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China as a Superpower – An Interview with Prof. Toshi Yoshihara
Dr. Toshi Yoshihara is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining CSBA, he held the John A. van Beuren Chair of Asia-Pacific Studies and was an affiliate member of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the Naval War College, where he taught strategy for ten years.
He is the co-author of Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy, Indian Naval Strategy in the Twenty-first Century and Chinese Naval Strategy in the 21st Century: The Turn to Mahan. He is also co-editor of Strategy in the Second Nuclear Age: Power, Ambition and the Ultimate Weapon and Asia Looks Seaward: Power and Maritime Strategy.
He holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, an MA from the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University and a BSFS from the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.
E Tavares: Prof. Yoshihara, thank you for being with us today. China has been very busy building up their military capabilities in recent years. Broadly speaking, what are their medium and long term intentions?
T Yoshihara: One way to gauge China’s longer term intentions is to assess what Chinese leaders are saying today. President Xi Jinping has articulated a vision for China over the next few decades. This vision has been termed the “Chinese Dream” or the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” These slogans capture goals, milestones, and timelines.
In terms of timeframe, the Chinese refer to the “two one hundreds”: i) the centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 2021; and ii) the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 2049.
By 2021 China hopes to become what the Chinese call a “moderately well-off society.” By mid-century China hopes to be on par with other developed countries. Most measures for tracking China’s progress are socio-economic in nature: disposable income, socioeconomic equality, access to higher education, access to healthcare and so forth. To achieve these objectives, China still hews to the basic principle laid out by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, namely, peace and development. The concept of peace and development derives from the notion that China needs a peaceful external environment to develop economically.
But there are also external components to China’s long term goals, particularly China’s relations with the rest of the world. President Xi Jinping offers some hints. He has discussed the prospects for “democratizing” the international system. This is code for a transition from a unipolar world dominated by the United States to a multipolar world. As China rises, China envisions the emergence of a new global configuration in which China is a great power among other coequal great powers, including the European Union, India, and Russia, in the international system. This aligns with the “rise of the rest” hypothesis. As China gets very strong, it would also seek to amend the rules that have governed the current international order in ways that accommodates China’s interests as a great power.
China’s rise thus raises a series of important questions about the implications for Asia. What does China want in East Asia as it rises? Would China seek to become the dominant power in East Asia? Would it seek a dramatically reduced role for the United States? More troubling, would China seek a Sino-centric regional order in which many of its neighbors, including Japan, must acquiesce to its strategic prerogatives?
ET: So “power” for China is not just economic power, where they have performed spectacularly in recent decades. What they also envision is establishing themselves as a great military power to adequately achieve the goals you outlined, correct?
TY: Absolutely. China’s rise must be measured in terms of “comprehensive national power,” a phrase Chinese strategists use to asses China’s ascent. Comprehensive national power includes all instruments of national power, including political, diplomatic, economic, social, ideological, cultural, and, importantly, military power.
For decades after China opened itself in the late 1970s, China more or less accepted the U.S.-led liberal international order. Being a member of the order was essential for China’s national development. But to join the order, it struck a bargain with the United States: it would accept American primacy in East Asia in exchange for access to the U.S.-led order.
However, as China has gotten much stronger, this grand bargain has come under strain, especially over the last decade. This strain is reflected in an ongoing debate within China: should a great power like China continue to depend on the goodwill of another great power, the United States, for its economic well-being and national security? As China becomes more powerful, some Chinese believe that no self-respecting power should depend on outsiders but should rely on its own power, including military power, to determine its destiny.
ET: Is it fair to say that the bulk of their impressive military development of late is intentionally targeting U.S. capabilities in the region, and even bypass defense protocols to strike the U.S. homeland?
YT: If China seeks to revise the grand bargain it struck with the United States, if China seeks to be a great power in a multipolar world, and if China seeks to be the dominant power in East Asia, then China needs to seek a significantly reduced role of the United States in the region. If you accept these propositions, then China clearly needs the capability to counterbalance America’s military dominance in Asia today.
