Ideas | On the rise and rise of China: threat, challenge, opportunity?

In an exclusive essay, David J. Franco examines the rise of China on the world stage.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Tuesday, April 10, 2012 18:37 - 2 Comments


Chinese President Hu and US President Barack Obama during Hu’s January 2011 state visit to the US (Photo: AP)

Since China adopted the open-door policy under Deng Xiaoping in 1978 the country has grown to become the world’s second largest economy after the US. It is also the sixth power in military terms. For many years Western policymakers and scholars, as well as media pundits and commentators, especially in the US, have engaged in a heated debate on whether the rise of China represents a threat or an opportunity for the current international order. In recent times, the “threat-talk” has regained momentum.

In this essay I analyse the debate and present an argument in two phases: first, I deconstruct the concept of “international order” and provide two interpretations of it –this is important because much of the answer to the debate depends on what is understood by “international order”. Hence, from a contemporary Westphalian perspective I define “international order” as a society of states whose principal goals are the preservation of the states system. Second, by focusing on “agency” rather than “structure” I define the current “international order” as a Western and in particular US-led neo-liberal hegemonic project.

Further, with those two definitions in mind I move on to make the following two-fold argument: on the one hand, from a contemporary Westphalian outlook I argue that China does not represent a threat; on the other hand, from a standpoint centred on “agency” I argue that China represents both a challenge and an opportunity for the US and that she represents more of an opportunity than a challenge for the developing world. Discourses and ideas are very powerful and so to abuse the rhetoric of a Chinese threat risks turning the discourse into a self-fulfilling prophecy. In contrast, a discourse framed in a more positive tone may foster better results for all parties.

The Chinese economy has grown to unprecedented levels and in 2010 China surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy after the US. Latest studies point that by the end of this decade China will surpass the US as the world’s strongest economy. Further, the Asian giant holds the largest foreign currency reserves in US dollars. Global economic rebalancing from developed to developing nations is taking place at unprecedented pace and China is preparing to move from major exporter of low-value added manufactured goods towards higher-end production and domestic consumption. That said China also suffers from huge internal deficiencies, growing inequalities, increasing demands for political opening, and a centralised economy ill-prepared to face more advanced stages of economic development. Experts also point to an emerging real estate bubble threatening to destabilise Chinese economy if not tackled properly. In 2012 China will undergo crucial changes in the communist party that will see a new generation of princelings rise to power –this may impact on the country’s trajectory and yet not many seem to be paying attention to this.

Further, China is rapidly increasing her military power and some commentators point to an emergent arms race in Asia. However, despite recent military acquisitions of hard material, China remains very weak in relative terms (she remains a dwarf compared to the US). Indeed, according to experts most of her military spending goes to so called soft, internal, and cyber security, as well as building a naval force capable of securing commercial maritime routes and so called sovereign interests in the immediate neighbourhood. China is therefore adding up muscle to her military but the US remains and will remain for years to come the only nation capable of projecting military power in all continents. China may be shaking a little the regional strategic balance of power but overall the situation is and will continue to be fairly stable.

The key however is not so much the power that China is accumulating but her intentions and how these are interpreted by neighbours and competitors alike. This lies at the heart of the “containment versus engagement” debate which seeks to address the following questions: is China a threat or an opportunity for the current international order? Should she be engaged or should she be contained? Does China play by the rules of the current international order or does she sideline those rules to remake the entire order in her image? Is China prompting a change within the current international order or is she fostering a change of international order? These questions have many layers and carry enormous normative implications. Of the two sides of the debate, first we find realist scholars, in the broad sense, who claim that China will not rise peacefully and that her rapid growth is bound to trigger a zero-sum game in which neighbouring countries will ultimately balance with the US. Accordingly, the US should seek to contain China much in the way that it contained the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Others are more prudent and note that if a contest for predominance breaks out in Southeast Asia, it is not clear whether we would see a balancing behaviour of the sort described (rather, prescribed) by some realists, or whether on the other hand East Asian countries would accept a Chinese-dominated regional hierarchy.

