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The View From Beijing: The Elusive 'China Threat'

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Teaching this summer in Beijing, I find the shrill tones of Western war hawks proclaiming an impending "China threat" to be surreal at best and absurd at worst.

Yes, China has made amazing progress since Deng Xiaoping proclaimed the Four Modernizations in 1978. Having regularly traveled to China since 1988, I have seen China make a quantum leap forward in only twenty-five years. China has achieved many impressive international firsts:

  • #1 GNP growth rate among major world powers (10% per year)
  • #1 exporter, surpassing Germany and the United States
  • #1 in lifting people out of poverty (600 million people)
  • #1 in number of people on the Internet (560 million)
  • #1 in importing luxury goods (17 billion dollars)
  • #1 in buying cars (15 million)
  • #1 city with the most high-rise buildings (Shanghai)
and soon...
  • #1 largest GNP

Yet, for all these accomplishments, it will take China until 2040 or 2050 to become a modern superpower. Today it still lags far behind the United States in many key areas:

  • China has over 500 million peasants while America has almost none
  • Chinese GNP per capita ($6,100) is 12% of the United States level ($50,000)
  • China has no universities in the top twenty in the world while the United States has 17 top universities
  • Chinese Zhongguancun cannot compare with America's Silicon Valley
  • China has not begun the transition to democracy while the United States has been the world's leading democracy for over a century
  • China has few allies (North Korea, Venezuela, Pakistan, Iran?) while the United States has key allies all over the world (England, France, Germany, Japan, India, Saudi Arabia, Israel)
  • China's modern military capabilities (aircraft carriers, supersonic jet fighters, ABM systems, strategic nuclear weapons and ICBMs) are a fraction of those of the United States.

Furthermore, the Chinese communist leaders, remembering the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, the massive June 4th, 1989 Tienanmen demonstrations and Japanese atrocities and humiliation in the Anti-Japanese War (1937 to 1935), are leery of failed adventures. Their Imperial predecessors showed no appetite for overseas adventurism. Chinese leaders today have not developed a militant expansionist ideology.

Their last military adventure in Vietnam in 1979 was a failure and they are spending less than 25% of American military spending. Their only irredentist claim is to Taiwan, which was taken by the Japanese after the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, and it is likely to be settled peacefully.

The Chinese television that I watch here in Beijing berates the Japanese for their atrocities in the Anti-Japanese War while giving the Americans a relatively free pass. Also, American universities receive the greatest number of Chinese students (200,000) in the world. Sino-American trade of 500 billion dollars makes the United States China's #1 trade partner, provides extensive technology transfer and generates a large Chinese trade surplus.

China also is a major trading partner of all its potential enemies including Japan (343 billion dollars), South Korea (260 billion dollars), Taiwan (160 billion dollars), Russia (80 billion dollars), India (74 billion dollars), and Vietnam (33 billion dollars). Russia is also China's largest arms supplier.

China, while rising for over 30 years under a benign Western umbrella, is still several decades away from challenging the West on an equal footing -- and it is far from certain that China will ever want to do so except perhaps in East Asia.