But there are specific contingencies, including those related to Taiwan, that have compelled China’s military modernization. In particular, the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait crises demonstrated to China that it needed military capabilities to respond to American military power. At the height of the crises, the Clinton Administration deployed two carrier battle groups in the vicinity of Taiwan as show of American resolve. Chinese leaders learned to their utter horror that they lacked credible military options to respond to this U.S. show of force. They thus concluded that they needed certain capabilities to ensure that they are not humiliated again.
Given the structural change in the balance of power in Asia and the various regional flashpoints that might involve China and U.S. intervention, it is not surprising that many Chinese military capabilities frequently match a discernible U.S. military target.
ET: Have they reached military parity with the U.S. and if so in what terms?
YT: In terms of conventional military power, China has not reached parity with the US across the board. The United States is also qualitatively superior across many measures of military power. However, such broad military parity is not necessary for China to pose serious challenges to the United States. In certain niche areas China has already achieved tremendous advances and has even surpassed those of the United States.
It is actually more useful to think about asymmetries in the competition through which China has pitted its strengths against America’s military weaknesses. For instance, China has developed a very large family of missiles that can be launched from ships, submarines, aircraft, and trucks to attack U.S. platforms and bases in the Pacific. These missiles have furnished China a competitive advantage at sea: relatively inexpensive Chinese anti-ship missiles could inflict crippling damage to a U.S. aircraft carrier that costs billions of dollars to build. And, it takes only one missile to get through to put out of action a surface combatant essential to America’s regional strategy in Asia.
Chinese missiles also threaten U.S. bases in the Western Pacific. American bases there represent massive concentrations of U.S. capital in a few key locations. This means that China can direct the bulk of its missile prowess against a few positions to do some real damage to, if not severely cripple, America’s ability to project power in the region.
China is becoming very competitive in the missile arena, in part, because it is filling a strategic vacuum left behind by the superpowers during the Cold War. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty committed both the US and the then Soviet Union (and now Russia) to eradicate entire classes of missiles prohibited by the treaty. Unconstrained by the treaty, China embarked on a missile buildup that has now made it the most potent conventional missile power in the world.
ET: North Korea is also aggressively developing their missile capabilities, which could be used to deliver their nuclear arsenal. Its economy can only survive because of Chinese support. And this situation could precipitate the occurrence of some of the scenarios you described. Is China using that country as a proxy to test the resolve of, and even wage war against, the U.S. and its regional allies? Or are they equally concerned with what’s going on in Pyongyang?
YT: China is in an unenviable position. China’s prime directive is stability including stability along its periphery. North Korea clearly falls in that category. North Korea has served as a geostrategic buffer on the Korean Peninsula. After all, Mao intervened in the Korea War to prevent a noncommunist power from being established on China’s borders. China abhors the possibility of countless Korean refugees pouring across the border owing to regime collapse or war. Perhaps even worse from China’s perspective is a unified Korea led by Seoul and aligned with the United States.
But, stability has to be balanced against other liabilities. North Korea’s nuclear ambitions could trigger broader regional proliferation across threshold nuclear powers like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. During different periods of the Cold War, all three powers have considered or pursued an independent nuclear option. North Korea’s actions are putting even more pressure on these countries to revisit the unthinkable option. A nuclear Japan would presumably be a nightmare for China.
ET: It is an odd situation that the U.S. has to deal with serious security concerns engendered by one of its key trading partners, in fact a major supplier of manufactured products. How has the U.S. government reacted to this? President Obama tried that pivot to Asia, which did not seem to be that successful. Do you sense any change in this regard with the new Trump administration?
YT: The United States has long pursued a dual-pronged approach to China. One prong is engagement. For decades, the U.S. has engaged China economically, diplomatically, culturally, and, to a lesser extent, militarily. This can be described as comprehensive engagement with China.
However, engagement is not (or should not be) an end in and of itself. It seems to me the intermediate goal is to make China a responsible stakeholder. In theory, enmeshing China in the U.S.-led liberal international order would give China an ever larger stake in the current order and thus incentivize Beijing to build on and defend the order.
The other prong is deterrence. Deterrence requires the United States to maintain significant military presence in the western Pacific to deter China from changing the status quo unilaterally. Deterrence helps to lock in the current order and to buy time so that engagement with China can do its work. Engagement and deterrence are thus very much interrelated.
