The Tyrant Awakens: The Rise of China and the Fall of the East Asian Status Quo

China builds an airstrip on a reef in disputed territory in the South China Sea. Credit: IHS-Janes and the BBC

As China’s power and influence increase, so does its assertiveness. There is little the rest of the world can do when it comes to Hong Kong and perhaps even Taiwan. All is not lost, but the West, and the United States in particular, must face some tough choices sooner rather than later.

As China’s power and influence increase, so does its assertiveness. Its patience, by contrast, is waning. When the United Kingdom transferred sovereignty over Hong Kong back to China in 1997, China guaranteed the territory a high degree of autonomy under its so-called "One Country, Two Systems" policy. Hong Kongers' protests against Chinese influence in territorial elections show that its residents still value their independence and freedom highly. China refused to budge, however, and instead let the protests slowly lose steam while it quietly upped the pressure on them. The protesters stood little chance against the power of the Chinese Government and had a weak bargaining position. There was little anyone in the rest of the world could do, either, except voice "support" for the protesters' right to speak out. Legally, Hong Kong is an undisputed part of China and China is rich and powerful enough to be able to do as it pleases within its own territory.

Over the last couple months, things have escalated, however, with the suspected abduction by mainland agents of workers and the owner of a Hong Kong book store that sells many books critical of mainland China and its government. Two of those abducted are dual citizens, one British, one Swedish. Again, Western countries are likely to do little, though diplomatic pressure may make a difference—China is unlikely to want to provoke a spat with Britain, Sweden, and America over the issue, especially if it reckons it can scare the men enough in the meantime and continue doing so with other less visible means in the future. (A mainland investor recently bought one of Hong Kong's most revered and independent newspapers. It's possible China may use that ownership change to exert influence or shift editorial focus away from topics it views as unpalatable.)

China has also been angering and frightening many of its neighbors with its strident claims to territory those neighbors claim for themselves. (For a great video summarizing those claims, see here.) This is where the US must tread carefully even as it treads forcefully.

Pax Americana

The term "Pax Americana" refers to the relative peace and stability that has reigned within America's sphere of influence since 1945. During the age of "bipolarity," when the world was divided primarily into American and Soviet spheres, interstate war and instability occasionally occurred at the edges of those spheres, but not within their clearly marked cores. The US and USSR refrained from meddling in the cores of each others' spheres (like Western Europe for the US and Eastern Europe for the USSR) and ensured that other members of their blocs did so as well. Since the fall of the USSR, the US has been enjoying a "unipolar moment," during which its sphere of influence has expanded. 

Russia is now pushing back against that expansion in Europe and the Middle East (even as America rethinks its involvement in the latter). At the same time, China is now in a position to push the boundary where its sphere ends and America's begins for the first time since the 1970s, when agreements with Nixon's America achieved recognition of the government in Beijing as the legal government of China and US acceptance that there was only one China and that Taiwan was part of it.

A new bipolarity

America's "unipolar moment" is slowly waning, and this is perhaps most obvious in East Asia due to the rise there of what will likely be the next country to join America among the ranks of world superpowers. As its might increases, China will begin to see as doable the pursuit of interests it had previously deemed impractical and less important. At the same time, with the relative decline of US power compared with China, the US will need to restrict the interests it pursues in the region and will need to consider which ones are no longer practical or worth it. Would the US go to war with China over democracy in Hong Kong? Unlikely. What about Taiwan? Or Japan? These two are both more likely. China is geographically much closer to both Taiwan and Japan than the US is. It has a massive army and is upgrading its capabilities and beginning to establish a real navy. The US needs to decide its priorities and draw clear and credible lines sooner rather than later.

The US's lines in the sand regarding Japan are already pretty clear: The US is sworn to protect it. Continued cooperation and unity between the US and Japan are crucial and could probably do with being beefed up. The possibility of one day basing American nuclear weapons in Japan should also be on the table—hopefully remaining just that: on the table, rather than in reality. Japan also needs to beef up its own defenses as its Chinese neighbor rises in power relative to America. Taken together, this should protect Japan. The Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, administered and claimed by Japan but also claimed by China, are an issue that could lead to severe tensions. The US should push Japan and China to resolve their differences over the islands, just as it should make a push to resolve other territorial disputes with China. Now is the time to be magnanimous. Once the disputes are settled would be the time for complete firmness against any further Chinese claims.

Tough choices

Taiwan is a different story from Japan entirely and it's a grim one. China and America, and even Taiwan, agree that there is only one China and Taiwan is part of it, while agreeing to disagree on what that means in practice. China and the US also agree that neither Taiwan nor China may attempt to change that status quo unilaterally. If Taiwan wants to be formally independent, China must agree. If China wants to integrate Taiwan into itself, Taiwan must agree. It would be nice to push for agreement on this dispute as well. The problem is, the two sides are unlikely to agree any time in the foreseeable future. In fact, young Taiwanese are more likely to see themselves as more Taiwanese than Chinese, suggesting unification stands little chance of garnering a majority among Taiwanese citizens. China sees this and is losing patience.

It is my opinion that only the firmest of commitments, involving a significant increase in US spending on Taiwan's military and an increased and permanent presence of American troops and warships in and around Taiwan could safeguard the status quo. It is not at all clear that America has the stomach for this. Furthermore, any move to beef up Taiwan's defenses against China could itself spark an open conflict, as China would see this as an unacceptable American-led change in the status quo. Making it clear that the US would not go to war to save Taiwan would risk giving the green light to China to act against Taiwan. Doing nothing, however, risks that very same outcome occurring once China thinks it is strong enough and the US hesitant enough.

If the US is not willing to beef up its commitment, it should prepare, behind the scenes, to affect the outcome of any forced integration of Taiwan by China. It might put up enough of a fight to ensure that China issues similar, but better, promises of autonomy to Taiwan than those it gave to Hong Kong. This would be a face-saving compromise that would give China more or less what it wanted while improving the situation for the Taiwanese compared to how they would fare without any US involvement. It would still be a punch in the gut to Americans wishing to protect Taiwanese democracy from the mainland, however. This is what I mean when I say tough choices lie ahead. They will have to be made and they will not be pretty. Putting off thinking about them will not help.


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