Terrill: China’s superpower status depends on U.S. acquiescence

The latest article from Ross Terrill, author of The New Chinese Empire, is quite superb – please read it all. As usual, he ponders the rise of China and all its implications. The U.S. economy is 7 times the size of China’s and the Japanese economy is 3 times bigger. China is also still a Leninist regime, politically stifled and dependant on economic growth and nationalism to survive.

According to Terrill, China’s national goals are (1) stability (2) economic growth and (3) a working peace with all of China’s 14 neighbours. However, two further foreign policy goals would include the displacement the U.S. as East Asia’s premier power and also the “return of lost territories” including Taiwan, the entire South China Sea and, eventually, perhaps the Russian Far East which was formerly ruled by the Qing Dynasty. After all, China only accepts historical changes and progressions in its favour.

Whether Beijing can achieve these goals depends on how long its rigid political system can survive, and on the reaction of other powers to China’s ambitions. A middle-class push for property rights, rural discontent, increased use of the Internet, huge numbers of unemployed, and a suddenly aging population bringing financial and social strains all dramatize the contradictions inherent in “market Leninism.” Traveling one road in economics and another in politics does not make for a settled destination.

China’s economy may continue to grow at its present rate. Or China may retain its Leninist party state. But it can hardly do both. Either the economic or the political logic will soon gain the upper hand.

So far so good. However, the most interesting of Terrill’s observations is that it is not only China’s ambitions and capabilities which will make or break its potential superpower status but also the acquiescence of the other affected and existing powers:

The United States will not allow an authoritarian China to become the new world leader and has allies to call on. Japan’s new assertiveness and India’s weight are major factors. Washington could also count on Australia, Indonesia, and Vietnam for balancing weight. US-China policy should blend full engagement with preserving an equilibrium in East Asia that discourages Beijing from expansionism.

The expansionist claims of Beijing are unique among today’s powers. But the Chinese regime is a rational dictatorship that has, for the past quarter century, been patient in fulfilling its goals. It surely realizes that others — the United States, Japan, Russia, and India — have a variety of reasons for denying China the opportunity to be a 21st century Middle Kingdom. If Beijing continues to be faced with a countervailing equilibrium that keeps the peace in East Asia, it will probably act prudently.

The Discussion: 32 Comments

What classes a super power these days.

Is it political influence, conventional military might, nukelear capabilities, the size/strength of an economy, or something different?

November 16, 2005 @ 7:08 am | Comment

“After all, China only accepts historical changes and progressions in its favour. ”

i guess everybody tries to do that. But this is NOT TRUE for the case of China.

It has already officially given up its claim to the 1M sq km in russain far east, and reached agreement in all land border (except that the demarcation with india is not yet finalized)

November 16, 2005 @ 10:56 am | Comment

You know, Germany had “officially given up” the Rhineland before WWII…

And Britain had “officially given up” their dibs on the United States before the war of 1812…

Even when these powers have “reached agreement,” they still manage to find a way to, ah, flip-flop?

November 16, 2005 @ 11:36 am | Comment

The post said “China only accepts….” which is incorrect.

if you really want be wicked, you can say, “in johnny k’s (or TPD’s) fantasy, although China already has given up claims to blah blah blah….., johnny k does not believe its sincerity in keeping its promise, his personal opinion is that it will manage to find a way to, ah, flip-flop…”……then i have nothing to say.

however, if you want to apply the rhineland, we can go on it. no country in this world should be exempted then.

a better analogy to hitler will be hideki tojo.

japan claims the kuriles, and has not given up any of the disputed areas with russia, korea (Dokto) or china (and taiwan) (Diaoyu). US once claimed the whole of British Columbia and may one day take it back. Germany could take back East Prussia. Brits will tak Normany, Italy will take the whole of Europe …. You name it.

November 16, 2005 @ 5:11 pm | Comment

Two points here I thought of:
1. Sun Bin forgot the ongoing land boundary dispute with Korea, the claiming of Taiwan and the fact that the dispute with India includes PRC claiming an entire Indian state (Arunchal Pradesh). But more importantly, the PRC has numerous sea boundary disputes ongoing. Given that, it is not altogether clear that shelving some land boundary disputes indicates anything more than a desire to focus on some goals in the short term without being distracted by others. In other words, take on your enemies one at a time rather than all together.
2. While numerous examples of transfers of territory are cited, it is not clear what relevance they have given the fundamental distinction between countries that at a cultural and national level have given up claims and those such as the PRC that sign agreements but continue to educate their people that they have been the subject of historic wrongs and unfair treaties robbing them of their land. Although I am not an American, I don’t think Americans are educated about the “historical fact” that British Columbia is stolen territory taken when the US “was weak”.

