The Aspirations of China

(Steven W. Mosher is President of the Population Research Institute, and author of Hegemon: China’s Plan to Dominate Asia and the World.)

Throughout the 70s and 80s, China untiringly accused the Soviet Union of having “hegemonic” ambitions. To counter “Soviet hegemony” it sought an alliance of convenience with the United States, an ideological foe which it viewed — and continues to view — as a power in decline.

This psuedo-alliance — never formalized — lasted from the early seventies to the late eighties, when it suddenly received three deathblows. The first and most serious was the sudden implosion of the Soviet Union, which robbed the psuedo-allies of a common foe and knocked the principal strategic prop out from under the U.S.-China relationship. The second was the Tiananmen Square demonstrations for democracy which, ending in a bloody debacle, highlighted for China’s leaders the dangers of uncritically exposing Chinese youth to the appeal of American democratic ideals. The third was America's virtually bloodless victory in the Gulf War, which underlined the unmatched global reach of the U.S. military, as well as its technological superiority over other countries.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Americans reacted with euphoria, and expected their “China card” to do the same. But the steely-eyed heirs of a 2,000-year tradition of hegemony had a far less sanguine view of the new world situation. To the surprise and consternation of many China hands, Deng Xiaoping not only dissolved his country’s de facto alliance with the United States, he went even further, declaring in September 1991 that “a new cold war” between China and the sole remaining superpower would now ensue.

Some China watchers viewed Deng’s hostile utterance as nothing more than a fit of verbal pique over American criticism of the Tiananmen massacre; a blip, as one put it to me, on the rhetorical radar screen. The ensuing years have proven it to be revelatory of something far more deep-seated.

Just as China would not accept – indeed, was moved by its own sense of greatness to challenge – what it called “Soviet hegemony,” so it has refused to accept the U.S. as the world’s leading power, and has been moved by that same innate pride to challenge it. And it has been ever less coy about these intentions. America is now the enemy of choice in war games conducted by the PLA and targets its missiles at U.S. cities. The state-controlled press has become increasingly strident in its denunciations of the U.S., which has been called everything from “a dangerous enemy” to “a superpower bully.” We are constantly accused of – you guessed it – “seeking hegemony.”

In fact, this endlessly repeated accusation is a political form of projection, for China's elite clearly covets the title of Hegemon for itself. In the old — and enduring — Chinese view of the world, chaos and disorder can only be avoided by organizing vassal and tributary states around a single dominant axis of power. And if there is to be a Hegemon, Chinese history and culture combine to say, then it should be China. In their obsession with the Hegemon, the Chinese people have their own doctrine of manifest destiny.

The Chinese leadership is apparently prone to wild fears of American omnipotence — we are said to have engineered the collapse of the Soviet Union by strategic deception — and consumed by a deep-seated desire to replace us as the presumed Hegemon. That we have a more modest view of our role in the world — a mere superpower being something less than an all-powerful Hegemon — is discounted by Chinese calculations.

The current President, Jiang Zemin, shares these exaggerated fears of American power, warning his Communist colleagues in August 1995 that “Western hostile forces [a.k.a. the United States] have not for a moment abandoned their plot to Westernize and ‘divide’ our country.”

There is more at work here than merely irritation over Radio Free Asia broadcasts and the continued separation of Taiwan. Here are echoes of the kind of rampant xenophobia and vaunting ambition that leads not only to aggressive rhetoric but to aggressive actions.

Given the desire of the Chinese leadership to replace us as the reigning Hegemon, we shouldn’t be surprised that General Chi Haotian, the vice chairman of the Communist Party’s Central Military Commission, speaks matter-of-factly about a coming conflict between our two countries. “Viewed from the changes in the world situation and the hegemonic strategy of the United States to create monopolarity,” General Chi famously said in December 1999, “ . . . war [between China and the U.S.] is inevitable.”

What are we to do?

People’s Liberation Army generals were initially stunned by the American victory in the Gulf War. In the mocking words of one Chinese analyst, “People turned pale at the mere mention of U.S. military strength.” In a peculiar turnabout, the years since have seen a concerted effort by Chinese analysts to debunk America's strengths, and elaborate on American “weaknesses.” We are said to have been “defeated” in Vietnam and Korea, and to have played only a secondary role in winning World War II (in their revisionist view Russia and China were the principal victors). Our military capabilities are said to be in decline, and we have only a “30 percent chance” of winning a war in Asia. Chinese strategists apparently believe, according to Michael Pillsbury, that “Saddam Hussein could have exploited [US operational weaknesses] in order to defeat the United States [in the Gulf War] if he had used Chinese-style strategy.”

No theory has been more eagerly embraced by Chinese strategists than that of Yale academic Paul Kennedy, who argued that America was suffering from “imperial overstretch,” and must reduce its international commitments lest it spend itself into bankruptcy. Chinese strategists, encouraged by their political masters, now argue that the U.S. resembles a failing Chinese dynasty and will be compelled in the years to come to withdraw from Asia and to abandon its bases in the region. Without forward bases, America’s fundamental logistical weaknesses will be revealed, namely, that it must cross the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans and go to Europe or Asia to engage in combat, and that it lacks sufficient transport capacity to do so.

