"China's peaceful development" is the current buzz phrase used by China's leaders and official media to describe China's foreign policy. The previous phrase that they used was "China's peaceful rise", but they discarded that about five years ago and started talking about development instead. Rise signified something that might be troubling or upsetting to the rest of the world, whereas development sounds almost like something that takes place internally without bothering the outside world too much. This distinction is no accident.

The main idea behind "China's peaceful development" is that China will be a responsible international citizen - it won't go starting wars over its territorial disputes, it won't close off free trade, and it will act through diplomacy and in a spirit of co-operation with other nations. China wants to grow its economy and integrate into the global trading system while lifting its people out of poverty - that's the "development" part - and it wants a peaceful international environment in which to do this, according to the official explanation. Whereas in the past the emergence of a newly-powerful country has almost always led to wars, Beijing is sending a message loud and clear that it doesn't want any wars. The subtext is that if the Chinese do end up fighting another country, it won't be their fault for starting it.

The question hence arises along western observers of China as to whether we believe them or not, and informed opinion is divided on the matter. Some take them at their word, while others say that the very public enunciation of this strategy is in itself a propaganda tool and we ought really just to watch what the Chinese actually do. Perhaps they're just trying to establish the best position they can before, say, invading Taiwan or starting an arms race.

My argument is that the strategy of "China's peaceful development" perfectly matches the current state of China's development, that it's unlikely Beijing has some grand plan for the next century, and that China's development - however peaceful for a while - will ultimately create temptations for China to use its power in less benign ways, but that such an outcome is not foreordained and part of some evil plan. The eventual course of events will depend on factors we cannot yet predict.

At the moment there's every reason to believe the Chinese are sincere about "peaceful development". Given their position, they would be foolish to think otherwise. While westerners are commonly seduced by China's enormous population and fast-growing economy, the fact remains that China is still light years away from being able to seek a position as the dominant power in East Asia, much less further afield. I realize this goes against the conventional wisdom of China ascendant and the United States as a spent force, but an objective analysis of the situation shows that the conventional wisdom is misplaced. If we look briefly at both China's domestic situation and its international position we can see why the Chinese are likely to favour a strategy of "peaceful development" for quite some time yet.

To start with the international situation, nearly every country that China borders is a potential source of trouble for it. The United States has long benefited from relatively untroublesome borders with Mexico and Canada - the latter being the largest unmilitarized frontier in the world, although of course the Mexican border is a cause of increasing concern of late. But Los Zetas are a picnic compared to the combination of hideously unstable and militarily strong states which surround China. China has fought wars with Vietnam, South Korea and India since 1945 and an undeclared war with Russia (aka the Soviet Union) in 1969. It could conceivably have to fight any of these wars again. Meanwhile, North Korea or Myanmar might collapse and flood China with refugees. It is critical for China that it not force its potential enemies into a pact with one another by threatening them - especially if the pact includes the United States.

To make matters worse, China's extraordinary economic growth is heavily reliant on global shipping - in fact, one is tempted to say entirely reliant, for if China were to be shut off from its export markets the resultant collapse in confidence would take what was left of the economy down with it. And who controls the shipping lanes through which Chinese exports must travel and the commodities to fuel China's boom must arrive? Is it the Chinese Navy, with its one ponderous aircraft carrier which the sailors are still learning to steer and the airmen probably won't be able to land on for years? No, it's the United States, potential enemy number one. Control of the shipping lanes of East Asia has been a centrepiece of U.S. foreign policy since World War II, and boy do they have it. In the event of war with China, the 1st Armored Division is not going to be arriving in Beijing - but neither is any oil or food.

This possibility of an economic chokehold becomes particularly relevant when we turn our attention to China's domestic situation. The ruling Communist Party has been at the vanguard of the biggest capitalist revolution in the history of the world, and now derives a large part of its legitimacy from providing continuing economic growth - just the sort of growth that a western embargo could seriously derail. The Chinese internal security situation is worrying enough as it is, with Beijing devoting vast resources to policing Xinjiang and Tibet, regions that aren't ethnically Chinese. And even the Han Chinese heartland is increasingly restive, thanks to a whole host of factors like wealth inequalities, corruption and the information revolution provided by the internet. To put it mildly, China's domestic situation is shaky.

And the picture gets worse - China's domestic situation is likely to get a hell of a lot worse in the near future. Here in the west we're seriously depressed about the state of our economies, and we tend to look at China's headline growth rate and swoon. But China can't outrun global economic problems for ever, and serious economists are now divided simply on the question of how far and how fast the Chinese growth rate will fall in the next five years rather than whether it will suffer at all. The mandarins of Beijing will have an incredibly difficult time navigating their economic problems and the domestic unrest that is likely to result from a slowdown. They certainly won't want to be fighting any wars into the bargain - unless, of course, things get so bad that they want to distract their citizens.

So peaceful development benefits China for now. It relies heavily on global trade, but it relies on the United States to do the hard work of keeping global shipping lanes open and safe - just as it knows Washington could close them if it so wished. It is surrounded by possible enemies and possible sources of instability, even as it is yet to convert its growing economic success into an unbeatable military behemoth. And, most crucially of all, it must navigate incredibly complex and troublesome domestic problems which its autocratic and closed political system, paranoid and obsessed with keeping a narrow elite in power, is singularly unequipped to cope with. So yes, "China's peaceful development" may be a ruse - but the good news for the west is that the ruse is likely to continue to be necessary for many decades yet.

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