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The China Threat

humeOn February 6, Andrew Nathan, Columbia University Professor of Political Science, presented the 54th Annual Edward H. Hume Memorial Lecture, sponsored by the Council on East Asian Studies at Yale University. His subject was one that scores of economists, politicians, and academics have attempted to address for years: Will the Chinese dragon continue its global rise and bring with it the so-called “China threat”?

Nathan pushes back on the classic understanding of the “China threat” – a theory that argues that a rising China will bring with it seismic challenges to the global economic landscape, a new military superpower, and an existential threat to the rules of the current world order.  The fact is that China has already “risen”; however, Nathan explains, “China will never be a hegemon in its region in the way that the United States has been. It will never be a power that calls all the shots and that uses its region as a springboard for calling the shots far away.”

Why then should one not fear the “China threat” in the conventional sense of the phrase? Simply put, Nathan argues, “Chinese leadership is acting out of weakness and not out of strength…China’s foreign policy is neither offensive nor expansionist. Plain and simple, it is defensive and too occupied beating back threats for it to consider expansionism on the level that many Western scholars and policymakers fear.”

Nathan points to four elements that affect China’s national security situation and influence their foreign policy.

First is an array of domestic issues. Compared with the United States, China faces the chronic problem of how to build a multiethnic empire into a unified state. The number of diverse minorities in the country brings challenges from every direction, including Tibet, the Uyghur people in Xinjiang, an ethnic Korean population along the North Korean border, and an ethnic Mongolia population in Inner Mongolia. Likewise, the Chinese government faces similar challenges coming from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Nathan poses that “China’s strategy has been an attempt to coerce and modernize these people, which has proven unsuccessful.”

The second area of concern comes from China’s borders. Nathan remarks: “China has nineteen countries, and these aren’t ‘nice’ countries like Canada. These are bad, bad countries. You have a paranoid Russia, a Japan that has invaded China in recent history…and seventeen other countries that will never trust China.” When trust is out of the question, stabilizing relations is the best option for a Chinese policymaker.

The third issue comes from larger regional concerns. Unlike the United States, Nathan points out that “China does not have the luxury of bilateral relations with any of its neighboring countries because they are all imbedded in complex regional systems.” Maritime issues with Japan affect the Philippines, and continental issues with North Korea affect South Korea. Through all of this, you find the United States as an informal ally with many nations too, further complicating matters for China.

The fourth and final concern that Chinese foreign policymakers must address is the ongoing island chain disputes, in which China has potential oil interests, and managing their relations with the rest of the world. Unlike the United States, Nathan explains: “China’s national security is not threatened by what happens far from its borders, like in Syria, and China has an advantage in terms of stability here.” Chinese foreign policy is reined in by the fact that its primary interests are economic and diplomatic in nature and rest in the markets.

With all considerations stated, ought one be wary of China’s continued economic and military growth? Nathan reiterates that China is already too interdependent on the current world order to become a normative threat. At least for the present, it is in their favor to promote stability than risk dealing with instability outside of its already tumultuous boundaries. Nathan closed with the reflection that he does not worry about the “China threat” in the classic sense, but worries about periods of “strategic distrust and the risk of strategic misperceptions of each other’s sides.”