaponry in the global arms bazaar, but also because China could turn into an adversary some day. Seen thus, the Washington’s current spats with Moscow ought not to be extrapolated into the future.

None of the realignments I have discussed need happen if China wields it increasing power lightly and wisely, reins in its rising confidence so that it does not beget callousness, and uses noncoercive forms of power adroitly to coopt and divide its neighbors so that they do not coalesce against it. The problem is that power tempts and memories of past injustices generate patterns of behavior that seem justifiable to those who engage in it but provoke and threaten those who observe or experience them. Some respected experts, Henry Kissinger among them (in his recent book, On China), imply that the wisdom and self-assurance bequeathed by a great and ancient civilization will help China’s leaders to avoid this timeless trap. Perhaps so. But history suggests that such confidence may prove misplaced. Sinophilia is no less a barrier to clear thinking on China than Sinophobia.

It’s not just the arrogance that expanding power tends to breed that could make China overreach. The discourse of nationalism could as well. The Chinese leadership will crank it up during internal crises and instability or external confrontations because it appeals to the pride and sensibilities of millions of Chinese citizens. But the recourse to nationalism will create problems for China’s leaders. A nationalistic Chinese public expects them to stand tall in defense of the country’s interests, and they will have limited room to back down, let alone yield, during confrontations. The continuing advances in social media (hundreds of millions of Chinese now use cell phones, the blogosphere, chat rooms, and the homegrown version of Twitter) and the rising pace of urbanization will make popular mobilization easier, enabling public pressure to manifest itself more rapidly and dramatically. These social and technological changes could increase the danger that regional crises that pit China against its neighbors could become more frequent and also harder to tame because they are more likely to feature such gambits as chicken, tit-for-tat, and one-upmanship.

The power shift that occurred between Athens and Sparta culminated in a devastating war. The one now unfolding between China and the United States in East Asia will not. China’s focus is on economic development and its post-1978 economic reforms—call them the Deng Xiaoping Revolution—has enmeshed in the global economy, giving it a big stake in stability making it averse to crises and conflicts that rattle markets and unnerve investors. Still, there are other impulses than those that motivate homo economicus: pride, passion, the quest for respect and standing, the desire for revenge. Thucydides’ masterpiece is chock-full of examples of how powerfully these sentiments shape political decisions, particularly in times of uncertainty and apprehension. The challenge in East Asia—for China and for others in the region—will be to manage the consequences of the power transition so that it produces a new and stable equilibrium.

Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the City College of New York/City University of New York, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author, most recently, of The End of Alliances (Oxford University Press, 2007).


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