Which China Will We See?

Seven years in the making, the Beijing Olympics are upon us. At enormous cost, an estimated $40 billion, China will be showcased, but which China? It is a land of enormous possibilities but equally enormous frustrations. The government’s conduct impresses and depresses simultaneously. Today Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party leadership compound, continues to control official policy, but ultimately the Chinese people will control their destiny. What role China plays on the world stage in coming decades will do much to determine how future generations view the 21st century.

China is an ancient civilization that once dominated Asia. However, the active empire eventually turned inward and went into decline. By the 1800s imperial China was a helpless giant, forced by Western and other powers to lease territory (Hong Kong, Macau), create foreign-controlled concessions (as in Shanghai), and cede conquered lands (Taiwan). Despite a xenophobic uprising, the Boxer Rebellion, and a nationalist revolution, the country remained impoverished, divided, and oppressed. While the Chinese diaspora prospered, those living in their native land suffered.

Few peoples were challenged in so many ways over so many years as the Chinese during the 20th century. A century ago the imperial government was overthrown, but the new republic could not constrain the regional powers and "warlords." A Communist insurgency arose, and the Japanese invaded. Years of war left Japan defeated, Mao Zedong and the Communist Party triumphant, and nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek in exile on the island of Taiwan.

The newly proclaimed People’s Republic of China bloodily consolidated power, intervened against the U.S. in the Korean War, allied and then broke with the Soviet Union, became a nuclear power, and inaugurated economic chaos, starvation, and intra-party conflict during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Then came the rule of Deng Xiaoping and the new China. Three decades later the PRC has gone from isolated outcast to influential insider – and host of the 2008 Olympics.

Much of the debate over China and the Olympics reflects a special Western conceit: that America and Europe have the ability to change the PRC. The full gamut of options has been advanced in the U.S.: refuse to give China the Olympics and boycott the games, meet with dissidents and demand that Beijing release named individuals, protest outside China as the torch passes and inside China as the games proceed, limit Chinese imports and increase military outlays. Do something, anything to make the PRC respect human rights at home, promote democracy in Zimbabwe, end ethnic and religious strife in Sudan, accept an independent Taiwan, go along with Western arms and proliferation policies, revalue its currency, make its military spending transparent, and more.

Worthy ends all, perhaps, but none are within the power of the West to impose. The China that could be browbeaten by outsiders disappeared in 1949, with the proclamation of the PRC. The most powerful incentive for China to change its behavior today is the desire to play a larger international role. For instance, becoming a leading trading nation required membership in the World Trade Organization and a series of domestically controversial economic and legal reforms. The desire to influence Taiwanese politics required Beijing to drop its crude, overt threats against the island state a few years ago.

Which means the West can affect China’s future direction. But to do so – positively – will require sophistication and nuance rather than outrage and threats.

First, Chinese economic greatness is likely but not certain. The PRC’s post-Deng economic achievements have been enormous: the country possesses the world’s fourth largest economy in traditional rankings based on exchange rates. The more sophisticated measurement based on purchasing power parity puts China at number two, with a GDP of $6 trillion last year, trailing only America at $13.2 trillion.

There are shadows for the future, however. With four times the U.S. population, the PRC has a much lower per-capita GDP. The CIA figures that number to be $5,300 compared to America’s $45,800. Much of China remains poor, and the disparities between urban areas such as Beijing and Shanghai and the countryside are dramatic.

The PRC also faces serious internal challenges. As the economy matures, it will become harder to maintain 10 percent annual growth rates. The banking system is fragile, rationalizing or closing state industries is politically difficult, and protests against social inequities are common. Although catastrophic failure seems unlikely, the path to economic dominance may not be smooth. In fact, some slowdown, if not interruption, in China’s heretofore continuous growth seems inevitable. Nevertheless, Albert Keidel of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace figures that "China’s likely continued success will eventually bring an end to America’s global economic preeminence." Just don’t look for the PRC to race past the U.S. in the next decade or two.

Second, Beijing is not a natural enemy of America. There is no evidence that Zhongnanhai is dominated by sinister forces plotting America’s destruction.

Certainly, there are those in the PRC who wish America ill. But some analysts believe China to be a bit like Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. Viewing a succession of Chinese functionaries as the equivalent of the Dark Lord Sauron are Jed Babbin and Ed Timperlake, who penned Showdown: Why China Wants War With the United States. They even warn that a war between the PRC and America could break out over Venezuela and Cuba. Lev Navrozov of Newsmax predicts that the "Marxist-Leninist regime" in Beijing will develop "post-nuclear weapons," and "As soon as China acquires such weapons, its rulers will be likely to launch a world war to expand their rule globally."

