Rousing China To Military Dominance

As China prepares to become the world's second-largest economy in 2010, its leaders are struggling to express a convincing and satisfying ideology that assuages international fears about the country's global intentions. Having taken note of how Soviet overextension and belligerence led to the U.S.S.R.'s downfall—and how the perceived arrogance of American hegemony has alienated many of Washington's key allies—Beijing has been peddling a theory called "Peaceful Rise." It goes like this: China's rise won't shake the rest of the world, unlike the ascent of the great empires that preceded it. China will "only focus on its core interests" (Taiwan and Tibet, for example), say party spokesmen; China "wouldn't invade anyone in 10,000 years."

But leaving aside historical truths—including those from China's own past—about whether great powers can dominate without conflict, certain members of China's military are publicly starting to itch for a more assertive role in international affairs. The latest hawkish call to arms is from Ling Mingfu, a senior colonel and professor at China's National Defense University, whose new book, The China Dream, argues that the country must aim for long-term military dominance so that America does not try to neutralize its power.

The book, though not official pol-icy, is a discrete "line of thinking within the People's Liberation Army," says Roy Kamphausen, an expert on U.S.-China defense relations at the National Bureau of Asian Research. While Liu doesn't directly challenge Beijing's Peaceful Rise mantra, he stresses that America—an old hand at deflating ambitious rivals like Japan and the U.S.S.R.—will inevitably attempt to contain China. As such, Liu calls for boosting China's preventive military capacity to dissuade the U.S. from declaring war on the Middle Kingdom. "If you want peace, prepare for war," Liu says, citing the Roman author Vegetius. "China must use military strength to defend and safeguard that its strategic objectives and strategic course is not stopped."

Despite this call to arms, Liu insists that China's rise will still be conflict-free—and, because China has a "superior culture," it will be welcomed with open arms by the rest of the world. Of course, China's influence abroad has already stirred up controversy, both from international organizations who decry its willingness to deal with rogue governments, to local communities in Africa and the Middle East, which are protesting against the importation of Chinese workers to staff infrastructure projects. Nevertheless, Liu and other hawks claim that China will practice "leadership without coercion [and will] exercise its power differently from its Great Power predecessors," according to Andrew S. Erickson, associate professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute of the U.S. Naval War College. It's true that ever since its disastrous invasion of Vietnam in 1979, China has restrained itself from military actions against other countries. But whether a rising China will result in global harmony remains far from certain.