09 June 2015

Two-part Excerpt from Thomas Christensen’s New Book “The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power”

Be sure to read both articles, as well as Christensen’s book. They offer needed nuance regarding key dynamics concerning a vital subject in a troubling time.

Thomas J. Christensen, “China’s Military Might: The Good News,” Japan Times, 8 June 2015.

…While China’s buildup indeed creates security challenges for the U.S. and its Asian allies, the consequences are more subtle and complicated than some alarms would suggest. Despite its quickly increasing defense budgets in the last 20 years, China still lacks the ability to project combat power in a sustained way far from its shores, and the U.S. maintains full-spectrum military superiority, even in East Asia. Chinese forces lag far behind their U.S. counterparts in quality of equipment, experience and training.

Unfortunately for the U.S., the good news ends there. China doesn’t need to be a peer competitor to pose serious problems in East Asia, a region of great importance to America and the rest of the world. …

One of the biggest advantages the U.S. has compared with China is its network of allies — some 60 countries, which (including the U.S.) account for some 80 percent of global military spending. China has a formal alliance only with North Korea and a strong security partnership with one other Asian country, Pakistan. It has defense cooperation and an arms trade relationship with Russia, but mutual mistrust between the two historical rivals makes it hard to label this an alliance.

So after laying out the evidence showing continued American superiority, why am I still concerned about the bad news? Measures of the overall balance of power between two countries are most relevant when considering wars of survival, such as World War I and World War II. But most international security politics involves coercive diplomacy and limited military engagements short of full-scale war. In such struggles, geography, politics, psychology and perceptions can play an even more important role than the military balances of power. …

Thomas J. Christensen, “Managing Disputes with China,” Japan Times, 9 June 2015.

China isn’t an enemy of the United States. But coercive diplomacy with China today is arguably more complicated than it was with the Soviet Union in the Cold War, at least after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

One reason for this is that no consensus exists in East Asia on the territorial status quo, as there did between the two Cold War camps in most regions of the world. China, in the center of a region of great importance, has maritime sovereignty disputes with several of its neighbors, including two formal U.S. allies (Japan and the Philippines) and one security partner (Taiwan). …

We should take no comfort in the apparent sincerity of all the claimants. If all actors truly feel they are defending rightful claims against the revisionism of others, the chicken game of international security politics is more likely to lead to a deadly collision. …

If the situation sounds hopeless, it’s not. It helps mightily that China and the U.S. aren’t enemies and that both would be severely harmed by a conflict across the Pacific.

For Americans, it is important to fixate less on China’s potential to catch up to the U.S. in total military power and more on analyzing which U.S. and allied strategies since the end of the Cold War have been effective in specific geographic and political contexts.

For example, the George W. Bush administration successfully mixed the credibility of the American commitment to the security of Taiwan (by selling it large tranches of weapons and warning China against aggression across the Taiwan Strait) with reassurances to Beijing that the purpose of the U.S. defense relationship with the island was not to support permanent Taiwan independence from the Chinese nation. (For example, the U.S. publicly opposed a 2008 referendum that called for seeking United Nations membership for the island under the name Taiwan.)

The Obama administration has successfully signaled to the Chinese that the U.S. supports Japan’s administrative control of the Senkaku Islands (for example, when the president reiterated in Tokyo in 2014 that the U.S. defense treaty with Japan covers the disputed islands). But his administration also has reportedly called for restraint from Japan as well, and even criticized Tokyo publicly for actions that seem to whitewash Imperial Japan’s actions in World War II.

Both of these examples show how a combination of U.S. power and resolve on the one hand, and diplomatic assurances on the other, can calm potentially volatile situations involving emotional sovereignty claims and a rising China. These episodes also demonstrate that U.S.-China relations are not a zero-sum game — and that it’s dangerous to act as if they are.

Thomas J. Christensen, Boswell professor of world politics and director of the China and the World Program at Princeton University, is a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.