Balancing China's Rise

Why Small Countries Matter

Screenshot 2020-11-16 at 20.02.14

Published as an article in Sanders, Luk, ed., 2020. China: Systemic Rival, Economic Competitor, and Negotiating Partner. Brussels: Royal Higher Institute for Defense.




Two times in history, Belgium had to reflect about China in military terms. The first time was in the nineteenth century. The Qing Empire had fallen into decay. Japan and European countries deployed troops to back their commercial ventures. So, too, did King Leopold II entertain hopes of securing a part of China’s market. In 1859, the king proposed to deploy a brigade. “It is with pleasure that our troops will cooperate in the Chinese expedition and that we will form a well-equipped brigade,” he wrote, “But in this constitutional state, such kind of enterprises are generally shrouded in difficulties. The Duke of Brabant commented: “If we manage to send 4,500 Belgians to Beijing, we would be stupid not to profit from such a strategic pivot (1).” Parliament balked. No troops were sent in the end.


The second occasion was the Korean War, between 1950 and 1953. A battalion of Belgian volunteers embarked to support a UN-mandated intervention. Undermanned, the battalion still gained a reputation for its fighting power. It was in the frontline when Chinese troops crossed the Imjin River. “The Chinese were like wild animals,” a soldier testified, “The came suddenly and they disappeared suddenly. Yet, still, the Chinese overwhelmed us (2).” The Korean War was a milestone in China’s history. It showed that, about one hundred years after the mutterings of Leopold II and the European gunboat diplomacy, this Century of Humiliation had ended. Even if the newly established People’s Republic remained destitute, it adopted a strategy of active defence against foreign interference.


Today, China emerges a third time as matter of a military concern to Belgium and other European countries. Seventy years after the Korean War, China, thanks to sustained economic growth, seems to have moved from active defence to quiet offense. At the very least, the difference between defence and offense has becomes less clear in China’s increasingly global military posture. China actively advances its economic interests. This is followed by a gradual build-up of military capabilities to defend these interests overseas. Economic growth also permits China to slowly erode the military advantages of its adversaries in an increasingly large theatre. The historic tide is turning.


European countries remain reluctant to accept that China’s economic growth comes with military consequences. This essay makes the case that a balancing effort is due. Of all the rising powers in the last centuries, China holds the largest potential for gaining dominance over Eurasia. Even if we skate around the discussion about its intentions, the question about whether we can rely on the official Chinese vow not to work towards hegemony, it is imperative to preserve a balance of power. Small contributions matter in that regard. Balancing China, needs to be conducted in a measured way. The focus is not on countering China, but bolstering our resilience at home. Balancing China also needs to happen in a way that permits European countries to prioritize security in their neighbourhood.


Rather than detailing military and diplomatic consequences of China’s rise, which I do elsewhere, the aim of this essay is to set the scene for a broader strategic debate, and also to seize China’s ascent to come to grips with some thorny issues inside our own country and armed forces. It first discusses the options for small countries to respond to rising powers. Onwards, it examines the repercussions of China’s growth and why European countries have been reluctant to balance. Finally, it clarifies how small European countries can work towards measured and comprehensive balancing.





The strong do what as wish, the weak do what they must (3). The weak therefore have an interest to balance the strong. Like companies require a diverse market to flourish, as opposed to a monopoly situation, and citizens’ interests can be better advanced in a state with political checks and balances, as opposed to a dictatorship, countries’ interests and security are thought to be best preserved absent a single dominant power (4). Hence the need to preserve an international balance of power. It permits smaller countries to shape their external relations and to prevent others from shaping their internal choices, their way of life. Preserving a balance of power is about preserving sovereignty. The logic of balancing is thus straightforward.


Diplomatic practice, however, is less so. History is full of examples of lesser powers failing to balance against large rising powers (5). Several factors account for this situation. The leadership might have a limited time horizon and have no eye for the effect of sustained incremental change (6). Governments can also have a limited geographic horizon, making them focussed on challenges nearby and blind to the growing influence of distant powers (7). Economism is a third factor. Adam Smith famously pointed out that a rich neighbour should be seen as a commercial opportunity, but he ignored that those neighbours are states whose wealth gained through commerce has military repercussions. Hubris can also play a role (8). Countries accustomed to wealth and power tend to be slow to realize that the tide turns. Balancing also comes with a negative connotation. It is, often wrongly, seen a precursor of war, identified with policies of containment, confrontation even, a strategy that closes the door to trade and dialogue.


