III. The Rise of China and Changes in the Balance of Power in East Asia


by 
Tanaka Akihiko
Professor
University of Tokyo

1. The Rise of China

    In 1999 the People's Republic of China celebrated the 50th anniversary of its founding, marking the end of a period corresponding almost exactly to the second half of the 20th century, in which China was restored to its role as a major player in international politics. Given that for the first 50 years of the 20th century China served simply as an arena in which the imperialist powers fought for spheres of influence, this transformation is of significance not only for China but also for international politics in East Asia. However, it was not until the 1960s that China stepped onto the international political stage as a more independent power. In the 1950s China had officially - though not always actually - adhered to a policy of "leaning towards the Soviet Union," and promoted a "China-Soviet Union monolith" during the Cold War as part of the Eastern bloc. The end of the 1950s saw this stance change to one of Sino-Soviet rivalry, and China's first successful nuclear test in 1964 introduced into the bipolar Cold War structure a new orientation towards "multi-polarity."
    China's independence grew more prominent in the 1970s, as rapprochement with the US in 1971 brought considerable changes to the international political framework of East Asia. From that time until the early part of the 1980s, China adopted a policy of “a single line” to align with the US and Japan to oppose the Soviet Union’s drive for domination. The increasing independence of China’s foreign policy from the 1960s through the 1970s did not, however, reflect a similar expansion of China's own strength as a nation. China was during this time still suffering the aftereffects of the Great Leap Forward of the 1950s, the subsequent Great Famine, and the widespread chaos stemming from the self-destructive Cultural Revolution that began in the mid-1960s. China under Mao Zedong sought rapprochement with the US for no other reason than a very keen awareness of the threat posed by the Soviet Union in light of the domestic disorder in China. Thus, the Chinese threat perception of the Soviet Union and the US Asian Strategy seeking an "honorable withdrawal" from Vietnam, coincided well, leading to the Sino-US rapprochement in 1971.
    Deng Xiaoping, who after the death of Mao Zedong seized the reins of power, sought through a policy of "reform and opening to the outside world" to revolutionize the "self-reliance" economic approach that had been pursued theretofore. Beginning with the introduction of a "production by contract" system, he set out on a bold course to introduce into China elements of a market economy. This marked the country's first earnest attempts in the 20th century to establish the foundations for expanding its national strength. China began seeing the Soviet Union as somewhat less of a threat in the 1980s. Although the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan did cause considerable alarm, reinforcing the view of the Soviets as a danger to Chinese security, it was apparent thereafter that the USSR had become bogged down in Afghanistan. Causing greater unease for the Chinese was the new Reagan administration, and above all its Taiwan policy, amid the building of a strong "new Cold War" structure to counter the Soviet Union. China began around 1982 unilaterally to revise its policy of rapprochement with the US, aspiring to what it termed "an independent and autonomous foreign policy," and sought to put a certain distance between itself and the US. Another factor behind these changes was that the China-Vietnam War, which had stemmed from an overwhelmingly powerful sense of the Soviet threat, had not gone as China had wished and, in fact, had for all practical purposes been a "defeat." China thus became more convinced that enhancing its own national power had to take precedence over pursuing an active foreign policy.
    As China began making adjustments to its foreign policy, the new US-Soviet Cold War posed little direct threat, with China not particularly favoring either side. Over-dependence on the US might be seen as an attempt to intimidate the Soviet Union, and it might also leave China unable to speak out against US policy towards Taiwan. In any case, the success of the "reform and opening to the outside world" policy was Deng Xiaoping's highest priority, as he strove to increase the country's own strength. Apparently, China firmly believed that the "peaceful international environment" needed to achieve this aim could be established without drawing particularly close to the US. From that point on, China assumed a rather passive and reactive attitude towards foreign affairs.