While the American people might not go that far, in a recent poll they ranked China as one of America’s top three enemies. The number doing so was small, 14 percent, but that’s a three percent increase over 2007, which helped boost Beijing past North Korea.

These sort of fears suggest a potential revival of the old "yellow peril" scare. Yet Beijing, like Washington, appears to be faction-ridden, with ideologues and pragmatists scrapping for influence, including over foreign policy. Mark Leonard’s What Does China Think? explores some of the PRC’s political fault lines.

Perceived hostility toward America reflects many roots. Genuine ideological Marxist-Leninists dedicated to the global destruction of capitalism still exist, but they hold few positions of influence. Far more important are the many Chinese, call them patriots or nationalists, depending on your perspective, who are determined to prevent the U.S. and other nations from coercing the PRC in the future. They certainly are not friendly to Washington’s imperial pretensions. But they aren’t likely to ignite a global nuclear holocaust, either.

Third, the U.S. is way, way ahead militarily, despite the endless scare stories about accelerating Chinese military expenditures. Estimates of total PRC military outlays vary widely but top out around $100 or so billion annually. Next year the U.S. will spend $515 billion on "normal" Pentagon operations, $23 billion for atomic energy and other defense-related activities in other departments, and another $145 billion or so on combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. That’s $683 billion, six or seven times as much as China at its maximum is spending on its military.

The U.S. also is allied with every major industrialized state other than Russia. As China looks east and south it sees South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, New Zealand, and Australia, all allies or friends of America. Also ringing the PRC are Russia, India, and Vietnam, all of which have warred against China in the past. It is a poor starting position from which to achieve world domination.

China’s military base is as low as its geographic position. For instance, it has no carriers to match America’s dozen. Beijing’s hardware is antiquated, forcing an ongoing, and expensive, swap of quantity for quality. The PRC must professionalize the world’s largest army. And China has to invest in asymmetrical warfare technologies to offset overwhelming U.S. superiority elsewhere.

Last week Jane’s Information Group, a defense consulting firm, predicted that Chinese military outlays would hit $360 billion by 2020. That sounds impressive, but it actually illustrates the vast gap between the U.S. and Beijing. That amount is more than $300 billion behind what America will spend next year. Knock out the war funding, and the U.S. still will be spending $178 billion more on normal military activities in 2008 than Jane’s expects the PRC to spend a dozen years hence.

In fact, the U.S. hit $350 billion for the military in 2002. And, absent a new foreign policy suffusing Washington, the Pentagon will be spending far more in 2020 than today. Which means that the U.S. will continue spending more, much more, than China for years. The gap in spending might be closing, but the absolute gap in military capabilities will remain huge.

Whatever Beijing’s ultimate ambitions – and it is hard for U.S. officials determined to maintain America’s military domination everywhere around the globe to complain if officials in another nation have expansive aims for their country – it will be years before China can manage equality in East Asia, let alone globally. And it will be many more years, if ever, before China creates the larger, more advanced, and more powerful military necessary for superiority worldwide.

MIT Professor M. Taylor Fravel recently examined Chinese military doctrine on the use of military power and came to a measured conclusion. Writing in The Washington Quarterly, he explains: "These sources indicate that China’s strategic goals are keyed to the defense of a continental power with growing maritime interests as well as to Taiwan’s unification and are largely conservative, not expansionist. China is developing internal control, peripheral denial, and limited force-projection capabilities consistent with these objectives."

Yet Washington’s foreign policy elite fears even this, the possibility that Beijing will create a military that, while relatively small in size, restricted in capabilities, and limited in ambitions, is capable of deterring American intervention against the PRC, particularly in any Chinese action against Taiwan. For deterrence China only needs sufficiency: a large enough nuclear arsenal to reinstate the doctrine of mutual assured destruction, sufficient missiles and subs to threaten U.S. carriers, and effective asymmetric capabilities directed at U.S. satellites and computers, to disrupt America’s larger, more advanced forces.

It’s a smart strategy. For Washington to be capable of overwhelming such a Chinese military would require ruinous increases in U.S. outlays. Tell Americans that they must hike military expenditures by, say, 50 percent in order to ensure that the U.S. can start a war by attacking the PRC to save Taiwan and watch the response. The bottom line is that Chinese military spending does not threaten America, as in our territory, people, wealth, or liberties. That could eventually change, obviously, but only over the long term, giving the U.S. plenty of time to respond. In the near to mid term, China’s military buildup instead threatens America’s ability to act as the hegemon in East Asia and along China’s borders, which is very different.

