Readings in the Age of Empire

C. Fred Bergsten, et al., China: The Balance Sheet (New York: Public Affairs, 2006), 206 pp.

Jed Babbin and Edward Timperlake, Showdown: Why China Wants War With the United States (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2006), 226 pp.

Ted Galen Carpenter, America’s Coming War With China: A Collision Course Over Taiwan (New York: Palgrave, 2005), 216 pp.

Chinese officials are far too sophisticated to say “we will bury you” to American visitors. They talk of cooperation, promote financial investment, and emphasize their peaceful intentions. But they exude robust self-confidence. Although they readily admit that their nation remains poor, they proudly point to its rapid economic growth. Along with greater wealth has come increased diplomatic penetration around the world, as well as a growing military. The People’s Republic of China is on the move.

As a result, more than a few Americans are now worrying that “they will bury us.” Or, at least that the Chinese will try to do so, making war possible and perhaps even likely. After spending nearly 50 years fearing a devastating conflict with the Soviet Union, are we doomed to a similar period of dangerous uncertainty facing another nuclear-armed power?

Hopefully not. But pitfalls in the U.S.-China relationship abound, and will require a nuanced and sophisticated response to overcome. Alas, the Bush administration has demonstrated that nuance and sophistication often are in short supply in Washington. If the U.S. fails to exercise good judgment in dealing with China in particular and Asia in general – certainly better judgment than that shown in the administration’s decision to invade Iraq – one of the war scenarios offered by Jed Babbin and Edward Timperlake or Ted Galen Carpenter could tragically come to pass.

A good place to start in trying to understand China is China: The Balance Sheet, produced as a result of a joint project by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Institute for International Economics. The authors observe:

“The direction that China and U.S.-China relations take will define the strategic future of the world for years to come. No relationship matters more – for better or worse – in resolving the enduring challenges of our time: maintaining stability among great powers, sustaining global economic growth, stemming dangerous weapons proliferation, countering terrorism, and confronting new transnational threats of infectious disease, environmental degradation, international crime, and failing states. And for the United States in particular, a rising China has an increasingly important impact on American prosperity and security, calling for some clear-eyed thinking and tough economic, political, and security choices.”

China: The Balance Sheet is valuable because it surveys the realities and contradictions of today, while offering measured predictions of the future. For instance, China’s economic progress is obvious: Shanghai’s skyline rivals that of New York City. The city is awash in construction, with cranes seemingly poised above a building on almost every block.

Yet despite the wealth in China’s major cities, rural Chinese, who make up two-thirds of the population, remain desperately poor. Indeed, with a per capita income of $1,700 a year, “China remains firmly in the ranks of the world’s low-income economies,” ranking around 100 out of nearly 200 countries, notes the study team.

Although China is likely to continue growing, it faces enormous challenges. Some problems, such as the wide income gulf between rural and urban Chinese, could act as social dynamite. Thus, suggest the writers, while we should expect more growth, temporary stagnation or even collapse is possible.

The volume maintains a similar measured tone throughout. China: The Balance Sheet finds, to no surprise, that the People’s Republic of China remains an authoritarian place. But there are signs of hope. Observe the researchers: “most would acknowledge that China has moved a long way from the primarily ‘rule of man’ governance approach of traditional China, and is taking steps beyond the instrumental ‘rule by law’ approach characteristic of legal reform in recent years, toward a legal system that increasingly seeks to restrain the arbitrary exercise of state and private power and does provide the promise, if not the guarantee, to assert rights and interests in reliance on law.”

On the critical issue of U.S.-China relations, there seems to be good news, at least in the short-term. Chinese attitudes toward America are complex, report the researchers, and the PRC believes the correlation of forces is moving in its favor. Still, they write:

“Beijing seems to understand its limitations at present. Chinese leaders have no illusions that the PLA is a match for the U.S. military, will catch up in the foreseeable future, or will measurably narrow the gap in comprehensive national power for decades, at least. What China does seek is to focus on new capabilities and U.S. vulnerabilities to deter, complicate, and delay, if not defeat, U.S. intervention in a Taiwan scenario, while more broadly preventing the United States and its allies from violating its sovereignty or containing China’s development through military action or intimidation.”

Despite the potential for complications, there is no intrinsic reason for conflict between China and the U.S. They may disagree on issues, compete over resources, and seek to convert each other’s friends, but none of these need lead to war. Ensuring that they don’t is the task for thoughtful diplomacy in the coming years.

Jed Babbin and Edward Timperlake, longtime hawks, take a very different view. They see the PRC as a looming threat, dedicated to America’s destruction. War is inevitable, at least if the U.S. doesn’t quickly take steps “to convince China that a war against America, its allies, or its interests will not be won quickly or decisively by China.”

Indeed, in their view China “is now engaged in a second cold war, the Pacific Cold War, with the United States.” The next step is armed conflict, and “This war will begin when China decides the time for it has come.” They conclude that “unless we are very lucky, very smart, and very resolute in our preparations, it will be as massive in loss of life and economic damage to America and the world as either of the two world wars of the last century.”

