Dragon Rising: Kristen Parris on China’s surge to prominence as the next world superpower

As the People’s Republic of China continues to grow in power both economically and militarily and seems poised and on the brink of superpower status, Western Today talked with Associate Professor of Political Science Kristen Parris about the country’s emergence, what it means for Asia as a whole and regional U.S. allies in particular, and how the United States and China can find pathways of common ground to move forward.


Western Today: The People’s Republic of China (PRC) emerged after World War II as incredibly populous but technologically and militarily far behind most other major nations. How did Chairman Mao, and the leaders that followed him, turn China into the economic juggernaut it is today?

KP: By the time that Deng Xiaoping emerge as China’s most prominent leader in the late 1970s,  China had a significant industrial capacity and a relatively well educated population, though the country was still quite poor. The post-Mao leadership was seeking a new basis for legitimacy  and initiated a policy “reform and opening,” in what might be considered a new social contract.  The party-state promised a relatively prosperous life  in exchange for acceptance of the Party’s continued unrivaled political position.  The first step was the  rural reform, known as the  household responsibility contracting system, which returned farming and other rural sidelines to household control. In many villages and small towns small scale household and rural industries emerged and became the motor of growth, especially in  eastern coastal areas.  The industrial strategy shifted that export orientation, focusing on China’s comparative advantage in labor intensive production of light consumer goods. Foreign companies were also encouraged to invest, bringing both jobs and technology transfers.

As rural producers gained greater freedom over their own labor,  many young people left the countryside, migrating to the coastal cities where they provided a cheap and flexible labor force for factories as well as the growing service sector. While private business, markets and profit making were an anathema to Mao,  Deng’s famous slogan was that “it doesn’t matter a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice.“  These policy changes helped to unleash rapid economic growth in China, but there was no clear long term strategic plan, and it was not simply a top down phenomenon.  Instead it was an incremental and experimental process with much of the initiative coming from below at the village and township levels.  Villagers in Anhui Province initiated the first household contracting system and in the mountains of Wenzhou to the the east, families set up household businesses and trade of small commodities such as buttons. These “early adopters”  faced high political and economic risks. Some were even imprisoned, but ultimately local officials found the they generated revenue and jobs and so turned a blind eye. Now they are remembered as heroes. These local initiatives laid the ground work for China’s rapid and long term growth and help to explain the ability of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to remain in power so long.


Western Today: As China has grown in power, it has begun more frequently to flex its military muscle as well. It continues to be a strong presence in the South China Sea, entering disputes with nations such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and, of course, Taiwan, over many of the islands that dot that strategic waterway. What kind of skin in the game does the U.S. have in all this squabbling, and why is the conflict globally important?

KP: The disputed islands in the East and South China Seas are critical security issues for the region and,  because  the U.S. is a Pacific power and has allies in the region, they are important for the U.S. as well,  though they may seem far away.   These islands have been the subject of tension and competing claims for decades but in recent years China has taken a more assertive, some would say aggressive, position. 

Although little more than rocks, the islands are important because there are rich fishing resources, potential mineral reserves and the sea lanes around them are critical to trade and security. The U.S. is committed to free sea lanes in the region and so is wary of Chinese claims that might obstruct navigation.

Japan, with whom we have a mutual security treaty, claims the Diaoyu-Senkaku​ Islands.  Tensions sometimes flare around the islands. In 2012, the Japanese government attempted to resolve the issue by unilaterally purchasing  three of the disputed islands from a "private owner", prompting large-scale protests in China and posing the most serious challenge to Sino-Japanese relations since 1945. The symbolic value of these islands is high particularly in China, where  resentment towards Japan’s aggression  in the Pacific War is still palpable and is kept alive with an official narrative of  “national humiliation,” in which the CCP is the once and future savior of the Chinese nation.

The situation in the South China Sea is similar but made more complex by the number of claimants, and the area covered, and the greater economic and strategic value involved. The islands, all without indigenous populations, include three groups of islands,  the Spratlys (see photo above), the Paracels and the Pratas, as well as the  Macclesfield Bank and Scarborough Shoal and are claimed in various ways by the PRC, Taiwan, and Vietnam, with Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei claiming various pieces of the pie. 

Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012 as president and Communist Party leader, China has taken a more assertive position in the region,  building up islands and installing permanent features on them that the US claims allow for the deployment of military assets, including combat aircraft and mobile missile launchers to the Spratly​ Islands at any time, though China has denied militarizing the islands. While the U.S. does not claim territory in this area, we have asserted commitment to freedom of navigation around the islands.  The sea lanes are critical to regional and global economic and security interests. After decades of economic and military growth, China is more confident and, particularly since the U.S. financial crisis,  may sense that the U.S. is less able or willing to defend its interest in the region. This situation has created increased tensions and, because miscommunication is common in international relations, has the potential to lead to a war that no one intends.   


Western Today: Our closest allies in Asia all maintain common borders with the PRC, or sit across narrow bodies of water from China, such as South Korea, Taiwan and Japan. How are those countries juggling the need to maintain strong trade with China yet remain prepared for the PRC’s military threat?

