The twenty-first century brought speculations over the rise of China. Academic circles continue to analyze the implications of China’s rise for the international community and the world order. Academic and foreign policy circles both agree that China’s rise cannot be ignored and that its outcome will have lasting ramifications for the international community. Moreover, the question becomes: can China rise peacefully and what does this paradigm shift mean for neighboring Asian states and the United States? This essay will provide an assessment of China’s rise by analyzing other international relation theorists’ arguments to this question and by considering the current trajectory of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) foreign policy. It will also examine how China can rise peacefully. Continual research assessing all theoretical outcomes of China’s rise is vital to a conflict-free Asia Pacific.
The realist end of the spectrum argues that China cannot rise peacefully and puts forth a pessimistic thesis. John Mearsheimer contends that “the ultimate goal of every power is to maximize its share of world power and [to] eventually dominate the world system.” As Chinese influence spreads throughout the Asia Pacific, U.S. presence in that region will appear to be a national security concern for China. From the Chinese lens, this ideology is rationalized by the historical rise of other states. For example, during America’s rise in the nineteenth century, President Monroe created the Monroe Doctrine, which demanded European Powers not to interfere in Western Hemisphere affairs. Similarly, in the buildup to the Second World War, the regional powers of Europe and Asia sought to achieve what the United States had done in the Americas. Consequently, these ambitions factored into another World War. According to this realist theory, it would be irrational for the CCP not to desire the abolition of United States influence in the Asia Pacific (Mearsheimer, 2006).
Historically, China served as the regional hegemon, and Asian states paid tribute to Chinese dynasties. However, it has been argued that Meiji Japan’s colonization efforts were byproducts of Chinese rule. For China, the tribute system was a success and spanned several dynasties, tying Asian states together. Tokugawa Japan interpreted the tributary system as undermining the Shogun’s power and refused direct Sino investment, which degraded the Asian status quo (Anthony, 2016). During the Meiji restoration, the Emperor retaliated against the declining Qing Dynasty through both indirect support to Sun Yatsen’s revolution and to his conquest of the Asia Pacific. As China resurrects itself, the CCP must take careful strides to ensure tensions do not hit the breaking point (Acharya, 2003).
Liberal theorists argue that China is too often misunderstood, and that the continuation of economic growth deters kinetic confrontation. First, China’s aggressive actions are misinterpreted by the West and their allies. The world order has been dominated by Western powers for the past three centuries: first by European powers and later by the United States in the aftermath of World War II. Institutions and international treaties, such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), European Union, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), are deeply rooted in the international community and historically promote Western interests first. China’s series of new institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank (NDB), seek to uphold an Asia-first policy (Wang, 2015).
The polarized debate over China’s rise and the potential security dilemmas for neighboring states enhances the abilities of policymakers to construct the best-informed decisions. If China is to have a peaceful resurrection, both ends of the spectrum must be considered. Additionally, analyzing the implications and probable responses of other Asian state actors illuminates potential peaceful paths. A continuation of economic growth is the key ingredient in this international relations cocktail: if mixed incorrectly, economic competition can escalate tensions to the breaking point. However, economic interdependency can also be the beacon of peace.
The Japanese Variable
Until recently, Japan has been the economic power of East Asia, making Sino-Japanese relations a dire issue. Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) launched the “Friendship Diplomacy” policy towards China in 1972 with aims to restore the crippled relations inflicted by Meiji Japan. However, historic rigidities in conjunction with Japan’s continual domination of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) places strains on attempts to rekindle relations. Currently, the LDP’s foreign policy towards China is shifting due to the uncertainty of China’s intentions. The modern strategic debate about China takes into account cooperative engagement, competitive engagement, balancing and containment, and strategic accommodation (Mochizuki, 2007).
According to Mearsheimer’s theory of offensive realism, Japan will continue to maximize power in order to survive (Mearscheimer, 2001). In contrast, liberalists argue that Japan will seek to maximize security and react to China’s rise through mutual cooperation in order to “induce favorable intentions” (Mochizuki, 2007). However, the Japanese perception of China’s expanding influence and the uncertainty of the Korean peninsula continue to drive Japanese military innovation, reinforcing Mearsheimer’s analysis. Further, Japan continues to seek a more active role in global security, from pushing the limits of the Self Defense Force’s role in South Sudan, to participating in U.S.-led naval exercises in the Indian Ocean (Calder, 2018).
The Republic of Korea Variable
Since the signing of the Korean War ceasefire, the Republic of Korea (ROK) has relied on the U.S. military for protection. The intention behind the ROK’s Status of Forces Agreement is to deter a North Korean offensive. However, the ongoing U.S. military presence on the Korean peninsula presents Sino security concerns. Strategic placements of missile defense systems targeting the North also have the capabilities of neutralizing Chinese missile systems. This puts China at a disadvantage in the event of kinetic tensions with the West.
