By Jonathan Power
Beijing, April 8th 2014
The widespread perception that China is or will become soon an aggressive, expansionist power is simply wrong. It is propaganda, rather than fact, a kind of right-wing agitprop.
Far from being an aggressive power, China is a defensive one, and has long been so. It is the one who has been attacked and invaded – by Britain, France, the US and Japan. These days China is too integrated into the world economy and too much in hock to its massive savings invested in the bonds of America and Europe to be anything but defensive.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an urge to bring Taiwan into the mainland’s fold or that it will not protect itself against territorial losses – including Tibet, Xinjiang and a number of islands in the South China and East China seas. Some Western politicos may quarrel with China about this (apart from Xinjiang), but China has a case for each. (But on the sea issue it should go along with the Philippines’ request for arbitration by the judges of the court established by the Law of the Sea Treaty.)
China feels that the large deployment of the US navy close its waters plus the Obama Administration’s “tilt” towards Asia, plus the US’s defence relationships with China’s neighbours are a challenge to its security and sovereignty. It rightly feels encircled.
Yet, mistaken as the US may be in its naval policy and its “tilt”, the US, the EU and Japan have done much to help along China’s modernization. They have kept markets wide open despite much resistance at home. They have given freely of their capital and their technology (as has Taiwan). They have encouraged hundreds of thousands of Chinese students to study in their universities. They have trained Chinese experts in science, international law and technology.
The US stamps on the talk in Japan of exonerating itself for its role in the Second World War and any desire it shows for massive rearmament. It constantly reminds those independence-minded politicians in Taiwan not to be too loud with their rhetoric.
Hugh White in his perceptive new book, “The China Choice”, argues that what is needed is a new “Concert”. This harks back to 1815 when the European powers emerged from the Napoleonic Wars. The leaders of the continent’s five principal powers met in Vienna to negotiate a new post-war order. “The essence of the Concert was simple”, writes White, “They agreed that none would try to dominate Europe, and if any of their number tried the others would unite to defeat it”.
The order they created lasted for 99 years. By that I don’t mean there was continuous peace. There were, for example, the German wars of reunification. But there was no continent-wide conflagration. Only in 1914 did the continent descend into the abyss of the First World War. (And that because of the stupidity, miscalculation and blind stubbornness of the then living top politicians who were certainly not of the calibre of those who lived in 1815.) We still live with the consequences of the break down of the Concert. World War 1 begot both Lenin and Hitler.
There was little idealism in this 1815 pact, unlike the creation of the European Union, two world wars later. The big powers simply saw their self-interest- the cost of seeking hegemony outweighed the benefit. Unrestrained competition would drag everyone down and produce no benefit for any nation.
This was not seen as a balance of power. A Concert requires more than that: an agreement not to seek primacy in a strategic system. It was an agreement to minimise conflict in an era when the old balance of power system gave way.
Balances of power do collapse. This happened in 1914. It certainly could happen between China and the US, if that is what develops.
The League of Nations and the United Nations were both attempts to resurrect the Concert following world-wide wars. The Second World War led to the creation of the Security Council, modelled on the Concert.
Tragically, the potential of this was not realized as the Cold War broke out and a balance of power, reinforced by nuclear weapons, took the place of the new Concert.
A twenty-first century Concert in Asia would involve China, Japan, India and China. First and foremost they must accept each other as equals- with equal rights and responsibilities.
The US would have to limit its military interest in Asia both to accommodate China but also the other two. In turn this would mean China forsaking any future ambition to be the big boy on the block in Asia. This, as I argued above, is not to say it has that urge right now but a future generation might, if it is not pre-empted by a Concert today.
A Concert could be created. But will it be done? That is the question.
Copyright: Jonathan Power