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Hedging and Engaging with a Future “Strong China”


This is the text upon which Dr. Ford based his remarks at the Capitol Hill Club on June 6, 2012, to an event organized by the Air Force Association.  Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation also took part.

Good morning.  It’s a pleasure to be here at the Capitol Hill Club for another AFA breakfast event.  As usual, my thanks go out to Peter Huessy for giving me the chance to join you today.  With his permission, I’d like to talk a bit about China, and about U.S. strategic nuclear policy.

In my 2010 book – The Mind of Empire: China’s History and Modern Foreign Relations – I discussed China’s ancient view of political power as a hierarchical concept, and a phenomenon that derives from the virtue of political leaders.  Traditionally, this “virtuocratic” conception of authority has been at the core of China’s Sinocentric worldview, for in this schema truly virtuous rule in one country will produce a world-system in which all others turn in awestruck deference towards that center.

In this hierarchical conceptual scheme, someone else’s failure to look upon you as their superior could mean only one of two things: either you are deficient in your own virtue, or he is malicious and malignant, deserving of chastisement.  Virtuocracy did not necessarily demand to rule all others, but it cared a lot about politico-symbolic superiority.  To refuse to give such deference, in fact, was not just an insult but could actually threaten the virtuocratic regime’s internal stability, since its political legitimacy depended not elections but upon pretensions to the merit of an unquestionable virtue.

Ancient China did not, of course, always get such acknowledgement from other players in the world around it, and the Empire was not always in a position to administer proper chastisements to rulers who thumbed their noses at such pretensions.  (Patience is a virtue, and where China had to, it gritted its teeth and suffered such insults, at least for as long as it had no choice.)  Since I argued in the book that some such ancient virtuocratic notions seem to have survived into the present day, however, my book raised – but did not pretend to answer – questions about how important these themes would be the China of the future if its wealth and power continued to grow.

How, I asked, might a future “strong China” behave later in this century?  Would it by then have internalized Westphalian norms of sovereign equality – not just in the narrow juridical sense of leaving every state free to manage its “internal affairs,” but in the broader moral and political sense of accepting a world that is not fundamentally arrayed in a hierarchical status-order around some presumptive civilizational monopole?  Or would China, if raw power gives it more freedom of action, resume its ancient agenda of building a status-hierarchical political order around itself – at least in its region, and perhaps even farther afield?

That jury, of course, is still out – and I’m not much when it comes to prophecy.  Nevertheless, I would like to offer what I hope is a thought-provoking case study of how a relatively strong China changed its behavior just a few years ago vis-à-vis another country when it came to be perceived that the balance of power had shifted in Beijing’s favor, and when the internal legitimacy crises of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led it to encourage narratives of an oppositional foreign “Other” as part of its propaganda discourse.   After telling this story, I’d like to speculate about the implications of that case study for American strategic policy.

This case study is about Japan.  Seen from China’s perspective, Japan in the 1980s seemed like a rising economic superpower.  It was clearly a country from which Deng Xiaoping’s newly-opened China needed to learn as it endeavored to engineer its own rise back to something of the global status it had enjoyed of old.

Significant anti-Japanese sentiments existed in Chinese society, of course, which is hardly surprising given their war-torn history.  Nevertheless, in the controlled media environment of modern China, the Party-State’s official narrative subordinated such sentiments to the imperatives of engaging with and learning from the advanced, modernized, and profitably capitalist Japanese.  Deng’s famous admonition to his colleagues to “bide your time and hide your capabilities,” after all, counseled non-confrontational circumspection, not just with respect to the United States, but with regard to Japan and other East Asian neighbors as well.  Economic modernization was the key to China’s future strength, and China’s all-important return to global status required breathing space and congenial engagement with countries from which China could learn the ways of modern development.

But this balance between competing elements in China’s images of Japan changed in the 1990s, producing a period of intense (and ongoing) anti-Japanese emphasis in China’s official discourse and developing behavior.  This occurred, I think, for three reasons.