The current political climate in the ROK indicates there is room for Sino-Korean cooperation. First, the official end to the Korean War, along with the series of North Korea summits, challenge the need for a U.S. military presence in the ROK. Second, President Trump’s “America-First” agenda weakens bilateral confidence between the two allies. President Moon Jae-in’s vision for the reunification of the Korean Peninsula has not been clearly expressed by the Trump Administration and creates uncertainty between the two partners (Blumenthal, 2017). The CCP capitalized on President Trump’s shortcomings with the ROK and began cooperation dialogues with the aims of strengthening economic interdependency (Wang, 2015).
The ASEAN Double Track Variable
China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative encourages Southeast Asian Countries to be “free riders” benefiting from Chinese infrastructure projects while strengthening bilateral ties. The aforementioned term refers to a statement made by former President Obama about pre-Xi Jinping China, claiming that the CCP primarily focused on trade and economic growth and dabbled little in international affairs, which contributed to China’s substantial economic gains. President Xi owned this term and uses it to encourage other states to follow the Chinese model. Southeast Asian states greatly benefit economically from OBOR, but have grown weary of potential Sino ulterior motives. In response to expanding Chinese influence, Southeast Asian states created the “Double Track Policy,” which attempts to balance both U.S and Sino power by relying on China for economic cooperation and the U.S for security cooperation (Wang, 2015).
The Other Variable: Russia and the Stans
Russia is often overlooked when analyzing the implications of China’s rise, despite the fact that Vladivostok is a big Russian Naval hub in the Asia Pacific. China and Russia share the common goal of abating U.S. influence in the region. However, after this goal is achieved, if at all, what does the future look for Sini-Russo relations? Historically, Russia and China relations have been tense and, throughout the Cold War, included brief border disputes involving kinetic action. The relationship’s dynamics are comparable to that of the relationship between the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) and the Taliban. Both militia groups seek to expel the U.S. presence from the region. However, after IS-K and the Taliban achieve their common goal, if at all, intense rivalry will break out between the two groups over control of the region (Sharb, 2018). Similarly, during the Soviet-era, Russia fought for control of Central Asia. Putin’s Russia is no different, in that he seeks to restore Russian legitimacy throughout the former Soviet-bloc states. China and Russia’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) originally displayed mutual cooperation between the two powers. However, the weakening Russian economy allowed China to invest more in Central Asia, resulting in greater Sino influence in the region. Additionally, the AIIB continues to launch development projects in Central Asia that provide China with access to additional Central Asian energy resources, creating concerns in Moscow (Stronski, 2018). Moreover, a U.S. withdrawal from Asia will likely have the same impact on Russia and China as it has for IS-K and the Taliban.
The Overarching Security Dilemma
Liberalism explains how China can rise peacefully as it reestablishes itself as the Asian regional hegemon through economic interdependency and mutual security interests. Realists counter liberalism through historical comparisons of past rising powers to the current world order and by applying Mearsheimer’s interpretation of a state’s rational choice to maximize power to ensure survivability. Economic interdependency was once believed to be the deterring factor of European wars. Unfortunately, the series of World Wars nullified this theory. Aaron Friedberg argues that mutual economic interests in the Asia Pacific will not deter a large-scale conflict between China and the West. Time and time again, the great debate over China’s resurrection and war and peace in the Asia Pacific ends in a stalemate.
Polarization over the China rising debate allows constructionists to analyze both spectrums. Realists and liberalists alike have concrete facts supporting their analyses. Nevertheless, if China is to rise peacefully, a comprehensive security institution needs to be established. Further, the security institution needs equal support from all players (to include China, Japan, the ROK, ASEAN, Russia, and the U.S.). Security institutions in Asia have been divided between the “San Francisco system” (U.S.-led coalition) and the Sino-Russo driven SCO. The continual progress in anti-piracy, counter-terrorism, and disaster management portrays the possibility of a successful and comprehensive security institution among regional actors (Acharya, 2012). However, long-lasting border disputes in Tibet, Inner-Mongolia, the South China Sea, and the Northern Pacific are hazardous choke points, through which international relations theorists need to help policymakers carefully navigate.
One thing is certain: China is rising and it is bringing along a new political structure. Regional state actors will maximize their security postures in response to China’s rise. Currently, some have sought to earn favorability from China through mutual cooperation, while others have strengthened their military posture. A peaceful Sino rise is possible, but increasing regional tensions raise the chance of conflict. International affairs in the Asia Pacific is like a dangerous game of Chinese “Go”: there are several playable moves but only two outcomes, victory and defeat. Peace in Asia can prevail if regional policymakers, including those in the U.S., can effectively engage China in symmetrical security and economic cooperation.
David McKee is a Marine Corps veteran and holds a BA degree in International Relations from the George Washington University and is currently an MA candidate at the American University’s School of International Service. He has spent extensive time in Asia, to include Japan and Afghanistan. David’s research primarily focuses on security policy in the Asia Pacific. In addition to his military service and academic experience, David currently serves at the Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security in Arlington, Virginia.
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