The Magazine

Project for a New Chinese Century

Beijing plans for national greatness.

Oct 10, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 04 • By MAX BOOT
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History, alas, teaches that it is difficult if not impossible to integrate peacefully a major illiberal challenger into an international system it did not design and does not control. Just ask the British, who 100 years ago occupied the strategic niche that America fills today--a global hegemon threatened by powerful upstarts. In America's case the rival is China; in Britain's it was Germany and Japan. The British tried confrontation with Germany (symbolized by the 1904 Anglo-French Entente Cordiale and an Anglo-German naval arms race) and appeasement with Japan (the 1902 Anglo-Japanese Alliance and considerable aid for the Imperial Japanese Navy until the late 1920s). Neither policy worked, and the result was two of the most horrific wars in history. The United States did a little better in managing the rise of the Soviet Union, but the Cold War still resulted in the deaths of some 100,000 Americans in Korea and Vietnam.

Chinese apologists will huffily reply that their country has nothing in common with Germany, Japan, or the Soviet Union. In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Zheng Bijian, a veteran Communist party apparatchik with close ties to President Hu Jintao, assures us: "China will not follow the path of Germany leading up to World War I or those of Germany and Japan leading up to World War II, when these countries violently plundered resources and pursued hegemony. Neither will China follow the path of the great powers vying for global domination in the Cold War. Instead China will transcend ideological differences to strive for peace, development, and cooperation with all countries in the world."

It's true that China is not actively acquiring colonies (at least not since the occupation of Tibet in 1951) or fighting other countries (at least not since the invasion of Vietnam in 1979). But neither are its actions as benign as Zheng would have it. Certainly it would come as news to Japan--whose territorial waters were violated last fall by a Chinese submarine and some of whose businesses were attacked this spring by Chinese mobs--that China strives for peace and "cooperation with all countries." It will come as even greater news to Taiwan, which has been on the receiving end of blood-curdling threats of "annihilation" should it ever dare to declare its independence--threats backed up by the presence of 500-550 short-range ballistic missiles deployed across the Taiwan Strait, with 75 new ones added every year. And, finally, it will come as news to the military and political architects of Chinese strategy who consider the United States to be the "main enemy," according to a Chinese diplomat who recently defected in Australia.

China may not be seeking global domination--at least not yet--but it is definitely seeking regional domination. And the region it is trying to dominate will be as important, politically, militarily, and economically, to the rest of the world in this century as Europe was in the last one.

THAT DOES NOT MEAN that war is inevitable by any stretch of the imagination, but it does mean that we need to make a greater effort to nudge China off its long-term collision course with the United States. As the failure of British policy toward Germany and Japan indicates, there is no guarantee that any U.S. policy will succeed in making this awakening dragon mind its manners. But we have to try. Since we can't be sure any particular policy will work, the safest course would seem to be to try a bit of everything--economic integration, diplomatic containment, military deterrence, and internal subversion. Unfortunately, we're not doing a very good job on any of these fronts right now.

The West has been most successful in fostering China's economic integration through membership in the World Trade Organization and increasing levels of trade and investment. But protectionist lobbies seem intent on sabotaging these gains through shrill harping on such purported Chinese sins as having a weak currency and selling too many bras to American women. The Bush administration first bludgeoned Beijing into devaluing the yuan and now (along with the European Union) has restricted Chinese textile imports.

It may make sense to use economic leverage to influence Chinese behavior, but it should be done in pursuit of such vital aims as ending the North Korean nuclear program--not in aid of the hopeless American textile industry. Chinese imports (that is, goods that American consumers want to buy) are no threat to the United States, any more than Japanese imports were in the 1980s. Harping on our current trade deficit with China will prove no more productive than harping on Japan's huge trade surpluses did back then.