  • First, Japan had a miserable decade in the 1990s, facing a period of stagnation that was followed in 1997 by a debilitating credit crunch.  As one study subsequently put it, “[t]he seemingly unstoppable Japanese economy fell abruptly into recession in the early 1990s, beginning a period of either recession or weak economic activity, commodity and asset price deflations, banking failures, increased bankruptcies, and rising unemployment.”  This time has been called the “great recession,” the “lost decade,” or simply “the great stagnation.”   Whereas Japan had been seen in the 1980s as being destined to “eat America’s [economic] lunch,” Japan’s perceived dysfunction now undermined much of the logic of China’s engagement.  The Japan of the 1990s did not seem like an economic model Beijing should emulate, and as the need for emulative engagement decayed, adversarial Chinese approaches became more feasible.
  • Second, China was now itself in a very different position vis-à-vis Japan, with economic reforms by the mid-1990s having given Beijing a very different vantage point, in terms of national wealth and power.   It wasn’t that China had yet actually surpassed Japan in economic terms, of course, for China’s GDP wouldn’t officially exceed Japan’s for more than a decade.  It seems to have been the impression of relative movement, however – and the seeming inevitability of the outcome, as Japan stagnated and China roared ahead – that made a key difference.  Beijing felt increasingly free to indulge anti-Japanese sentiment because it felt less need for a junior partner’s circumspection vis-à-vis a Japan that China was now rapidly overtaking.
  • The third factor, is that in the mid-1990s Beijing came now to want to indulge such anti-Japanese sentiments more than before – not because there was anything worse about Japanese behavior during this period, but because the CCP needed this for internal reasons related to its post-Tiananmen legitimacy crisis.  As it cracked down on “bourgeois liberalization ” (a.k.a. pro-democracy political views) even while working frantically to develop for China a more market-oriented economy, the CCP needed a new, post-Marxist legitimacy discourse, and chose increasingly to try to cultivate nationalist legitimacy against an oppositional foreign “Other.”

In the mid-1990s, however, there were limits on how well the United States could serve as this “Other.”  America, after all, still reigned supreme as the world’s sole remaining superpower, our high-technology economy was booming, and our military prowess was truly breathtaking.  During this period, Beijing clearly still needed a great deal of non-confrontational “breathing space” vis-à-vis the U.S. “hyperpower” before China’s economic development made it strong enough to have any more options.  Nationalist fervor couldn’t yet be permitted to focus too much on America, therefore, lest this imperil the profitable economic and technological engagement China still needed to become strong.

Japan, however, fit the bill nicely – and from 1994 onward the CCP’s “patriotic education” campaign focused increasingly upon whipping up anti-Japanese sentiment.  (As Susan Shirk recounts in her 2008 book, China: Fragile Superpower, a posting on the government-sponsored “Strong Nation Forum” website summarized things nicely: “It is alright that our relations with Japan deteriorate to the worst.  However, we must not damage our relations with the United States!”)  Since that time, China has also been increasingly willing to permit such anti-Japanese sentiments to translate into more assertive and confrontational behavior – such as in signaling to its netizens the permissibility of (and thus encouraging) violent anti-Japanese protests in 2005 in a diplomatic dispute over Japan’s history textbooks, or in imposing a temporary embargo of rare-earth metals during a dispute over maritime boundaries in 2010.

The evolution of China’s approach to Japanese relations from the 1980s through the 1990s thus offers an illustration of how a “strong China” may behave toward a foreign country as their relative positions  are felt to shift as a result of: (a) China’s continued growth and increasing power; (b) the other country losing its previous attraction as a model of modernity to be emulated;  and (c) CCP efforts to gain domestic legitimacy by positioning itself as the champion of China’s national interests and moral position vis-à-vis a selfish and unvirtuous foreign “Other.”

If these three factors sound familiar to you, it means you’re paying attention.  Some of this familiarity may be because a dynamic not entirely unlike this may have been underway in 2008-10 with respect not to Japan but to the United States itself – at least for a while, anyway, before officials in Beijing seem to have had some second thoughts, becoming concerned that they may have jumped the gun by being too provocative too quickly.  Today, Chinese elites seem divided on the issue of whether or not it is – or when it will be – the right time finally to abandon Deng Xiaoping’s “bide your time” approach.  Perhaps they will opt for caution for a while longer.  But the Japan case suggests that given a sufficient shift in the perceived balance of power, China may indeed be tempted to assert for itself – in its region or more broadly – something somewhat more like the Sinocentric global status privileges that its ancient traditions and virtuocratic pretensions encourage it to desire.

Don’t get me wrong.  It is hardly it a given that comparable conditions will occur with respect to the United States.  China’s economy might well falter, or its political system collapse under its own corrupt and oppressive weight.  Nor is it a given that the United States will indeed actually decline as it has become so fashionable to predict.  But the possibility that a “strong China” will indeed adopt an analogously more adversarial and Sino-hierarchical approach has implications for American strategic policy.