In contrast, writing from a more liberal standpoint we find scholars like John Ikenberry who claim that China’s rise ‘does not have to trigger a wrenching hegemonic transition’. This is due to the peculiarities of the current international order and the fact that China’s growth has been made possible precisely because she entered the game as an insider playing by the rules. In this regard, Thomas Moore has noted that despite having become an ‘economic juggernaut’ China is nonetheless set to remain a ‘networked dragon’ because ‘the most distinctive feature of its participation in the world economy is how rapidly and deeply it has become incorporated into global commodity chains’. Further, China specialist David Shambaugh argues that in spite of there being indicators of Sino-American divergence on a number of regional issues, not all great power interactions ‘are intrinsically zero-sum Hobbesian struggles’ but ‘complex mixtures of interdependence, cooperation amid competition, and structural adjustments’.

Hence, debates over the rise of China are highly polarised. But these debates are problematic on at least one count. They engage the issue from the reductionist presumption that we must at all times make a choice and pick one side or another of the argument. Any nation can be at once or at different times a threat, a challenge, and an opportunity but much of it depends on what is understood by international order. Therefore, the first we need to ask when we look into this issue is whatinternational order China may or may not be threatening, for it is the “what” that may ultimately determine the “who” and the “how”. This is not an easy task, for the expression “international order” belongs to a series of ambiguous concepts that carry subjective connotations susceptible of change. That said, here I provide two interpretations of the current international order.

From a broader, contemporary Westphalian outlook the current order is one where the nation-state continues to play a crucial role in international relations including the control of much of the world’s most powerful means of violence. Furthermore it is also an order where predominantly nation-states cooperate through multilateralism and institutional interaction and where states are caught in global commodity chains thus increasing their interdependence and mutual vulnerability. Ours could therefore be defined as an interpolar era in which state competition interacts with cooperation through key institutions or practices towards the preservation of common goals –which are those originated at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and codified in the United Nations Charter. Inter alia,these principal common goals are the preservation of the states system and the maintenance of external sovereignty of individual states. A second interpretation of the current “international order” would be centred on “agency” rather than “structure”. Here there should be little doubt that the current international order is Western and, since WWII, US orchestrated and dominated. This is as much a normative as an empirical statement: here I take the position that the US has led, and continues to lead, albeit with relative decline, a hegemonic project since at least the end of WWII when the rules of the game were established on a global scale. What these rules exactly are is beyond the scope of this article however suffice to say, in very broad terms, that the current project pursues the universalisation of a market based economic and socio-political system made in the image of the US (paradoxically, this has had the effect at times of undermining state sovereignty).

So, with those two interpretations in mind, is China a threat, an opportunity, or a challenge? The answer could not be simpler. From a contemporary Westphalian standpoint China is not a threat. China is accumulating power and adding muscle to her military. There is no denying that. However, as seen above this is done in the context of a rapid economic growth: China needs to protect her maritime routes and her neighbouring and internal security and stability. China’s military rationale continues to be based upon Mao Zedong’s understanding of asymmetric power: China continues to see herself as a developing nation, poor in comparative terms, and weaker in traditional military terms. That is why much of China’s military spending goes to soft, cyber, and internal security, and not to nuclear and major conventional weaponry (it certainly goes to that too, but not in any meaningful comparative form with the US). China seeks national interests in her neighbourhood, in particular in the South China Sea where sovereignty over a large number of islands is disputed with neighbouring countries like the Philippines or Malaysia. There is also the issue over Taiwan and China’s “special relationship” with North Korea. That said China has no imperial desire to commence militaristic adventures in the region or abroad. Why? Because she has too much to lose given that she started the game as an insider caught in global commodity chains and a high level of interdependence and inter-vulnerability.

China depends on Asia and the world, as much as Asia and the world depend on China. Further, she is directly tied to the US and therefore has no interest in a direct confrontation with her major competitor. This is not to say however that China does not pose a challenge and that she will not try to cash in as much as she can from the current situation. If she does pose a challenge, however, it is not in the context of a contemporary Westphalian understanding of international order but in the context of a US-led hegemonic project. As noted above, recent studies predict that by the end of this decade China will surpass the US as the world’s number one economy. As she continues to grow, China will most likely want to shape global institutions and policies on a wide number of issues. She will however need to do that with the help of the US, for China alone will not be able to lead the world. Hence, Asia and the world will undergo some structural adjustments but whether China will reshape the whole global order in her image is very unlikely. If anything, she may foster changes within the system. The US faces a big challenge: it is in relative decline, overstretched on a number of issues, and still suffering the shock waves resulting from the 2008 financial meltdown and subsequent economic crisis. In contrast, Chinese soft power, trade, and projection are on the ascent in almost all continents.