    The Tiananmen Square Incident of June 4, 1989, seriously impaired China in its pursuit of a peaceful international environment, as China found itself isolated internationally for about a year thereafter. Another factor setting China apart was its insistence that rule by the Communist Party would be maintained, by force if necessary, following the dramatic end to the Cold War in the latter half of 1989. There were those in the international community who hoped to sweep China into the subsequent wave of democratization, but the Japanese government and the Bush administration in the US feared that this would result in internal chaos, and both instead worked towards normalizing relations with China. As the country began normalizing its international relations, Deng Xiaoping at the beginning of 1992 again issued a dictate on reform and liberalization (during his inspection tour through the southern provinces of China), and the Chinese economy returned once more to rapid growth.
    The growth of the Chinese economy in the 1990s allowed China for the first time in the 20th century to wield power as an important member of the international community on the sole basis of its own national power, free from alliances and partnerships with other countries. The Chinese economy began to grow at an annual rate of more than ten percent from 1992, and in that same year, the IMF and the World Bank released estimates of per capita GDP for individual countries calculated using purchasing power parity, the results of which astonished the world. On an exchange rate basis, China's per capita GDP at the time was less than US$500 but, using purchasing power parity, this figure climbs to about US$2000. Thus, the actual per capita GDP of China was more than four times the level calculated through exchange rates; multiplying this new per capita GDP by the population of China, the result is an economy on par with Japan and other major countries. If the present rapid growth continues, the Chinese economy someday might even surpass that of the US in scale.
    Besides economic growth, there are other indicators showing China's growing national might, some of which could generate concern in other countries. Publicly released figures reveal a surprising 15% annual increase in defense expenditures. There have also been press reports of China eagerly buying up a vast supply of the weapons that Russia has been selling off since the end of the Cold War. 1992 saw the promulgation of the Law of the People's Republic of China on Its Territorial Seas and Adjacent Zones, and its activities in the Spratly Islands have sparked anxiety among the countries in Southeast Asia. Also noteworthy are the frequent proclamations of PLA naval personnel that their duty is the protection of the "maritime rights and interests" of China.
    Given all of these trends, a perception of China as a threat has emerged in the post-Cold War era. Certainly there were those in the 1960s, even in Japan, who considered China a threat. The danger posed by China during this part of the Cold War, however, was an ideological one, which would at most constitute a threat through "indirect invasion." By contrast, the view of China as a threat in the 1990s arises entirely from the power and policies of China itself. Though not allied now with any other country, China's presence has become a concern to other countries, one important consequence of the reform and liberalization policy initiated by Deng Xiaoping.
    What is one to make of the emergence of China in this fashion? Since the mid-1990s this question has become a key focus of attention among policymakers in countries such as the US and Japan with ties to East Asia. In the US the debate has centered on whether to opt for engagement with China or for containment of China, with much argument over whether to classify China as a "strategic partner" or a "competitor." The following section will discuss the balance of military power between China and other countries, recent patterns of behavior exhibited by China, and other important elements.

