'China's Peaceful Rise' is back on the agenda in Beijing. This seemingly benign theory is designed to counter fears of a 'China Threat' by portraying Beijing as a power that intends to rise peacefully without posing a danger to the rest of the world. But it also carries a sting in its tail, with the unspoken corollary that any attempt by the U.S. to prevent China's rise would be interpreted as a hostile act.
According to Chinese officials, the theory was high on President Hu Jintao's talking points for his trip to Washington this week, a visit which has now been postponed because of Hurricane Katrina. Its prominent inclusion on Mr. Hu's agenda marks a remarkable turnaround for a theory that largely disappeared from sight during much of last year. At that stage, Peaceful Rise seemed to have fallen victim to a power struggle between Mr. Hu and his predecessor Jiang Zemin, who argued it could inhibit China's military modernization program.
Mr. Jiang's targeting of Peaceful Rise was scarcely a surprise since the theory has been closely associated with his successor, ever since it first emerged from the Central Party School in Beijing, at a time when then Vice President Hu was the school's president. Its origins can be traced back to an April 1998 book by Chinese strategic scholar Yan Xuetong and three of his colleagues focusing on how China could accomplish its rise as a world power without starting another cold war.
In recent years, its most ardent proponent has been Zheng Bijian, who ran the party school while Mr. Hu was its president and has emerged as one of his key foreign-policy advisers. After stepping down from the party school in early 2003 to run a Hu-affiliated think tank called the China Reform Forum, Mr. Zheng has repeatedly advanced the Peaceful Rise theory, most notably in his November 2003 speeches to the Bo'ao Forum on China's Hainan Island in 2003 and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the U.S. After that latter speech, American scholars confronted him with their concerns, citing the prior examples of Germany and Japan, that the rise of great powers usually creates instability in the international system, particularly when the power involved is not a democracy.
In a September 2004 article for China Reform Forum Journal, Mr. Zheng revised his formulation of the theory in an effort to address these concerns: 'Our China's] path is different from both the paths of Germany in World War I and Germany and Japan in World War II, when they tried to overhaul the world political landscape by way of aggressive wars. Our path is also to be different from that of the former U.S.S.R. during the reign of Brezhnev, which relied on a military bloc and arms race in order to compete with the United States for world supremacy.'
By that stage, Peaceful Rise had become caught up in a power struggle between Mr. Hu and his predecessor-with some strategic theorists being advised to avoid mentioning the term in public. PLA officers told me that, in a meeting with senior members of the PLA Air Force in May 2004, Mr. Jiang suggested the theory should be set aside. Although the reason he gave was concern that it would limit China's military modernization, his objections were also widely seen as a manifestation of the friction between Messrs. Jiang and Hu as part of the transfer of power.
That process continued in September, when Mr. Jiang stepped down as chairman of the party's Central Military Commission in favor of Mr. Hu. And Mr. Zheng told me that, after some months of internal debate, the party finally concluded last November that 'there is no contradiction between military modernization or military strength and China's peaceful rise.'
Now Peaceful Rise is firmly back, as shown also by the republication of a version of Mr. Zheng's September 2004 article in the Fall 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs, the magazine of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations. But what has been less widely noted so far are some of the implications of this seemingly benign theory.
It suggests not only that China's rise as a great power is inevitable but also that there is bound to be friction between the differing interests of a rising power and an existing superpower in the same region, namely the U.S. Implicit in that theory is the suggestion that it is up to America, as the world's only superpower, to accommodate China's rise.
Military development is now seen within the PLA and CCP as complementing China's peaceful rise and something which, not only the U.S. but also Southeast Asia, will have to learn to accommodate. Indeed some Chinese strategic thinkers say it would be a sign of hostility for the U.S. or any other country to try to prevent the country's rise. Some even interpret American opposition to the European Union lifting its arms embargo on China as a sign of such hostility.
Beijing's real meaning of Peaceful Rise can best be understood by the analogy of a newcomer who deliberately walks down the middle of a wide street straight toward someone walking on an intersecting path. From China's perspective, there is no reason to deviate from its path-and it is the other party who should shift its course to accommodate the new arrival's route. To challenge the new arrival would be seen as hostile, while even failing to shift out of his route might be interpreted in the same way and result in a clash.
That analogy is worth bearing in mind as Beijing seeks to put a friendly face on a policy which, upon closer examination, may not be nearly so benign.