But just as China poses a challenge, she also represents an opportunity for the US and especially for the rest of the developing world. Following a market logic, China represents competition. And competition tends to lead to more investment, better goods and services, and, in principle, economic rebalancing. More Chinese money circulating around means more investment and more development –over the past years China’s banks have lent more money to the developing world than the World Bank (take Africa, Sri Lanka, or Afghanistan for example where the Chinese are investing heavily on infrastructure). Furthermore, Chinese competition may also impact on Western double standards prompting a positive review of some of their existing policies. Indeed, the West and the US love to preach about human rights and most of IMF and World Bank loan programmes come with condition packages concerning human rights and democratic development. Yet that did not stop the West from supporting and making business with Mubarak’s Egypt or Saudi Arabia, or from selling arms to non-democratic countries. The West and the US need to rethink their policies and double standards as China is bringing their cynicism to the fore.

Accordingly, China does not pose a threat to the current system of states. She does, however, pose both a challenge and an opportunity for the US-led hegemonic project and she poses more of an opportunity than a challenge for the developing world. And yet the “threat-talk” pervades, especially in the US where, in addition to realists, neoconservatives are once again increasingly pointing to China in a seemingly never-ending attempt to (re)produce an alleged lost national essence by (re)constructing an external threatening and barbarous “other”. This is not new, for orientalist approaches of this sort have been around for centuries in Western and especially US culture: in the post-Soviet era this pervasive “othering” tendency has shifted at times to so called rogue nations –Iraq, Libya, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela– and at other times to collective groups –political Islam and Islamist Fundamentalism. However, none of these actors seem to have truly occupied the space left by the Soviet Union in the Western mind.

As mentioned above there are several areas where the US and China diverge but these should not be seen as areas where accommodation is not possible. Westerners may not like China’s domestic politics, or her position vis-à-vis Taiwan or Tibet, or her veto in the Syrian case. However, moral questions cannot divert the attention from the fact that China has entered the big game as a team-player, not as a cheater. Concerns regarding a Beijing Consensus that rivals Washington’s World Bank and IMF development policies should not be seen as a threat but as competition in conformity with the rules that the US and its allies created and developed after WWII.

Surely developing regions, war-torn and post-conflict societies welcome Chinese money. Accordingly, any Western criticism of China’s domestic politics and rivalling development policies should be voiced as such and not channelled through theories of non-peaceful rise or “enemy image” talk. This is not to say that Sino-American relations will remain stable for decades to come or that the challenges posed by China will be always managed smoothly. Surely all power shifts and structural adjustments pose serious challenges but the argument that China represents a threat is essentially reductionist and ill-conceived. It is also dangerous, for security and threats are not objective conditions but social constructs and so how China is portrayed will deeply impact on how events unfold.

In conclusion, if threat discourses continue to increase and become dominant not only in intellectual and policymaking circles but in popular media and press, the idea of a Chinese threat could well become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In contrast, investing in a discourse framed in a more positive tone may generate significant returns for all parties.

David J. Franco

David J. Franco is a London-based researcher currently working on a number of projects within the Disarmament and Globalisation programme at the SOAS Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy. He is also Editor and Columnist at InPEC, an independent online magazine on international politics, energy, and culture founded in 2011.


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Apr 12, 2012 17:03

Hmm, interesting piece. I guess the majority of the world is interested to see if China can address the current imbalance in the global order, which is overwhelmingly in favour of NATO states. The power of China has prevent NATO intervention in Syria too, so they can still have an impact on military affairs, despite their lack of military infrastructure.

I think they are also developing their own internal markets too, significantly, as markets in the US degenerate due to all the made-up money people were spending evaporating….

Nov 28, 2012 20:38

i thoroughly enjoyed reading this piece and although i live outside of china or the USA, it thoroughly interested me to read all about china’s relationship with the USA. Thankyou very much ^.^

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