Explaining the ‘China Threat’ Thesis

After the end of the Cold War, the US appeared triumphant against its Soviet rival who had now ceased to exist, which redistributed the world’s polarity to the US and its western victors. While it arguably became a multipolar system, it still nevertheless made the US the global hegemon. However, global politics is often a peripheral struggle for domination and many realist academics and observers believe the post-Cold War is no exception to this paradigm. This, along with the ‘rise of China’, has helped the ‘China threat’ thesis to be theorised, an assumption that China’s predicted ascension as a superpower cannot be a conceivably peaceful one. To explain this further, there will be a levels of analysis approach, one which will look at the individual, state/domestic, and global levels of China’s political, military and economical power and how this justifies the threat thesis itself.

The thesis itself can be traced back to the 1990s when China oversaw “rapid economic growth, military modernisation” and a “surge in energy demand”, all symptoms of a desire for recognition on the world stage (Al-Rodhan 2007, pp. 41-42). US officials feared this, with Condoleezza Rice criticising the Clinton Administration for treating the growing nation as a ‘strategic partner’ and that “China will do what it can to enhance its position” (Al-Rodhan 2007, p. 42).

Indeed, the individual decision-making of China’s leaders had a recurrent pattern of adapting itself to the international status quo. This would be to enhance itself and not become defunct like its former Soviet partner. As Sujian Guo (2006) argues, China’s foreign policy had a coherent structure, albeit with different messages but with the same intentions for ‘development’ nevertheless. Deng Xiaoping’s policy of taoguang yanghui had implied the intention of not becoming a global power to compete with the US and USSR, yet it did establish a Chinese market economy which surpassed the Soviet system and become competition against American capitalism (Guo 2006). The intention to challenge the US system became apparent when Premier Hu Jintao proposed a policy of “peaceful rise” in 2004, which had maintained Deng’s original policy but had abandoned Jiang Zemin’s policy of duoji shijie of advocating “multipolarity” within the world order (Guo 2006, p. 2). Such ambitions would be reason enough for the US to fear this challenge to its hegemony, as its in their raison d’état to maintain this status.

The threat supposedly posed by China on a state level also predates that as an economic competitor to the capitalist Occidental. When China succeeded with creating its first nuclear bomb Chic-1 in 1964, America feared another major enemy to the West’s security. The CIA in 1971 believed “China clearly intends to attain the status of a major nuclear power” and that its “existing high priority for strategic programs will endure in the years ahead” (Central Intelligence Agency 1971). China did not help in mitigating this antagonistic impression it had established when it showed military aggression throughout South-East Asia, through its support for fellow Communist nations in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. This also applies to diplomacy such as in the case of India, who it continues to have border disputes with after the Dalai Lama’s exile to the nation from the 1959 Tibetan Uprising (Fang 2014). Such tensions have grown to the point that India developed its own nuclear program. Indian Prime Minster A.B. Vajpayee’s rationale for this was because of the “overt nuclear weapon state on our borders, a state which committed armed aggression against India in 1962” (Fang 2014, p. 2). China responded by boycotting any form of dialogue regarding the border dispute (Fang 2014).

Yet, it can be argued that the military threat China displays is not the greatest worry to observers of its ascendency. While it has 2,695,000 active military personnel, the largest in the world, its use for conventional warfare is mainly redundant thanks to nuclear deterrence across the world stage, making territorial conquest less tolerated and pursuable (International Institute for Strategic Studies 2016). Its own nuclear capabilities are itself weak, possessing 270 nukes compared to the US’s total of 4000 (Federation of American Scientists 2018). The realist doctrine that heavily emphasises hard power through military strength can be argued as being defunct, considering that the arms race largely died along with the Cold War. It is because of this that the officials of China’s government have recognised the importance of alternative means of achieving its ‘rise’.