KP: South Korea and Japan are America’s most important allies in the region; both have U.S. military bases and are key to U.S. power in the region.  At the same time, China has become the  largest export market for both countries.  Yet they have responded somewhat differently to China’s rise.  South Korea has deepened its economic and cultural ties with China and the current President seeks China’s support in its efforts to engage North Korea. At the same time South Korea has sought to maintain and even deepen it’s relationship with the U.S.  Japan on the other hand has sought to strengthen  ties with the US, particularly with the election of Shinzo Abe as prime minister. Abe has long promoted the expansion of Japan’s military capacity. This position coincides with Trump’s demand the Japan do more to defend itself.  North Korea’s nuclear program has provided some domestic cover to do so, even if the real concern is the rise of China as a rival great power.  

Taiwan (see map at right) also has very close ties to the U.S. and although the U.S. has committed to a “One China Policy,” the U.S. sells arms to Taiwan and has indicated it will view any intervention in Taiwan’s affairs with “grave concern.”  Thus the U.S. has long had a policy of “strategic ambivalence,” meant to maintain the status quo such that Taiwan does not unilaterally provoke the PRC by declaring de jure independence  and the PRC  does not seek unification militarily. Neither side can know for sure how the U.S. will respond. Taiwan has a significant military of its own but recently the PRC has gained limited but real amphibious landing capacity, which although limited would allow it to put troops on the ground .  Between 2000 and 2010  China and Taiwan have deepened their ties with extensive economic ties, including massive Taiwanese investments and considerable tourism, the DPP, the ruling party since 2012, began as a party of independence and the CCP is deeply suspicious of the current president, Tsai Ying-wen. Although she has sought to avoid provocative actions or statements,  tensions have increased. Thus the Taiwan Strait is another flash point where a miscalculation could easily lead to a war that no one wants.


Western Today: President Trump has taken an aggressive unilateral stance with China this year, from an arrest and potential deportation of a Chinese national in Vancouver, B.C. to more saber-rattling about potential tariffs. How do you think these efforts have impacted China’s policies, if at all, and how do you see the two countries finding common economic ground in the years ahead?

KP: It is a bit too early to tell.  Some would say that its about time the U.S. took a tough stance with China. After all, for the last four decades China has flourished under the post-Cold War  “rules based liberal international system,” which the U.S. has championed. China exports its products to the U.S. without fully complying with the rules, engaging in unfair, even predatory, trade practices and has recently created alternative institutions such as the Asian Infrastructural Investment Bank, meant to rival those created by the U.S. Domestically, China bans independent unions and arrests activists and recently has detained as many as a million of the Uyghurs, a Turkic minority in the China’s northwestern Xinjiang Province, for displays of faith such as such as beards or head scarfs. While this may be business as usual for the PRC, the military build-up, combined with a more assertive position internationally, suggests that the current leadership is seeking to challenge the existing international order and U.S. leadership. Some argue that a military confrontation is inevitable, and the proper U.S. response is one of an aggressive containment, now before it’s too late.  

I would urge caution in this regard.  It may be that Trump’s tough rhetoric has gotten China’s attention and that the current trade talks will help to create a better trading relationship. Certainly, the U.S. should demand fair and reciprocal trade, with reasonable safe guards for intellectual property and do so by appealing to CCP’s long tradition of pragmatism in this regard. At the same time, the U.S. should stop complaining and get cracking on rebuilding its technological and knowledge advantages by recommitting itself to investment in public higher education and research in all areas and by welcoming international students and scholars, to join us, including those from China.  

An aggressive military response will deepen distrust, and could trigger the very conflict we should seek to avoid. Instead the U.S. should strengthen existing alliances and engage more fully in multilateral institutions and take the long view. There may be room to draw China into cooperative, positive sum relationships,   including around climate change. As the two largest producers of carbon emissions, the U.S. and China can find common ground in working toward an effective response both technologically and culturally.  There are other non-traditional security concerns that  could provide the basis for cooperation and common ground, including other areas of environmental concern and and public health.     


Western Today: In your opinion, will China continue to grow in power, or has it reached its high mark?

KP: It is really impossible to tell.  I expect that there is room for more growth as China develops its high tech and service industry, though it well necessarily slow.  A slowdown is not necessarily a problem for the CCP, however. The more significant challenges are the growth of extreme inequality and environmental degradation.  Both of these issues create instability, especially when they overlap as they already have.  China’s massive detention of Uyghurs in the Northwest, combined with the crackdown on civil society organizations over the past six years suggest that the current leadership feels insecure. A sense of insecurity at home can sometimes result in a more adventurous security policy abroad, which could be disastrous for the region.  While some might hope for a faltering or even failed China, this is wrong headed. Culturally the US continues to have broad global appeal,  in spite of some self-inflicted setbacks.  The U.S. has the capacity for great flexibility and innovation. It is in U.S. interests and the interest of our allies to find a way to accommodate a strong China (a country with very few allies), even if the US has to yield a bit of space in the global system. 


Kristen Parris earned her master’s degree in East Asian Studies and her doctorate in Political Science from Indiana University.  She joined the Political Science Department at WWU in 1991 and serves on the department’s Curriculum and Scholarship committees. Her research interests include Chinese Politics (local governance and governance), State/Society Relations, and Citizenship and State Building.  She has traveled extensively and conducted research in China and is a member of the WWU Center for East Asian Studies, an interdisciplinary program that draws upon the expertise of more than 20 faculty from across the university.