Off to China… 1) The ‘China Threat’ Thesis


Here is part 2, on China as a ‘peaceful riser.’

I am in China right now for the first time for a conference on Asian security (what else?) at the Chinese Foreign Affairs University. I will post impressions on my return. A standard methodological quip in the social sciences is that you should never generalize about a country until you at least flew over it, so I guess I am paying my dues.

So I thought it might be useful to lay out the big running debate about China: whether it will be nasty as it gets more powerful, or will it play in the established global rules of things like the WTO? This is the ‘China threat’ vs the ‘peaceful rise’ school. I lean toward the former, but maybe going there will change my mind…

1. China’s internal politics are repressive: Falun Gong, democracy dissidents, Muslim Uighurs, Tibet. Why would you expect a regime that treats its own people that way to be nicer to the ‘foreign devils’ (the 19th century mandarin term for western traders) ? Why would you trust a regime that shoots its own people? When Iran and Zimbabwe do it, we worry. Why not with China? China is not a democracy.

2. While China is rising, it is vulnerable. It is benefitting enormously from the US/WTO-lead trading order. So of course they will say they want to rise peacefully. They won’t shoot themselves in the foot. They see how Germany’s belligerent rise in the late 19th century got it encircled and crushed in WWI. They aren’t stupid enough to say they want changes, but we shouldn’t be stupid enough to believe them either, especially given point 1 above.

3. China has a historical legacy of xenophobia and cultural supremacism. You can overcome history of course; the Germans did. But the Chinese aren’t there at all, and its historical reservoir of national myths clashes badly with just being ‘one more country.’

4. As countries grow and get wealthier, their perceptions of their national interests change, ie, grow. So yes, today, the Chinese do want to rise peacefully, and maybe they are sincere. But eventually, as its sense of its global role grows, and as the scope of its interests grow, it will become pushier and probably more belligerent. This usually happens when countries grow to new prominence. Britain in the 19th century intervened all over Asia. The US got more involved in Latin America and the Pacific. The USSR dabbled in all over the place during the Cold War. Maybe China is different, but the historical record of big states developing new ‘needs’ and ‘appetites’ is pretty clear. Expect it here.

5. What will they want after they get rich? James Fallows’ work at the Atlantic suggests that China just wants to get rich, and that’s true, but what happens after they get there? As states become richer and more influential, their perceptions of their national interests expand – particularly as states trade more and import resources more (as most rising states must). It is all but inevitable that China’s global footprint will expand as it already has in Central Asia, Africa, and the South China Sea. This does not mean it must be belligerent, but it does mean that there are more possible loci of conflict. The sheer size of China and its reach will insure friction and collisions – just as it did with the British Empire, the USSR, and the US.

Add to this China’s rather toxic internal politics. China is hypernationalist (the replacement ideology after Tiannamen), mercantilist, and repressive. I see nothing benign in that mix. If you were China, wouldn’t you be chafing at the bit, having to listen to Bush or Hillary lecture you about human rights and your exchange rate? And once the first missile lands on Tibet, all the talk of peaceful China will fly out the window. My first-cut schtick on the US and China is in galleys at Geopolitics for publication this fall; here it is in brief. For China’s muscle in the Northeast Asia, try here and here.

In short, I lean toward the view that China is a rising power likely to collide with the US, because its range of interests will expand as its power expands. In 20 years, when China has a bigger navy, it will suddenly ‘discover’ national interests in the South Pacific or Indian Ocean. Rome, Britain, the US, the USSR all went down this path. It is worse, because China has the Sinocentric history of informally dominating its Confucian neighbors. And the regime ideology is still fairly illiberal – mercantilism, hypernationalism, internal repression.

10 thoughts on “Off to China… 1) The ‘China Threat’ Thesis

  1. Pingback: Off to China… 2) The ‘Peaceful Rise’ Thesis « Asian Security & US Foreign Relations Blog

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  4. China shooting its own people is brutal and its legitimacy to rule is being challenged by its own people. However, when the Americans shoot people of other countries in Iraq, Afghanistan, the American people sing “God Bless the America”. We can see clearly which country is more threatening to global security. At least, Chinese people what is right or wrong but not the Americans. In my opinion, China threat is only a fabrication for trade promotion. Here I mean the American military industry among the Pacific Asian states. For centuries, states of Pacific Asia peacefully co-exist with China. When South Korea and Taiwan are tire of squeezing their budget to bribe the US with money (to buy old weapons of the US) for their own “security” and “American protection”, the American military industry has to scare these state more with the fabrication of the China threat. If the American is successfully, the US would have a new market. China might be a threat to the America but the America is threat to peace and security of the whole world.


  5. Now, when the US is deep in its financial trouble, what is most effective to bring it out of this trouble is to trigger the third world war. The US has got rich and become a superpower after two great wars during which millions of non-American people had die for the course. When the war becomes more devasting, the US is growing ever stronger because the US is a war machine. Without war, the American Empire would fade in history. As people of the global village, US threat is more dangerous than China threat because the US possesses weapon of mass destruction which can destroy the whole world don’t know how many thousand times. It needs some specialist to tell us!


    • I don’t disagree that the US behaved in a high-handed, semi-imperial fashion under the Bush administration. For what it’s worth, I didn’t vote for W, especially in 2004, because of these concerns. I also agree that the US military is too large, and that US behavior generates fear in China and elsewhere. But it’s not clear that the US is an empire in the classical sense of Britain or Rome, or China herself in the 18th century. Also, it is worth observing that the US had little to do with sparking the conflagration of WWII. It was the chronic inability of Eurasia’s big states – from GB through to Japan – to manage their own affairs that created WWI and II. Indeed, the US role was moral, I believe, because it helped defeat German and Japanese fascism.

      Finally, this post is not meant to definitively tag China as an agressor, but only to note why some read it that way. The following post trots out the ‘peaceful rise’ response to the ‘China threat’ school.

      Thank you for reading.


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