James Traub over at Foreign Policy has an interesting article about how the United States should deal with China. While acknowledging that China is rapidly becoming powerful, Traub downplays any aggressive intent on China’s part, while also discounting any muscular, American response to China. The only really good thing I can say about the article is that it at least is an acknowledgment that China has to be dealt with in some fashion…for too long we’ve been blinded by an idea that all China wishes to do is make money, or that they were in some manner a strategic partner of the United States. But I do believe that Traub is not quite understanding what the Chinese government will do.
Tyrants cannot hold still – they must continually advance, or they will fall. In Churchill’s trenchant phrase, they ride to and fro on the backs of tigers, and the tigers are getting hungry. The tyrants of China made a de-facto deal with the Chinese people post-1989: let us be in power, and we’ll let you get rich. This has, in fact, worked out to only a select few getting rich, mostly by ripping off the broad mass of the Chinese people…but the growing prosperity has kept dissent down in the cities while the army and security forces have proven capable of keeping dissent down in the countryside (though there are plenty of tales of riot and rebellion in the backwaters of China). The problem for China is that they have advanced about as far as they can under their current system. They can advance further – but only by bringing rural China in to the economic mainstream, and by freeing up the political system so that corrupt (which eats like a cancer at the Chinese economy) can be fought. Neither course of action appeals to China’s Ruling Class.
But they can’t stand still – they can’t do what is necessary to make the next step forward economically, but they also can’t just let things stagnate…what is already bound to be a Chinese recession will become a very hard landing unless China changes internally…or finds some external means of deflecting attention. The recently aggressive behavior of China in foreign affairs is not a reflection of China’s actual might – they don’t have that sort of power as of yet. Won’t have it, really, for 20-30 years, if ever (China’s coming demographic decline may rob China of the sinews of power just when the infrastructure if finally there). They are blustering…hoping to grab what they can, and preparing for a foreign confrontation which will (in the Ruling Class’ view, at least) cement the loyalty of the Chinese people and serve as the excuse for the coming bad economic times.
The bottom line for us is to get prepared for this – by forging a rock-solid alliance with India, making a defense arrangement with Vietnam, and re-founding our alliances with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines. It is a certainty that China will try something – what it will be remains to be seen. I suspect a move against Taiwan in conjunction with a Chinese-inspired, North Korean attack on South Korea and/or Japan (ie, draw off American power to northeast Asia while China moves in the South China Sea…we can’t be everywhere at once, and Taiwan for most Americans would be a doubtful proposition for a full scale war…it shouldn’t be, but it would be). But as we can’t know for certain, better to be prepared for all eventualities…and if this takes some increases in naval and aerial strength, then we’re going to have to bite the bullet and do it (as an aside, the really good thing about alliances and agreements with India and Vietnam is they provide ample land power without the United States having to deploy millions of troops).
The most important first step is to recognize that China is an enemy State…that we must not have close economic and military relationships with the Chinese. That we must inform them that any attempt to change the status quo in Asia and the Pacific will be met with a forceful American response.