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China II: Beijing as a Conservative Power
Robert S. Ross is Professor of political science at Boston College and a research associate at the John King Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University. He is the author, with Andrew J. Nathan, of the forthcoming book, The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress: China's Search for Security.See more by this author
NEITHER BELLIGERENT NOR BENIGN
Recent discussion of Sino-American relations has focused on the development of a U.S. policy for managing a rising power and potential rival. The debate over containment versus engagement is at the center of this discussion. Advocates of containment foresee the rise of a belligerent power, a process that will inevitably destabilize Asia and challenge vital U.S. interests. Arguing that a powerful China will be intent on achieving a long list of unrealized territorial and political ambitions, they insist that the United States must respond to China's rise by strengthening its alliances on the Chinese periphery and increasing U.S. military deployments in Asia. Advocates of engagement agree that China is growing stronger but argue that Chinese intentions remain fluid and that premature adoption of belligerent policies risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy -- treat China as an enemy and it will be one. They assert that expanded economic relations and official dialogues on security issues, human rights, and the global commons will maximize the prospect that China will use its power in a manner conducive to U.S. interests.
The difference between these two policy packages is significant, but they share a concern for China's increasing ability to destabilize the regional balance of power and threaten vital American interests. In both cases, this concern is based on incorrect assumptions about Chinese strategic capabilities. The reason there is not a "China threat" is not because China is a benign status quo power, but rather because it is too weak to challenge the balance of power in Asia and will remain weak well into the 21st century. Nonetheless, China is not a second-rate power. It has the ability to inflict considerable damage on a wide range of U.S. interests.