China’s winning model is leaving the U.S. and the West increasingly isolated. Our October issue’s cover story.
In September 1972 President Richard Nixon played the China card. It was a brilliant gambit; in one stroke he opened U.S. relations with Communist China and chilled Beijing’s relations with Moscow.
The succeeding four decades saw the Soviet system collapse and China emerge from the fanaticism of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) to become the global power it is today. Along the way, China has mounted a formidable challenge to U.S. economic and military pre-eminence. But more serious is China’s challenge to the ideas that have informed Western progress for 300 years, and which now provide the foundation for Western dominance in global affairs.
Today the elegance of Nixon’s strategic vision has gone missing.
Gangs and Grand Scenarios
When Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as the administration’s nominee to be secretary of state, the confirmation hearing produced a transcript of more than 53,000 words. It covered a long list of pressing issues: the global financial crisis; terrorism; nuclear proliferation; the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict; climate change; plans for withdrawing troops from Iraq and rooting out al Qaeda in Afghanistan. In this extended congressional exchange, one major issue was barely mentioned. As a subject in itself, China accounted for a total of six sentences.
Clinton’s Senate hearing highlights another aspect of the China challenge. Beyond Olympic games and occasional headline grabbers like violent protest in Tibet, China is often ignored or skipped over by American politicians and opinion writers, unless you belong to one of Washington’s designated “China-gangs.”
Former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger makes the point that the American China debate is globulated and divided into separate lobbies and single-issue groups. Each group is concerned with a specific part of the China question: Chinese military development, trade and labor issues, human rights, technology transfer, intellectual property rights violations, or business opportunities and the benefits of commercial engagement.
These groups proceed along largely separate lines. But taken together, they create a China debate dominated by competing sets of grand scenarios, such as “China is coming to get us,” “China is coming to buy us,” or “China is coming to join us.” In turn, these scenarios create camps of “panda-huggers,” who tend to preach the virtues of commercial engagement and the inevitability of Western-style democracy in Asia, and “panda-bashers,” who warn of a menacing China threat in various guises.
The reality, however, is that the China story defies these kinds of scenarios. The nature of the China challenge is such that no single group has the answer—or even a complete definition of the problem. The Chinese are our economic partners. But they are also our political rivals. Thirty years of successful market reforms indicate that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is not about to crumble. But neither is it melting into democracy. China has survived the global demise of Communism to become the world’s most powerful rising power. Yet it has neither confronted the U.S.-led system nor gradually conformed to its worldview in the two decades since Soviet collapse.
The China Threat…
America and the West face a very serious challenge from the East, but not in terms of the conventional definitions of the China threat. Over the past two decades, U.S. analysts have viewed China’s actions in the Taiwan Straits and South China Sea, the purchase of U.S. Treasury debt, and the hugely unfavorable trade balance with varying degrees of concern. We must ask, however, if these pose China’s most serious challenge to American security—or if the more serious challenge from China arises in a different dimension.
The Military Threat: Many in the national security community and beyond have been concerned about China’s dramatic military modernization, warning that China is catching up with America’s military lead in ways that may soon challenge American military supremacy in the Western Pacific and, possibly, elsewhere.
What’s more, the speed and degree of Chinese military modernization has increased in tandem with its emergence as a global economic player. Rapid economic growth has provided the hard currency to expand a range of military programs, and research and development, without leaving gaping holes in the broader national budget.
The overall budget for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), for example, has doubled in recent years, from $27.9 billion in 2000 to $60.1 billion in 2008. The Pentagon, moreover, estimates that in terms of actual military expenditures, total military-related spending for 2008 was more likely between $105 billion and $150 billion.
It is clear, then, that Beijing takes the question of military modernization very seriously. Fast-paced development can be seen in the acquisition of submarine and space capabilities as well as cyberspace.
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