2. The Military Balance Between China and Other Countries

    There is no method of describing or analyzing the balance of military power that will be suitably applicable in all cases. The balance will differ depending on the two countries being weighed against each other, while considerations of the ways in which these countries utilize military force leaves one comparing apples and oranges. Including into the mix comprehensive assessments of war-making capabilities (dynamic balance) makes the issue even more complex. Measuring the balance of military power between China and Vietnam or between China and the Philippines is far different from measuring the balance between China and Taiwan. Furthermore, US involvement on behalf of one side could change these bilateral balances considerably, and much could depend on how the Japan-US and US-South Korea alliances would function in light of such involvement.
    However, Chinese military capability with regard to Taiwan, the US, Japan, and other countries does not seem to have been enhanced to the degree suggested in the mid-1990s by those observers who view China as a threat. Were China to resort to the use of nuclear weapons, of course, there would clearly be an overwhelming asymmetry in the military balance between China and Taiwan or between China and Japan, but this is not a factor that has only just arisen in the 1990s. In the area of nuclear weapons, though, there is also a tremendous imbalance between the US and China which has not changed for the past several decades.
    There have admittedly been some changes in the balance between Taiwan and China. The purchase of Su-27 fighters from the Soviet Union without doubt improved China's air capabilities, but the F-16 and Mirage 2000 fighters introduced by Taiwan are far greater in number and importance. That China has begun extensive deployment of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles is noteworthy, but in cases where the option of employing weapons of mass destruction has been ruled out, the use of ballistic missiles would be of questionable significance and accomplish little.
    With regard to capabilities that have not changed, there have been no demonstrable improvements made in China's amphibious assault capabilities. This means that, unless it could achieve overwhelming air superiority, China would find it extremely difficult to execute an amphibious assault across the Taiwan Strait; this fact has not changed. Any operation designed to land forces on Taiwan would require months of advance preparation, and with such build-ups almost immediately discernible in the modern age, the Taiwanese side would have plenty of time to prepare.
    This analysis has thus far only looked at the military balance between China and Taiwan. Were the US to offer its assistance to Taiwan, the inconsequential degree to which the military balance has changed would become even more apparent. US involvement has made, and will continue for some time into the future to make, an amphibious assault on Taiwan by China a practical impossibility. China could still launch a ballistic missile offensive against Taiwan, but the counterstrike capability of the US - in cruise missiles and other weapons - greatly exceeds that of Taiwan.
    Given the considerable possibility that the US would indeed stand on the side of Taiwan in a crisis, the military balance in the area of the Taiwan Strait is in no way clearly advantageous for China, i.e., China would have a low probability of achieving its objectives.

