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Nobody Heard the Dragon Coming

Updated: Aug 27, 2022

Blog Post 21. (11/04/2021) - The "peaceful rise" of China and why America not only did little to stop it, but actually abetted it.

The Azure Dragon, the state symbol of Imperial China.

War is at its most likely as a rising power eclipses a sitting one. This violent transition of great powers is called the Thucydides trap and the principle is as old as political science itself- dating back to when an ascendant Sparta threatened a dominant Athens in ancient Greece. The realist school of political science, which Thucydides is often seen as belonging to, states that we live in an anarchic world order where power and prudence are the surest defenses against rival states. Sitting superpowers take statal paranoia to a new level, they generally fear nothing more than a legitimate threat to their own hegemony. That is why 12 out of 16 historical great power transitions have led to war, thus as China is looking to supplant the US as the predominant superpower, it’s high time to be cautious.

But China has clearly been on the up and coming for decades, so how did China advance so rapidly for so long without goading the Americans into open rivalry? Why did tensions not come to a head during Tiananmen square, or at any time in China’s 30+ years long growth-streak? This analysis hopes to shed some light on those issues as well as where that leaves us now.

The golden decades of quiet but pronounced Chinese growth may be coming to an end- not only because China’s economic growth is slowing, but more importantly because China is no longer worrying about rocking the boat of global order. Xi Jinping’s recent posturing looks like a sign that he is no longer worried about appearing to comply with western geopolitical expectations. Despite all the pressure to attend the COP26 Climate Change Summit, despite China producing 30% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, the Chinese Premier Xi Jinping only sent a written note. In fact, Xi has not personally attended any international conferences in the past 21 months, choosing instead to stay in China. It seems that internal pressures (like domestic rivals) now concern Xi more than Western opinions.

China clearly has newfound confidence as a rising superpower and this shows in both its escalation of border conflicts and in its refusal to play multilateralism with the West. While China has border disputes with all its neighbors; Taiwan, India and the South China Sea have all been recent military hotspots where China is persistently pushing the envelope- repeatedly advancing further into no-fly zones and foreign territory with daily military sorties. When Americans hear about Chinese threats against Taiwan, or when they read yearly predictions about how the Chinese economy is expected to outstrip the American in this field or that- they are asking themselves: “how did this happen?” To answer this question, let us compare the path the United States took to hegemony with China’s own strategy of “China's peaceful development” (中国和平发展).

The United States began to eclipse the British empire with its 1890s arbitration of the Anglo-Venezuelan border crisis and completed its ascendance when it reordered the Western World after WWII. During this transition, the United States pursued a middle road to geopolitical supremacy that balanced assertively expanding its sphere of influence without provoking Britain into a war. By expanding American influence in measured steps while Britain was preoccupied with internal threats (Boer war) or foes closer to home (Germany, Russia), the United States was able to sidestep the Thucydides Trap and avoid open conflict with Britain. Much like the United States back then, Chinese grand strategy has carefully sought to avoid hegemonic conflict for the past few decades.

While some Chinese (and Americans) might not like the comparison, I believe that the Chinese strategy former vice Principal Zheng Bijan dubbed the “peaceful rise” (中国和平崛起) resembles the middle road America took on its path to hegemony. But while we think of this strategy in Zheng’s terminology, China had been following the same “peaceful path to development” (Deng’s term for it) since Deng Xiaoping took over in 1978. Zheng, like many other thinkers in the CCP, was well aware how China’s incredible 9.5% year growth average (1979-2002) was being perceived globally at the time and wanted to reiterate Chinese amicability. In his famous speech to the 16th CCP National Congress, Zheng indirectly told the world that they had no reason to fear China because China’s growth model depended on maintaining the then-current world order and China was pragmatic enough to understand its own dependency. What Zheng said evidently resonated with the United States and its allies, because American and European companies kept pouring in Foreign Direct Investment, which skyrocketed from 60 million in 1980 to 3.49 billion by 1990, and rising further to 42.10 billion by 2000. So while the Chinese marketed themselves very carefully, the West can only blame itself for willingly accelerating the growth of a rival.

