Giant Awakes: The Chinese Challenge to East Asia

By Segal, Gerald | Harvard International Review, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Giant Awakes: The Chinese Challenge to East Asia


Segal, Gerald, Harvard International Review


THE RISE OF CHINA UNDENIABLY poses a problem for East Asian security. Those who suggest that there is not a problem are either strategically myopic or have prematurely capitulated to the notion of a Sinified East Asia. The real question is how to define the nature and extent of the Chinese challenge. Although China is often compared to the Soviet Union, a more appropriate comparison might be to Japan or Germany in the 1930s. China is undergoing far-reaching and destabilizing social and economic reform, while its authoritarian leadership is losing its ability to control China's rapidly changing social, economic and political system. Meanwhile, China is spending increasing amounts (in absolute terms) on its armed forces. Most importantly, China, like 1930s Germany or Japan, is a non-status quo, increasingly nationalistic power that seeks to change its frontiers and to reorder the international system. These trends do not necessarily prove that China is a threat. But it is instructive that these are precisely the characteristic of great powers in the past century that have posed the biggest challenge to their neighbors and to international order.

If these fundamental features of China are not cause enough for concern, consider China's past and present weight. For centuries China was the world's greatest civilization. It is still the world's longest lasting empire. Until 1850 it was the world's largest economy. In short, there is nothing extraordinary about the current rise of China, for in fact it is the re-rise of China. As a result, there is nothing especially odd about the people who live close to China deciding that when China is strong, they must accommodate rather than confront their giant neighbor.

During the past 150 years East Asians had grown used to a weaker and divided China. While China was tearing itself apart, other East Asian nations achieved remarkable economic success. Now that China too is on the rise, East Asians have to decide if they wish to allow China to regain its suzerain status in the region, or whether they wish to constrain Chinese behavior. If China is to be constrained, then it will have to be while it is still vulnerable to being tied into the international system.

Before the notion of "constrainment" is misread as "containment," it should be noted that China, as has already been suggested, is not very much like the Soviet Union during the Cold War. China's military is not poised to thrust through the Asian equivalent of the German plains. China is far more interdependent in the global market economy than the USSR ever was, and it is becoming even more so. China has abandoned its support for revolutionary Communist movements in East Asia, and its ruling Communist Party has abandoned Marxism-Leninism in all but name. But accepting that China is not to be contained like the Soviet Union should not mean abandoning all notion of constraining China's international behavior. It is important to avoid overlearning the lessons of the Cold War and forgetting the lessons of earlier struggles against unstable and unsatisfied great powers.

Territorial Ambitions

China has territorial disputes with most of its neighbors and has refused to forswear the use of force to regain lost land. While its disputes with India are not a problem at the moment, this is only because India has essentially recognized the current lines of control, and China claims no Indian land beyond what it now holds. China and Russia have made some progress in delineating frontiers, and China has apparently abandoned its wider claims for territory seized by Czarist forces. Interestingly, Russia is the only resident power in East Asia with military power superior to that of China. China also claims islands currently held by South Korea and Japan but has put these issues aside while it seeks the economic benefits of good relations with these two countries.

The current focus of Chinese territorial ambition in further south. …

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