Communist China has convinced itself that it can get hegemony on the cheap. By enlarging its missile force just enough to neutralize America’s strategic advantage, by modernizing its conventional forces sufficiently to overpower its smaller neighbors, China’s leaders believe that it can effortlessly enlarge its sphere of influence as America retreats.

President Ronald Reagan met the challenge of Soviet power directly through an arms build-up and a policy of confronting Soviet aggression wherever it occurred. History has demonstrated the success of this policy, which should be adopted in Asia. The best antidote to the dangerous misperceptions of American decline held by the Chinese leadership is a carefully calculated military build-up of naval and air force elements in Asia, the construction of a national and regional missile defense system, and the arming of Taiwan.

Just last month, we commissioned the USS Reagan, a 90,000-ton, Nimitz-class carrier, CVA-76. Her maiden voyage should be to the Western Pacific to show the flag — and our staying power — in Asia.

A second carrier task force on patrol in the East China Sea, along with an additional air wing or two deployed in hardened bunkers in Japan, would force the Chinese elite to rethink their facile assumptions about increasing U.S. military weakness. Also key is some increase in our air- and sea-lift capacity, so that additional assets could be quickly deployed to the Asian theater in the event of hostilities over, say, Taiwan.

To defend against China’s growing arsenal of ballistic missiles, the U.S. should deploy first an Asian, and then a national, missile-defense system. The protective umbrella of the Asian regional missile-defense system should extend over Japan, Korea, and other U.S. allies in the region, including Taiwan. Guarding the Taiwanese from ballistic-missile attack by China is especially critical given the rapid and ongoing build-up of medium-range ballistic missiles along Fujian coast opposite Taiwan. The sale of four Aegis-class ships to Taiwan would be another step in the right direction.

Even more important, the American people must be protected against a ballistic-missile attack from China. In August 1999, China test-fired its first DF-31, a long-range ballistic missile capable of hitting the western United States. A national missile defense system capable of defending U.S. cities against this new generation of Chinese missiles must be built and deployed as soon as technologically feasible. Once such a system is in place, China will no longer be able to blackmail us with nuclear weapons.

We should strengthen Taiwan’s military in other ways. Current restrictions on arms sales to Taiwan should be lifted, and the island provided with other key weapons systems, including more advanced fighters. The ban on high-level military exchanges between our two countries should be ended, enabling planning on the defense of Taiwan to go forward.

Only a firm U.S. commitment to the defense of Taiwan, and decisive U.S. action in case of aggression, can forestall a military invasion by Beijing in the years to come. “I do not believe in a peaceful transition,” Chairman Mao told Kissinger in 1973, referring to the recovery of Taiwan. Neither do his successors.

By correcting China’s perceptions of U.S. decline, and by meeting its growing power projection capabilities head-on, we would underline for Beijing the cost of competing with the U.S. The Chinese Communist elite would be forced to take a fresh look at U.S. power and potentialities.

There are those who say that this would only lead to an arms race. They hold that China will become a military superpower regardless of what the U.S. does — or doesn’t do — to try to forestall its rise. In their view, a strategic stalemate between the U.S. and China is the inevitable outcome of China’s resurgence.

They are wrong. The Chinese economy today, like the Soviet economy twenty years ago, is far smaller than ours, and simply cannot sustain a protracted military competition with the United States. Moreover, there is nothing inevitable about China’s economic growth. Mismanagement could drive China’s economy into a recession or worse; so could increased defense spending.

The current Chinese leadership is acutely aware of the economic and political dangers of going head-to-head with the U.S. They rightly attribute the Soviet collapse to its extraordinarily high defense spending, as it attempted to match the U.S. missile for missile and plane for plane. And they believe it was the United States, by means of a strategic deception, that led the Soviets to spend themselves into bankruptcy in this way. For all their bluff and bluster about “American hegemony,” China’s communist leaders are determined not to fall prey to the same ploy.

All we need do, I believe, is up the ante to point where China is unable to compete with the U.S. militarily without taking scarce resources away from vital infrastructure projects and economic development in general. Forced to confront this stark choice, the Chinese Politburo may well choose plowshares over swords. The imagined arms race would be over before it began. China will drop out.

But even if the Politburo made the “wrong” choice and attempted to keep pace with the U.S., it would so hamstring its economic and technological development that in the end it would be unable to compete militarily.

The halcyon days of U.S.-China relations, it is well to remember, occurred during the years of the Reagan Administration, when China quailed before the U.S. military build-up and put on its most cooperative face.

When outnumbered, retreat, advises the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu.

Steven W. Mosher


Steven W. Mosher is the President of Population Research Institute and an internationally recognized authority on China and population issues, as well as an acclaimed author, speaker. He has worked tirelessly since 1979 to fight coercive population control programs and has helped hundreds of thousands of women and families worldwide over the years.

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