November 16, 2005 @ 7:53 pm | Comment

British Columbia was never under American control at anytime in history, so there really is nothing to take back. Washington and Oregon, on the other hand, were once part of the fur trading territory granted to the Hudson’s Bay Company along with the rest of western Canada.

I am not sure what the ‘fundamental distinction’ is ‘between countries that at a cultural and national level have given up claims and those such as the PRC that sign agreements but continue to educate their people that they have been the subject of historic wrongs and unfair treaties robbing them of their land’. Does Mexico no longer teach its citizens the history of its terrorial losses from Texas to California? Would inclusion of the fact in Mexican history texts somehow jeopardize US-Mexican relations?

November 16, 2005 @ 8:28 pm | Comment

What an arrogant article. Why should the US be the sole decision maker whether China becomes a Great Power? I know Australia is a toady of the US but Vietnam? Indonesia? When did they become allies of the US? These are independent countries with their own agendas and goals. I seriously doubt being cannon fodder so the US can remain top dog is one of them.

Does Ross Terrill think he’s fooling anybody? This is nothing more than classic Divide and Conquer that the British and other colonizers used to practice throughout Asia and Africa. Stirring up fears, hatreds and rumors between different groups so they’ll fight one other when they should have been friends. Showing favoritism to one tribe and putting them in charge. If the Asians fall for this then they will have learnt nothing from history.

According to his article, I guess all us non Americans should fall into line and prepare to challenge China. That way China facing all these semi hostile countries will back down from her territorial claims and peace will be maintained. What a joke.

BTW, the war of 1812 is nothing more than the attempted annexation of Canada whiles the British were busy fighting the Napoleonic wars. The British couldn’t dispatch large forces for a couple of years because they were busy dealing with Napoleon. No attempt to conquer America here people. It was thanks to the inept leadership of the Americans, the bravery of the few British soldiers, and the enormous help of the Indians that the continent of North America isn’t one country.

November 16, 2005 @ 8:33 pm | Comment

According to his article, I guess all us non Americans should fall into line and prepare to challenge China. That way China facing all these semi hostile countries will back down from her territorial claims and peace will be maintained. What a joke.

Actually, that sounds pretty reasonable.

November 16, 2005 @ 8:37 pm | Comment

It’ll be a cold, strange day when they drag my fat, lazy carcass out of my armchair, put a rifle into my hand to fight the Chinese just so the Americans can remain no 1.

November 16, 2005 @ 8:59 pm | Comment


this is what i learned in logic lessons.

1a. to disprove “china only accepts”, i only need to quote one counter example.
to disprove “china sometimes accepts”, i have to show all cases.

1b. to your case about S Korea, how do you negotiate foe settlement when there are 2 countries (N & S Korea) who would not recognize the decision of each other?
you either have to bring both of them to the table, ot wait for them unify.
care to tell me how you would do that??

– as a matter of fact, china ceded the tian-chi and baitou mountain (which they controlled) to N Korea in 1950s because Kim il song said his son was borned there and it was sacred to them.

2. it is not just “cited”. formal treaties were signed and published. textbook and maps were amended.
the gov’t told its people to get over it and securing peace is more worthwhile.

The govt DID NOT “continue” to educate its people to xyz. Show me the evidence if this is not your fantasy. I can show you maps published in 2005, and compare that with 2002 or before.

there are people in china who won’t agree, as it is in any country. there is no way a government can change the minds of 1.3bn people.

2b. look at the original quote, it said “china only accept ….”
now tell me what most people who interpret this, the goverment? or some unknown % of its people? or as you said, ‘at a cultural or national level’,(btw, how do you define it)?

November 16, 2005 @ 9:28 pm | Comment

wkl, in your quote I cited you said “challenge the Chinese,” not fight them with guns. Don’t change the goalposts. Obviuosly we don’t want to go to war against China.

November 16, 2005 @ 9:32 pm | Comment

It’s speculative to get bogged down in China’s active/inactive territorial disputes. However, Chinese claims such as the one over the South China Sea is one which China will readily admit. That claim in itself is enough to step on the toes of many Asian countries as well as the U.S and would certainly upset the global equilibrium.

What Terrill is saying is that China faces its own considerable internal challenges and that it cannot continue to BOTH grow economically and retain its harsh and stifling political Leninist state as a country moving it two different (economic and political) directions is not easily reconciled. One or the other must eventually gain the upper hand.

Another interesting point mentions the fact that a superpower China cannot only rely on its own merits to rise, it must also receive the acquiescence of other affected powers. The combined strength of the U.S. and its allies is too strong for it to be otherwise.

