View Full Version : The myth of the rise of China

Sep 20, 2005, 03:48
Ross Terrill: The myth of the rise of China

September 19, 2005

CHINA'S rise is glamorous and generally welcome for Australia. Chinese civilisation is respected for its longevity, arts and ancient yet enduring philosophies. After China's troubles from the Opium War in the mid-19th century to the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, many Chinese and non-Chinese feel China finally deserves a place at the top table. "China's progress is good for China and good for the world," said John Howard in New York last week. Yet let's be clear-eyed about Beijing's varied goals and its chance of success.

China's gross domestic product increases by between 8 and 9 per cent (by Beijing's figures) each year. Recent foreign trade volume has been up 25 per cent a year. This economic growth has led to a quest for markets, enhanced capacity to import, military expansion, diplomatic clout, rising oil consumption (China has become the world's second-largest oil consumer), global involvement well beyond Asia and swelling national ambition.

China's armed forces are undergoing modernisation that brings substantial weapons imports from Russia, big money into information technology, more complex and lower-cost scenarios for taking Taiwan, and better co-ordination of the services to mount land, sea, air, space and electronic warfare all at once.

China's trade with Africa has tripled in the past five years to $US30billion ($39 billion). Last year saw large resources investment in South America. Increased Chinese fishing, investment and tourism in the South Pacific seeks not only to eject Taiwan but to secure a long-term position in this sub-region where Australia, so far, is big boy on theblock.

Some see China on the verge of taking over the world.

Amid speculation about how big the Chinese economy will be in 2020 or 2050 ("surpassing the US"), you seldom hear that the Japanese economy today is three times the size of China's. Japan is the biggest aid donor to South Pacific states but that, too, is overlooked in articles about China's largesse beneath the palm trees. In fact, it is completely unknown whether the Chinese economy will roar on to eclipse the US.

Some in Europe, Australia and even within the US exaggerate China's rise as a stick with which to beat the Bush administration. Any "rise" with the potential to take George Bush down a peg or two should be maximised, say those for whom the US would not be first choice as sole superpower. This is risky. Whether China's rise will be a solution to all the problems thrown up by American evils remains to be seen.

Beijing's foreign policy seeks to maximise stability at home and sustain China's impressive economic growth. A third goal is to maintain a peaceful environment in China's complicated geographic situation (the People's Republic has 14 abutting neighbours). So far so good.

Beijing also has two more distant goals. To replace the US as the chief influence in East Asia; hence Chinese hints to Australia that Canberra would be better off looking only to Asia and not across the Pacific. Also, Beijing wants to "regain" territories it feels rightfully belong within the PRC: Taiwan; a large number of islands east and south of China; portions of Russia's far east.

Reaching these foreign policy goals depends, I believe, on the future ofthe Chinese political system and on how other powers react to China's ambitions.

At home, a middle-class push for property rights, rural discontent, use of the internet, 150 million wanderers hovering between village and city, a suddenly ageing population bringing financial and social strains, all dramatise some contradictions of "market Leninism". Travelling one road in economics and another in politics makes it difficult to arrive at a setdestination.

China may gain lasting prosperity. China may retain its Leninist party-state. But both will not occur; either the economic or the political logic will soon gain the upper hand.

The successful rise of a new hegemon entails strong will on the part of a rising power, a capacity to fulfil the functions of a No.1 and, crucially, the opportunity in terms of how other affected powers react to the new pretender.

Washington is extremely unlikely to allow China any opportunity to become the new world hegemon. The US has cards to play. It can point to Japan's new assertiveness and India's weight. It is by no means a given that Beijing will push the envelope in East Asia soon, but should it do so, Washington would also turn to Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam and otherpartners in drawing lines not to be crossed.

As for a century, American interests will continue to be served by keeping China and Japan in balance, not by seeing China - or Japan - forge ahead of all others. A tacit security system has existed in East Asia for decades, of which ANZUS is a part. For this US-led system to be replaced by China's leadership would be a leap into the unknown, hardly welcome to Washington.

Nor to Canberra and several other key Asia-Pacific capitals. The mood in Japan towards China has chilled, and Junichiro Koizumi's re-election will accelerate the change.

A Japan that saw China eclipse the US, its principal ally whose primacy in East Asia explains six decades of Japanese restraint, would surely challenge China. Once again as for six decades from 1894, China and Japan would vie, and possibly fight, over the region.

Australia's policy on China should be a blend of full engagement together with helping preserve an equilibrium in East Asia that discourages Beijing from expansionism. I see no contradiction between these twin stances. There are two Chinas, after all: the command economy that sags and the private economy that soars; the Communist Party that scratches for a raison d'etre and the hundreds of millions, unleashed as individuals, who seek a better life. Being wary of authoritarian China yet engaging with emerging China is a dualism we can and should live with.

There is no need for Australia to slavishly follow the US policy on China. Our interests can vary. Australia is China's regional neighbour; the US is the global jack-of-all-trades far across the Pacific. But Australia's policy should not be based on an abstract impulse to be "independent", much less on a recent ALP leader's childish desire to ditch the American alliance as "the last manifestation of the White Australia mentality". Australia's China policy should follow its interests, in economics, national security and values. Bush and Howard are actually quite close on China, except that pushing democracy around the world is less Howard's cup of tea than Bush's.

I have called China ambitious. Is China not a rather conservative power? The two have a yin-yang relation. The expansionist claims of Beijing are transparent and unique among today's powers. But the Beijing regime, while a dictatorship, is a rational dictatorship. It can count the numbers. It is often patient in fulfilling its goals.

This major power seems to know it has major problems. If faced with a countervailing equilibrium it will probably act prudently. It surely realises that others - US, Japan, Russia, India - have a variety of reasons for denying China the opportunity to be a 21st century Middle Kingdom. In Beijing and Shanghai and Xian, I find less talk of China being near to eclipsing the US than I find at Harvard and the Australian National University. China may not be the new colossus it seems to either its enemies or its distant worshippers.

Ross Terrill is associate in research at Harvard University's Fairbank Centre and author of Mao: A Biography, Madame Mao, China in our Time and, most recently, The New Chinese Empire (University of NSW Press, 2003). On Wednesday, he delivers a public lecture "What Does China Want and Will It Get It?" at Sidney Myer Asia Centre, University of Melbourne. For details call Asialink, (03) 8344 4800