Hence, the tendency to resort to alternative approaches. Appeasement or accepting the power shift is a first option. Appeasement means surrender, surrendering the options to defend values, interests, and sovereignty. Lesser powers can also bandwagon. That too implies the acceptance of the power shift and to work with the rising state to extract economic concessions (9). They can conduct buck passing, expecting other protagonists to keep the rising power in check. Engagement takes the rising power as a given and seeks to make it benevolent through dialogue, inducement, and rules. Important in pursuing these alternative approaches, is the elite. Elites can be opportunistic, preferring bandwagoning to extract private gains at the detriment of the country’s long-term prosperity. Elites can also be opportunistic in a way that they cling to the privileges of domestic power, but lack the courage and the wit to engage much more formidable external threats. They prefer the frivolity of flawed appeasement, engagement, or bandwagoning to the taxing task of shaping relations with a stronger power.


History teaches that if countries become dominant, they will use that dominance against lesser powers in unpleasant ways (10). Dominance breeds arrogance. The shift in the balance of power usually coincides with hardening influence, with the rising power altering its behaviour from self-restraint and defence while it feels vulnerable, to a posture of assertiveness and forward-leaning pushback when it grows strong, to a posture of offense and intimidation when it attains dominance. The main puzzle in that regard is not so much that a large country pursues growth and influence, but that other countries first refuse to consider the long-term consequences, and when they get to see the downside, panic, and are forced either to accept the new domination or to fight it and start a new major power war. Effective balancing, in other words, is not about starting a war, about containment, and confrontation, it is about avoiding that the power shift becomes so decisive that confrontation or containment emerges as the only remaining option. Early-stage measured balancing is key to avoid that confrontational hard balancing becomes the only option when dominance becomes imminent – when it is too late.


Such balancing is not about singling out the rising power as a threat; it is about preventing it from becoming one. This approach, so we will discuss later on in this essay, does not preclude economic cooperation. Yet, it does seek to avoid unequal gains and political manipulation of trade. It does not prevent engagement. Yet, it takes a great interest in guaranteeing that engagement and dialogue advance key interests. It does not even stand in the way of military synergy. Yet, it pursues military synergy from a position of strength and tries to prevent becoming dependent on the rising power to critical security interests. It is even not about halting interdependence in a broader sense, but about making sure that dependency remains mutual. As evident as checks and balances are in domestic politics; they are vital in international politics.



Europe’s reluctance to balance


The first important encounters with China’s military modernization took place around 2008, when the country deployed warships in response to piracy in the Indian Ocean and increased its peacekeeping presence in Africa. Before, however, some European intelligence services had been looking into the involvement of the People’s Liberation Army in cyber-attacks, industrial espionage, space programmes, and exports of advanced missiles to countries like Iran and Syria. Since, China’s military power and ambitions became more prominent in policy debates, especially after the American President Donald Trump demanded it to be a priority for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO. Many European countries were somewhat forced to start to look at China from a military viewpoint as a result of American insistence through NATO, yet remain hesitant and at loggerheads about how to respond.


In 2020, the European High Representative discarded China as a military issue. “They don’t have military ambitions and they don’t want to use the force to participate in military conflicts,” he observed (11). Yet, on the other hand, the commander of the French armed forces stated that China’s ambitions were expansionist and could become aggressive (12). The French minister of defence warned that China’s military ambitions caused uncertainty about the freedom of navigation as well as the future of French territory and 1.6 million citizens in the Indo-Pacific (13). The commander of the armed forces of the Netherland remarked to be in competition, even “at war”, with China (14). The commander of the British armed forces referred to China as a challenge. We see a more assertive Russian threat and we see the challenge of China very vividly,” he said, “Hence, this era of constant competition, and perhaps arguably, constant conflict (15).”