 Domestically, China has put huge emphasis on its technological development since the start of the twenty-first century. In 2006, Premier Hu Jintao made a commitment to transition modern China into a “innovation-oriented society” and establish zizhu chuangxin in the “knowledge intensive economy needed to ensure China’s international competitiveness” (Suttmeier et al. 2006). The Chinese government realised that its ‘growth panacea’ had been acquired to allow it to pursue a policy of a ‘knowledge panacea’, one that would fully utilise their power on the world stage (Aberkane 2011). This is an embrace of ‘noopolitik’, the politics of knowledge, which is a “a new approach to statecraft based principally on the primacy of ideas, values, laws, and ethics” to use in the growing ‘noosphere’ (Arquilla and Ronfeldt 1999, p. iii).

This new form of politik is one which replaces realpolitik’s usefulness for hard power to one which is more efficient within the methods of soft power. Not only has this helped China internally, but it has assisted the country in becoming a role model for development for more dilapidated nations. The economist Dambisa Moyo argues that China has recognised the basic economic rights that 90% of the world’s poorest wish to be entitled to, unlike the Washington Consensus’s view of development through political rights and private capitalism (TED 2013). The Chinese intensification of the knowledge economy has allowed it to comprehend situations which its rivals have been mistaken on, allowing it to spread its influence not through force but through utilising the information it possesses at its maximum. Knowledge is very much power in this case, and one form of power that causes the West to grow ever more fearful of China as a threat.

Despite all of what has been said, the crème de la crème of the ‘China threat’ has not been mentioned hitherto and it is one which can have great repercussions globally, especially for the US. Coined by Niall Ferguson (2012, p. xvii) and Moritz Schularick, the term ‘Chimerica’ is used to describe the growing dependency between “parsimonious China and profligate America”. This Siamese twinning of countries is also a deliberate pun of the mythical creature the ‘chimera’, one which is associated with bad omens when seen. To Ferguson, like other proponents of the ‘China threat’ thesis, Chimerica is just as much an unwanted sight as it has effectively made China the éminence grise of the western world. The People’s Bank of China’s high accumulation of US dollars and its low exchange value of the yuan has allowed China to maximise exports to the western markets, while simultaneously purchasing large amounts of US Treasury bonds that have exacerbated after the 1997 Asian Crisis and the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (Ferguson 2009). In 2006 alone, the net increase of China’s foreign exchange reserves almost exactly matched the net issuance of US Treasury and government agency bonds (Ferguson 2009, p. 335). This extremely strong credit position, along with the effective use of noopolitik, has given China financial abilities that only the US once enjoyed. Chinese sovereign wealth funds are heavily invested in Western financial groups such as Barclays, Bear Stearns, Citigroup and other struggling institutions (Ferguson 2009). This arguable successor to America as the world’s creditor has given China’s economic institutionalism the title of ‘Bretton Woods II’ by some commentators (Ferguson 2009, p. 335).

To reiterate, it is not the material possessions and territory China has acquired that the ‘China threat’ proponents should fear most, but rather the soft power it wields in the financial and information sectors that the West has failed to develop and maintain monopoly over. Guo (2006, p. 8) states that, like the ‘new powers’ after WWII, China could become “fully integrated into the established international system and economy”. China has not only done this, but it has arguably accomplished in becoming its new harbinger. That, while not ‘breathing fire’ unlike what the threat thesis thought was impossible, may have just confirmed one of the fears that the West had not wanted – losing its hegemony.

The levels of analysis conducted prove that the ‘China threat’ thesis has credible concerns as to why China should be approached with caution towards its rise and what its interests are. Its interests are no different from that of nearly all powers in political history, the interest to fulfil one’s self-interests. What makes the ‘China threat’ thesis a phenomenon though is the way the nation has utilised and adapted new methods of acquiring power at a time when it was assumed the West had beaten the Rest and that the ‘end of history’ had been accomplished. It thus proves that the recurring cycle for the struggle of power will make history continue its course.

Featured image credit: “Members of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) walk past the Tiananmen Gate in Beijing, China. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg” by Asitimes is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Disclaimer: This essay was originally written in November 2018.


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