In short, is China a status quo or revisionist power? If it's a status quo power, it's mostly satisfied with the way the world looks and operates, as well as its place in it. But if China is a revisionist power, it will seek to change, if not overturn, the regional and possibly the world order, bending and shaping it in line with its interests. Toward this end, China could attempt to expand territorially, increase its influence over other countries, create new institutions, rewrite the rules of existing institutions, establish new behavioral norms, and so on.
There are two rough ways to look at this topic. On the one hand, it's very possible that current economic relations and international and regional institutions lock China into certain patterns of behavior, making it way too costly for China to push for significant change to the regional or international orders. For instance, upsetting the status quo, and as a consequence disturbing ties with the West, carries great cost for China. At a minimum, China would find itself strategically encircled by a coalition of countries seeking to contain it. We could see a broken, unstable world economy, causing economic chaos in China. Which in turn might lead to internal political and social instability and perhaps even conflict and violence.
Keep in mind that China has risen in power, worked its economic magic, by working through the international system. And China knows this. It can continue its rise, in way that's not too threatening or disruptive, if it remains committed to the world order that's currently in place. This is a rather rosy picture of China.
On the other hand, we can view China's rise through a different, more ominous prism. As China grows in power, it could very well want to alter the regional and world orders in ways that allow China to accrue power, satisfy its security needs, and promote its values. The history of the rise of great powers offers numerous examples of this. In prior centuries, this type of behavior took the form of land grabs, large empires, and overseas colonies. Not anymore. Today, China won't seek to control others (people, groups, institutions, and countries), but instead will try to exercise its influence over them. And it's going to use all means of influence--that is, the instruments of pressure and coercion and inducements at its disposal--to sustain, strengthen, and enlarge its economic ties, which is what China cares most about.
What's the evidence?
For most of the last decade, Chinese officials have stated that their country is experiencing a "peaceful rise." Clearly, this slogan was crafted and disseminated to calm any fears of a rising, potentially dominant, China. So yes, China is growing and expanding, in a host of different ways, they admit, but it poses no threat to others in the world, especially its neighbors. Beijing wants to convey that China has benign intentions, that it's not an expansionist, imperialist, acquisitive country.
But when we move from words to actions, China's story becomes more complicated. China has made a concerted effort to strengthen its military. It has steadily increased its investment in almost all things military, with the aim of producing a better, more efficient, more sophisticated armed forces. At this point, China is unable to fight land wars in distant lands, and it might never be able to do so, but it is improving its power projection capabilities, especially its naval ones, in the region.
Sure, this could be a function of China seeking to protect its vibrant, expanding economic interests. But it could also signal something more, that Beijing is pursuing a more confrontational and truculent foreign policy. After all, much to the dismay of its neighbors, energy-hungry China has been assertive, even aggressive, in pursuing its territorial and waterway interests in the South China Sea. It has engaged in rather senseless diplomatic tussles with Japan, including several incidents involving Chinese fishing boats. Furthermore, China has beefed up its military muscle directed at Taiwan, using it as a deterrent mechanism to prevent Taiwan from straying too far from China's orbit.
All of these actions deeply worry Asian countries, especially those in Southeast Asia, who already fear being dominated by a powerful China. Chinese aggression just puts them even more on edge. Asian countries view these actions as markers foreshadowing further, perhaps even more dangerous, Chinese recklessness and belligerence.
And remember, Chinese actions aren't viewed in isolation by outsiders. Rather, they're added to the litany of nettlesome behavior that China has exhibited over the last few decades. This is particularly true for the West. Indeed, the West continually complains about China's currency, its violations of intellectual property rights, its support for dictators and human rights abusers across the world, its reluctance to deal with nuclear proliferation, its obstructionism in the United Nations, among many other things. In light of all this, former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick called for China to become an "international stakeholder," a country able and willing to provide a sense of stability and order to world politics.
On economic matters, China enjoys its position and status in the world economy. It likes its role in regional and international institutions, its place in the G-20, its leverage over the U.S., European, and Asian economies, and the general sense of respect that comes with being the second largest economy in the world. But China isn't completely satisfied on this front. Chinese officials shudder at the thought of continuing to interact in a world economy that's primarily dominated by America. Beijing wants a much larger voice in the making and meaning of the rules that govern world trade and finance and related economic issues. Indeed, I recently came across a very revealing quote that sheds light on this point:
Using some of his toughest language yet against China, Obama, a day after face-to-face talks with President Hu Jintao, demanded that China stop "gaming" the international system and create a level playing field for U.S. and other foreign businesses.