Behind closed doors, European military officers and diplomats also have diverging opinions. On the one extreme, one find the assertion that China is not a military challenge or threat. On several occasions, in national contexts, as well as EU and NATO settings, diplomats from large European countries stated that China has no history of aggression and expansion, that it does not seek to upset the global order, that it is too far from Europe to constitute a threat, or that the world has become too interconnected for new great power rivalry. On the other extreme, but significantly less numerous, one finds those who believe that China is emerging as a new hegemonic power, that its policies in its neighbourhood, including its claim on Taiwan and adjacent seas, already challenge European interests, and that its construction of bases overseas, like in Djibouti presages an assertive posture globally.


There is no European vision for China in the making. The most recent European Security Strategy, which dates from 2009, refers to China as a partner and as a country that shares Europe’s goals and values (16). A 2019 European Commission paper refers to China as a systemic rival and states that China’s military assertiveness undermines trust and challenges European security (17). But these assertions were contradicted by the European High Representative himself. A new internal reflection process, led by the External Action Service, is started. Many countries seem to be supportive of adopting a more geopolitical perspective towards China, but it still remains unclear what “geopolitics” entails in this exercise. The US government has only recently proposed NATO’s North Atlantic Council and the Political and Security Committee to resume discussions about China.


The debate about the military consequences of China’s rise among European experts also remains less mature than in the United States and Asian countries (18). They focussed mainly on economic affairs and issues such as cyber security. European experts contributed insights into specific aspects military and security issues, such as China’s naval deployments, military presence in Africa, arms trade, and cooperation with regard to security issues, like Iran (19). Hence, more than ten years after the first important Chinese out-of-area operations, despite a decade of growing Chinese military presence in Europe’s neighbourhood, and in spite of the consequences of China’s rise for the military orientation of a key ally, the United States, the majority of European countries are still trying to make sense of it.



Eurasian Leviathan


Why should European countries care and why is it necessary to balance? This question could be answered by highlighting the fact that China is an authoritarian state, has recently decided to largely ignore the treaty-bound promise to respect the autonomy of Hong Kong, and incarcerated millions of Uyghurs in re-education camps. From this viewpoint, it is the nature of the Chinese state that constitutes the largest threat: China is not just a rising power, it is a rising dictatorship that brutally represses dissidents, quietly seeks to expand its territory, and cunningly distorts the global market place. These allegations are not groundless. But we do not even have to consider the nature of the rising state, to discuss whether it is just or unjust, to come to the conclusion that its growing power poses a challenge today and possibly becomes a security threat in the long run. Let us review some points.


The potential. The last time European lesser powers faced the ascent of a new dominant power, it led to dramatic conflict: the Napoleonic Wars, the wars with Germany, and the Cold War. China today has a far larger economic and demographic potential for Eurasian dominance than any rising revisionist power in the last centuries. It has carefully balanced its internal economic capabilities and external behaviour. With about one fourth of Eurasia’s population, China today almost represents one third of its economic production and military spending (20). China, so far, is also much more effective in converting its potential into growth and thus to gain power. Its main peer, the United States, still struggles to reinforce the economic fundaments of its power. Japan and Russia are stagnant. Southeast Asia remains divided. Indian economic growth again fell below that of China. India’s manufacturing output is already ten times smaller than China’s; its official military budget four times. The gap continues to widen. The European Union has lost an important member state and also has difficulties developing strong common economic and security policy.


The desire. While Chinese leaders have claimed that their country will never seek hegemony, a Chinese society with 1.4 billion rich consumers will make it a hegemony by default if other important regions fail to keep pace (21). From China’s perspective, its core aspirations are just and defensive in nature. They concern: the survival of the Party monopoly through sustained economic growth, the consolidation of control over restive frontier lands, including Tibet and Xinjiang, and the incorporation of lost territories – including Taiwan, the China Seas, and contested parts on the Indian border. We can add to this a fourth aspiration: the redressal of the damage done during the Century of Humiliation and the restoration of China as a strong, respected power. These core aspirations, however, again imply hegemony, as their fulfilment will open the way for China to radiate its influence more widely and will also require it to do so. After all, incorporating lost territory demands China to develop the capacity to subdue smaller neighbouring countries as well as to keep the United States at a distance, hence denying it access to the Western Pacific – and beyond.


