Part 1: Myths and realities about China

Henry C.K. Liu

Part 2: Imagined danger

This article appeared in AToL on June 14, 2003

In East Asia, Aaron L Friedberg, who recently joined US Vice President Dick Cheney's staff as a deputy national security advisor and director of policy planning, thinks that China may seek to execute the diplomatic equivalent of a pincer movement, applying pressure from the north (the Korean Peninsula) and the south (the South China Sea) in order to gain its primary objectives at the center: reunification with Taiwan and the neutralization of Japan.

After the success of an initial gambit in the spring of 2000, the Chinese will probably continue to press North Korea to negotiate with the South, while at the same time attempting to build themselves up as the indispensable intermediary. In return for its continued help in delivering North Korea, China may hope to gain some assurances from South Korea about the role of the United States on the peninsula. Even if Chinese strategists cannot extract much in the way of concrete promises, they may nevertheless come to believe that progress toward reunification of Korea will unleash popular forces in the South that will lead irresistibly to a US withdrawal. Continued improvement in North-South relations would also help to lull Japan and undermine US efforts to build support for theater missile defenses in Korea.

Yet recent events seem to suggest that Friedberg's scenario of a Chinese threat appears to be precisely what US official policy is moving toward in its dealing with North Korea, particularly US dependence on China to help resolve the Korean nuclear crisis. The final outcome may well be the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and a phased reduction of US troops in Korea. Already the US is pulling troops out of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to farther south where they would be out of North Korean artillery range.

In his November 2000 article in the neo-conservative magazine Commentary, "The Struggle for Mastery in Asia" - a play on the title of a book by British historian A J P Taylor - Friedberg suggested that while these events are unfolding, the People's Republic of China (PRC) will use a variety of tactics to aid the further extension of its influence in Southeast Asia. Here, in contrast to its role as peacemaker in Korea, it may show a harder, tougher face. An increase in piracy (Friedberg suggests perhaps supported covertly by China - a conspiracy theory totally off the deep end) could provide the justification for an expansion of naval activities in the South China Sea, enabling the PRC to assert its territorial claims in the area. Yet China's approach to territorial dispute has been conciliatory and based on the principle of fair sharing of mineral rights among the parties of dispute.

Friedberg suggests that China might support ethnic and religious separatist movements in Indonesia and the Philippines in the hope that, if these countries become racked by civil unrest, they will be much less capable of acting to oppose the growth in Chinese power. Such a suggestion is pure fishing in troubled waters. Recent history has shown that Chinese ethnic groups in Southeast Asia have suffered state persecution in the name of Cold War anti-communism at US urgings and approval.

Friedberg also thinks that after years of tolerating Singapore's military cooperation with the United States, China might begin to press that country to choose sides or, at the very least, abandon its tilt toward the US. Yet Singapore's increasingly contentious problem with the United States comes from US moral imperialistic intolerance on Singapore's Confucian governance.

Friedberg thinks that if Chinese leaders feel the need to flex their muscles, and perhaps also to demonstrate the limits of US power and commitment, they might pick a fight they think they can win, most likely by provoking and then pummeling Vietnam in what their military planners have called a quick "local war with high-tech characteristics". Friedberg should be reminded that China's 1980 punitive incursion into Vietnam did not fare too well.

Friedberg feels that the consolidation of China's position to its north and south will set the stage for the final resolution of the core strategic issues of Japan and Taiwan. With regard to Japan, China's goal must be to detach it from the United States without at the same time stimulating a resurgence of Japanese assertiveness and militarism. Despite their oft-expressed fears, Chinese strategists may become less worried about Japan as the country's population ages, its political system continues to founder, and its economy fails to regain its former luster. A Korean settlement that results in a greatly reduced US role on the peninsula could yield a corresponding increase in Japanese discomfort at being the last major remaining outpost of US military power in Asia. If so, the moment may have arrived for China to offer Japan some kind of "grand bargain", perhaps involving a mutual non-aggression pact and a pledge to maintain freedom of navigation in the South China Sea in exchange for a sharp curtailment or outright abrogation of the US-Japan alliance. At this point, if not before, Taiwan would have little choice but to accept the PRC's terms for reunification.