Their main argument is that China is building up its military: “None of China’s neighbors are arming at this frantic pace. None are threatening China with attack. We have to conclude that China’s military buildup is focused on meeting and defeating American forces in any engagement over Taiwan, the Koreas, or the Pacific Rim.”

Of course, Babbin and Timperlake assume that Beijing is aggression-minded. From the PRC’s perspective, such a buildup, which starts from a very low, antiquated base, could be seen as defensive, designed to deter the U.S. from attacking China. In fact, America continues to hike its military outlays far faster than needed for its genuine defense. Washington’s increases in military outlays dwarf those of the PRC.

Moreover, the U.S. freely attacks countries even when its vital interests are not at stake – Iraq and Serbia being the most recent examples. One need not agree with Chinese policy toward Taiwan to recognize that Beijing believes that reunification by means fair or foul is a matter for China, not the U.S. (which, after all, fought its bloodiest war to prevent secession).

Babbin and Timperlake offer several war scenarios, some more plausible than others (one of the weirder ones involves Cuba, Colombia, and China). But there is nothing in the PRC’s history, recent behavior, diplomatic activity, or military buildup to suggest a desire to challenge America globally. Anyway, even a China that avoids economic dislocations, social crisis, and political instability won’t likely be able to match American power globally till mid-century. Creating the capability to match U.S. forces in East Asia appears to be a couple decades away.

Thus, the real issue in U.S.-China relations is continuing American hegemony in East Asia. It is unnatural to expect that Washington can forever dominate every continent. It will be extraordinarily costly for the U.S. to attempt to maintain that dominance. If war comes between Washington and China, it won’t likely erupt because of Colombian interference in Cuba after the death of Fidel Castro or some equally implausible scenario. It will come because China will assert itself nearby, most likely in Taiwan, and the U.S. will attempt to stop it.

The question for Washington, which must be debated now, is what issues are worth risking a massive regional war and nuclear exchange? Our (understandable) preference that the U.S. continue setting Asia’s agenda with China meekly falling in behind us would not qualify. Nor would ensuring Taiwan’s right to formally claim independence.

Indeed, at least in the near future, the latter is the most serious scenario for war, and fills an entire book by Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute. He, too, spins a scenario, more realistic than most of those offered by Babbin and Timperlake. And thus far more frightening.

The issue of Taiwan is extraordinarily complex and potentially dangerous. There obviously are hawks in China, and their military most certainly is eyeing the U.S. as a potential combatant. On the American side, many policymakers underestimate the potential threat. Notes Carpenter: “It is often difficult for Americans and other Westerners to comprehend the depth of Chinese determination to get Taiwan to ‘return to the motherland.'”

In America’s Coming War With China, Carpenter explains why this is the case. He covers worrisome trends in both China and Taiwan – indeed, the latter are increasingly on display with the political travails facing Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, an independence-minded nationalist. Carpenter also offers a scathing critique current administration policy: “Instead of achieving balance, the administration has increasingly sowed confusion, inviting miscalculation by Taipei or Beijing – or even worse, by both capitals.”

He advocates that Washington begin providing clarity. In contrast to Babbin and Timperlake, who apparently are prepared to go to war for almost anything declared to be a U.S. “interest,” Carpenter takes a much more rigorous approach, realistically assessing Taiwan’s importance to American security.

A friend of Taipei, Carpenter acknowledges the appeal of protecting what has become a prosperous democracy. However, he notes, “Taiwan is a limited or ‘peripheral,’ not a vital, American interest.” Sell Taiwan weapons, he advocates. But don’t provide a security guarantee that ensures a nuclear-confrontation should conflict erupt. The risk is too great, and will only grow if the PRC expands its nuclear arsenal. As he warns: “Even an armed skirmish originally confined to the Taiwan Strait might spiral out of control regardless of the intentions of U.S. or PRC policymakers.”

The future of U.S.-China relations will almost certainly be complicated. The PRC has come far but, as China: The Balance Sheet reports, it has far to go. Although Beijing is likely to become East Asia’s dominant power and ultimately a global peer competitor of the U.S., that prospect is hardly certain and is likely some time off.

There are dangers that will come from China’s dramatic emergence on the international stage. War with America is possible, but certainly not as likely as Babbin and Timperlake suggest in Showdown. That Beijing would prefer an Asia led by the PRC rather than by the U.S. is neither surprising nor inherently threatening to America. Ultimately, Washington will have to decide which interests are worth fighting for and which should be compromised as American influence inevitably diminishes, both in Asia and around the globe.

Ted Galen Carpenter puts the danger in greatest relief in America’s Coming War with China. Taiwan – in contrast to some of the scenarios suggested in Showdown – is a dangerous flashpoint that could explode today. Some issues can wait for resolution in Washington. Clarifying policy toward the Taiwan Strait cannot. Policymakers must debate the importance of the island nation to the U.S., with full recognition that current policy risks regional and even nuclear conflict.

The combat in Iraq is bad. War with China would be horrific. Let us hope that policymakers do a better job handling the PRC than they have done in “managing” Middle Eastern affairs.

Read more by Doug Bandow