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The Myth of Chinese Military Aggression

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The list of military "provocations" grows longer: outlandish territorial claims in the South China Sea, and vilification of Hillary Clinton who has the temerity to challenge them; installation of more than 1,000 ballistic weapons aimed at Taiwan; confrontation on the high seas with Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines; year-on-year military spending increases of 13 percent since 1989, with defense budgets now approaching at least $80 billion; production of the nation's first national aircraft carrier and development of an anti-ship missile that can strike from 900 miles away.

China's bark is worse than its bite.

The Communist Party is ramping up the country's military capabilities -- the Economist estimates that the PRC's spending will exceed America's by the middle of the next decade -- but China will never invade other countries or confront the military supremacy of the United States. Its primary concern is, and always has been, defense, an understandable one given its history. For a credible analysis of China's modern fighting force, scour Pentagon briefings. But to get a sense of the Beijing's pacifist instincts, come for a visit.

Every tourist monument built to last was built to protect. China offers little of transcendent delight. There is no Chinese Taj Mahal, no Eiffel Tower. The Great Wall was built to shield the nation from nomadic invasion. The Forbidden City, raised during the early Ming dynasty as a bulwark against the Mongols, is a fortress, replete with moats, turrets, and a labyrinthine inner structure. Beijing's magnificent Temple of Heaven was accessible only to emperors. Traditional Chinese homes ensured not only physical safety but also hierarchical and cosmological security. Southern Hakka clans constructed gigantic circular edifices that housed entire villages during attacks. Shi Huangdi, China's ruthless first emperor, carved thousands of terra cotta warriors for protection in the afterlife.

Even today, manifestations of China's protective instinct are everywhere. Thick walls topped with glass shards and barbed wires obstruct views of Shanghai's lovely French concession manors. Inside luxury apartment buildings, the front doors of individual units are double-gated. Safeguard, the leading soap brand for 25 years, is popular because of "germ protection." Engagement rings mean commitment, not romantic love. Anti-toxicity drives premium paint sales. Martial arts, a perennial passion, teach defense, not offense. Products, from bread to staplers, are sold triple-wrapped in cellophane. Taxi drivers steer from behind cages.

Chinese shield themselves from danger, real or imagined. They are not a people itching for war. They want unity. They will not support militarily aggressive governments, including their own. If Taiwan declares independence, the People's Liberation Army will invade the island. But, in Chinese eyes, this extreme act will not be perceived as aggressive -- it is being done to defend sacred borders. Will forces of paranoia trigger an act of irrational, preemptive self-defense? If an ossified Communist Party invades Taiwan as a last-ditch effort to rally a low-growth nation, things could get ugly. But given China's penchant for incremental reform, it seems unlikely. If the United States accepts the inevitability of sharing the spotlight with a resurgent China, Beijing will keep cool.

The Chinese are pragmatists. They know China's ascent will not continue without Western complicity. No matter how successful the central government is in rebalancing the economy toward domestic consumption, exports to Western markets, which have fueled more than 60 percent of economic expansion since 1990, will determine growth rates for decades to come. Importantly, China has always productively engaged with other societies from Indian Buddhism to American capital markets, absorbing new influences and applying them in Chinese contexts. It has also learned from the thirty years of economic and social disaster triggered by post-Liberation isolation that walls, at least outside cyberspace, are counterproductive. In China, there is no desire, even among reactionary military factions, to become divorced from global forces of progress. As one street-smart 60-year-old confided, "We're afraid of not having any friends."

In the end, how China behaves in the 21st century has a lot to do with the West. Many of the tensions of contemporary China -- between rich and poor, city and rural, ruler and ruled, insiders and outsiders -- are eternal. So is the country's resourcefulness. Geopolitical "harmony" is as much our choice as theirs. Given an adolescent economy and an immature body politic, China must focus on domestic imperatives. America also has work to do -- the population is aging, generational and ethnic divides are clear-cut, the economy is becoming ever more reliant on creative innovation. May both nations be blessed with leadership enlightened enough to embrace a new world order.

This essay is excerpted from my upcoming book, What Chinese Want: Culture, Communism and China's Modern Consumer, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in May 2012.