The opportunity. Chinese leaders often spoke of the last few decades as a window of opportunity to advance the country’s main aspirations. The global economy was open; few countries bothered balancing its growing economic power; resistance was mostly symbolical. Despite the recent confrontational policy of the U.S. government, the protectionist trade policy has been dysfunctional, as China continued to run immense trade surpluses. Possible Eurasian balancers, including Russia, and Japan, the Association for Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, India, and the European Union are undecided. Even if China does not have many allies, it can count on a large number of countries that refuse to oppose it. Several put economic cooperation with China upfront. Some, especially small countries close to China, already fear the cost of balancing and conflict. Others, like India and Japan, are reluctant to support US-led hard balancing. Russia, Iran, Pakistan, North-Korea, and various other regional powers are even less inclined. Reluctance and fragmentation permits China to continue to grow its power, influence, and presence. All China needs at this point is not so much a large number of allies, but a large number of countries that tolerate unbalanced economic relations, and present to China the consumer markets, the raw materials, and the technology to sustain its growth, and, at the same time refuse to join American hard balancing.


The reach. If the major powers in the past were held back by formidable geographic limitations; connectivity has levelled the world into an arena of an unprecedented scale. If Chinese empires struggled to project power beyond the Northeast China Plain, the Himalaya and the Hindu Kush mountain ranges, as well as the hills of Southeast Asia, have become staging points for Chinese commercial and military activities. What emerges, is a diffuse network of onshore trade corridors that stretches from Shanghai to Antwerp. Countries in the heart of Eurasia are slowly incorporated in a sphere of influence, much more that was ever the case when dynasties tried to control the silk road in the past. Checks also vanish in the maritime domain. China now combines the continental thrust described by Halford Mackinder and the maritime thrust highlighted by thinkers such as Alfred Mahan. If we watch Russia send large numbers of troops back and forth between the eastern and western ends of Eurasia, onshore transport infrastructure expands, and Chinese air and sea lift capabilities increase, distance will be less a constraint. In addition, power can be projected with growing ease, speed, and accuracy, by means of missiles, cyber, and space-based assets.


The vision. China has the vision to further develop its power potential by growing its influence throughout Eurasia and beyond. Even if China is not a monolith and it does not necessarily follow a single grand strategy, it has various official visions for expanding its influence on the Eurasian landmass and around. Like the American President Bill Clinton once said that the United States needed to be at the centre of every global network, the Chinese government seeks to build economic networks with China at the centre. Its Belt and Road Initiative is a good example. China also has policy documents that explain its plan to build a network of suppliers of raw materials, to take the lead in exploring the mining potential in the heart of Eurasia as well as on the floor of the Oceans, to support Chinese companies to buy farmland, and to back Chinese oil and mining companies to control important deposits abroad (22). There are plans to support Chinese firms in weaving Eurasia into a network of high-voltage electricity networks, supplied by Chinese nuclear power plants and renewable energy, into networks of fibre optic cables, mobile phone networks, railway networks, maritime networks, and so forth. These visions of Eurasian economic expansion are explicit. This is less so with regard to military and security ambitions, although the leadership has stated repeatedly that the flag has to follow the trade and that the protection of foreign economic interests is critical. Hence, the first base in Djibouti and Tajikistan, interest in other possible hubs such as Gwadar, and the expansion of state-affiliated private security providers.


It appears, hence, that China is on a typical imperial trajectory. While its leadership is still consolidating state control domestically, it slowly moves on to assert its interests beyond today’s accepted borders, and tries to find ways to defend its growing economic interests abroad. Its gains in economic power lead to growing military power. Its gains in power allow it to grow its influence, in various ways from humanitarian aid and incorporation to coercive diplomacy and economic blackmail. While its influence hardens, it displays fragility and strength at the same time. This, too, is not unusual. We can refer, for instance, to the debut of the open-door policy of the United States toward Japan, in 1853, before the American Civil War. We can also refer to Germany’s Weltpolitik, amidst internal social and economic volatility. Each such hurdle China manages to overcome, each crisis mastered, allows it to advance further on this tenuous imperial trajectory. At this point, nobody can take Chinese success and dominance as a given. But nobody can exclude it either. China’s collapse has been predicted many times in the past decade. Each time, it showed resilience.


