When the cold war ended, the American foreign policy community cast about for a new threat. Perhaps a ”rogue state,” like Iraq, or ethnic conflicts or even ”instability” would now be the enemy. But none of these contenders had the geopolitical gravity of a superpower adversary, nor did they require the sort of global strategizing that the cold war demanded. Quite suddenly, though, a World Bank report that remains controversial today seemed to point to a new hegemon on the horizon. The Chinese economy, the bank announced in 1992, was far larger than previously thought. The analysts quickly grabbed their calculators. Present economic and technological trends were extrapolated; China’s military purchasing power was assessed; war games were played. The result: Many strategists concluded that China could emerge as the dominant power in Asia, seriously challenging America’s interests.
The debate over the ”China threat” closely resembles the disagreements over United States policy toward the Soviet Union during the cold war. Hard-liners and moderates disagree about Beijing’s capabilities and about whether American aims would best be served by containing or engaging China. Earlier this year the journalists Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro comprehensively argued the hard-line position for a general audience in their aptly titled book ”The Coming Conflict With China.” Now another team, Andrew J. Nathan, a Columbia University political scientist, and Robert S. Ross, a Boston College political scientist, have delivered a detailed argument for the other side with “The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress.”
Hard-liners see a China mounting a challenge to America’s position in East Asia. Nathan and Ross, on the other hand, see a defensively minded state, vulnerable to internal unrest, obsessed with maintaining its territorial integrity and burdened by a military that is technologically and organizationally far behind not only the United States but Taiwan, Japan and South Korea as well.
Nathan and Ross issue a needed corrective to some of the more outlandish claims of those who stress the ”China threat.” They convincingly argue, for instance, that China’s ambitions regarding the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea fail to constitute the geostrategic danger that many discern. Hard-liners warn that China’s possession of the islands, which it has claimed uninterruptedly for centuries, would allow it to project its naval and air power, disrupting the sea lanes carrying trade between Europe and the Middle East and East Asia, and intimidating Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. But military geography is more complicated than playing a game of Risk: Nathan and Ross point out that the Spratlys are too small to support the military facilities that would make them strategically significant and that, anyhow, many of the islands are under water for most of the year.
Nathan and Ross also cut through the arcane debate over the actual size of the Chinese military budget to demonstrate just how severely limited Beijing’s current capabilities are. China’s cumbersome armed forces have traditionally been oriented toward the defense of home territory. If China were to make a bid for the mastery of East Asia, it would have to project huge naval and air power far from home. But most of its airplanes, as the authors observe, are based on 1950’s and 60’s technology — and even its few new-generation fighter planes have been called ”the most highly perfected obsolete aircraft in the world.” Forget fighting Japan or the United States. The Chinese Navy would lose a battle against Singapore, Malaysia or Indonesia.
More important, Nathan and Ross emphasize factors other than hardware that constrain China’s military influence, pointing to the current ”revolution” in technology. The demands placed on the command, control, communications and intelligence capabilities that are required to integrate air, land and naval forces are enormous today and, with the continual advances in information technology, are growing nearly exponentially. The upshot is that the United States has such a jump on China in its ability to conduct modern warfare that America’s military preponderance in East Asia will increase, not diminish, in the coming years.
Although Nathan and Ross demolish the most absurd claims of those who see an immediate China threat, by focusing on these extreme arguments they are, in a way, setting up straw men. The more sophisticated hard-line position holds that given its economic dynamism, China could in the long term threaten what Nathan and Ross call East Asia’s ”balance of power.” The authors are surely right that China cannot mount a real challenge to American naval supremacy within anything less than 25 years, but what about after that? Nathan and Ross fail to address this long-range concern.
Actually, the most interesting feature of their argument is not their differences with the hard-liners but their similarities to them. Throughout their book Nathan and Ross assert, echoing the hard-liners and nearly everyone else in the American foreign policy community, that the United States must maintain the so-called balance of power in East Asia. But this begs a question: What balance? As Nathan and Ross make abundantly clear, ”the United States possesses strategic superiority throughout Asia.” This superiority, they argue, must be sustained, lest the states in the region begin to jockey for power and advantage among themselves, thereby ”destabilizing . . . the regional balance of power.” But the idea that balance can be achieved through dominance is the contradiction at the heart of American policy.
To Nathan and Ross, as much as to the hard-liners, United States dominance in Asia should continue indefinitely. Yet what America sees as balance can easily be seen by another state as hegemony. While one can agree or disagree with the authors’ position, it should not really be surprising if China — which, like any state, must be concerned more with a competing power’s capabilities than with its intentions — were to use its growing wealth to try to end American dominance in Asia. That Washington would regard as a threat the efforts of the largest and potentially most powerful state in a region to remedy its weak position reveals more about America’s ambitions than about China’s.