Big Red Checkbook | The Nation


Big Red Checkbook

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Economic influence is not even the half of it. Nearly three millennia of fearing the outside world, which stretched from the Great Wall to the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, have abruptly ended. Multilateralism is the new watchword for China's 4,000 diplomats, half of whom are younger than 35, according to a 2005 study. China has become the great joiner--facilitating the six-party talks over the North Korean nuclear crisis, convening the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Central Asia, even becoming an observer in the Organization of American States. It has created its own version of the Peace Corps that sends Chinese youth to developing countries. With the Beijing Olympics set for next year, China is doing a credible imitation of a good sport.

About the Author

John Feffer
John Feffer, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, is the author of North Korea...

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Kurlantzick seems taken aback at times that China's advances are built on great-power realism rather than fortune-cookie idealism. Beijing wants stability in its immediate environs and raw materials from Africa and Latin America to fuel its growth. It will break strikes, support the Mugabes and Karimovs of the world and ignore environmental standards to achieve these goals. When Communist China first opened to the capitalist West in the early 1970s, the Chinese leaders imprinted on Henry Kissinger, the first Western mug they saw up close. Like love-blind chicks, Mao's heirs have been following Kissingerian realpolitik ever since.

And yet China is not a chess player making zero-sum calculations, particularly in its relations with Washington. In 2004 Colin Powell aptly described US-Chinese relations in the George W. Bush era as the best in thirty years. China and the United States are cooperating on containing North Korea, countering terrorists in Asia and expanding the global economy. Naturally, disagreements have arisen over intervention in Darfur and US military bases in Central Asia. The United States has been haranguing China to float its currency to raise the price of Chinese exports (and theoretically reduce Washington's massive trade deficit with Beijing). But spats are to be expected in any marriage, especially one of convenience. The relationship is sustained in part because of mutual economic interest. China is propping up the US economy with its purchase of Treasury bonds, and American consumers keep the Chinese economy humming with super-sized purchases of everything from cheap toys to high-end electronics.

When it comes to US-China relations, Washington's mandarin class is worried less about soft-power competition at the margins than military confrontation over Taiwan, head-to-head economic competition and the potential of China to implode politically. To achieve credibility in a Washington devoted to "congagement"--containing China militarily and engaging it economically--most China watchers try to stake out the middle ground between panda-hugging and China-bashing. Against the huggers they assert that China is indeed a potential military threat; against the bashers they qualify China as only a selective menace.

The issue of greatest controversy is China's increased military spending. Beijing argues that it is spending around $36 billion a year; some US estimates run double or even triple that amount. However you slice it, China wants a world-class army to match its world-class economy. But with its air and sea power still limited, China has an anemic ability to project force over distance. A mere twenty long-range nuclear missiles serve as a very slender deterrent force. And while the bean counters scrutinize China's arms purchases, the annual US military budget has sailed past $500 billion (not including the Iraq and Afghanistan supplemental spending). To match the United States, China would have to play Soviet-style catch-up, and it knows the endpoint of that strategy.

It's not China's arsenal but its military strategy that has undergone the more telling transformation, and here Bates Gill, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, offers some useful insights. "China is unlikely to seek aggressive territorial gains into areas of core American strategic interest, such as the heart of Europe, or seek to extend imperial dominion across vast areas of Pacific Asia, or attack American possessions to meet those aims," he writes in his dry but important new book Rising Star. "Beijing does not seek to spread Communist ideals, establish global networks of ideological client states, or foment revolution in the developing world." China has quietly become a major advocate of arms control, even undertaking several important unilateral nonproliferation initiatives, such as pledging to the United States to cut its nuclear ties to Iran. Its share of global arms exports fell from around 4 percent in the early 1990s to less than 2 percent between 2000 and 2004. It has placed a qualitative cap on its own nuclear modernization program and thrown open its military exercises to foreign observers from the United States, Europe, Asia and Africa.

At the same time, China has gradually altered what had previously been a strident position on sovereignty. Beijing still asserts the principles of noninterference and peaceful coexistence, repackaged as its "new security concept," particularly in the face of potential military interventions in Sudan, Iran and elsewhere. Beyond the rhetoric, however, Beijing has clearly compromised its previously literal understanding of sovereignty. Witness its power-sharing arrangement with Hong Kong and its support of US intervention in Afghanistan. It currently provides "more civilian police, military observers, and troops to UN peacekeeping operations than any of the other permanent five members of the UN Security Council--and more than any NATO country," Gill writes. Sovereignty in today's globalizing world is the refuge of the weak and the privilege of the strong. China, caught somewhere between the two poles, has taken a pragmatically flexible approach.

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