But, the risk is that engagement has made China very wealthy and powerful. If fact, China has become so wealthy that it has acquired the tools, both military and non-military, to unilaterally change the status quo. This is sort of like feeding the beast. And, it undermines deterrence. This dual-pronged approach is thus in tension with each other as well.
The Obama administration’s pivot to Asia was in part designed to bolster the deterrence piece of the equation even while engaging China. The Trump administration’s strategy toward China is still unclear, but we see glimmers of his approach. By questioning China’s trade practices and by promising a military buildup, Trump may be revisiting both prongs of engagement and deterrence. It remains to be seen if modifying both prongs will be more effective in managing the relationship between China in the U.S.
ET: Certainly as part of that engagement both countries have deepening cultural ties. Many Chinese students attend American universities, including children of prominent party officials. Likewise, the U.S. has been investing significantly in China on many fronts, including learning institutes. This raises the question of how aggressive China would actually be in all these scenarios. Throughout its extensive history it has never really ventured much beyond its borders, militarily at least. In fact quite the opposite, they have been the victims of invasion, including the Mongols and even several Western powers during the “century of shame”. Can we not say that their geopolitical ambitions are driven more by defensive rather than offensive ambitions?
YT: This engagement strategy has clearly produced a great deal of people-to-people and cultural exchanges. The question is to what extent such exchanges are fundamentally reshaping Chinese perceptions towards the U.S. It is not clear to me that there is necessarily and always a positive correlation.
Let’s look at history. The UK and Germany prior to World War I were very close. Many members of the German royal family studied in Britain. Kaiser Wilhelm was the grandson of Queen Victoria. There was a great deal of economic, diplomatic, and cultural interchange between the two. Yet, Germany made strategic choices that stimulated a diplomatic and naval rivalry with Britain.
More generally, it is easy to misread the resolve of other nations. Past adversaries have grossly misread the United States. The notion that you could get the U.S. to back down by giving America a bloody nose informed Imperial Japan’s calculation when it attacked Pearl Harbor and Osama Bin Laden’s calculation when he orchestrated 9/11.
The question is whether these cultural exchanges will dispel Chinese misconceptions and biases about the United States. That’s hard to tell.
Whether China has been defensive historically is a subject of intense debate. But, even if we accept that China is primarily defensive, it is worth considering how China’s neighbors view China’s strategic orientation. Even if China genuinely believes that it is only seeking to defend its interests in East Asia, those inhabiting Asia, like Japan, might draw some very different conclusions about China’s posture.
ET: When we look back at history one of the major driving factors – and an often forgotten one – is demographics. And China appears to be in trouble here. What are your views here?
YT: As a result of the one-child policy, China is already suffering from rapid ageing and population decline. India will overtake China in terms of population size in the not so distant future. China’s labor force began shrinking in 2012. The elderly population as a percentage of the total population is rising fast. As the cliché goes, China will get old before it gets rich. This is meant as a contrast to Japan, which reached its stage of demographic decline after it had developed into an advanced economy.
What this means for China’s security is unclear. On the one hand, an aging society might become more risk averse. In a one-child society, parents may be less willing to risk losing their sole offspring in a bloody conflict. On the other hand, it is plausible that demographics might compel China to act sooner rather than later to resolve disputes before population decline constrains China’s options. In other words, China may feel it needs to hurry to settle security problems before it’s too late.
ET: The U.S. is also facing some internal issues. As everyone knows its society is incredibly divided today. Both parties can’t even agree on building a wall south of the border, much less on a broader defense policy. Is this undermining the U.S.’ ability to project power and defend its allies in a time of crisis? And how is China viewing all this?
YT: America’s allies and friends in the Western Pacific are watching the United States very closely. While they have always worried about U.S. commitments to the region, political developments in the US have only added to the anxiety.
China, too, is closely observing the U.S. As I explained earlier, China still needs a stable external environment to grow economically. That means unstable or even hostile relations with the United States could do real harm to China’s long-term goals.
For the United States, the question is whether it can maintain the longstanding consensus about its power and purpose in Asia. Since the end of World War II, the consensus has been that American primacy in the Pacific disproportionately benefits U.S. economic and security interests. To what extent this consensus will hold will be the question on the minds of everyone on both sides of the Pacific.
ET: Thank you very much for your insightful thoughts.
YT: Thank you.