China and Those Tensions that Remain

Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington has been accompanied by the usual swooning. The New York Times, for instance, finds “Subtle Signs of Progress in U.S.-China Relations.” Very subtle indeed:

In a joint statement issued Wednesday, the Chinese for the first time expressed public concern over North Korea’s recent disclosure of a modern uranium-enrichment plant, a small but ardently sought step in American efforts to press Kim Jong-il to roll back his nuclear weapons program.

But even Times reporter Michael Wines is forced to admit that “words, of course, are easier than deeds.” He went on to concede (a concession that undercuts the entire thrust of the article):

Neither side made any significant progress, much less any breakthrough, on the larger problems that have bedeviled relations ever since Mr. Obama made his state visit to Beijing in November 2009. On the American side, that includes revaluing China’s currency, leveling the playing field for American investors in China and establishing a serious discourse between the nations’ militaries.

That tensions remain even after the two presidents broke bread together should hardly be a surprise. Keep in mind the larger picture. Numerous countries have ascended to great power status in the past 1,000 years, as China now aspires to do. Not a single one managed to make the transition peacefully. Not the Ottomans, not the Habsburgs, not the French, not the British, not the Germans, not the Russians. Not even the Americans. We like to think of ourselves as a peace-loving nation, but that’s not how our neighbors see us — and with good cause. Remember, as soon as we were strong enough, we went to war with Mexico to wrestle away the Southwest, and then, for good measure, we went to war with Spain to wrestle away Cuba and the Philippines. These were the actions, recall, of a liberal democracy. Autocratic regimes like the one in Beijing tend to be much more belligerent.

And indeed, China has been acting aggressively recently in trying to establish its hegemony in the region. As part of this process, it has undertaken a rapid military buildup that, as Dan Blumenthal and Mike Mazza note in the Weekly Standard, includes acquiring the means to strike distant American bases.

Does this mean that war with China is inevitable? Of course not. But we should be wary of the happy talk that normally accompanies summits. China may indeed see a “peaceful rise,” the slogan it adopted a few years ago. But based on history, that’s not the way to bet.