Even if we consider China to be on an imperial trajectory and consider its potential for dominance in the long run, two important additional points need to be made. The first addresses the argument, still often heard among European diplomats, which holds that China has a different strategic culture, refrained from expansionism in the past, and rather projects its influence through a Confucianism-based tributary policy. This conception, however, is problematic. China did pursue expansionism and it coincided with brutal conquest (23). The territory of the People’s Republic today is, in fact, the result of centuries of steady expansionism from a small heartland between the two main rivers in the Northeast China Plain. Tibet and Xinjiang used to be as much “abroad” a few centuries ago as, for instance, Northern Africa to imperial France. If European imperialism spread more via the seas; Chinese imperialism spread via valleys and plains. The difference is that China preserved and consolidated these conquests more successfully into an imperial structure than that there was no conquest and aggrandizement at all. It is also not entirely known how peaceful the famous maritime missions of the Ming admiral Zheng He were. Today, China’s blue water capabilities are developing exceptionally fast and so does its maritime mercantile prowess. From a geopolitical viewpoint, China is a hybrid power, and it has gained ground both on the continent and in the seas.


Hence, China’s strategic culture is not preprogramed by history or geography to be peaceful or less expansionistic. There is a second widely-held argument that needs consideration, namely that the nature of international politics has changed. Interdependence and the threat mutual destruction make the use of military power less rewarding. The threat of annihilation, however, has never been a guarantee against aggression and armed conflicts often also escalate unintentionally. There is no evidence either that economic interdependence has neutralized possible causes of armed conflicts that might involve China. If anything, decades of interdependence and globalization have allowed China to accelerate its military modernization, and to assert its claims much more forcefully. Moreover, if the major powers accepted and encouraged interdependence in the past, they have started to try to reduce their dependence on each other. Interdependence is not a given. Economic growth and trade, so much China has confirmed in the last few years, propel military expansion.


Hence, whatever our appreciation about the current state of China, its political system, the commercial exchanges, and so forth, we do need to consider the prospect of a new Eurasian leviathan. The Chinese economy has slowed down, but even if we make an extrapolation of the last ten years of slowing economic growth, China is still set to surpass the United States as the largest economy in the next ten years. Its share of Eurasia’s total economic output is could climb to 37 percent in 2030, 44 percent in 2040, and 50 percent in 2050 (24). No Chinese imperial dynasty has ever commanded such economic advantage. The Qing Empire, at its peak, commanded around 36 percent of the wealth of Eurasia; the Ming Empire around 30 percent. Chinese Eurasian dominance is no certainty. China might pace ahead, it might stumble; it might collapse. Nobody knows. But we cannot exclude it (25). The intentions of a dominant China cannot be predicted. Most of the time, it was stated before, dominance leads to arrogance. We do not have solid evidence that China will be an exception against that rule.




Putting our house in order


These forces look formidable and are difficult to grasp. If matters such as 5G or China’s naval shipbuilding programme remained somewhat tangible, this power shift is the deep incremental change that accounts for some of the recent turbulence on the surface. From the viewpoint of a small European power, it appears even more surreal to try to respond to it, even to consider that it might balance. Yet, still, even if China would command 50 percent of the Eurasian economy, and, hence, obtains immense leverage to shape its partnerships and financial resources to spend on its military, it still leaves a significant combined potential for other countries. What then does balancing imply for small European countries and more particularly to their armed forces?


It is tempting to answer that question by putting the focus instantly on specific military matters, such as China’s military presence in Africa, cyber security, and so forth. Yet, balancing is not a purely military operational matter. One cannot expect armed forces to rise to the challenge, if the rest of the country does not understand what is at stake. One cannot expect armed forces to bolster their capability, if the overall power of the country is allowed to decline. One cannot preserve security around a society that is not ready to defend itself. Hence, before we can proceed to the hard, outer layer of military balancing, we do need to consider the mellow fabric of a nation’s morals and politics. We need an approach inside-out and it could consist of ten important layers.


