Book Review - The China Challenge: Shaping The Choices Of A Rising Power

by: Global Risk Insights

GRI's Robert Shines reviews Thomas J. Christensen's lastest book, "The China Challenge". Shines argues that holes exist in the author's main thesis.

In "The China Challenge: Shaping The Choices of a Rising Power", author Thomas J. Christensen makes the argument that, in order to convince China to become a responsible stakeholder globally, the U.S. needs to use a hybrid strategy of deterrence and assurance. Deterrence would involve negotiating with China from a position of (not strictly militarily) strength, while simultaneously assuring China that its interests would be protected as long as it renounced the use of force, such as with regards to Taiwan and the South China Sea disputes.

When this strategy is unbalanced, or even worse, when only half of it is employed, Chinese cooperation on a multitude of issues will not be forthcoming and the author illustrates this in numerous cases.

However, unless it's Japan, any state's key interests are inevitably defended by it through the use of force and, even more importantly, are defined by itself, not through others. This is especially vexing in negotiations with China as it, first and foremost, is concerned with domestic ramifications of its foreign policy as its leadership depends on domestic stability for survival.

Economic concerns and nationalist sentiments far outweigh calls by the international community to be a responsible stakeholder.

Related to this, Christensen overestimates the ability of China's economic integration into the global economy to deter it from recognizing and enforcing its own legitimate security and economic interests. This leads to the first of several of Christensen's contradictions when he insists that, as part of being a responsible stakeholder, China not give succor to pariah states such as North Korea and Iran by continuing its economic relations with them.

However, he also insists that as part of its assurance strategy, the U.S. makes it clear to China that Western efforts to economically isolate said regimes will not harm Chinese interests.

With respect to China's concern with sovereignty and territorial integrity issues, Christensen's tone is condescending in referring to China's concerns about the U.N.'s "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P) proposal as belonging to the twentieth-century as opposed to the twenty-first century.

This finds resonance in the wake of the U.N.'s mission in Libya morphing from one of protecting Benghazi civilians to outright regime change by NATO. Of course, China, as well as Russia, was concerned at this development and this would explain their reticence at sponsoring similar U.N. resolutions with respect to the current Syrian crisis.

In particular, the author's tone is one of continual arrogance and hypocrisy in defining China's security interests with respect to a potential North Korean regime collapse. In stating that China should have no problem in dealing with "only" 20 million North Korean refugees, the size of a typical Chinese city, he fails to draw a parallel with the U.S.'s internal debate to accept any more than the current 1,500 Syrian refugees.

Additionally, he states that with South Korea filling in the void after a potential North Korean collapse, China should have no problem with potential U.S. troops on its border because it's much more powerful now than during the Korean War.

While Russia's resistance to having NATO troops stationed closer to it in the wake of the Former Soviet Union's collapse may technically prove the author's thesis because Russia is much weaker than the U.S.S.R., it's a highly dangerous and provocative thesis nonetheless.

As noted above, regime change is an especially sore point for China. Christensen gives examples of Chinese cooperation being given, through its own economic pressure, if assurances are made that regime change is not on the table. Because of this, U.S. negotiating efforts with China were eventually successful with respect to Sudan's Darfur, but less so regarding Burma.

In the conclusion, Christensen posits that China can only genuinely become a responsible stakeholder if it allows internal political reform to follow economic reform. This inevitably would be interpreted by China as U.S. preference for eventual regime change, its red line demonstrated in numerous other cases. This is understandable as regime change, underwritten by democracy promotion efforts, has had an extremely poor track record as of late.