Sunday, September 18, 2005

Clash of the Titans

Clash of the Titans

By Zbigniew Brzezinski, John J. Mearsheimer

Is China more interested in money than missiles? Will the United States seek to contain China as it once contained the Soviet Union? Zbigniew Brzezinski and John Mearsheimer go head-to-head on whether these two great powers are destined to fight it out.
Make Money, Not War - By Zbigniew Brzezinski
Today in East Asia, China is rising—peacefully so far. For understandable reasons, China harbors resentment and even humiliation about some chapters of its history. Nationalism is an important force, and there are serious grievances regarding external issues, notably Taiwan. But conflict is not inevitable or even likely. China’s leadership is not inclined to challenge the United States militarily, and its focus remains on economic development and winning acceptance as a great power.
China is preoccupied, and almost fascinated, with the trajectory of its own ascent. When I met with the top leadership not long ago, what struck me was the frequency with which I was asked for predictions about the next 15 or 20 years. Not long ago, the Chinese Politburo invited two distinguished, Western-trained professors to a special meeting. Their task was to analyze nine major powers since the 15th century to see why they rose and fell. It’s an interesting exercise for the top leadership of a massive and complex country.
This focus on the experience of past great powers could lead to the conclusion that the iron laws of political theory and history point to some inevitable collision or conflict. But there are other political realities. In the next five years, China will host several events that will restrain the conduct of its foreign policy. The 2008 Olympic Games is the most important, of course. The scale of the economic and psychological investment in the Beijing games is staggering. My expectation is that they will be magnificently organized. And make no mistake, China intends to win at the Olympics. A second date is 2010, when China will hold the World Expo in Shanghai. Successfully organizing these international gatherings is important to China and suggests that a cautious foreign policy will prevail.
More broadly, China is determined to sustain its economic growth. A confrontational foreign policy could disrupt that growth, harm hundreds of millions of Chinese, and threaten the Communist Party’s hold on power. China’s leadership appears rational, calculating, and conscious not only of China’s rise but also of its continued weakness.
There will be inevitable frictions as China’s regional role increases and as a Chinese “sphere of influence” develops. U.S. power may recede gradually in the coming years, and the unavoidable decline in Japan’s influence will heighten the sense of China’s regional preeminence. But to have a real collision, China needs a military that is capable of going toe-to-toe with the United States. At the strategic level, China maintains a posture of minimum deterrence. Forty years after acquiring nuclear-weapons technology, China has just 24 ballistic missiles capable of hitting the United States. Even beyond the realm of strategic warfare, a country must have the capacity to attain its political objectives before it will engage in limited war. It is hard to envisage how China could promote its objectives when it is acutely vulnerable to a blockade and isolation enforced by the United States. In a conflict, Chinese maritime trade would stop entirely. The flow of oil would cease, and the Chinese economy would be paralyzed.
I have the sense that the Chinese are cautious about Taiwan, their fierce talk notwithstanding. Last March, a Communist Party magazine noted that “we have basically contained the overt threat of Taiwanese independence since [President] Chen [Shuibian] took office, avoiding a worst-case scenario and maintaining the status of Taiwan as part of China.” A public opinion poll taken in Beijing at the same time found that 58 percent thought military action was unnecessary. Only 15 percent supported military action to “liberate” Taiwan.
Of course, stability today does not ensure peace tomorrow. If China were to succumb to internal violence, for example, all bets are off.
If sociopolitical tensions or social inequality becomes unmanageable, the leadership might be tempted to exploit nationalist passions. But the small possibility of this type of catastrophe does not weaken my belief that we can avoid the negative consequences that often accompany the rise of new powers. China is clearly assimilating into the international system. Its leadership appears to realize that attempting to dislodge the United States would be futile, and that the cautious spread of Chinese influence is the surest path to global preeminence.


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