By placing Japan and Taiwan in the same security category, Friedberg blinds himself from any insight with which to turn what he sees as a struggle for mastery to a struggle for harmony in Asia. If the United States ceases and desists in interfering in China's internal affairs with its posture on Taiwan, most of what Friedberg envisages as an inevitable struggle for mastery in Asia between the US and China would become manageable.

Friedberg calculates that if the PRC is impatient, if it underestimates the impact of its action on its opponents, if it is excessively high-handed or overly brutal, it could well wind up stimulating precisely the kind of determined, unified response that could foil its plans and blocks its ambitions. On this score, he has nothing to worry about. Chinese leaders has been nothing but patient. They took almost five decades after coming to power before they took back Hong Kong from British colonialism. Even then they allow Hong Kong autonomous rule with a capitalist system for another 50 years. On Taiwan, Chinese leaders have repeatedly said it may take 50 years to achieve peaceful reunification, provided Taiwan independence remains a forbidden possibility.

Friedberg suggests it is conceivable that China will mellow with the passage of time, or suffer from domestic weaknesses that will prevent if from pursuing its objectives in a consistent and effective way. And most important of all, the United States could either adjust its current policies so as to make an open Sino-US confrontation less likely or, if conflict cannot be avoided, prepare for its eventuality while simultaneously preserving America's own position in Asia.

Friedberg purposely refrained from dwelling on US strategic options in the coming decades, not because he thinks the United States is without economic, military, or political policy options. Rather, he thinks it is because the first order of business is to see the situation plainly. Yet Friedberg's view is that nations have more to gain by resorting to obsolete struggle for mastery rather than harmony, that US-PRC strategic competition, allegedly already under way, could not be redirected toward strategic partnership for the world's benefit. To sow more paranoia among US policymakers, Friedberg claims that in recognizing these dark realities, the Chinese are well ahead of the United States.

Friedberg is the author of In the Shadow of the Garrison State, in which he argues that anti-statist inclinations prevented Cold War anxieties from transforming the United States into the garrison state it might have become in their absence. He concludes that the "weakness" of the American state served as a profound source of national strength that allowed the United States to outperform and outlast its supremely centralized and statist rival: the Soviet Union.

Friedberg offers an analysis of the challenges facing the United States in Asia. He thinks the PRC will emerge as the major threat to US interests there and will become, implicitly, the focal point of US strategy not only in the region but in the world. As an analyst with a long-range perspective, Friedberg plays down the huge disparity in power between the United States and China, a gap likely to continue in the foreseeable future. He sees hostile strategic competition as inevitable between the two nations.

This is understandable for an American analyst to whom Spencerian Social Darwinism forms a pathological basis for a world view in which hostile political competition is considered as natural between nations. Yet the history of China's foreign relations cannot be fully understood within the context of Western political thought. True, for the past century and a half, China has been a victim of intrusive Western imperialism and its modern history has been one of combating Western imperialism to restore mastery of its own fate. But the idea that a strong and prosperous China would also take on imperialistic intentions is an exclusively Western notion. Napoleon Bonaparte, who thought war was the purpose of civilization, was reported to have warned that China was a sleeping giant that would be much feared by the world if awakened. Yet there is little in Chinese history that would support the thesis that a strong China would be an imperialistic China.

Between 1405 and 1433, a period when China possessed the world's most advanced seafaring technology, the navigator/sailor Zheng He explored the seas not for imperialistic expansion but to satisfy the Ming Court's demand for exotic commodities from distant lands. Zheng even brought back from Africa giraffes, ostriches and zebras. But the Ming Court abruptly stopped Chinese navigational adventure in 1433, after the death of Zheng. This history baffles Western observers, whose later experience in the West associates navigational adventure with empire-building.

Zheng He, a Muslim Chinese, was born as Ma He in 1371 to a poor ethnic Hui (Chinese Muslim) family in Yunnan province, southwestern China. His grandfather and father once made an overland pilgrimage to Mecca. Zheng sailed throughout the Indian Ocean, retracing some of the same routes taken by Ibn Battuta, the Arabic geographer, whose historic visit to China in 1346 during the Mongol Yuan Dynasty appeared in court records. Zheng went to East Africa, Mecca, the Persian Gulf, and throughout the Indian Ocean decades before Christopher Columbus sailed for America in 1492 and Vasco da Gama made his first voyage to India in 1497.