For one thing, the possibility of such an adversarial turn has real military implications.  China has for years been engaged in a steady buildup, not merely of modern conventional forces but of nuclear ones as well.  According to last year’s U.S. Defense Department report to Congress,

China’s rise as a major international actor is likely to stand out as a defining feature of the strategic landscape of the early 21st century. … China’s military has benefitted from robust investment in modern hardware and technology.  Many modern systems have reached maturity and others will become operational in the next few years. Following this period of ambitious acquisition, the decade from 2011 through 2020 will prove critical to the PLA as it attempts to integrate many new and complex platforms, and to adopt modern operational concepts, including joint operations and network-centric warfare. … China has [also] prioritized land-based ballistic and cruise missile programs. It is developing and testing several new classes and variants of offensive missiles, forming additional missile units, upgrading older missile systems, and developing methods to counter ballistic missile defenses.”

According to the Pentagon, moreover, “there remains uncertainty about how China will use its growing capabilities.”  This uncertainty is itself problematic, because “China’s modernized military could be put to use in ways that increase China’s ability to gain diplomatic advantage or resolve disputes in its favor.”

Chinese leaders insist that their country’s rise should be threatening to nobody, and that China will never seek “hegemony” no matter how strong it becomes.   I hope this is true, but it’s hard not to worry about the Japan example.  It is also hard to forget that in traditional Chinese usage, molding a global system around the dominance of a supremely virtuous power doesn’t count as “hegemony” in the first place.  (Hegemony, after all, is what states try to seize when they possess power but lack real virtue.  It would not be “hegemonic” for a benevolent giant with a superior civilization to insist upon the status, deference, and global agenda-setting role that it simply deserves as part of the natural order of things.)

Accordingly, on the off chance that we might not ourselves recognize the behavior of a future, truly “strong China” as indeed being benevolently non-hegemonic, our strategic interests require a posture that would be useful in the face of such possibilities.  Let me suggest two main points in this respect.

First, we should not let any remaining disarmament enthusiasms lead us down a path that would leave our own nuclear deterrent inadequate in the face of unwelcome future eventualities – either because we have reduced our numbers to the point that we become vulnerable to (or indeed actually encourage) a Chinese “sprint to parity,” or because we have through inattention or stinginess permitted our infrastructure to decay or our systems to become outdated relative to the threats we face.

Somewhat to my surprise, and no doubt somewhat grudgingly, the Obama administration has proven willing at least to begin the process of modernizing U.S. nuclear delivery systems.  Even if our numbers are to be reduced at all further, however – in fact, especially then – this process must continue, and must receive vigorous support.  Promises made during “New START” ratification for serious infrastructure modernization funding must be kept: neither the White House nor Congress can be permitted to drop that ball, though there are signs that both will.  Nor can we permit political squeamishness to dissuade us from ensuring that our nuclear warheads incorporate state-of-the-art safety, security, and reliability features, and are capable of no more catastrophically destructive effects than their anticipated potential missions require.  Having such devices will do more for our security – and, frankly, for global nuclear safety – than any amount of diplomatically-pleasing fidelity to politically-correct taboos about “new” designs.

In addition, we must resist the temptation to try to salvage the ill-judged and ill-fated “reset” of relations with Russia by restricting the development of strategic defenses.  Missile defense is no panacea for strategic challenges, but it is an indispensable part of the strategic mix – providing some crisis-stability insurance against limited accidental launches or false alarms in great-power relations, as well as very significant security benefits vis-à-vis nuclear proliferators.

So that’s the “hawkish” side of the agenda.  But there’s a more “engagement”-focused side too.  We should, I think, also be unstinting in our pursuit of the kind of arms control engagement that could reduce the need for more hawkish hedging postures by helping eliminate the worrisome uncertainties presented by Beijing’s ongoing buildup.  It doesn’t look like there’s much of a future right now for China-inclusive numerical arms control, but we should do more to broaden our arms control focus to include Beijing in transparency and confidence-building measures (T/CBMs).  Beijing has so far resisted this kind of thing, fearing that “transparency” means no more than something like “tell us where all your missiles and warheads are located so we can target them.”  T/CBMs, however, don’t have to create new vulnerabilities.  We can surely learn many lessons from the history of U.S. practice and precedent – with the Soviets and more recently with Russia – in the areas of information-sharing, interactions on doctrinal and conceptual issues, technical inspection visits, approaches to crisis-management questions, strategic communication, and so forth.  The future of arms control, I’d wager, lies along this axis rather than with yet another “try again harder” round of arms control haggling with Moscow.

Pondering the possibility of a “strong China” with a taste for Sinocentric order suggests the need for a “hedge-and-engage” approach to strategic policy that would, on both counts, represent an improvement over Obama Administration policy.  To my eye, Obama is both too wobbly on modernization and too fixated upon a stale, “play it again, Sam” arms control agenda with Russia to get the mix right.  We need more emphatic and robust hedging, and we also need more focused and effective transparency and confidence-building engagement with Beijing.  Let’s hope we get them from someone.

Thank you.  I look forward to our discussion.

-- Christopher Ford

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