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The Rise of China and the New Balance of Power in East Asia

Robert Ross

Professor, Department of Political Science, Boston College
Research Associate, John King Fairbank Center for East Asian Research
Harvard University

March 3, 2004

Over the years, I've looked at China's rising power and I believe that I've discounted its importance. This is largely because I've considered China's force-on-force balance with the US, and it appears to be falling behind. There are other force-on-force balances of power which are more relevant, namely the China's balance with its neighbors. In 2001 I believe we reached a tipping point in East Asia. We are seeing a clearer division in the balance of power in East Asia, and it will probably make it more difficult in the future for the US to exert its power in the region.

Regarding the nuclear standoff with North Korea, South Korea has actively turned toward China, away from the US as a partner. Cracks have opened up in the US - South Korean alliance. For instance, in spite of US pressure in 2001, South Korea refused to give up its sunshine policy. There is recognition in South Korea that North Korea will eventually fall. This probably won't be tomorrow, but South Korea knows it must think about how it will respond to the loss of a buffer with China. It will face greater Chinese relative power. China has a capable land force, and irrespective of any weakness relative to US, it will remain a formidable military threat to South Korea. South Korea leans toward China today with full knowledge of this.

China's power also manifests itself on the economic front. Seoul is no longer dependent on the US for economic prosperity. China and Hong Kong are now South Korea's largest trading partners, giving China a power over South Korea which it wielded effectively in the recent trade war over garlic. The result was that South Korea caved, increasing its domestic market share of Chinese garlic. Beyond trade, South Koreans are studying in China in large numbers, have residencies in China, and are learning Chinese in schools. Soft power is following hard power.

Now America is seeking a diplomatic solution to the North Korean standoff, which I read to mean that we're giving up. We have conceded that South Korea has turned to China as a partner in dealing with North Korea. On the other hand China has imposed major sanctions on North Korea, cutting fuel and grain shipments. China leans closer to the South Korean position than the North Korean position on the peninsula. This reflects a realization that China has an alternative to North Korea in North East Asia. A hegemonic peace on the peninsula is emerging. South Korea is working through Beijing to deal with North Korea, and this manifests itself in reduced American presence on the ground. The shift is gradual but noticeable.

We also see China's power emerging toward Taiwan. In 2001 Bush opened the door to Taiwan to bring forward its long weaponry wish list. Yet Taiwan suddenly backed off, saying that it was not sure it was still interested in buying these advanced weapons. China today relies on missiles and fighter aircraft to threaten Taiwan. These weapons don't provide China a capability to bring Taiwan to its knees, but they will impose a significant cost on Taiwan if Taiwan declares independence. No matter what Taiwan buys from the US, the threat will exist, and Chinese influence over Taiwan will remain.

At the same time Taiwan has become more economically dependent on the mainland. Today much of its investments are tied up on the mainland, and over a million Taiwanese have residences on the mainland. Taiwanese businesses have been vocal in opposing political resistance. Taken together, this means that Mainland China has the ability to impose a large economic blockade on Taiwan. Today less than 10% of the people in Taiwan support a declaration of independence. Less than 20% support even changing the name of the government from the Republic of China to the Republic of Taiwan. The mainland has observed these popular trends, and it knows that there will not be an explosion any time soon.

No defense doctrine will be effective in dealing with China. Taiwan realizes that if it does not accommodate China, it will become the "Cuba of the East." In the midst of a crisis, other countries will likely suspend trade with both sides. It will become a pariah. I believe the Taiwan independence is doomed.

Maritime East Asia, on the other hand, remains an American lake because China does not possess a maritime power projection capability. But economically, China's power is growing rapidly. We saw for a long time a very strong anti-Japanese nationalist force in China. Polemics against Japan were common. They have all but ceased. Commentators routinely debate how China can expand cooperation with Japan. Chinese elites are hard-core realists, and I believe China's anti-Japanese nationalism was part of its security policy. Japan appeared 10 feet tall to China. It took a long time for China to realize that Japan's relative power toward China was sinking, but by 2000 this view had taken hold. China is much more confident today in its economic strength toward Japan.

China's exports to Japan have increased by 50% in recent years. Meanwhile Japan's exports to Hong Kong and China today are 75% of its exports to the US, and this number is growing. Soon Japan will trade more with China than it does the US. Whatever economic leverage the US once had with Japan will have disappeared. In a recent trade war, China exerted its power by responding to Japanese tariffs on mushrooms, leeks, and reeds with a 100% increase in duties on Japanese cars, cell phones and air conditioners. Truly this was massive retaliation.

The same trends are visible among the ASEAN countries and their balances with respect to China, although the trends are slower in developing. At the end of WWII the US realized it could do two things at once - achieve a global free trade order to boost economic growth everywhere, and create dependency on the US, whose economy was incredibly strong relative to the rest of the world. Today China has realized it can do the exact same thing, and I believe it is pursuing this strategy via ASEAN. They are offering non-reciprocal trade relations with ASEAN countries, just as America did decades ago.

Chinese leaders once denied that China was a powerful country, much less on the rise. "China is too poor, too weak." Not today. Chinese leaders actively debate how to use their power. So how does this impact America? First, we should remember how we got involved in these countries. We were opposing communism anywhere and everywhere -- the Munich syndrome. It was about credibility. Today communist influence of the Korean peninsula no longer threatens US national security. Moreover, I believe that China is reaching the extent of its expansion for geographic reasons. The seeds of China's political relations with the rest of East Asia, and therefore its growth in relative power, were laid in 1950, long before its economic takeoff. Those seeds do not extend beyond East Asia.

Rapporteur: David Blum

back to seminar schedule, Spring 2004