First, we need to have a clear understanding about what balancing means. As stated previously, the essence of balancing for a country is to preserve its own power, not necessarily to undermine the power of others. The best way to preserve international checks and balances, is to grow stronger together. China’s rise has become a pressing problem, because many other parts of the world, especially the West, have settled in their stagnation. China is a wake-up call to do better. Power, combined with wisdom and virtue, is the best form of security. It is vital to safeguard sovereignty, the country’s capacity to make independent choices, and to prevent to have to obey to the choices of others. Balancing is both internal, strengthening the capabilities of the country, and external, working more efficiently with other countries. Hence, the essence of balancing is to maintain the power that is needed to build our own future.


Second, the capacity of shaping our own future is about preserving the liberty and sovereignty of our children. In that regard, it is crucial for the armed forces to explain much better what is at stake. The armed forces need to remind its soldiers and the society at large more compellingly what they defend. Soldiers must be professionals, but they need to be patriots first. They need to understand what it means to live as a small country under the domination of others. They need to understand the consequences of oppression. We cannot allow man and women in uniform to degrade into technocrats with a gun. The armed forces must again make a much larger effort in this regard to inject historic knowledge each part of its formation, to make young recruits understand what they defend, and to make each soldier an information warrior that has the knowledge and skill to explain this to relatives, friends, and colleagues. Commemorations of the World War, monuments, and so forth need more care. We need soldiers to take this message much more powerfully to schools, to news media. In order to recognize the challenge posed by others, we need to know how we are first. 


Third, soldiers need to be prepared for a difficult time. Most man and women in uniform already experience these times as difficult, given the high work load, limited resources, and limited recognition. As the economy of our country has been allowed to weaken, given the political complexity, and given the fact that it is not evident for a society that got used to its wealth and peace to see the threats, this is unlikely to change soon. This is the most difficult fight imaginable, to preserve security in a society that is unwilling to make sacrifices. Yet, still, the leadership must lead by example, show courage, dedication, and vigour in turning that tide, be ready to make personal sacrifices. If it cannot hold to men and women in uniform the promise of recognition; it can promise to them the resolve to fight for it. Fighting spirit abroad requires fighting spirit at home first. We cannot remain quiet. 


Fourth, we need an integral view of national security. Military power is built on and requires synergy with other assets, including a solid national economy, good education, internal security, effective governance, and so forth. The armed forces cannot do their job if weakness is allowed to take hold of in other parts of the society. The armed forces must work more closely with other stakeholders, including corporate leaders, civil society, and other government departments, to continuously assess the challenges to our national security. It needs to communicate its assessment in a balanced and bold way to the society, enhance its domestic authority as a security provider, and advise the political leadership more convincingly. It should no longer let its security assessments be determined by politicians. The political leadership has the constitutional right to make final decisions, but the armed forces have the constitutional responsibility to guard national security and, hence, to communicate in plain terms about it, directly to citizens. If politicians do not follow an assessment, and take different decisions, it is up to them to explain that.


Sixth, an integral view of national security and proper communication demands a much more lenient and professional capacity to fuse intelligence, operational insights, inputs from other stakeholders, and strategic foresight into powerful stratcom products, policy options, and operational choices. The armed forces need to better cultivate complementarity and synergy with other stakeholders, including diplomacy, think tanks, and universities. There needs to be a more demanding culture of excellence, out-of-the-box thinking, reviewing, and challenging inside and in between relevant departments of the armed forces. There needs to be a much better capacity also to translate information into stratcom products that resonate in the entire society. Quality needs to be rewarded more and the end-users need to be given the opportunity to evaluate quality. There needs to be a node high-up in the command chain to oversee and catalyse this process of fusion and quality improvement. If we want to stand a chance earning the domestic support to respond to challenges abroad, we need to convince with the quality of our knowledge, the persuasive of our policy advise, and the effectiveness and lethality of our deployments.