3. Patterns of Behavior in Chinese Diplomacy

    How should one regard the patterns of behavior in China's diplomacy in the midst of a growing perception of China as a threat? The analysis of military balance given above presumes to a great degree that military rationality would be the determining factor in China's course of action. Should the actual behavior of Chinese leaders diverge from military rationality, however, even a stable military balance would not eliminate the possibility of war. Consequently, analyses of the balance of military power must be combined with analyses of the actual conduct of affairs by China in considering the prospects for the future.
    With its attention primarily on domestic policies, China has in the 1990s exhibited a passive and reactionary pattern of behavior in foreign affairs. In actual fact, its preoccupation with domestic matters has been a quite consistent policy since efforts towards reform and liberalization begin in 1978. China has been very cautious, in action if not in rhetoric, about pursuing confrontation with other countries since its failure in the China-Vietnam War. This focus on domestic affairs has become an ingrained part of national policy because of the need for a peaceful international environment in order to implement reform and liberalization measures. It hardly need be said that the success of these measures is hoped for by those Chinese wishing to build a "rich country and a strong military". For Communist Party leaders, though, success has become a matter of life or death in attempting to maintain the legitimacy of one-party rule by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). To ensure "regime security," Chinese leaders want above all to avoid becoming embroiled in foreign issues that might adversely affect their domestic policies.
    Nevertheless, external relations cannot be utterly ignored if the CCP is to retain legitimacy as a governing entity. With Marxism-Leninism having completely lost its appeal, legitimacy requires the CCP to serve as the acknowledged champion of Chinese nationalism, in addition to keeping the economy performing well through reform and liberalization. Any action by an outside party that might adversely affect the unity of China must therefore be met with a swift response. In light of this, the Taiwan issue is likely to become the most acute problem to be addressed. Looking at China's pattern of behavior in the 1990s, though, one can see that even in such nationalist issues as this, China has been passive and reactive. A careful inquiry into the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996 reveals a reaction against the US visit of President Lee Teng-hui in the summer of 1995 and a reaction against moves towards "independence" within Taiwan. These reactions were tempered, however, as China could not take an overly hard line and still successfully implement its own domestic policies. Calculating the strength sufficient enough to send a message to Taiwan and to the US Congress but not so great as to subject China to condemnation by the international community as a whole, the Chinese opted for military exercises and a missile test.
    Those who see China as a threat frequently claim that China is a power seeking to "change the status quo". No doubt it does wish to change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. It also wants to end the "hegemony" of the US within the international community. Given these wishes, there is some evidence supporting a view of China as a force trying to "change the status quo". It is also true, however, that maintaining a peaceful international environment that will allow its reform and liberalization efforts to succeed is also an important objective of China. Essential in such an environment is ensuring that capital and technology from countries worldwide are able to flow into China and that Chinese goods can be exported to other trading partners around the globe, and especially to the American and Japanese markets. China, in wishing to maintain this international environment, is a force supporting the status quo. The overall pattern of behavior of China in the 1990s, overlooking the rhetoric, shows China acting to maintain the status quo.
    The most representative example of this can be found in China's policy towards North Korea. China's behavior indicates that its leaders do not particularly welcome the idea of North Korea either possessing nuclear weapons or developing missiles, nor do they have any desire to witness North Korea collapse as a nation. On the other hand, they do not wish to see North Korea at the mercy of the US. Consequently, in its policy towards North Korea, China has been basically cooperative towards the US, but not so cooperative as to allow US influence to grow overly strong. (Looking at the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis from the Chinese perspective, a ban on visits by the leaders of Taiwan to major countries was deemed part of the contemporary international status quo. China's forceful reaction was directed against the violation of this "status quo" by the US and Lee Teng-hui; on this matter at least, the PRC was in accord with the US State Department, who also opposed Lee's visit to the US.)
    It may be possible to argue that China's aims are extremely long-term in nature, and its present policy of emphasizing domestic affairs itself is a long-term measure for achieving a "rich country and strong military" and that the current reactiveness and orientation of "maintaining the status quo will move to alter the status quo, once China comes to possess an overpowering military capability. However, such an assertion is meaningless as a policy position unless one considers China as a state to be fundamentally "evil." If one's opponent is "evil," then one would certainly not adopt policies that might help him "grow"; it might even be possible to crush him while he is still weak. If such is not the case, however, then as long as the other party does not behave in a manner injurious to one's own interests, one would not take actions against the other party; if the other party is cooperative, then one would be cooperative in return. Normal international relations of this nature are desirable. Maintaining such relations does not, however, preclude the need to keep a close and careful watch on the military capabilities of the other side. Any attempt by China to substantially upgrade its military capabilities as its economy expands can be observed from neighboring countries, at which point the issue can be appropriately addressed.

