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Friday, July 6, 2007

Is China's Threat a Mirage?

The People's Republic of China has been in the news quite a lot lately, but not in the way it might wish to be discussed. While China's economy continues to churn out ten percent increases, as it expands its influence in areas as far away as Africa and South America, and as it persists in striking a belligerent—even bellicose—pose against its rivals in Asia and in the Pacific, many Americans seem to perceive China as little more than a producer and exporter of dangerous pet-food additives and lead-painted toys.

Because the War on Terror and the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars dominate the horizon, few people recall that before 9-11, the China threat was front and center. Chinese pilots were playing tag with American assets in the region, even forcing a U.S. Navy EP-3 Aries spy plane to land on Chinese soil. Pundits seriously discussed how soon it would take China to leap from major power to superpower status—especially the more liberal talking heads, who worried a great deal about perceived instability (read "American dominance") in a unipolar world. That kind of talk abruptly ceased with the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.

Most of such talk has stopped, but not all of it. In the nearly six years since then, China has continued to expand economically, continued to arm, continued to flex its diplomatic muscles, and continued to plan and work toward some grandiose aims (such as floating a bona fide carrier group and putting a man on the moon). It possesses certain strengths that make American leaders nervous, such as its ability to damage the U.S. economy in terms of both trade and monetary policy. China also has North Korea on a leash, for now, and uses threats concerning Taiwan to its advantage. Without a doubt, the Chinese dragon still has teeth and claws.

But is it really a threat to U.S. power?

If she is to be believed, Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi does not think so. While touring some poverty-stricken areas of China with U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson recently, she flatly stated that, because of her nation's many internal problems, it is no threat to anyone, not economically, not politically, and not militarily—and certainly not to America. Evidently, she wanted the U.S. government to believe that, though it has the world's largest population (1.2 billion people), the third-largest economy, the world's third-ranked military, plenty of nuclear weapons, and a seat on the U.N Security Council, China should not be regarded as a rival, by any means.

Could there be something to her nationally self-disparaging comment? Perhaps. Strategic Forecasting's "Morning Intelligence Brief" of August 2, 2007, reports that, despite China's present booming condition, cracks in the foundation are already evident. China is aging, and it is projected to "get old before it gets rich," saddling the next generation with a monumental, and probably unsolvable, pension problem. It has an overabundance of unmarried males due to its socially devastating One-Child Policy. Perhaps worst of all, the rural countryside contains 800 million seething peasants, who have watched their urban, coastal neighbors develop and prosper at their expense.

Demography, as columnist Mark Steyn preaches, is destiny, and China's demography forecasts rough times ahead.

In addition, though the Han Chinese are the majority ethnic group, China is hardly monoethnic but consists of dozens of non-Chinese groups, for instance, Zhuang, Mongolians, Manchu, Koreans, Tibetans, and Uyghur. Being exempt from the One-Child Policy, ethnic populations are growing at about seven times the Han population. Most minorities have integrated into Chinese society, yet many Tibetans, Uyghur, and perhaps Manchurians, resent Chinese control and could try to break away. Some of these minorities are strong in areas far removed from Beijing, which keeps the central government on edge.

Regional geography is also a significant factor. Stratfor points out:

Strategically, China is in a box. Its land borders . . . are comprised of the emptiness of Siberia, the emptiness of Central Asia, the mountains of the Hindu Kush, the mountains of the Himalayas, and the jungles (and mountains) of Southeast Asia. All of these borders are just secure enough to limit China's ability to expand, but not quite so awesome (with the obvious exception of the Himalayas) as to provide China with airtight protection.

Geopolitically, China's situation is the worst of both worlds: The wastes and barriers it must cross deny it the ability to expand, yet those same wastes and barriers do not protect it sufficiently from outside pressures. Because it considers itself vulnerable from Russia, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines—militarily, economically, or philosophically—it is more concerned with holding onto what it has than reaching out for more. It is likely to be insular and protective of its borders for many years.

Finally, China must tread carefully in its dealings with foreign powers, and certainly those on whom it relies in terms of trade. Its economy is built on good relations with suppliers of natural resources and buyers of manufactured goods. If either of these pools dries up, the Chinese economy withers. In other words, if it picks a fight with the wrong opponent, it could effectively slit its own economic throat. In China, economic trouble inevitably leads to social unrest and the likely possibility of a harsh military crackdown.

Certainly, the "China threat" is real, but at the moment, it is nowhere near the stature of a superpower showdown. Under today's circumstances, if push came to shove with the U.S.—and American resolve held—China would likely back down quickly, especially if the Seventh Fleet made a show of force in the South China Sea. However, in tandem with other Asian nations, China would definitely be a force to be reckoned with. Should China enter a military bloc with regional neighbors, the China threat will reach the "alarming" level.