Montreal, October 15, 2008 • No 260




Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.




by Bradley Doucet

          In addition to concerns about the damage the Chinese are doing to their natural environment and worries about the Chinese government’s timid progress toward liberal democracy, fears abound regarding China’s increasing military might and its evolving role in the international community. The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) claims the country is “peacefully rising,” but its spectacular economic growth has been more than matched of late by increases in government military expenditures.


          This understandably makes the leaders and citizens of neighbouring countries a little nervous. Around the globe, concern is also expressed regarding the Chinese government’s support for brutal regimes in Africa. And the direst plausible scenario on the table is the spectre of open warfare between America and China, two major powers armed with nuclear weapons, which could conceivably erupt over tensions in the Taiwan Straight. Is this the end of the world as we know it?

Peacefully Rising

          There are certainly reasons to doubt the sincerity of the leaders of the CCP who claim purely peaceful intentions—many billions of dollars worth of reasons. According to June Teufel Dreyer, Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami (Florida) and the author of China’s Political System: Modernization and Tradition, writing in the Fall 2007 issue of the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s journal Orbis, “Beginning in 1989, Chinese military budgets have risen by double-digit amounts every year except 2003. In that year, the increase was ‘only’ 9.6 percent.” China’s defence budget is now “second only to the United States’, although far behind it.”

          More money buys more soldiers, but it also buys more and better training for those soldiers—and perhaps most importantly, more modern equipment for them to use. In the ten years between 1997 and 2006, the Chinese military quadrupled its spending on equipment, from $3 to $12 billion, acquiring “new surface combatants and submarines; modern fighter jets; air-to-air refueling aircraft; satellites; unmanned aerial vehicles; and a variety of ballistic, cruise, and tactical missile systems.” Most notoriously, it successfully tested, in January 2007, a medium-range ballistic missile, using it to destroy a weather satellite in what was widely interpreted as a display of military prowess.

          With no foreign power showing any interest in invading the country, why would China’s rulers spend so much money on expanding their military capabilities? The likelihood that they want to pick a fight directly with the United States is not great. More plausible is the notion that they want to reassert their sovereignty over Taiwan, with force if necessary, and have enough power at their disposal to dissuade the Americans from coming to the island’s rescue. But there is certainly a chance that they might miscalculate their powers of dissuasion, leading to open confrontation with the United States. On the other hand, if successful in seizing Taiwan, some fear their regional ambitions might expand. Dreyer quotes Japan’s Nakagawa Shoichi, policy chief of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s governing coalition, who stated publically in February 2007, “If Taiwan is placed under [China’s] complete influence, Japan could be next.”

Dealing with Dictators

          Fears of regional hegemony or war with America in the not-so-distant future go hand in hand with concerns over Chinese behaviour in Africa right now. On the one hand, the Chinese are investing heavily on the continent, which people like Columbia University development economist Jeffrey Sachs are quick to praise. On the other hand, the Chinese government is helping to prop up brutal, despotic regimes. Among its transgressions, according to Dreyer, are selling airplanes to Zimbabwe and helicopter gunships to Sudan.

          But the CCP’s attitude toward despots seems to be undergoing a change for the better. In the January/February 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs, Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt and Andrew Small write that “over the last two years, Beijing has been quietly overhauling its policies toward pariah states. It strongly denounced North Korea’s nuclear test in October 2006 and took the lead, with the United States, in drafting a sweeping United Nations sanctions resolution against Pyongyang,” actions which seem to be bearing fruit as the US recently removed North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. The authors continue, “Over the past year, [Beijing] has voted to impose and then tighten sanctions on Iran, it has supported the deployment of a United Nations-African Union (UN-AU) force in Darfur, and it has condemned a brutal government crackdown in Burma.”

"The Chinese have tasted the fruits of global capitalism, and they simply have too much to lose to want to overturn the liberal world order—yet another proof, if we needed one, that free trade promotes peace."

          The Chinese government has taken these albeit limited steps because it increasingly cares about what the rest of the world thinks, and is putting “great effort into demonstrating that it is a responsible power.” Even when there is less outrage from the rest of the world, there is another reason for China’s leaders to clean up their act: the bottom line. They are learning that dealing with repressive kleptocrats is a fickle business. This is why Beijing has “recently scaled back its support for [Robert] Mugabe’s government, even in the absence of strong international pressure to do so.” Inflation in Zimbabwe tops 8,000 percent, and “Chinese deals with the Zimbabwean government over power stations, railways, and coal mining are ‘a headache.’ Multibillion-dollar projects announced with great fanfare have foundered. Harare has defaulted on Chinese loans.”

