People’s Daily: China’s Real Challenge is the Next 5-10 Years

The following OP-ED is published  on the People’s Daily (overseas edition) on July 31, 2012.  CDT thanks to Dr Scott Harold of RAND Corporation for providing this translation.

China needs to continue to believe in its development strategy, but it also needs to recognize the real challenges it faces.  In reality, China’s greatest challenges are not before it at present, but lie in the next 5-10 years; the real difficulty is not the international scene or in our neighboring region, but instead lies in our internal system reform and social situation; the real danger is not one of military confrontation or conflict, but instead stems from troubles in the non-military realms of finance, society , the internet and foreign affairs.

Over the next 5-10 years, the difference in Sino-US power will make a great leap towards transformation from a difference in quantity to a difference in quality.  Authoritative international organizations have already roughly estimated that the Chinese economy will overtake the US in total size by around 2020 or so.  During this period, China’s military strength and sci-tech capacities will also continue to rise.  The US strategic community is currently debating three basic questions with respect to China’s rise: How to respond to the challenging resource, energy, and economic demands of a great power with 1.3 to 1.5 billion people?  How to respond to the challenges posed by the political system, development model, and cultural values of a socialist great power?  And how to respond to the military security challenges of a great power that has not yet settled all of its issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity?

This means that the game in Sino-US relations is only at the opening phase, with the real strategic contest yet to come.  How to quickly adjust our psychology, adapt our strategy, and make breakthroughs in the aforementioned problem areas so as to meet head-on the challenges of the era when Chinese power overtakes that of the US and the challenges this will entail has become a critical strategic question that merits consideration.

The next 3-5 years will be a key time when all great powers are trying to shake off their difficulties and heal from wounds.  Invariably all great countries at present are trying to do the same thing: internally deepen their system reform and externally seek strategic space.  America has experienced Obama’s ‘New Governance’ and its strategic return to the Asia-Pacific; Europe has grappled with the debt crisis-induced structural changes and faced great changes in Western Asia/North Africa; Russia has used the ‘Putin-Medvedev’ system to seek internal economic revival and externally seeks to construct a Euro-Asia alliance while at the same time consolidating its position in the Far East.

Once the Americans and Europeans pass through this difficult phase, completing a new round of systemic reforms, they will witness a new round of technological revolution and an explosion of productivity growth, which will be the real strike against and bring an end to China’s period of strategic opportunity.  How to cool off the tensions within our region so as to turn to the real work of quickly perfecting our own domestic system structure and revitalizing economic society so as to make our national competitiveness as strong as possible is the real challenge China faces today.

In the next 3-5 years, America’s pivot to the East will reinforce America’s rebalancing and strategic leadership of the Asia-Pacific, but will not completely be directed towards all-out confrontation with China; focusing on territorial contradictions over sovereignty between China and related countries, the US may seek to lead a new round of restructuring of the Asia-Pacific strategic context, rather than prematurely involving itself in a military conflict with China.

During this period, the US is likely to use non-military methods to envelop China or seek to perturb its rise, to win strategic gains, to bring about a revival of national power, and to ensure its hegemonic status. The main methods the US is likely to employ include: using RMB convertibility as an entry point, using the opening up of financial and insurance markets as a target, the Americans will try to fully enter into China’s services sector in order to reap huge economic and financial benefits by controlling the lifeblood of China’s development; with ‘Internet freedom’ as its slogan, they will attack ‘top down’ governance in order to push forward the traditional model of liberal democracy; through the use of ‘rights lawyers’, underground religion, dissidents, internet heroes, and disadvantaged social groups as the core forces, they will push for a ‘bottom-up’ approach to Chinese governance from the grassroots to lay a foundation for changing China; through an approach premised on strengthening alliance relationships, upgrading cooperative partnerships, and by splitting apart China’s ties to North Korea, Pakistan, and Myanmar while seeking to rebuild Russo-American relations, and other steps, they will seek to put China in a passive position in its foreign affairs, complicate China’s external environment, and constrict the strategic space for China’s rise; and through the development of dialogues and commonly-accepted definitions of what the Americans call the ‘global commons’ of sea, air, space and cyber, they will seek to substantially weaken China’s ability to compete with or strategically challenge the United States.

From this it can be seen, China should change its traditional way of thinking about security and shift the strategic focus of national security away from an emphasis on external regional military conflict to a full focus on restructuring its internal institutional structure.  This is the key question facing our country–whether or not we can once again successfully respond to the aforementioned strategic challenges.

(The author is the Director of the Insitute for American Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.)


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