For 28 years (1405-33), Zheng commanded seven fleets that visited 37 countries, through Southeast Asia to faraway Africa and Arabia. In 1420 the Ming navy dwarfed the combined navies of Europe. A great fleet of big ships, with nine masts and manned by 500 men each, set sail in July 1405, almost a century before Columbus's voyage to America. There were great treasure ships more than 90 meters long and 45m wide, the biggest being 134m long and 57m across, capable of carrying 1,000 passengers. Columbus's Santa Maria was only 26m long. Most of the ships were built at the Dragon Bay shipyard near Nanjing, the remains of which can still be seen today.

Zheng He's first fleet included 27,870 men on 317 ships, including sailors, clerks, interpreters, artisans, medical men and meteorologists, but only a small number of soldiers. On board were large quantities of cargo including silk goods, porcelain, gold and silverware, copper utensils, iron implements and cotton goods and books. The fleet sailed along China's coast to Champa close to Vietnam and, after crossing the South China Sea, visited Java and Sumatra and reached Sri Lanka by passing through the Strait of Malacca. On the way back it sailed along the west coast of India and returned home in 1407. Envoys from Calcutta in India and several countries in Asia and the Middle East also boarded the ships to pay visits to China. Zheng He's second and third voyages taken shortly after followed roughly the same route.

In the autumn of 1413, Zheng He set out with 30,000 men to Arabia on his fourth and most ambitious voyage. From Hormuz he coasted around the Arabian boot to Aden at the mouth of the Red Sea. The arrival of the fleet caused a sensation in the region, and 19 countries sent ambassadors to board Zheng's ships with gifts for Emperor Yong Le. In 1417, after two years in Nanjing and touring other cities, the visiting foreign envoys were escorted home by Zheng. On this trip, he sailed down the east coast of Africa, stopping at Mogadishu, Matindi, Mombassa and Zanzibar and may have reached Mozambique. The sixth voyage in 1421 also went to the African coast. Loaded with Chinese silk and porcelain, the junks visited ports around the Indian Ocean. Here, Arab and African merchants exchanged spices, ivory, medicines, rare woods, and pearls so eagerly sought by the Chinese imperial court. Zheng He died in the 10th year of the reign of the Ming Emperor Xuande (1433) and was buried in the southern outskirts of Bull's Head Hill (Niushou) in Nanjing. Inscribed on top of the tomb are the Arabic words "Allahu Akbar" ("God is Great"). Unlike Columbus and Vasco de Gama, Zheng He did not found any colonies for a Chinese empire.

China never had an empire structure in the Western concept of the term as exemplified by the Roman Empire or the British Empire. Chinese territorial expansion was more along the line of the European Union, where the eager peripheral aspired to join a reluctant center for obvious benefits. Much of the historical expansion of China took place when China was under foreign occupation, such as the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty and the Manchurian Qing Dynasty. The ruling dynastic houses of foreign origin were inevitably assimilated into Chinese culture, much like the way the House of Windsor in Britain adopted British culture. In this respect, the Chinese Empire was different than the Austro-Hungarian Empire in which the diverse population was never homogenized and the ruling house remained exclusively Germanic in both ethnicity and culture. Nor was it similar to the British Empire, for the same reason. Whenever China was strong and prosperous in history, Chinese foreign policy tended to be isolationist, fending off intruders, rather than expansionist for conquest. Whenever China was weak and poor, foreign partition plots took the form of thinly disguised separatism movements.