Given these realities, the ‘China threat’ theories are overstated and ridiculous and there’s every likelyhood that a prudent China will eventually fit into a future international position acceptable to all.

November 17, 2005 @ 2:02 am | Comment

…which I totally agree with.

One could also attach these reasons towards Taiwan. Most people, like me, who believe the chances of a cross-strait conflict are small put the reasons for this down to Mainland prudence and the risks and costs of war being too much for any Mainland govt to bear.

Many Mainlanders will huff and puff and strongly disagree. Fair enough, but remember your Sun Tzu – ‘when you intend to attack, act as if you don’t and when you don’t intend to attack, act as if you do’. No, hopefully the harsh realities Terrill expounds will be realised.

November 17, 2005 @ 2:11 am | Comment


i agree with most of what you said.
esp. you last point of “barking dogs don’t really want to bite”. but there is of course some uncertainty, otherwise a threat is not a threat any more.

November 17, 2005 @ 2:17 am | Comment

You’re very quick Mr. Sun Bin. I’ve been a bit busy lately but it’s nice to be back.

I don’t think that anyone with more than half a braincell would subscibe to the paranoid and outlandish China Threat theories that make for a good deal of news copy and bandwidth in the West. Certainly none of the writers at this site subscribe to such wild theories.

It makes sense. I was talking to my best mate (a frequent contributor to this site) the other week. Not only has he been in China for longer than me but his work regularly takes him into China’s hinterland, most recently, Anhui Province.

He told me quite categorically that China’s vast countryside is getting worse ( i.e. poorer and even more desperate) in every regard…and he’s got over 15 years of experience to compare it with.

Sure, food prices have risen, rural tax burdens have been reduced (allegedly) but for most landless peasants seeking an existence in the thousands of small privincial towns and cities, life is not improving and there appears to be little or no trickle down effect from the “rich” China that we percieve every day.

Something has got to give and as long as China is fighting economic battles such as job creation, rising unemployment, an aging population, rampant corruption etc etc then it’s hardly in any position to engage in an aggressive external foreign policy. Indeed, it will as much help from overseas as possible.

November 17, 2005 @ 2:33 am | Comment

Point taken about the Terrill quote, clearly he is wrong and the PRC has accepted territorial changes not to its complete favour.

But that is not my point. What is the key reason the PRC advances for its claim to Taiwan being legitimate? That Taiwan was a Qing province “stolen” by Japan. Now China in fact signed a treaty ceding Taiwan to Japan, and I’m sure at the time the maps were changed and everything and it was all “official”. But that didn’t change the fact that at a “national and cultural level” Chinese claimed Taiwan did it? Political fortunes change, priorities alter, leaders come and go, the balance of forces changes and the impossible becomes the possible again. China’s neighbours all well remember this and their history with China. Just because a troubled China, as Martyn correctly points out, with a leader today preoccupied with internal problems chooses to seek peace on some frontiers is no guarantee that a future strong and powerful China would do so. A cursory glance at East Asian history shows this to be so. There is nothing extraordinary or surprising about this fundamental truth about how great powers conduct their affairs.

November 17, 2005 @ 3:04 pm | Comment

WSJ today talked about congagement, but i think engatainment sounds better 🙂

anyway, i think US has sound reason to prepare for the worse scenario, since it still does not trust non-democratic governments who are not its sub-ordinate. it is just that some time the facts they quoted were simply wrong, and the situation was vastly exaggerated. wrong information will only lead to bad decision for US itself.

November 18, 2005 @ 1:01 am | Comment


claims are claims. based on international law, you can claim because you historically owned it.

yes, Qing ceded Taiwan in 1895, but that treaty was nullified in 1945. so everything should have been reversed, and shimongeseki is totally irrelevant now.

now, again, claims are just claims. even if the claims are justified, it does not mean that it would over-rule the will of the people.
let’s not confuse the two issues, i think those who support the separatists missed the whole point and tried to approach the issue in a very weak argument by going into ‘claims’, and hence putting themselves in a very weak position.

November 18, 2005 @ 1:08 am | Comment

“reached agreement in all land border”

Not so Sun-Bin

China is currently in dispute with Korea over border land and currently occupying Tibet and East Turkistan (which both actively dispute the fact that China says their easter borders don’t exist and that their western borders are China’s wester borders).

China also has an ongoing maritime dispute with Japan over the Senkaku islands, and with Taiwan over the whole of Taiwan.

In all of these cases Chia is disputing historic mandates that expired decades , if not centuries ago, and in many of these cases it is disputing land that it aquired at one time or anther by cobat rather than by treaty. In the case of the Senkaku’s it is actually disputing lan dthat was never actually part of China (Book of Qing).