Under Nixon, the United States pragmatically pivoted to China because conventional wisdom held China to be a potential counterweight to the Soviets in Asia. The heel-turn probably made sense then, since it stood against the backdrop of the then-recent Sino-Soviet border conflict and the ongoing chaos in Vietnam. In any case, as Chinese communism gave way to a much more laissez-faire system in the 80s and 90s after Nixon's historic visit, American businesses started to actually invest in the economy, which rapidly recovered from Mao’s premiership and kept growing. By the time the US granted China Most-favored-Nation trading status in 1991, China had already more than doubled its GDP since it began economic reforms in 1979- but it was still only about 1/16th the size of the American economy. At this point, the Soviets were clearly on the verge of collapse and there was little geopolitical incentive to build up China any further. That at least is the realist perspective.

Unlike the “old-hat” realists, who were the leading voices in American policymaking for much of the Cold War- the neoliberals of the 1990s had a more optimistic outlook. If realism’s greatest vice is paranoia, neoliberalism’s vice is trusting the free market (and by extension international interdependence) to a fault. China’s growth was encouraged because there was a strong sentiment that democracy and free-market economics had triumphed and that great power conflict was a thing of the past. So American corporations began to pour more Foreign Direct Investment into the Chinese economy with each passing year through the nineties. In 2001, China’s GDP sat at 1 trillion, 8 times what it was in 1979 but still only a third the size of the Japanese economy and an eighth the size of the American economy. In December 2001, the United States made China’s most-favored-status permanent.

Much of the over-optimistic, “end-of-history” sentiment of the 90s went down in flames with the twin towers on September 11th 2001, but the returning sense of American vulnerability had little to do with China. Most Sino-centric geopolitical concerns of the time were quieted by Chinese assurances, like Zheng Bijan’s promise of a “peaceful rise”. The War on Terrorism dominated American grand strategy for the entirety of the Bush presidency. Despite all the talk of diplomacy and bilateral relations during Obama’s tenure in office, the strategic conversation around China started to move away from talk of partnership and investment and towards talk of competition and rivalry.

Personally, I remember starting to see articles in 2013-14 predicting the Chinese economy would outgrow the United States by this year or that. Those predictions were overblown, but it was clear that everyone was starting to realize that China was on course to become a superpower- one that might not share our interests. 2013 was also the year China started flexing its military muscle after decades of conspicuous military inaction. China began building its bases on the Spratly islands in order to claim the disputed heart of the South China Sea, heating up old tensions with nine other countries in the area. China had newfound hard as well as soft power- reflected in massive projects like the Belt-and-Road-Initiative, where China is now the one building key infrastructure and gaining influence in 'less developed' countries.

Nobody was more aware of China’s new standing than Xi Jinping. Since he took office as president in 2013, China has become more assertive and nationalistic- a rival whose opposing interests can no longer be ignored. Xi Jinping’s aggressive style can be attributed to Chinese relevance as much as Chinese fears- as mentioned earlier, Chinese growth is slowing and Beijing knows that its less developed rivals will soon start making relative gains. Add those concerns to ever-present domestic concerns like the risk of a discontented populace, half-hidden power-struggles in the CCP and noncompliant minorities and it becomes clear why China is acting now. With inward growth limited, China now looks outward and it is falling back into old imperialistic tendencies in its quest to do so.

So the old narrative about “peaceful development” was replaced with bluster about “5000 years of history” and China’s hegemonic rights as the “Middle kingdom”. Donald Trump was a protectionist and unilateral foil to Xi, setting up heavy-handed embargoes on China. The Thucydides trap has come back to haunt us now that the War on Terrorism seems to be coming to a bitter conclusion, and we are left to wonder, why did we not see this coming?

In summary: China gathered its strength for three decades and laid low, but now external economic pressures are stacking upon internal doubts and China feels it can no longer passively leverage the world order to make absolute geopolitical gains on its competitors. Chinese leadership therefore believes that a direct approach is needed and that means taking risks.

For our part, America has been content to pour money into developing a nation with four times its population because it would boost American growth a little. Without American and European dollars, China could not be in the position it is now. So then, what now? Conflict seems likely, but it is not inevitable… should this article garner enough interest I will happily follow up with an article which lays out what kind of grand strategy the United States should pursue now that a new cold war is taking root.

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