Friedberg touts the George Schultz line of viewing Japan as central to US policy in Asia. Unlike Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, whose balance-of-power realpolitik world view focused on China along the line of Franklin D Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Schultz favored Japan in anticipation of a future conflict between that country and China. They point to postwar history when the US sided with China until 1949, and with Japan thereafter, yielding dramatically preferable results from the US perspective. Of course, they ignore the argument that less paranoia in US policy toward communism in Asia, and in China particularly, would have yielded very different and preferable outcomes. After all, Friedberg himself built his academic reputation by developing the theme that the absence of a garrison-state mentality in the United States was largely responsible for its ultimate success in the Cold War. By the same logic, if the US had not so relentlessly imposed a garrison-state mentality in global communism, it might have led to the success of socialism in much of the world and would have contributed positively to the security of the US.

Friedberg believes that China can intimidate Japan, forcing it to be cooperative or at least neutral toward China. Yet he does not explain why this should be such a danger to the United States. US policy aims at rearming Japan against China. But this is a double-edged sword. In the triangular economic relationship, there is more fundamental trade conflict between Japan and the US than between Japan and China or the US and China. In fact, Japan and the US are competing headlong to build bilateral trade relations with China at the other's expense. During his first visit to China as secretary of state after replacing Al Haig, Schultz dismissed complaints from US executives in Shanghai that Washington did not provide comparable support for US businesses in China as Japan did for its corporations, by telling them to move to Japan if they did not like US policy on China.

Postwar China has not been acting in its own best interest with its fixation on historical Japanese militarism. With China evolving as a legitimate power, Japanese military revival will find US dominance in Asia a more ready target. Japan has more to settle with the United States, which defeated this proud rising nation, occupied it and dominated it for half a century. The US torpedoed Japan's East Asia Co-Prosperity Ring. Japan's historical relationship with China is one of apologetic guilt while its national psyche toward the US is one of latent contempt, a sentiment narcissistic Americans find easy to overlook.

There is a preponderance of objective basis for symbiotic cooperation between Japan and China. Japanese attitude toward China's semi-colonial status under Western imperialism had much to do with its aggression toward China. From Japan's point of view, it was merely fulfilling its destiny as a modern power and claiming its share in the de facto partition of a weak, decrepit China. Japan's World War II aggression is Asia was based on a Western imperialist model that Japan adopted beginning with the Meiji Restoration. Once China threw off the yoke of Western imperialism, Japan restored its historical respect for China as its cultural fountainhead. The logic for symbiotic cooperation between China and Japan is so strong and obvious and the cultural affinity between the two nations so pervasive and natural that only US self-indulgence would support any fantasy that Japan is a natural ally of the United States. Japan is not Britain. The future of Asia will be determined in Northeast Asia, where power is concentrated, not in South and Southeast Asia, where Friedberg has assigned excessive weight. It certainly will not be determined in Washington. Taiwan is an issue entirely manufactured by US policy. Friedberg rightly sees Taiwan as a possible fuse for US-China conflict. The United States hopes that a pro-Japan foreign policy can strengthen US capabilities in its potential military confrontation with China over Taiwan. Yet Japan may take a similar position as Turkey, which refused the use of US bases in Turkey to open a northern front in the renewed Iraq War, or the position on US bases taken by Saudi Arabia. Japan will reinforce its insistence that US bases in Japan be use only to defend Japan proper, and not for supporting or expanding US interests in Asia.

Part of the blow-back of economic globalization is the divergence of the interest of US-based multinational corporations and financial institutions from US national interest and foreign-policy objectives put forth by US statism. Whereas the state apparatus of the United States sees globalization in terms of geopolitical power politics, the private sector is working hard to purge its globalization efforts of a neo-imperialistic tinge. US-based multinationals see Washington as obstructionist in free trade, not much different from any other foreign government pursuing economic nationalism. From IBM to GM, from CitiGroup to Loral Space and Communications, a hostile view toward US high-tech sanction toward any country, particularly China, and a benign view of China as a huge market dominate. To the private sector, huge market exceptionism is basic gospel. For neo-liberals, trade is a weapon to disarm potential enemies, not the denial of trade. Further, the current neo-con cooption of US foreign policy may well be a merely temporary distortion of traditional US values. The Bush administration came to power through a contested narrow victory decided by the judiciary. There is much evidence that this is a government that represents a minority extremist position taking advantage of a new paranoia generated by the attacks of September 11.