4. The Impact of Taiwanese Democratization

    Would it be reasonable to suppose, then, that an armed conflict involving China would never occur in the surrounding area of East Asia? Given the complexities of international politics in modern East Asia, no conclusive answer can be immediately given to this question. As analyzed already, the military balance on both sides of the Taiwan Strait offers China little military rationale for initiating an armed conflict. But military rationality is not the only cause of an armed conflict might occur, and the possibility cannot be excluded that other circumstances might lead to the use of armed force.
    Paradoxically, these "other circumstances" may possibly spur changes in the "status quo" that China does not wish. The most conspicuous of these "other circumstances" is the change occurring within Taiwan, the phenomenon of "democratization." The impact of "democratization" itself is the key reason that the present Taiwan Strait issue cannot be simply reduced to one of military balance. While Taiwan was under the rule of Chiang Kai-shek or Chiang Ching-kuo, the likelihood of a military conflict erupting could be determined by focusing primarily on the balance of military power. Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo both believed in "one China" and could not conceive of an independent Taiwan; the problem in their view was their inability to launch counteroffensives against China and to gain US support for such a course of action. For its part, China did not have at its disposal the military might to reduce Chiang Kai-shek or Chiang Ching-kuo to submission, and thus the use of force against Taiwan was almost unthinkable. The formula of "one country, two systems" devised in the 1980s by Deng Xiaoping was put forth in the hope of striking of a deal with the Kuomintang towards the eventual realization of some form of "unification."
    However, the democratization of Taiwan from the latter half of the 1980s through the 1990s has introduced into the Taiwan Strait an element unlike any heretofore. For a people who are now able to express their opinions freely, the more they lose their sense of identity as "Chinese" and the more they begin to see themselves as "Taiwanese," the more incomprehensible becomes the "status quo." Why is it, with democratization making headway worldwide, that a "country" which chooses its legislature and the head of its executive branch in free elections, and which lives under the rule of law, is unable to establish official diplomatic relations with the vast majority of countries in the world? Why is it that a democratically elected leader is unable to visit most of the world's nations as a representative of his own "country"? One can hardly think of any response based on reasoned principles to such questions. “You are unlucky” certainly does not satisfy the Taiwanese.
    Continuing the status quo in the Taiwan Strait that has been in place since the 1970s is becoming increasingly difficult as a result of the democratization of Taiwan. Any moves stemming from this democratization to change this status quo, though, are absolutely unacceptable to China at present. As a consequence, a number of extremely complex factors beyond simple military balance now play into the likelihood of the use of military force. As mentioned earlier, it seems unimaginable for the time being that China would elect to use military force against Taiwan, given the current military balance. Depending on the political dynamics within Taiwan, though, there could arise circumstances that China would find intolerable and to which it would feel compelled to respond with some manner of military action. Even in such instances, though, it is still difficult to imagine, with the military balance being what it is, China launching an all-out assault on Taiwan. The costs would be far too high, and China would not readily be able to achieve its objective of occupying Taiwan. This does not mean, however, that other military options - for example, a blockade of Taiwan's major ports, the occupation of the islands of Kinmen (Quemoy) and Matsu, or a ballistic missile strike - are completely out of the question. Still, these military actions would be pointless if indeed China's goal is the occupation of Taiwan. These same actions are not completely unthinkable, though, if the goal is to repudiate or force a retraction of a declaration of "Taiwanese independence," or to punish Taiwan for the same. The possibility cannot be dismissed, therefore, that China may conclude that it can carry out such operations, without suffering serious consequences, if these actions are limited in scope and if the US does not become fully involved.
    In other words, one cannot simply look at the balance of military power in assessing the current situation in the Taiwan Strait. Of course, it is by no means certain that actions intended to be limited would remain limited to the very end. In some situations, it is very possible that a limited use of military force could escalate following retaliation by Taiwan or involvement by the US military. Even if the situation does not escalate militarily, the international environment in the region could clearly deteriorate, leading to sanctions against China and a freezing of economic relations, which would deal a serious blow to the Chinese economy. If the Chinese leadership bears in mind this possibility, a declaration of independence by Taiwan might even be allowed to pass without a military response, though there is no guarantee of this; the leadership could conclude instead that public opinion in the US and other countries would be more critical of an unnecessary declaration of "independence" by Taiwan than of China's reaction. If such a calculation is made, Taiwanese "independence" might set off a knee-jerk military reaction by China, regardless of the military balance at the time.
    Of course, it is reasonable to assume that the citizens of Taiwan, recognizing this possibility, would not elect leaders who would declare Taiwanese "independence". It bears stressing again here, though, that factors beyond military balance have emerged which alter the likelihood of the use of military force, and that the significance of these factors grows larger day by day. What is certain is that, once the use of military force has begun, there is no telling in what direction the situation will develop, and the worst-case scenario of a large-scale war in the Taiwan Strait is not beyond the realm of possibility.

5. Conclusion

    The ascendancy of China in the 1990s has had a major impact on the international political situation in modern East Asia. The military balance, however, makes it unlikely that China will become a threat. China's recent patterns of behavior internationally also constitute no particular threat, as the country is focused primarily on its own internal matters, and is passive and reactive towards external developments. Nevertheless, one cannot disregard totally the potential use of military force by China. It is possible that military action could be triggered by factors not directly related to military balance, especially in the Taiwan Strait, and caution is necessary. Leaders on both sides of the Strait must seek out creative ways of improving relations without being shackled by approaches employed thus far.