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Does China threaten us?

A new, market-oriented China will soon share the world stage with U.S.

By Greg Guldin

What if China’s military were patrolling the skies and seas beyond Neah Bay and the Florida Keys and its corporations buying up American companies and resources and taking advantage of cheap American labor?

What if China kept sending emissaries to lecture American officials about the shortcomings of the American system: homelessness, unemployment, violence, racism and the way we discard our elderly?

Although some Americans might welcome the Chinese pre-eminence, others among us would naturally resent the overbearing Chinese presence—domination even—in our lives.

But of course, this is—not yet—the global reality. And it might never be. But imagining such a reversal might help us decide how we’d like the world to be structured—and to understand how others see the world.


Does China threaten us?

Some analysts have not tired of seeing China and the Chinese as a "threat" to America and American interests.

The racist "Yellow Peril" of the 19th and early 20th centuries blended half a century ago with the "Red Menace" of communism to create a fearful bogeyman that bedeviled Chinese-American relations for decades. Then, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, some of these analysts have rushed in to warn us that China should be our new "number one enemy."

For a decade and more we have thus been hearing about "the China Threat."

In 1992, Ross Munro of the Center for Security Studies wrote how China was a real menace to the United States, and others soon joined the chorus.

China, we were told, was an economic threat, a military threat, a political adversary. Its robust economy both threatened our global economic standing and bankrolled aggressive Chinese military moves throughout Asia. George W. Bush picked up the theme when he declared during the 2000 presidential campaign that China would no longer be considered in his administration a strategic partner of the USA (as it had been for over a decade), but our competitor.


Economic Powerhouse

Having emerged from the orthodox communism of the Mao years, China embarked in the 1980s on a policy of "market socialism" that dismantled the economically stagnating communes and returned land to individual households.

This unleashed a wave of prosperity that washed over many rural communities and created a mini-boom in the countryside, which, in turn, provided the cash and the labor for a spurt in local industries.

From there it was an expanding circle of economic growth, as coastal areas opened to foreign investment and new economic reforms opened the country to an explosion of private sector expansion.

Getting rich was glorious," declared China’s foremost leader of the time, Deng Xiaoping, and year after year the Chinese economy grew.

Now 20 years on, the world is witnessing one of history’s most sustained economic expansions that has lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty. Being the world’s fastest-growing economy for two decades running, averaging a 9 percent annual growth rate, is no mean feat. By last year, China led the world as a destination for foreign investment and had the world’s second-largest foreign currency reserve at US$280 billion.

But does China doing well economically make it a threat to us? Unlikely. For all its rapid growth, China's share of world trade is only around 4 percent – about the same as Italy's. And we should consider the great benefits of China's growth: millions of consumers in other countries are gaining from the low prices and high quality of Chinese goods and businesses across the globe are profiting from supplying a vast new market. Especially when other economies are stuttering, China's contribution to world market demand is vital.

Some analysts see a slowdown in China’s mid-range future. The transition to a full market economy and the challenges of global competition on the Chinese domestic market – induced by China’s entry into the World Trade Organization – mean that unemployment levels and a slew of bankruptcies of state-owned businesses will continue to cloud China’s otherwise rosy economic scene. And large numbers of people out of work and, perhaps for the first time in their lives, not supported by a robust social benefits
system raises the specter of social instability.


Awakening Dragon?

Just using the image of the powerful dragon awakening evokes a negative image in the American mind. Whereas dragons are positive and powerful symbols of rulers and the heavens in the Chinese cosmology, for Westerners dragons are to be feared, loathed and slain.

But even if we discard this clichéd negative symbol of the Chinese, the question remains: what is the role on the world stage for an increasingly prosperous and self-confident China?

Chinese themselves, like Americans, have a strong sense of patriotism and want their country to be respected by other nations. They react strongly to perceived slights — such as when their embassy is bombed or their fighter pilots shot down. These acts — committed by the U.S. — were the cause for much dismay in China. The U.S. reacted, though, as if we were the wounded party when Chinese and others did not take at first blush our protestations of innocence. One Chinese analyst believes "China's rapidly increasing wealth and strength have not been accepted by the West" and "that is the major factor contributing to the belief that the 'China threat' is real."

Is he right? Can the USA live with the fact of a strong and prosperous China expanding its role in Asia and the world? Must the peace, prosperity, and stability of Asia rely solely on U.S. military, political and economic power alone? Is there a proper role for China, and Japan and India for that matter, as the regional superpowers?

Japan will not forever tread as lightly as it has; sooner or later Japanese will demand a greater measure of global political clout to better match their economic strength.

And India—within 20 years destined to become the world’s most populous nation—will also probably become a global powerhouse by mid-century.

So what should our response be? The 20th century has not provided us with many positive examples.

Nearly every time an Asian nationalist movement caught the imaginations and loyalties of the broad majority of Asian peoples, the U.S. stood opposed and set us up for
often long and bloody conflicts. Will the 21st century be any different?

Recent reports from Asian neighbors of China in East and Southeast Asia reveal that they are not overly concerned with China’s rise, and in fact a robust trade with China has stimulated their economies.



After the 9/11 attacks, Presidents Bush and Jiang found new common ground in combating terrorism. The U.S. lowered its rhetoric about the failings of the Chinese political system, and China pledged its support against Muslim "extremists," a convenient stance given its own worries about Muslim separatists among the Turkic Uygur peoples of Western China.

Today’s Chinese leadership—like that of previous generations, Communist and non-Communist alike—wants the world to respect China and afford it a proper role on the world stage.

Our country should respect that legitimate desire and reconsider our own position in the world. Is it realistic for us to expect to go on indefinitely as "the world’s only superpower"? Or will we, like previous pre-eminent powers in the world, only slowly and begrudgingly make way for other "upstarts"? We should face the reality of this inevitability, and not insist upon acting as if Americans alone can determine the world’s future. Otherwise, we will prove true the criticism of our adversaries and even some of our allies that we disrespect peoples, nations and institutions in our attempts to shape the world to our design.

The recent decision of President Bush to declare a Security Council majority "irrelevant" because the U.S. couldn’t bend them to the administration’s will, does not bode well for our taking a more globally cooperative stance. China was low-key in its support for the anti-war, anti-U.S. hegemony block of France, Germany, and Russia. Now that the dogs of war have been released in Iraq, both the Chinese government and the Chinese people are looking on warily—with the rest of the globe—as this superpower unilaterally imposes its will on the world. Who among the rest of the world’s nations, they wonder, will be next on the Americans’ hit list?

Flush with the powerful feeling that unleashing the world’s most destructive military machine provides, President Bush is unlikely to adjust abruptly his anemic diplomatic skills. Nevertheless, we Americans should seek to convince him and our future leaders to take advantage of our temporary pre-eminence to encourage global cooperation, the adherence of all countries to international laws and agreements, and the emergence of a decision-making frame of mind that considers the best interests of all of humanity, and not just our 5 percent fraction—all in our own long-term self-interest.

Applying such American values of generosity and fair play to the world will hopefully lead to the U.S. no longer being seen by the majority of the world as the greatest threat to world peace—as we unfortunately are today.

Let's accept the fact that a new, market-oriented China will soon share the world stage with us. If we don't, we could set ourselves up for making the opening scenario come to pass as a disgruntled China – or any other nascent superpower – surpasses us both economically and militarily. quality."

Greg Guldin is an applied anthropologist who also serves as a professor of anthropology at PLU. He is currently on assignment for the World Bank in China.


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