The history of status quo powers managing the rise of new competitors is not one marked by lots of success. Whether it was Byzantium with the Ottoman Turks, Austria and Prussia with revolutionary France, France with Prussia or Great Britain and Wilhelmine Germany/post-Meiji Japan, the effort of the established power to provide the emerging one with an avenue to a significant role in the world has usually resulted not in peace but rather in war.
The competition between Great Britain and Germany in the decades leading up to World War One is particularly instructive in this regard. There were no economic, strategic or even political reasons for these two powers to end up in war. Rather, it was the unconstrained egoism of the German government, the rising power, which caused it to directly and unnecessarily challenge core British security interests. Ultimately, war came because Austria Hungary and Germany wanted one.
This history does not provide a basis for much optimism when it comes to the future of U.S.-Chinese relations. In almost every way imaginable, the world has enabled and even welcomed the rise of modern China. No country has done more in this regard than the United States.
The result has not been an ever-closer union of interests. Rather, China appears to be growing ever-more contemptuous of the United States. Just prior to his official visit to the United States, China’s president, Hu Jintao, declared that the dollar-based international economic order was “passé.” At the same time, the Chinese military publicly unveiled its entrant in the fifth-generation fighter competition, the J-20. These events come in addition to that military’s investment in an anti-carrier ballistic missile.
The United States, indeed the entire world, has offered China a peaceful path towards a place as a great power. However, if a combination of overweening nationalism, hubris and egoism, China continues on a path of posing a direct and growing threat to U.S. vital national interests, this country must be willing to take the necessary actions to counter the Chinese military threat.
In many ways China’s position is much weaker than it appears at first glance. Its only ally in East Asia is North Korea. It is faced with a ring of states from Japan through Taiwan to Australia, Singapore and even India that are opposed, admittedly to varying degrees, to Chinese regional hegemony.
If China seeks to dominate the region it is going to have to exert its power, emerging from its current shell and project military force beyond its borders. China’s plan to build its own fleet of aircraft carriers is an indication that this is exactly what it intends to do. This will make it vulnerable to the air and naval power of the United States and its allies.
The United States can and must maintain the ability not only to counter the projection of Chinese military power but, if necessary, be able to take the conflict to the mainland. Proposed investments in a new strategic bomber, sea-based unmanned aerial systems, space launch capabilities and advanced missile defenses are the first steps in a new program to make aggression unattractive to future Chinese leaders. Along with continued investments in nuclear attack submarines, aircraft carriers and multi-mission surface combatants, these new programs can send the necessary message to Beijing that the path to the future must be a peaceful one.
If Beijing continues on its current path of seeking to pose a military challenge to the United States then Washington will have no recourse but to reconsider its economic ties with that country. Chinese efforts to use access to its markets as leverage in its commercial relations with Western companies are becoming extremely onerous. As the largest holder of our public debt, China’s military buildup is being paid for by U.S. interest payments. This cannot continue in the face of a more confrontational posture by Beijing.
The risk is of a self-reinforcing cycle in which Chinese military aggressiveness provokes an economic backlash by the United States that produces, in turn, domestic political upheavals in China that are met by a decision by that country’s government to act in an even more belligerent manner. A similar situation between Imperial Japan and the United States ended with the attack on Pearl Harbor.