Free Trade Promotes Peace

          On North Korea, Iran, Sudan, Burma, and Zimbabwe, the CCP is acting these days a little bit less like an enabler and a little bit more like the “responsible power” it seems to want to become. Is this a sign that we should calm our fears about China’s growing military might and its potential future conflicts with its neighbours and with America?

          G. John Ikenberry, Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, also writing in the January/February 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs, sees other, more general reasons for hope: “The rise of China does not have to trigger a wrenching hegemonic transition. The U.S.-Chinese power transition can be very different from those of the past because China faces an international order that is fundamentally different from those that past rising states confronted.”

          Ikenberry identifies three features of the Western order that make it “hard to overturn and easy to join,” and are therefore responsible for its success and longevity: 1) the “coalition-based character of its leadership,” meaning that it is led not just by the United States, but by a whole group of advanced liberal democracies; 2) its historically unusual “open and rule-based” nature; and 3) its “market openness, creating conditions for rising states to advance their expanding economic and political goals within it.” It is this last feature that is most reassuring, and indeed, as the author goes on to point out, “China has already discovered the massive economic returns that are possible by operating within this open-market system.”

          Ikenberry elaborates:

          The incentives these features create for China to integrate into the liberal international order are reinforced by the changed nature of the international economic environment—especially the new interdependence driven by technology. The most farsighted Chinese leaders understand that globalization has changed the game and that China accordingly needs strong, prosperous partners around the world. From the United States’ perspective, a healthy Chinese economy is vital to the United States and the rest of the world. Technology and the global economic revolution have created a logic of economic relations that is different from the past—making the political and institutional logic of the current order all the more powerful.

          The persuasive force of Mutually Assured Destruction also reassures Ikenberry (“In the age of nuclear deterrence, great-power war is, thankfully, no longer a mechanism of historical change.”), and he may be right about that, but the real strength of his argument rests upon the interconnectedness brought about by globalization. The Chinese have tasted the fruits of global capitalism, and they simply have too much to lose to want to overturn the liberal world order—yet another proof, if we needed one, that free trade promotes peace.

The Real Danger

          Ikenberry does caution that America should do everything in its power to bolster the various multilateral institutions that make up the current world order instead of flouting them, as it has lately been wont to do. I’m not sure how convinced I am that all of these kinds of institutions deserve such support—some of them just seem like world government wannabes—but sure, it would be great if the WTO, for instance, could conclude the (once again stalled) Doha Round of trade talks.

          The current American financial crisis, spawned by loose money and short-sighted (are there any other kind?) regulations, is yet another sign that we in the West seem to be, in fits and starts, abandoning the system that facilitated our tremendous wealth increases. Paul Tustain, director of BullionVault, wrote on October 9, 2008, “Did you notice? While the United States, Britain, the Netherlands and Australia were banning short selling on their local stock markets, the Chinese were relaxing restrictions on it. This is enormously telling. Asians—suppressed by the command economy for decades—aspire to a world of free enterprise. Unlike us they are now prepared to accept the costly consequences of those repeated errors which the free enterprise system allows people to make.”

          War is always a possibility, but if we have anything to fear, it is not so much that the Chinese will violently overthrow the liberal world order, pushing us into the gutter; it is that we will jump into the gutter of our own accord while they peacefully outcompete us, trouncing us at what we used to like to consider our own game. Writes Tustain, “When we finally wake up under the yoke of our new, improved and over-sized government regulators, we will have lost the privilege of benefiting from free and highly profitable financial centers. It’s the turn of Hong Kong, Mumbai, Shanghai, and Singapore.”

          So maybe it is the end of the world as we know it, but we’ll have only ourselves to blame if it is. It doesn’t have to end up that way, of course. If we embraced capitalism with half as much enthusiasm as the Chinese are beginning to do, the whole world could continue growing wealthier and more peaceful. It is something to ponder what humanity will be able to accomplish when a billion Chinese are all freed from the existential worries of food and shelter. But we will have to rediscover some of the truths we are busily forgetting if we are fully to partake in this promising future. Judging from our intemperate responses to the current financial crisis, things will probably have to get worse over here before they get better.