Finally, the U.S. retains enormous advantages as China and America compete – hopefully, peacefully – for economic markets and political influence. The U.S. economy remains the world’s largest and most productive. It is relatively open and is the source of continuing investment capital around the world. The PRC can no longer be ignored economically, but even as it increases its share of growing markets, especially in East Asia, America will retain an important role. China’s continued economic growth makes a shift in relative influence inevitable, but the U.S. will be a, if not the, dominant economic player for decades to come.

Despite the international taint resulting from the arrogance exhibited and abuses committed by the Bush administration, Washington also retains important advantages in the global struggle for influence. One is simple inertia: since America has been dominant so long, great effort is needed to upset the status quo. The dollar may be plummeting, but it remains the world’s reserve currency. China may increasingly be seen as offering an alternative developmental strategy, but much of the world is still attracted to American liberty and openness. Many people view Washington’s initiatives with suspicions, but an almost quaint belief in American goodness, or at least the possibility of redeeming America, has survived Washington’s aggressive behavior in recent years.

For instance, a poll by the Chicago Council of Global Affairs last year found that only 6 percent of those overseas placed "a great deal of trust" in the likelihood of China to act "responsibly," compared to 15 percent for America (though the U.S. gave up much of that edge at the other end, losing "not at all" by five points). A Gallup poll earlier this year discovered remarkably high disapproval of China’s leaders in Europe and only narrow pluralities of approval in Latin America, Middle East, and North Africa. And once the U.S. returns to a more normal administration, its reputational advantage is likely to increase.

Moreover, the U.S. remains a better practitioner of "soft power." A new study by the Chicago Council reports that despite the ongoing Olympics, as well as the PRC’s expanded economic ties, "in the estimation of most Americans and many Asians, China still has a way to go to claim the world’s full recognition as a multifaceted power. In terms of soft power in Asia – the ability to wield influence by indirect, nonmilitary means, whether by persuasion or attraction – China ranks well below the United States in the estimation of most of the Asians surveyed." Large majorities of Japanese and South Koreans, and sizable minorities of Indonesians and Vietnamese, say that they are uncomfortable with the prospect of China becoming Asia’s leader.

The expansive reservoir of support for the U.S. is striking, given the PRC’s recent advances in Asia. Explains the Council:

"U.S. influence in the region extends deep beyond the policy level. The survey finds that U.S. influence informs the thinking of Asians on economic, cultural, and even human capital matters. In an era when Asia has turned swords into ploughshares (and silicon chips), public diplomacy and other forms of soft power are increasingly important. The results of this survey show that the United States has a strong foundation for its future policy in the region."

Most of those polled believe that American influence actually has increased over the last decade and that this increase is positive.

Thus, in the short term the U.S. has nothing to fear from China’s rise, other than a reduction in Washington’s ability to initiate war halfway around the world against the PRC for less than vital interests. In the longer term the U.S. will have to adapt to a world where it no longer dominates every region on every issue. But there is no reason for American-Chinese competition to turn violent. To the contrary, the advantages of cooperation are enormous for both countries.

Disagreements will still occur, of course. The widest gulf is likely to be human rights. However, the U.S., and West more broadly, have a strong card to play: China’s desire for inclusion in the world order and enhanced global influence. Most countries appreciate America’s freedom, whatever they think of the U.S. government’s policies. And they can count on that freedom to ultimately hold the U.S. government accountable. Peoples around the world, and especially in East Asia, feel no similar guarantee for Beijing.

The best way for the PRC to enhance its influence is to adopt policies to increase foreign trust in both nation and government. Its behavior on the international stage obviously matters, but suspicion will remain so long as Zhongnanhai rules China, shrouding its intentions and actions behind high walls. The best way to increase support for Beijing’s enhanced global role would be to allow political dissent, protect religious liberty, enshrine the rule of law, and allow elections. Even if such a reform process was slow – 86 percent of Chinese recently told a Pew Research Center poll that they were satisfied with their nation’s current direction – modest steps along this path would resonate positively around the world.

The People’s Republic of China is headed toward global leadership. The Olympics are likely to illustrate this extraordinary nation’s potential and limits alike. How fast and how far it will move is up to the Chinese people far more than to those of us watching from outside the PRC’s borders. Beijing’s leaders have a unique opportunity to build a great and influential nation. Doing so requires them to trust the Chinese people, as democratic states across Asia, Europe, and the Americas have grown to trust theirs.