Rising to the challenge


The precondition for any balancing effort is to get one’s own house in order. Only then can we consider to respond properly to the rise of China. This brings us to a seventh priority: We need better and comprehensive situational awareness. We need to understand the rise of China in all its aspects. Each country has its own perspective on China. We must work with them, in bilateral partnerships, inside NATO and the EU, but we must also preserve the independent capacity to understand what China’s rise is about. We need to communicate proactively about it, confidentially with specific stakeholders if it must; publically whenever we can.


Eight: It is important that the armed forces help oversee that bilateral relations with China are balanced. Once more: balancing does not exclude cooperation and dialogue. Yet, balancing does require cooperation to be level, to be reciprocal. The armed forces intelligence service needs to be better equipped to address eventual challenges to national security, related to industrial espionage in sensitive sectors, espionage against governmental institutions – national and international – eventual dependency on goods and services key for national safety, technology transfers in military or dual-use, and so forth. Too often, we remain blind to the state of our exchanges with China. The intelligence services also need more capacities to counter state-guided efforts do influence our domestic debate about China, being it through information campaigns, economic coercion – implicit and explicit, as well as incorporation. We live in an era of hybrid and grey-zone war: this should be a part of our response. Finally, the armed forces do have an interest in overall balanced economic relations. Like the Chinese government, and, increasingly various Western governments, we need to understand the effect of economic security on military security.


Ninth: We need to engage more actively in China-related debates with international partners, including inside NATO and the EU. Awareness of the challenge of the power shift is growing, but this needs to be encouraged. Coordination in international organizations is vital, but coordination also demands individual countries to do their bit. There can be no strong multilateral alliances without strong national contributions.


Tenth: Even with an eye on China, we need to put Europe’s neighbourhood first. The worst possible evolution would be a rising China, with European countries vacating more of their backyard. It will cause a power vacuum that China, and others, will fill. That brings a responsibility to do more in the south. Africa and the Middle East sliding deeper into turmoil will be a pretext for various powers to intervene, and in the long run grow their presence – in support of their own economic interests and as a source of leverage regarding Europe. Like China seeks to develop the capacity to deny access to adjacent seas, European countries should work together to retain dominance near the gateways to Europe. Our navy should deploy more frequently near Bab el-Mandeb, in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Central part of the Atlantic. We need to keep an eye on Levant and Iraq, an important geopolitical crossroads between Europe and Asia, and the main continental gateway to the Mediterranean. We need to work with other government departments to concentrate efforts more effectively on certain countries in Europe’s southern neighbourhood.


Eleventh: A response to Russia’s A2AD. Russia has shown us a glimpse of a fourth wave of warfighting: an intimidating amalgamation of grey-zone campaigns and highly lethal, cost-efficient armed force. Russia’s military build-up and capacity to deny access to its neighbourhood is a modest prologue of the new contest for military dominance. Russian military modernization is the appetizer to the Chinese main course. It is essential to help preserve the balance of power with Russia, yet also to look towards the eastern theatre to test and enhance our warfighting capabilities – across the full spectrum. We can think in this regard of counter-intelligence, countering disinformation, electronic warfare, advanced mine countermeasures, SOF deep infiltration, standoff warfare, and transregional mechanized mobility. As long as we cannot get to grips with the Russian military build-up, we do not stand a chance against China’s military build-up. 


Finally: We must understand and explain the importance of the fourth wave of warfighting. European countries risk to fall completely behind in the innovations in military technology, such as hypersonics, and operational concepts, such as dispersed high-intensity campaigns. Too often, we are into the dark about developments in cyberwarfare, electronic warfare, and the rapidly modernizing capabilities for nuclear warfare and missile defence. A collective European effort to catch up is overdue, but this also entails that we have to have the capacity to contribute. It is advised to establish a task force to encourage synergy between the armed forces, R&D, and companies in this endeavour. It needs to explore in which niches our country can contribute, but also to explain the fourth wave of warfighting to the public and political leaders.





This essay has made the case for small European countries to rise to the China challenge and to ready for a measured, yet comprehensive balancing effort. Even if we sidestep the debate about whether or not China’s regime and ambitions are problematic, the very magnitude of the power shift and its potential for Eurasian dominance should prompt small European states to take it much more seriously. China transforming into a Eurasian leviathan will constitute a security threat as much as all other domineering Eurasian powers did in the past. It will come at the detriment of our country’s freedom of action and the ability to shape its future.


