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Is China expanding?



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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September 22, 2010

The newly appointed foreign minister of Japan, Seiji Maehara, has been quick to speak about Japan’s difficult relationship with China and said that he wanted Beijing to tell them why it was raising its defence spending. He described China’s military expansion as a “real threat to Japan”. Hardly were the words out of his mouth than a full scale row with Beijing erupted over Japan's arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain apparently caught fishing in waters claimed by both Japan and China.

Yet China for most of its history has lived contentedly within its borders. The country is enormous and it has never ached for more. Tibet has long been considered, centuries before the Communists came to power, as part of the imperium. China has never attacked Japan, but Japan launched a very bloody war against China in 1937, just as it did in 1894 and 1932.

Three hundred years ago both India and China, by world standards, were heavyweight economies. But even at their zenith they never considered going to war, as the Europeans regularly did. Neither do they today, even though one school of Indian strategists argue with no real evidence that China is India’s enemy number one, not Pakistan. They say that India had to develop a nuclear arsenal not because of a possible Pakistani threat but because of China.

Nevertheless, it is true that China has been raising its defence spending, especially on its navy (but from a very low base) - in sharp contrast to the days of Deng Xiaoping, the great economic reformer, who put China on its present high growth capitalist projectory, at the same time sharply cut defence spending.

China is active abroad - in Africa it has become its biggest investor. China, as its economy steams ahead needs more raw materials, in particular oil, metals and soya.

In Afghanistan China is mining for copper. It is building oil and gas pipelines to carry oil across the Caspian Sea and then across Kazakhstan. In Mongolia Chinese mining companies are hard at work. Moscow may be wary of the large number of Chinese settlers moving into its sparsely populated Far East, bringing timber and mining companies on their coattails, but if Moscow felt in anyway threatened it could cut off the immigration flow.

As Robert Kaplan argues in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, this expansion is one of need and therefore Chinese influence is not in any way threatening. “China’s emerging area of influence in Eurasia and Africa is growing, not in a nineteenth century imperialistic sense but in a more subtle manner better suited to the era of globalization.”

Even so China is shifting the balance of power in the Eastern hemisphere. Aided by China’s favourable location on the map, Beijing’s influence is expanding from Central Asia to the South China Sea and from the Russian Far East to the Indian Ocean.

However, China’s military might although growing is many decades away from being able to stand-up to the US or Europe. It is not developing an expeditionary force.

It is doubtful it would miscalculate with India, as it did before, in believing it could incorporate contested Himalayan border real estate. China could be sucked into North Korea if the regime collapses in an effort to stabilize it. And that is about it.

What border disputes it has had it has settled, except the minor one with India. With Russia, the Central Asian republics and other neighbours peaceful settlements of disputes have been the order of the day. On land all seems quiet and is likely to remain so. But at sea, some strategists say, it is appears to be another matter.

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It is suggested - not that anybody really knows - that Beijing considers the island chain of the Kuril Islands, Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines as potential flashpoints. It is already engaged in passionate argument with neighbours over the ownership of the energy-rich ocean beds of the East China Sea and the South China Sea, with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands and with the Philippines and Vietnam over the Spratly Islands. However, two years ago China and Japan sealed a historic natural gas joint development deal in a disputed part of the East China Sea. It needs to be said loud and clear that if the US Senate would ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty, thus raising its status and breathing life into its dispute and arbitration procedures, most of these territorial disputes could then be settled.

China appears to have no plans for territorial expansion, apart from Taiwan which for a couple of centuries it has considered part of China, but which is heavily enough armed to deter any attack. Meanwhile, it appears to be making its peace with China. China also probably wants to make sure that it can dissuade the US navy from having a free run between this island chain and the Chinese coast

Hopefully war with China in our time can be safely discounted. No Western politician should allow themselves (and this includes India) to be put in a corner by either their military or their hard line strategists and feel compelled to increase their navies for what is no threat at all.


Copyright © 2010 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
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Jonathan Power's 2001 book

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