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Debate: Is China a threat to international stability?

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Does China give the rest of the world reasons for fear, in political, economic or social terms? Or is the ‘Terror from the East’ merely a myth?

This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by Rob Weekes. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.


Background and Context of Debate:

China has always featured prominently in the Western imagination. In early history, the threat purportedly posed by China can be linked to two factors ; the huge size of the State both in land and population, and the fact that China did not engage in dynamic relations with other nations. In the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, China was characterised by increasing poverty and political instability. The Boxer Rebellion, the Opium Wars, and conflicts between regional warlords suggested that China suffered from internal disarray and any contact with foreign powers was predominantly hostile. However, the actual threat of China to the West stems largely from the 1949 Communist Revolution. The inhumanity of the regime of Mao Zedong, in particular the supposed ‘Cultural Revolution’ and the disastrous economic policy of the ‘Great Leap Forward’ brought Western opprobrium, indicated by their refusal to recognize China within the United Nations organization. The aggressive foreign policy of the Cold War years, apparent in intervention in Korea, and more significantly, in the provision of arms to various Communist nations, created an image of an Eastern warmonger and powerbroker. Recently, the admission of China into the World Trading Organization, the return of Hong Kong and Macao to mainland rule, and the efforts to made by Jiang Zemin, the Chinese premier, have done much to improve relations with the West. However, the fear of China continues to haunt the minds of the Western leaders. The decisive power of a regime prepared to send tanks against demonstrators in Tiannemen Square will not be easily forgotten. The ‘Cox Report’ revealed that China had acquired American nuclear weapon technology, and China remains the only known nation to target its missiles at the USA. It would seem no surprise that Bill Clinton should have announced, in the twilight of his presidency, policies of ‘nuclear missile defence’ and ‘theater missile defence’ specifically to cou[1]

Economic strength: Is China's economic strength increasing dramatically, and at the peril of the rest of the world?


China is an economic powerhouse, that could dwarf Western nations: The biggest marketplace on Earth, China already dominates certain markets, producing one third of the world’s toys and one eighth of its textiles. Between 1951 and 1980, the economy of China grew at a rate of 12.5%, which is greater even than the archetypal ‘Tiger’ economy, that of Japan. The strenuous opposition mounted by the Republicans in the US Congress to the annual grant of ‘most favoured nation status’ to China was based partly on the economic threat posed by China to the US, which itself is the strongest economy in the world. The huge imbalance between exports to the US and the imports that China receives in return, which currently amounts to a $57 billion deficit, suggests that China could dominate the conventional trading relationships, and suck in most Western economies.[2]


China’s economic growth is unremarkable: In 1997 it accounted for merely 3.5% of world GDP, as opposed to the leading economy, the USA, representing 25.6%. In terms of GDP per capita, China ranks 81st, just ahead of Georgia, and behind Papua New Guinea. In terms of international trade, China is equivalent to South Korea and does not even match the Netherlands. In China’s peak year for the receipt of ‘foreign direct investment’ it did receive $45 billion. However, this was accompanied by record capital flight, in which $35 billion left the country. Of course China is a huge market. The comment of General Charles De Gaulle on Brazil seems appropriate ; it could be said that China “has great potential, and always will”.[3]

If a country is economically strong, other countries can benefit through trade partnerships: This liberalization of trade is being achieved through accession of China to the WTO. One of the conditions imposed upon membership was that China allow Western telecommunications organizations and banking corporations to operate on the mainland. China is a place for profit, not fear.[4]

Military threat: Does China represent a growing military threat?


From the middle of the twentieth century, China has presented a formidable military threat: Aside from the largest standing army in the world, China poses a threat both in terms of technology and regional ambition. The ‘Cox Report’ revealed that Chinese espionage resulted in the acquisition of information about military guidance systems and modern nuclear warheads. Chinese military exercises regularly simulate attacks on US troops that are situated in South Korea and the Japanese island of Okinawa. China presents an unacceptable military threat both directly and indirectly. Chinese arms deals buy hefty influence with various rogue states of international politics, and equip these nations to harm their civilians and threaten other states. The transfer of weapons to Pakistan, Sudan, Sri Lanka and Burma has precipitated an arms race with India and conflict in Kashmir, allowed two civil wars to be fought, and bolstered a brutal military junta. We no longer have to fear only terror from the East, but terror from around the world, that flows from China.[5]


