BEIJING – Many Chinese people dream that their country will one day become “number one”. The dream is legitimate – as with any race, you want to win; or in any economic competition, you want to outperform your competitors. This is part of the nature of the capitalist system that has spread from the West to countries all over the world.
In international politics, this competition has a delicate appendix involving dangerous military matters.
Will China’s military catch up with America’s? And if so, when? Many strategists in Beijing wonder about these questions, and the main drive of the thinking is on China’s economy.
When China’s economy is big enough it will “naturally” sustain greater military expenditures, and thus in due time it will outperform the US in military might. There are some snags to this linear thinking. One is related to technological advances: China lags behind America in many technological areas, and it is hard to catch up.
The US might become economic “number two” but could well retain its technological prominence in military matters for several decades after China overtakes it economically. Still, even if China were to catch up in military technology, one wonders whether it would have the intellectual freedom necessary for the research innovation needed to manufacture effective and ground-breaking technology that would lead Beijing to be a giant in this sphere, as the US presently is.
These problems are all real, and Beijing might have some solutions. However, the problems of China’s military rise are possibly not solved by simple projections of China’s economic growth in future decades.
But first, let’s assume that economic growth can take care of everything. One can simply think that in 20 years, China’s gross domestic product (GDP) may be larger than America’s. Then, because of its new economic might, China’s military could be in a position to overtake the US’s, and China might think this could happen in the following 10 or 20 years (around 2040-2050). Yet, even then, by the middle of the century, China’s military challenges would be far from over.
China would still be alone against an alliance made of America plus European countries, Japan, India and other Asian countries. All these states might prefer to side with America and not with China in the event of military confrontation.
Such a grouping would represent a technological, military and economic power far bigger than China in the foreseeable future, even if we were to stretch ourselves to the end of this century. China would not be able to take on all of them, and in fact, in the next decades, China will have to rely heavily on US involvement in the region to ease tensions with its neighbors. 
Could China grow stronger by about 2030-2040 and then replace America in this broad pattern of alliances? To a certain extent, yes, but in the event of a real military confrontation, this is most unlikely because all these countries are scared of China’s rise. This is because China is a newcomer, and thus largely unpredictable. It is too big, growing too rapidly, and too ”new” to modern international diplomacy. But mostly, all of these countries are scared because China’s politics are not transparent and Beijing is not forthcoming about its political decision-making because China is not, in one word, democratic.
If China is ever to become “number one”, it would need first not a mighty and technologically advanced military, but real allies and real friends – not friends like North Korea or even Pakistan, a country that if pressed to choose between China and America most likely now would still pick America. To have friends, China has to become democratic, and while this would also not be a total solution, it would be a necessary step.
Given the US’s status, the road to greatness in China is bound to go through some sort of political compromise and agreement with America. One difficulty in this is that China will have to build its new friendship with America without leaving other countries behind.
That is, China would have to build good ties with many countries that are presently friends with America, as well as continue building ties with America. Only if China can weave a complicated web of new political ties can it realistically hope to become politically “number one” sometime after it becomes economic “number one”. And then it could be poised to naturally inherit the US’s reach in the world and its web of alliances.
This leaves a few open questions: what is the use of China’s present military build-up? Will the new Chinese weapons realistically be used to conquer Taiwan or to impose its rule in the South China Sea? In the foreseeable future, China could meet both goals, but if that were to happen, China would economically and politically be suffocated immediately after the conquest. China knows it and will try not to pursue this course, as it would end all its dreams at once.
But China’s present tendency to not give up its military threat to Taiwan is motivated by domestic reasons: the push of nationalists who have no real and clear idea of the ways China could realistically become “number one”.
Certainly, China’s dream to become “number one” has many enemies, many of whom call themselves Chinese. Take, for instance, the case of Mao Zedong. Some Chinese neo-nationalists consider him the greatest Chinese hero of the past century. However, his 30 years of political experiments stopped China’s economic growth for many decades.
At the end of World War II, Japan’s and China’s GDPs were at the same level. If we take this as a standard, without Mao, China’s GDP could have become two-thirds of America’s GDP by the late 1980s. If we more realistically take Taiwan’s GDP per capita as a standard of China’s potential overall GDP growth, China’s economy could have overtaken that of America by the late 1970s.
These projections are debatable but are a useful intellectual exercise as from here we can see that China, thanks to Mao, lost some 50 years of development. Then, in retrospect, Mao was China’s enemies’ best friend, and at present the best weapon China’s enemies could invent would be to create a second Mao.
This thought could perhaps become important in the next couple of years, as China is readying itself to put in power a batch of new rulers coming from the ultra-Maoist experience. The Chinese rulers after the 2012 Communist Party Congress will likely all be former Red Guards, and thus they will have experienced firsthand the disasters of the times when China lost ground. Yet they might also have an important Maoist mindset: “wu tian, wu fa” (“no heaven, no law”), open to all possibilities and daring to do anything in the best interests of their country.
1. See my The blessing of China’s threat, La Stampa, June 4, 2007.
(Conversations with Huang Jianping, Paul Shao and Amir Shadab helped in the conception of this article.)
Francesco Sisci is the Asia Editor of La Stampa.
(Copyright 2010 Francesco Sisci.)
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Francesco Sisci – Asia Times