China may have no intentions of using its growing military might, but that is of little comfort for Western countries. From the World Trade Organization to the United Nations, Beijing is happy to use its soft power to get what it wants -- and it is wrong-footing the West at every turn.
Former Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen once told me, half with amusement and half with resignation, that military people around the world are all more or less the same. "They can only be happy when they have the most up-to-date toys," he said.
If this is true, Beijing's generals must be very happy at the moment. China has increased its military budget by 7.5 percent in 2010, making funds available for new fighter jets and more cruise missiles. Beijing's military buildup is a source of concern for Western experts, even though the US's military budget is about eight times larger. Some feel that China poses a threat to East Asia, while others are even convinced that Beijing is preparing to conquer the world militarily.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Unlike, say, the United States, the People's Republic has not attacked any other country in more than three decades, not since it launched an offensive against Vietnam in 1979. And even though Beijing's leaders periodically rattle their sabers against Taiwan, which they refer to as a "renegade province," they have no intention of entering into any armed conflicts.
Unlike many in the West, they have long since recognized that bombs are little more than deterrents these days. In today's asymmetric conflicts, it is difficult to hold on to territory captured in bloody battles. War is an instrument of the past, and Mao's argument that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun" no longer holds true today.
It is, however, true that the Chinese are in the process of conquering the world. They are doing this very successfully by pursuing an aggressive trade policy toward the West, granting low-interest loans to African and Latin American countries, applying diplomatic pressure to their partners, pursuing a campaign bordering on cultural imperialism to oppose the human rights we perceive to be universal, and providing the largest contingent of soldiers for United Nations peacekeeping missions of all Security Council members. In other words, they are doing it with soft power instead of hard power.
Beijing is indeed waging a war on all continents, but not in the classical sense. Whether the methods it uses consistently qualify as "peaceful" is another matter. For example, the Chinese apply international agreements as they see fit, and when the rules get in their way, they "creatively" circumvent them or rewrite them with the help of compliant allies.
But why are politicians in Washington, Paris and London taking all of this lying down, kowtowing to the Chinese instead of criticizing them? Does capturing -- admittedly lucrative -- markets in East Asia and trying to impress the Chinese really help their cause?