Are We Headed for a Fight with China?

Steve Chapman

5/27/2012 12:01:00 AM - Steve Chapman

SHANGHAI -- The Soviet Union is gone, al-Qaida is decimated, and Iran may never acquire nuclear weapons. But don't get too relaxed. If you're looking for reasons to be anxious about world peace, China offers an abundance.

It's a huge country with a growing economy, an expanding military and ongoing disputes with several neighbors. Nationalist sentiment has grown. China is a rising power, and history indicates that rising powers often assert themselves in ways that lead to bloodshed.

If you demand immediate evidence, look only to the South China Sea, where the Chinese are locked in an ominous standoff with the Philippines over fishing rights. The Obama administration recently underlined its worries by announcing it would deploy up to 2,500 Marines in Australia. As the longtime dominant nation in the Pacific, the United States has much to lose if China decides to mount a challenge.

Pessimism is a perfectly reasonable response to China's rise. It would not be surprising if it acts to become as dominant in its region as we are in ours. But in pondering the issue on a visit to China, I've found some reasons for hope as well. Tensions and disagreements may be inevitable, but military clashes and all-out war are not.

One encouraging fact is that the Chinese people are not naturally hostile to the United States. Shanghai pollster Victor Yuan told a group of journalists that included me, "Aside from politics, Chinese have a fully positive view of the United States."

American multinational corporations, he says, are regarded as good places to work. Western movies, music and consumer products are popular. Some 130,000 Chinese students are enrolled in the U.S.

It's true that, as Yuan says, the Chinese people rank the U.S. second among China's foes -- with first place going to Japan. But how much of this reflects Chinese belligerence and how much stems from our habit of invading other countries is hard to gauge.

In a candid, free-flowing session with a couple of dozen students at Peking University -- the country's most prestigious -- I asked if there are times when they feel angry toward the United States. Not one hand went up. Nor did any expect that America will help Taiwan break away from the mainland, which would undoubtedly be cause for war.

That consensus seems to be the prevailing view here. Yuan told us that 90 percent of Chinese expect the reunification with Taiwan to be accomplished peacefully.

Taiwan, which is part of China in theory but functionally independent, is the issue that could push the U.S. and China into a shooting war. But it always has been -- and the two sides have been able to keep it from mushrooming out of control. The Economist magazine reports that "relations across the strait have never been better."

Any assessment of the potential danger posed by China ought to incorporate its past behavior. MIT political scientist M. Taylor Fravel points out that since 1949, Beijing has settled 17 of its 23 territorial disputes. In most, it has offered significant compromises, "usually receiving less than 50 percent of the contested land."

"Over the past decade," he testified recently on Capitol Hill, "China has not used its armed forces to actively enforce its claims." Nor has it invented new claims to match its growing wealth and power.

Come to think of it, China hasn't fought a war since 1979. Its record is an encouraging contrast with that of the U.S., which has entered several wars of choice.

The Chinese have found that pushing their agenda can be counterproductive. When China acts assertively, its neighbors tend to seek safety in the arms of Uncle Sam. The Beijing government may have learned something from the experience of Germany -- which has gained a dominant role in Europe by being careful not to revive old fears.

China has followed that model in many respects, signing some 250 multilateral agreements, joining the World Trade Organization and taking part in United Nations peacekeeping operations. It's been generally supportive of international norms that mandate peaceful resolution of differences. It hasn't pursued drastic changes or used drastic measures.

That could change. Past results, we all know, are no guarantee of future performance. But peace has held so far, and it just might keep doing so.