DEBATE PREP: What if China changes?
November 9th, 2011
06:00 AM ET

DEBATE PREP: What if China changes?

Editor’s note: This analysis is part of Security Clearance blog’s “Debate Preps” series. On November 22, CNN, along with AEI and The Heritage Foundation, will host a Republican candidate debate focused on national security topics. In the run-up to the debate, Security Clearance asked both the sponsoring conservative think tanks to look at the key foreign policy issues and tell us what they want to hear candidates address.

By The Heritage Foundation's Dean Cheng and Derek Scissors, Special to CNN

The political debate over China seems familiar because they’ve been on the political table for years.  Is China taking American jobs?  How cooperative is the People's Republic of China (PRC) on issues like nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran?  China rises; America frets, and Presidential candidates talk about roughly the same things every four years.

But what if China is about to change?

By the time America holds its presidential election next year, China will have begun a leadership transition of its own.  The current leadership group headed by Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao will give way to the so-called “fifth generation” of leaders, currently projected to be led by Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, and Wang Qishan.

This new group will lead a China that, on the one hand, has enjoyed nearly three decades of strong growth.  This has permitted not only a much higher standard of living but also military modernization — in short, both guns and butter.  It has also permitted eye-catching new capabilities, ranging from a space lab to a fleet of hospital ships to major investments in Africa.  On the other hand, the new leadership will be increasingly confronted by popular unrest, environmental degradation, and threats to much-needed economic development.  The next American President will have to deal with a new Chinese leadership and, quite possibly, a new PRC.

Perhaps China’s new leaders will grapple successfully with the challenges they face.  If the PRC deals with domestic discontent, reinvigorates economic reform, and reaches a long-term understanding with its neighbors, it would be a far more benign partner.  At the same time, however, it would be far more powerful and influential globally. This would be a Beijing whose model — the “Beijing consensus” - would be seen as a real alternative to the American dream.  In short, one possibility is a China that poses a greater challenge to all aspects of U.S. leadership, even as it was more benign.

Another possibility is a PRC which fails to resolve its many problems. Confronted with a stagnant economy and growing domestic unrest, the next Chinese leadership may choose to emphasize nationalist themes and be more repressive at home and aggressive overseas.  This would be a China that poses less of a real challenge to American preeminence, but becomes more threatening to American friends and allies in the region and more inimical to American values.

Our political discussions of China assume that the future mostly holds more of the same.  However, the next President could very well be facing a quite different China. Which of these possibilities – a friendlier China that is a true peer to the U.S. or a struggling, dangerous China - would be a greater challenge? It is an open and important question.

Dean Cheng and Derek Scissors are research fellows in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.


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soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. AlaskaPalin

    what irony- communism is now the savior of capitalism! Our economic system seems to be devolving, even medieval' to the point where one is either lord or peasant. The middle class is being decimated.

    November 9, 2011 at 8:58 pm | Reply
  2. Steve H.

    From casual reading, I don't see the Chinese as visionary. It is said that they have a national objective of regaining all of the "lost territories" - but I don't see what that gets them. In fact, I propose a thought experiment where we postulate that China not only regains those territories but that suddenly the whole world is populated with only Chinese. So what? What was accomplished that China can't accomplish right now? The real long-term prize is space - and that requires a multi-view, multi-nation effort driven by peoples who hunger for it.

    November 9, 2011 at 11:16 am | Reply
  3. Kilroy

    If China changes, we will just go in and kill em all. We already have war plans laid out in case they get out of hand. Same for Russia.

    November 9, 2011 at 11:00 am | Reply

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