Friedberg overstates China's economic challenge to the United States. China has committed itself to participate in globalization and worked overtime to prepare for and accommodate membership in the World Trade Organization. China's trade surplus with the US is in fact strengthening the dollar economy at the expense of the yuan economy, a fact of dollar hegemony that Chinese economists have been slow to understand. A sudden halt in US-China trade would adversely impact the US more severely than China. It might produce the salutary effect of forcing China to focus more on domestic development through state credit rather than through foreign capital and to shift from its excessive dependence of export. Friedberg's understanding of international economics is less than profound.

A war with China will not remain a regional war. The painful lessons of the Korean and the Vietnam Wars have not been forgotten by the US military, yet a war with China may be put an end to the post-Cold War Pax Americana.

Timing is crucial in military balance. China's technological capacity is advancing, but Beijing has other priorities and is not investing heavily in its military. It has far to go to realize most of the capabilities Friedberg postulates - except in the realm of missiles. There, China has long been able to strike the US with nuclear weapons and can easily offset the proposed NMD system.

Friedberg also correctly observes that Chinese missile tests in the Taiwan Strait in 1995-96 heightened the perceived threat posed by missiles with non-nuclear warheads. Because of the short distances involved (90 miles), China has many technical options, and it is unclear that Taiwan's acquisition of TMD would be very effective against them. Friedberg sees an opening for arms control to deal with this problem. An agreement by Taiwan not to deploy missile defenses if the mainland restricts the number of missiles deployed against it might be backed up by an ability (with US help) to put such defenses quickly in place. Yet the three communiques that form the basis of US-China rapprochement already include arms-reduction clauses for Taiwan, which the United States has not observed in recent years.

According to Lawrence Korb, formerly assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, the United States should understand that Beijing's ambition to build a powerful military to complement its growing economy and strategic positions in Asia is not necessarily to America's detriment. In an article in Insight magazine in 2000, he wrote: "China remains and will remain too weak to challenge US power even in its own neighborhood. Consider the gap between China's acknowledged $20 billion defense budget (or even the estimated $45 [billion] to $150 billion) and the US defense budget of about $400 billion. And this does not even take into account the immense and growing technological gap between the militaries of the two countries or the strength enjoyed by the United States because of its multiple alliances. China is not, and is extremely unlikely to be, a strategic military threat the way the Soviet Union once was."

Personal and political liberties in China have greatly increased as the economy improves and as the nation feels more secure. Friedberg says it is "conceivable" that a richer China might not become more benign, but many other US analysts suggest that it will be. The essence of China politics is Confucian benevolence, not force. The Tang Dynasty of the 7th century, generally recognized as the height of Chinese culture, was known for its religious tolerance at a time when the idea of religious freedom was still heresy in Europe.

China hopes to be able to reunite Taiwan through peaceful means. Even the official Taiwan position envisages an eventual voluntary return to the motherland under mutually acceptable political conditions. A more democratic China is inevitable, though it may not be in the US mode, as soon as the US ceases its imposition of a garrison-state mentality on China. A conflict initiated by the United States to address the effects of a garrison-state mentality imposed by its policies would be an enormous tragedy of self-defeatism, and would also fail to achieve its perverted purpose.

Other US policy analysts, such as Michael Swaine of Stanford University, disagree with Friedberg that the existing competitive aspects of the Sino-US relationship now constitute a nascent military rivalry for continental dominant. It is quite possible, perhaps even likely, that China will not acquire the capabilities or develop the focused intent to struggle with the United States for mastery in Asia. This possibility - and the consequent need for a US policy that is designed both to encourage a cooperative China and to cope with a more assertive one - is one that Friedberg should have more fully acknowledged and assessed.

Friedberg insists that deserving closer scrutiny is the notion that only by taking a soft line can the United States discourage aggressive external behavior and promote desirable domestic change. He argues that acknowledging real dangers is a necessary first step to avoiding them, as well as in preparing to cope with them if they should nevertheless come to pass. Refusing or neglecting to do so, according to Friedberg, is a far more likely formula for disaster.

Yet there is a clear line between reality and paranoia. Friedberg needs to rethink his proposition by borrowing another quote from historian Taylor: "Once men imagine a danger, they soon turn it into a reality."