America will remain the world’s sole superpower for some time. Nevertheless, the geopolitical landscape is gradually becoming a multipolar environment where China will be a key player. If Beijing tries to attain hegemony in Asia, deterring it will be more complex than simply augmenting our already-enormous defense budget. A promising grand strategy to constrain China’s growing clout might couple offshore balancing—building a partnership of other powers opposed to Chinese dominance—with an effort to counter China’s unique methods of espionage. And while there is nothing objectionable in anticipating strategic challenges, Washington should not magnify its own insecurities to an extent that it worsens Sino-American relations.
If China’s relative power rises, it is liable to desire its own sphere of influence and this is natural. According to Kenneth Waltz and other prominent political scientists, all nations, regardless of regime type, attempt to maximize their power in order to survive in the inherently anarchic international system. As such, even full-fledged democratization in China is unlikely to affect its objectives. Much like how the US established and still sustains the Monroe Doctrine, China may try to set up an equivalent system.
But while regional primacy can be healthy for a Great Power, it unfortunately gives heady policymakers visions of grandeur. In limited, specific instances, projecting power on a global level is feasible as well as desirable. Dominating the international system is not. America learned this the hard way in the Middle East. Worldwide hegemony is not only incredibly expensive, it breeds resentment among states and or non state actors; as a result, balancing blocs arise to repel would-be-empires. China’s decades-old border disputes with Russia and its newfound awareness of energy politics in the Persian Gulf mean Moscow and Tehran probably view its rise apprehensively. Consequently, America can find common ground to cooperate with both nations if it alters its policies, particularly toward the latter.
Moreover, China’s awakening is especially worrying to its East Asian neighbors, several of whom possess or can quickly develop nuclear deterrents. As a precaution, many have already formed military pacts and strengthened their security apparatuses. India countered China’s growing sequence of bases in Central Asia and the Pacific Rim by accelerating its own production of a blue-water navy and enhancing security ties with the U.S., France, Russia, and Japan. A mutual fear of China also prompted former adversaries South Korea and Japan to start a symbiotic relationship on defense issues.
If China displays offensive intentions, America should champion such burgeoning associations while maintaining a moderate (rather than substantial) naval and air presence nearby, in case of emergencies. Critics of this approach argue—with some justification—that the alliances are too tenuous to mature. India’s federalism might make preserving a single foreign policy arduous. The fractious debate in Japan over the “normalization” of its military, currently bound by constitutional strictures, also persists. On the other hand, brewing security concerns are apt to outweigh domestic impediments to balancing.
But even offshore balancing will only limit China’s power, not erase it. China still leverages its sway over North Korea to keep the West anxious, and its recent veto on a major Asian development bank project also illustrates its might.
Still, when making auxiliary plans, it is critical not to inflate threats. For example, China has yet to build a functioning aircraft carrier. Ironically, Beijing’s emphasis on obtaining its rivals’ technological secrets, rather than innovating, places it at a permanent disadvantage. Admittedly, China has a disincentive to represent its capabilities, but reports also indicate America spends ten times more than China on defense, enough to prevail in a limited conflict.
This does not mean a nationalist China is committed to what its own government has dubbed a “peaceful rise.” China’s dual-pronged espionage campaign remains menacing. First, Chinese hackers conduct extensive cyber-warfare. Second, China gathers human intelligence in a manner markedly different from the former Soviet Union. Whereas the KGB extracted sensitive information from a few carefully chosen assets, China’s Ministry of State Security uses a web of informers in businesses, educational institutions, and governments, many of whom probably don’t even consider their actions to be “spying,” to collect bits of data. The individual’s contribution may be miniscule, but the final product is a detailed portrait. And though many of China’s spies may not be professionals, the pool’s vast size offsets its lack of training.
All Great Powers engage in and protect against espionage, but the U.S. has been loath to criticize Beijing for fear of antagonizing its largest foreign creditor and or losing access to China’s rich markets. This indicates that financial interdependence, though economically beneficial, does little to mitigate global rivalries and often severely alters the power dynamics in relationships between states. Ultimately, America should respond by being wary at home and by increasing its own intelligence-gathering abroad. Given its clandestine nature, this cannot evoke bitterness the way overt military force does.
Optimists suggest that international institutions can socialize rising powers, making them responsible—rather than revisionist—stakeholders. Sadly, our world is likely to remain a Hobbesian place. As China’s intentions are unclear, it is wise to hedge one’s bets—even if China is decades from its potential. But being confrontational is counterproductive. If we treat China like a hungry dragon, it will become just that.
Nicholas Tatsis ’11 is a government concentrator in Winthrop House.