November 18, 2005 @ 1:09 am | Comment

Ross Terrill is the perfect example of what I call “white guy attitude”. The article is very arrogant. For a non-white like me, I’m extremely annoyed. His theory is based entirely on the assumption that the U.S is the only judge of deciding who’s who. Besides, “traveling one road in economics and another in politics does not make for a settled destination”. Really ? another classic “white guy” assumption. Let’s see what it turns out in the next 50 years.

November 18, 2005 @ 11:59 am | Comment


i talked about the korea situation already, so i am not going to repeat. at least there has been no problem with N Korea where it borders for the past 55 years. (and the islands along yalu and tumen rivers were demarcated)

there is dispute in the sea, as we all know.

but you call ‘east turkestan’ a border dispute? LOL. what about US with hawaii then? (there is difference, hawii separatists did not resort to violence, all they did was send a few people in the tourist spots)

…and if a dozen people in okinawa wanted to seek independence, do you call it international border dispute?

November 18, 2005 @ 2:35 pm | Comment

I’ll leave Taiwan now. Lets look at PRC behaviour in the border dispute with USSR. In the 1950s PRC acted as if this dispute was all over. Mao went to Moscow and made friends with Stalin. The “historical wrongs” were ignored, glossed over, and several treaties were signed. In fact, PRC local governments were punished for bringing up Soviet occupation of “Chinese” land. At that time one could be forgiven for thinking border situation was resolved. But less than a decade later the claims are resurrected. The geopolitical situation had changed, and so the claims were suddenly reignited by political leaders.
Now, of course it is not just PRC who does this. All powers do it. But to claim that because PRC has signed a few border demarcation agreements that implies anything more than temporary accomodation..
I’ll move onto the Sino-Indian border next if you like.

November 18, 2005 @ 5:27 pm | Comment

you must know nothing about how international disputes are arbitrated and settled.

voluntary treaty goes a long way.

in the 1950s there had never been any treaty. in fact mao asked for it and stalin refused. so mao shelved the issue quietly, leaving an option for the future.
but anyway, mao is dead and comintern/internationale is gone.

November 18, 2005 @ 8:36 pm | Comment

Please move to sino-india border as well. 🙂

November 18, 2005 @ 11:43 pm | Comment

Well, its the same story, China claims historic wrongs at the hands of the British but PRC signed Sino-Indian agreement of 1954 for peace, non-interference, respecting territorial integrity, etc. PRC produced so-called “Big Map” in 1956 showing boundaries in Ladakh as India agreed. But a few years later that “Big Map” was replaced due to changing circumstances within China. The borders that had been acceptable when India and PRC were “brothers” were no longer acceptable, just like with the USSR.

November 19, 2005 @ 2:14 am | Comment

The sino-soviet border dispute in the 60’s was over a few islands in the Ussuri River, the demarcation line between Qing China and czarist Russian according to the Covention of Peking in 1960. Even at its most heated, the conflict was never about the retaking of Vladivostok.

November 19, 2005 @ 3:34 pm | Comment

Oops, I meant Covention of Peking, 1860.

November 19, 2005 @ 3:35 pm | Comment

Indian maps regarding the Tibetan-Kashmiri border also changed from ‘undemarcated’ in 1948 to present claims in 1954.


November 19, 2005 @ 4:45 pm | Comment


again. no formal treaty was signed with india in early 1950s. they just informally agreed upon the 5 principle of peaceful co-existence and shelf the border dispute issues.

recent negotiation is going to end up with a formal treaty, which is entirely different.

November 20, 2005 @ 1:55 pm | Comment


here are the official maps published in 1951, 1952, 1955 and 1958.

pretty consistent. includes aksai china and arunachal.

November 20, 2005 @ 2:07 pm | Comment

The victor writes what history ought to say.
Any one that does not agree are either agressive, or rogue entities.

Had Napolean won, it would be a different Europe, and the British isles were once a defiant group of insurgents.
Had Mexico won, then Texas(how do you say call it in Mexican) would have been saved from the encrouching european homesteaders, and Mexico-US border would be very different from what it is today.
Had Japan been not defeated by the combined Russo-American military might, Asia would have not remained partially colonised after the WWII. And Hawaii would not have been American. And most of all, Okinawans would not have suffered today from rogue ruffian in military uniforms.

There is actually only truth: MIGHT IS ALWAYS RIGHT.
To belief otherwise is intellectual dishonesty or hypocrisy. Or worse still naive self deception.

November 30, 2005 @ 10:42 pm | Comment

The “Chinese Threat” is a phantom that will be used when using the “war on terror” threat works no more in feeding the US permanent war economy see http://war.asadi.org

December 8, 2005 @ 5:01 pm | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.