"We're going to continue to be firm that China operate by the same rules as everyone else," Obama told reporters after hosting the 21-nation APEC summit in his native Honolulu. "We don't want them taking advantage of the United States."
China shot back that it refused to abide by international economic rules that it had no part in writing.
"First we have to know whose rules we are talking about," Pang Sen, a deputy director-general at China's Foreign Ministry said.
"If the rules are made collectively through agreement and China is a part of it, then China will abide by them. If rules are decided by one or even several countries, China does not have the obligation to abide by that."
Right now, we're in the very early stages of China's rise to dominance, as a peer competitor to the U.S., so it's hard to make definitive conclusions about what Beijing wants and the direction it will ultimately go. And let's not forget that we will soon see a changing of the guard in Beijing, as the current generation steps out of power, and will probably also see some jockeying for power between military and civilian leaders as the new political elites try to consolidate their grip over the Chinese state. These events will certainly impact the choices that China makes in the future. But so far it's clear that Beijing has a preference for change to the status quo. Full-scale change or minor tinkering? It's up for debate.
Let's take the above quote as an example. It indicates a reluctance to play by the established rules--rules that were created by the West, mind you--but at the same time a willingness to work with others to achieve an economic order that's consensual, flexible, and open to greater participation from more countries. China isn't pushing unilateral change or advocating coercive measures to get what it wants economically. But what does China see as the end result from such change? Perhaps something much different that what we have today? Or maybe a world economy that looks and operates about the same as it does now, just with a greater role for China. If China only seeks minor changes, then maybe the West can make adjustments to the world order and give China a greater place at the table and more voice opportunities. Perhaps any changes to the status quo can be negotiated over time. In this way, China can fully integrate itself into the existing world order, leaving the existing rules and institutions and patterns of behavior mostly intact.
But if China envisages major economic changes, then it will place itself on a collision course with America. The U.S. will not easily forgo the rules and institutions from which it has so enormously benefited the past 60 years. Additionally, any U.S. presidential administration will have difficulty selling the idea of giving China a major say in rewriting the economic rules of the road. U.S. citizens already fear that China is gradually undermining American sovereignty, economic performance, and overall quality of life. Granting China its day in the sun, at least at the moment, would likely be seen by Americans as capitulating to an economic threat.
But even more than that, the U.S. will likely find making room for China, or any other country for that matter, at the great power table very problematic, given the centrality of "American exceptionalism" to the narrative of U.S. history. In short, America's values, politics, economics, institutions, schools of higher learning, and so on, are the best on Earth. America is a "shining city upon a hill." As such, U.S. stands as an example to other countries, pointing out to them how they should look and function. Moreover, logic dictates that the U.S. ought to take an active place in the world, serving as a steward to guide and steer the world in a proper and just direction.
Now, how can Americans reconcile these ideas, which many take as self-evident, with the prospect of permitting China to make major changes to the current economic order. Not easy, right? If one believes in American exceptionalism, then there is no other country qualified to run the show; it's America's mission, alone, ordained by a higher power, to carry out. I suspect a faction of Americans--both ordinary citizens and Congresspersons--would argue that ceding power to China is treasonous and probably push for impeachment.
In looking at military and security affairs, there are two keys, in my opinion. First, will economic troubles cause the U.S. to retrench from Asia? For now, of course, that's not going to happen. But over the long-term? Who knows? If it happens, though, it would make life easier for China. It could spread its wings in the region as it pleases without the threat of significant resistance. Second, will China aim to squeeze the U.S. out of Asia? If it does, we will see nasty consequences for the region. There will likely be an escalation of tensions and hostilities, as well as a sharp increase in the likelihood of conflict, between China and the U.S. The region will splinter, with countries taking sides and some eventually getting dragged into the mess. And the fallout likely won't be confined to security issues, as conflicts involving the first and second largest economies is sure to destabilize the entire world economy.