Kate Marie over at "What's the Rumpus" tipped me off to an interview with Lee Kuan Yew, former President of Singapore, in the current issue of Der Spiegel. Lee speaks with real depth and insight about the future trajectory of Chinese prosperity and power. He is, for the most part, optimistic about the prospect for peace, but he expresses one qualifying reservation:
"Mr. Lee: I don't know whether the next generation will stay on this course. After 15 or 20 years they may feel their muscles are very powerful. We know the mind of the leaders but the mood of the people on the ground is another matter. Because there's no more communist ideology to hold the people together, the ground is now galvanised by Chinese patriotism and nationalism. Look at the anti-Japanese demonstrations."
Like Lee Kuan Yew, many US defense and diplomacy analysts are concerned about the short-term consequences of China's rise. The particular conditions under which any nation will undertake aggression are not easy to enumerate, the raw fact that a nation enters upon a period of newfound power is no clear sign that it will embark upon a predictable program of military expansionism. While it is true that most weapons are made to be used, the concentration of military might in the hands of a particular state provides no clear indication of when, where, or how it will be used. Lee gives a very plausible short-term scenario for Chinese aggression, one impelled by burgeoning nationalism and decline in the unifying ideology of Communism. Though there is some merit to Lee's concerns, I would argue that a "deep historical" perspective makes Chinese aggression a less pressing long-term concern for global peace and stability than internicine strife within China itself.
The question of Chinese "expansionism" is complicated by the fact that the scope of Chinese culture has been expanding throughout recorded history in a clearly observable progress. Chroniclers in the time of Confucius described the people of Wu as foreign barbarians who tatooed their bodies and spoke a tongue unintelligible to "civilized" people. Wu then encompassed the location of Shanghai, modern China's largest metropolis. By the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) the Yangtze River delta had become fully integrated into the Sinic world, but even then the region that now holds Canton and Hong Kong sat beyond the civilized pale. That region only became integrated into the Chinese empire during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.), which is why southern Cantonese speakers refer to themselves as "Tang people" while northern Mandarin speakers denote ethnic Chinese as "Han people."
The steady outward expansion of Chinese culture and polity was sometimes violent, but historical evidence shows that this process was as often as not engendered by peaceful trade, migration, and conversion as by conquest. This truth is underscored by the fact that many aspects of Chinese culture expanded beyond the scope of Chinese imperial political control. Vietnam and Korea adopted Chinese script, religion, and political forms wholesale (the kingdoms of Korea and Vietnam were virtual simulacra of the Chinese imperial government) even as they violently resisted total absorption into the administrative matrix of successive Chinese empires. Despite China's immense prestige and powers of cultural suasion, by the seventh or eighth century C.E. Chinese political power had reached its greatest natural extent at its eastern and southern frontiers.
The current boundaries of the People's Republic of China embody this deep-historical pattern. PRC territory extends to limits established by the last imperial dynasty, the Qing. The Qing rulers were able, by virtue of being an Inner Asian people with allies among the steppe tribes, to extend the frontiers of imperial power further west and north than any prior Chinese dynasty had accomplished, encompassing Tibet, East Turkestan and Mongolia (regions that native Chinese dynasties had never subdued). Even with such military successes in hand, the Qing were never able to expand Beijing's power beyond the frontiers that seperated its imperial domain from the dynastic realms of Vietnam and Korea, otherwise the boundaries of the PRC might be quite different today.
Though certain "core" heartlands always rested securely within the orbit of Chinese imperial power, the outer scope of imperial political control tended to expand and contract (sometimes splintering between two or more competing dynastic centers) over the long term. The Qing was an expansionary era in Chinese history, though even that expansion was unable to transgress certain natural limits. By Qing terms the current era is already a "contractionary" one- the independent Republic of Mongolia was the vassalage of Outer Mongolia during Qing times. Moving forward, the prospects for further expansion of Beijing's military sway are dubious. The PRC does not possess the cultural resources that helped keep Tibet and Mongolia compliant within Qing suzerainity, and emergent nationalism among East Turkestan's Uighur minority make the continued tight integration of that region into PRC sovereignty unpredictable at best. With the real difficulties it faces in consolidating and maintaining the expanded territorial parameters of the Qing, it is difficult to see how the PRC can hope to accomplish what the Qing did not in regions like Vietnam or Korea.
Moreover, the internal integrity of the Chinese polity has always been vulnerable to powerful centripetal forces. Violent regional schisms plagued every dynasty, like the Taiping Rebellion of 1850-1864 which brought China's wealthiest southern commercial district under the sway of a crypto-Christian monarchy and took as many as 20 million lives. The hegemonic status of nation-state thinking lulls analysts and observers into accepting China's sovereign unity as a given, but this is far from an axiomatic truth. The same forces that tore at the fabric of imperial unity still pulse beneath the surface of the PRC's nationalistic facade. In the final analysis the greatest deterrent to Chinese expansionism is not US military power but the intrinsic fragility of China's internal political coherence. Beijing must work hard and constantly to maintain control over the regions currently "securely" within its recognized domain. Any attempt to expand the scope of its control outward might jeapordize that carefully cultivated homeostasis.
The exception that proves this rule is Taiwan. Pronouncements on Taiwan (like the recently-passed anti-secession law) are often held up as an example of China's aggressive tendencies. It is precisely because Beijing's reins of control are so tenuous, however, that it cannot afford to give up any degree of sovereignty over any square-foot of territory. Even though Beijing's claims over Taiwan are purely symbolic, the dissolution of those claims might precipitate a "stampede toward the exits" upon the part of regions that chafe under Beijing's control. Breakaways might not be limited to "frontier" areas like Tibet and Mongolia, moreover, but might include wealthy southern regions like Guangdong and Shanghai who would happily keep tax revenues that flow northward under the status quo.
If historical events like the Taiping Rebellion provide any gauge, a breakup of Chinese sovereignty would not be a kind or happy affair. Any significant challenge to Chinese sovereign unity would undoubtedly portend a terrible civil war. Such an event would not only create great misery for a world ever more economically interdependent, in an age of nuclear weaponry it would almost certainly have tragic and direct human consequences that spread far beyond China's borders.