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Is China dangerous?
Sarah Palin was widely ridiculed for her speech in Hong Kong last month. But Chinese nationalism bubbles nonstop and the alarm Palin raised about the authoritarian regime wasn't stupid—not by a long shot.
Tish Durkin
Tish Durkin
J

ust because Sarah Palin says something does not mean that it is completely insane.

On Sept. 22, when Palin addressed a closed-door group of investors in Hong Kong, she sounded an alarm about the implications of China's military rise. For this, among other things, she was widely ridiculed.

Given that her speech was delivered in China to a partially Chinese audience, Palin's remarks were unquestionably rude. They were also shrill, simplistic, and, in places, downright dopey, as when she put a sinister spin on China's military buildup "because it has taken place in the absence of any discernible external threat." (Note to Team Palin: That's why it's called "military preparedness.") But in raising the specter of U.S. conflict with China, Palin was not, in the main, wrong.

For a compelling discussion of just how not-wrong, treat yourself to China: Fragile Superpower by Susan L. Shirk, the Clinton administration's deputy secretary of state for U.S.-China relations. Shirk lays out the ways in which China's domestic political insecurity could meet a moment of international crisis, causing the region to combust. Or read the bulk of expert analysis on China from 1949 to the present. No doubt, many experts would rather die than be equated with the Pride of Wasilla. But when considering the possibility of hostilities erupting in the region, China hands tend to have more in common with Palin than with her detractors.

And why not? Raise your hand if you disagree with any of the following statements:

China is governed by a cadre of autocrats who, for all the positive development they have achieved in the past three decades, act first and foremost in the interest of their own political survival, which interest may or may not overlap with the calming of any given international crisis.

Despite—and partially because of—the huge, and hugely uneven, changes in their society, the Chinese people are experiencing palpable anxiety. They cannot express this anxiety in the form of anti-government sentiment but can and increasingly do express it in terms of a keen nationalism. Although it only occasionally boils over, as in the mass anti-Japanese riots of 2005, Chinese nationalism bubbles nonstop: I recently asked a bunch of friendly graduate students how much they really cared whether China "lost" Taiwan. All of them—male and female—said they would personally fight in a war to prevent such a thing.

Even according to its official, famously low-ball budget, China's military expenditures have more than doubled since 2000; the growing stockpile of conventional short-range missiles alone is enough to shake up the neighbors. China considers this buildup essential in light of potential threats not only to its sovereignty and stability, but to its continued acquisition of natural resources, without which it cannot survive.

These potential threats include: a violent succession scenario in North Korea; disputes over the territorial divisions of the East China Sea, with its estimated 7 million cubic feet of natural gas and some 100 billion barrels of oil; disputes over the islands of the South China Sea, through whose shipping lanes travel some 80 per cent of the crude oil consumed by Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea; an existential standoff with Taiwan, which the Chinese see both as a political birthright and a strategic necessity—regardless of whether the Taiwanese have a Beijing-friendly president, as at present, or not.

That's the case for trepidation. Of course, there's a case to be made, too, for calm: China is still years away from achieving global great-power military status. It is the No. 1 trading partner of Taiwan, South Korea, and, as of recently, Japan, while the U.S. is the No. 1 trading partner of China. Eager to lower its citizens' famously high savings rate in order to increase demand for its own domestic goods, China is committed to creating a social safety net with public funding for education, health care, and retirement. Even before Taiwan elected the saber-silencing Ma Ying-Jeou, China had signaled its apparent preference for coaxing, rather than forcing, its Taiwanese "brothers" back into the mainland fold, through trade and other sweeteners.

It is certainly possible that these strong economic ties will restrain China and its potential antagonists. It is possible that the creation of a social safety net, like the economic reforms that preceded it, will bring enough improvement to enough Chinese that it buys the leadership another generation of loyalty and room to maneuver. It is possible that the Taipei-Beijing relationship will be calmed long enough to be transformed. It is possible that the next time push comes to shove, China's leaders will all be on the same page, and that that page will read, "Cool it, fellas."

There is every reason to hope for all this. But there is absolutely no reason to assume any of it. That's the truth—even if Sarah Palin happens to be telling it.

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