One of the defining features of the early 21st century is the rise of China. What is extraordinary about this is the Chinese assertion that its rise will be peaceful and the apparent willingness of its neighbours to accept this Chinese rhetoric. David Kang, a professor at Dartmouth College, attempts to explain this phenomenon in this new provocative book.
Kang challenges the widely held view that the rise of a great power is destabilising, as he sees this as based on the European or Western experience and irrelevant to the East Asian context. Instead, he chooses to review the history of East Asian international relations from 1300 and concludes that a strong and dominant China had historically been a force for stability. He also reviews the relations between China and the major countries in the region and concludes that East Asian countries generally are not worried about the rise of China and thus choose to accommodate rather than balance a rising China. With the exception of Taiwan and to a much lesser extent Japan, the Asian states view their economic inter-dependence with China as a positive factor that will enable the rise of China to be mutually beneficial.
The thesis is provocative but not convincing. The survey of East Asian history in this book is partial, limited and used selectively to support Kang's premise that the East Asian experience is different from that of Europe. The time frame he has chosen is also a curious one, as the case cannot really be made without going back to the founding of the First Empire in China, a contemporary of the Roman Empire. If he had done so and reviewed the history as it was rather than selectively, he would probably have drawn a different conclusion.
Contrary to Kang's claim, China did not historically see itself as the dominant power in East Asia - the concept of Asia itself was imported from Europe in the modern era. From the founding of the multi-ethnic First Empire in 212BC onwards, China saw itself as the centre of civilisation and a universal empire in terms not fundamentally different from those of the Romans at their zenith. In the two millennia that followed, Chinese expansion usually stopped short of the current boundary of the People's Republic because its administrative, economic and logistical capacity did not allow it to sustain a bigger empire.
Kang's reference to Zheng He's impressive naval expeditions to East Africa in the 15th century is highly misleading, as he fails to explain why Zheng's grand fleet was subsequently destroyed under imperial order - for it imposed an unacceptable and unsustainable burden on the Empire. To then conclude that China had no territorial ambition in areas beyond its capacity to sustain control represents an inherent commitment to peace is to construct a tautological argument.
With regard to the contemporary analysis, Kang does not explain Chinese strategic thinking beyond public policy statements. What he fails to see is the central importance of Taiwan and the implications. China is undoubtedly committed to a policy of rising peacefully, since it can pre-empt reactions from others that can arrest its rise. The real question is: what will China do when it has "risen"? Kang avoids this and claims that no one knows. But given the Chinese Communist leadership's tying of its legitimacy to the "recovery" of Taiwan, can it deem China to have risen without taking control of democratic Taiwan? Can this be achieved without either Taiwan being subdued or the US being deterred from helping Taiwan defend itself (or, from the US perspective, acting on its own Taiwan Relations Act)?
With this being virtually unavoidable, is it surprising that East Asian states, excepting Japan, which is committed to stand by the US over Taiwan, are not worried of a rising China?
By treating Taiwan as an exception Kang has missed the most important issue that will test the real intentions of the Chinese state when it has finally risen.
Steve Tsang is Louis Cha Fellow, St Antony's College, Oxford, and editor of If China Attacks Taiwan: Military Strategy, Politics and Economics
China Rising: Peace, Power, and Order in East Asia
By David C. Kang
Columbia University Press
Published 1 December 2007