People wrongly associate a military threat with the Communist political regime, rather than the pacific attitudes of its leaders: In terms of defence spending, China is insignificant, accounting for only 4.5% of the global total, as opposed to 33.9% generated by the US. Similarly, the amount of arms dealing is also no cause for concern. China transferred $1 billion of weapons, constituting 2.2% of the global total. The United States, by contrast, traded 45% of the world’s weapons, and Britain, 18%. Moreover, it could hardly be claimed that these powers themselves have an ethical record for the manufacture and sale of weapons. British fighter planes have been used in the suppression of civil unrest in Indonesia and East Timor, whilst American weapons have equipped the Taleban in Afghanistan and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The US has refused even to sign up to the convention prohibiting the use of landmines. Evidently, Britain and the United States also have nuclear weapons arsenals, probably in excess of the number of warheads held by China. China is a signatory to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. China has never detonated a nuclear weapon in conflict, nor shown any willingness to do so. The United States however did use two nuclear devices in East Asia in 1945. Perhaps it is no surprise that China decided therefore it needed nuclear weapons for its own defence.[6]

Stabilizer?: Does China act as a stabilizing force in the Asian theater?


China acts as a destabilising influence in the East Asian region: The clear threat posed to Taiwan is apparent, not only in the aggressive statements made by Zhu Ronghji, but palpably in the manoeuvres of the navy in June 1999 to intimidate Taiwanese voters in the presidential election. In 1997, China went so far as to launch missiles over Taipei. The threat that China poses to Taiwan is keenly appreciated by the US, the Seventh Fleet patrolling the Taiwanese Straits precisely to counter any Chinese hostility.[7]


China actually acts as a crucial binding force within a turbulent theater: China’s clear influence over North Korea was apparent in 1994, when negotiations in Pyongyang resulted in China bringing the pariah state into line with its Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations. China is a crucial emissary of the West in this regard. The meeting between the US Secretary of State Madeline Allbright and the North Korean premier was partly borne of Chinese diplomacy. No one would deny that China has a right to practise military manoeuvres. Moreover, it is by no means certain that China is exerting an unfair influence over Taiwan. It should be noted that both the Taiwanese and the Chinese national constitutions state that Taiwan is a part of mainland China.[8]

United Nations Security Council: Does China represent a stabilizing force in the United Nations?


China threatens the Western powers even in the cradle of world democracy, the United Nations: As a permanent member of the Security Council, China has repeatedly vetoed Western proposals, often for petty political objectives, such as denying peacekeeping operations for Guatemala and Macedonia on the ground that these nations trade with Taiwan. Recently, the necessity for NATO intervention in Kosovo was partly because China refused to authorise a UN operation in the region. The NATO powers are currently being proceeded against in the International Court of Justice for acting without UN support. However, the crucial support they lacked was that of one obstreperous nation, China.[9]


China actually has a much better Security Council record than either Russia or France: It is not shocking that China offered little support for the NATO campaign in Kosovo, the Chinese embassy having been destroyed by a misdirected NATO missile. However, the reaction of China even in this circumstance was more theatrical than substantive. Having threatened to demand the redrafting of the mandate for intervention, China merely and meekly abstained. The lack of authorisation for NATO which has resulted in international legal proceedings is the fault of all fifteen members of the Security Council in failing to reach agreement on a definite role for NATO in Kosovo. Disagreements that divide the globe should not be laid at China’s door. China has made many efforts to promote international peace both within and outside the UN. Notably, when NATO attacked Serbia, the Russian Prime Minister, in mid-flight to the US, had the plane fly back to Moscow. However, the Chinese premier duly arrived in the US two weeks later. The strength of relations between the West and China are ably demonstrated in the successful return of Hong Kong, from British rule, and Macao, from Portugese control, to China in 1997 and 1999.[10]

China bloc: Does China have the capacity to form a threatening political bloc among nations to counter other global powers?


Just as in the days of the Cold War, China exerts a huge political pull that could allow it to form a dangerous powerblock threatening Western interests: China remains close to many states that lack the support of Western powers. Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, and North Korea are states which give Western military thinkers great cause for concern. These states are backed both politically and economically by China. The Communist Bloc is still a real threat, the only difference being that it now obtains in East Asia rather than Eastern Europe.[11]


For such a large country, the influence that China exerts over other nations is astonishingly small: As the largest recipient of international aid and a very reluctant donor, China is certainly not buying herself any allies. China is not even a cultural leader for ethnic Chinese populations, exemplified in its failure to demand UN or ASEAN intervention in Indonesia in 1998-99 during the persecution of the ethnic Chinese sector of society. For two thousand years, China abhorred the notion of international interdependence, and believed that she was big enough merely to learn from the outside world whilst controlling her own destiny. Although economic globalization has modified this approach, there is no evidence that it has evolved into an aggressive or expansionist philosophy.[12]



  • This House Fears China
  • This House Does not Have China in Its Hand
  • This House Thinks China should be Broken

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