Relating to China

By Chan, Steve | World Affairs, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Relating to China


Chan, Steve, World Affairs


PROBLEMATIC APPROACHES VERSUS FEASIBLE EMPHASES

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF CHINA

What merits China as an object of attention as one seeks to address the global security environment at the beginning of the twenty-first century? Sheer physical size--in demographic and spatial terms--does not seem in itself a unique and sufficient criterion, as others such as Egypt, Indonesia, Brazil, and India would also qualify in their respective regional contexts. Economic expansion at a rate that would double the GNP roughly every seven years surely is another consideration, although several of Beijing's neighbors also could lay claim to this rather remarkable feat. Moreover, China will remain a relatively poor country in per capita terms in the foreseeable future. A large military establishment--equipped with a nuclear arsenal and increasing access to advanced technologies for sophisticated weapons systems--would seem to offer yet another relevant factor. But still, force projection is not a current reality for the People's Liberation Army, which lacks the capability to carry out a sustained campaign away from its home base. Nor has China shown any marked interest for active intervention abroad when its core security values were not at stake (Whiting 1975). In terms of its military reach and political agenda, China has been, and is likely to remain in the early 2000s, a regional actor rather than a global power.

To a significant extent, China's claim to attention reflects less its current capabilities than the gathering momentum that may eventually carry it to new heights. This possible transformation is, of course, a matter of serious concern in some foreign quarters as it implies an important shift in relative national assets, measured in terms of the standard stocks of hard power assets. Coinciding with the rise--or rather, the reemergence--of other powers such as Germany and Japan, China's arrival "at the table" perhaps signifies a structural transformation from the bipolarity of the cold war era to a multipolar system as we enter the twenty-first century.

Yet somehow, these rationales do not quite explain the fascination with China--or, to put it more bluntly, preoccupation with the China problem. China is an object of attention not only because of its huge size, ancient legacy, or current or projected relative national power. China is a source of concern in the West, especially the United States, because it is the first non-Western power since Japan that is demanding status recognition, and like Japan prior to World War II, it has shown itself not especially malleable to external efforts to influence its domestic arrangements or political agenda.

The importance of China has to do with perceptions, especially those regarding the potential that Beijing will become an example, source, or model that contradicts Western liberalism as the reigning paradigm. In an era of supposed universalizing cosmopolitanism, China demonstrates the potency and persistence of nationalism, and embodies an alternative to Western and especially U.S. conceptions of democracy and capitalism. China is a reminder that history is not close to an end (Fukuyama 1992), and in that sense it issues a cultural, political, and if one will, ideological challenge to those who entertain especially expansive and dialectic visions of world order.

Compared to its neighbors that practice various forms of "soft authoritarianism" but that are more bashful about offending American sensibilities on human rights, China is less shy about telling Washington to mind its own business. It is also far more resistant to perceived assaults on its sovereignty and attempts to interfere in its domestic affairs. The demise of the Soviet brand of communism in Eastern and Central Europe leaves the Chinese model--one that pursues economic dynamism while maintaining authoritarian control and, indeed, one that insists that the latter is a prerequisite for the former--as one of the more visible departures from the "end of history. …

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