Military balancing is essential and our own armed forces need to do their bit. Yet, it is a precondition that some internal constraints are tackled first. Before we can make an earnest attempt to balance militarily, the armed forces have to make a greater effort to understand the nature of the challenge, to explain that the defence of the sovereignty of our children and grandchildren will demand sacrifices, and to clarify with much more authority and courage the stakes to citizens and specific stakeholders. China’s rise is not just an issue that the military has to deal with in practical terms; it is one of the formidable forces that might shape the lives of the next generations of citizens of this country.


Only if these internal requirements are met, might the armed forces consider to make a small difference in light of the formidable power shift. In any such effort, security needs to be defined broadly. The armed forces need to enhance the capacity to work with other departments and to gather intelligence about the broadening relations between China and our country. Multilateral coordination is a must, but even then, the size of individual contributions matter. In the first place, we need to approach China’s military modernization through our neighbourhood, make sure that we avoid the growth of power vacuums, enhance presence along key gateways to Europe, and more earnestly respond to Russia’s military capabilities to deny access or to exploit the grey zone below the threshold of war. Balancing Russia is a warmup to balance China. Lastly, we need serious thinking about the fourth wave of warfighting and avoid at any expense that we end up in a similar situation as the decaying Qing Dynasty at the time of Leopold II, that is, weak and defenceless, partially because it failed to see how the world around was changing.




(1) “Je verrais avex plaisir nos troupes coopérer àl’expedition de la Chine, q’on pourrait former une brigade qui serait bien composéé, mais que dans un pays constitutionnel, toute entreprose de ce genre était entourée de difficultiés.” Juste, Théodore, 1879. Léopold I et Léopold II. Bruxelles: Muquardt, p. 613.

(2) Holslag, Jonathan, 2010. Trapped Giant. London: IISS; Holslag, Jonathan, 2016. China’s Coming War with Asia. Cambridge: Polity.

(3) After: Thucydides, M. Finley, ed., 1997. The Peloponnesian War. London: Penguin, p. 32.

(4) A more detailed discussion on this latter point is of course due. My personal view uses to be close to Aristotle’s, namely that the virtue in a state is more decisive than the form of the state, but also to Machiavelli’s warning that the damage done by a tyrant without virtue is larger than the damage done by a republic without virtue. I must confess that the last decade of Western politics made me somewhat less sure about that latter part, however, yet, still, believe our stunted democracy preferable about authoritarianism.

(5) Schweller, Randall, 2006. Unanswered Threats: Political Constraints on the Balance of Power. Princeton University Press; Paul, T.V., James Wirtz, and Michel Fortmann, eds. 2004. Balance of Power: Theory and Practice in the 21st Century. Stanford: Stanford University Press; Ripsman, Norron and Jack Levy, British Grand Strategy and the Rise of Germany, in Taliaferro, Jeffrey et al. eds. The Challenge of Grand Strategy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 171-190.

(6) Gilpin, Robert, 1981. War and Change in World Politics. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 9-106.

(7) Walt, Stephen, 1985. Alliance Formation and the Balance of World Power, International Security, 9, 4, pp. 3-43

(8) Smith, Adam, Andrew Skinner ed., 1992. Wealth of Nations. Books 1-3. London: Penguin, p. 79.

(9) Schweller, Randall, 1994. Bandwagoning for Profit: Brining the Revisionist State Back In. International Security. 19, 1, pp. 72-107.

(10) For instance: Waltz, Kenneth, 1959. Man, the State, and War. New York: Columbia University Press; Gilpin, Robert, 1981. op cit.

(11) Barigazzi, Jacopo, 2020. China is not a military threat, EU top diplomat says. Politico, 9 June 2020.

(12) Lagneau, Laurent, 2018. L’expansionnisme chinois peut devenir agressif. Les Echos, 14 November 2018.

(13) Bourdillon, Yves, 2019. Paris défend la liberté de navigation face à Pékin. Les Echos, 2 June 2019.

(14)  Schat, Peter, 2020. We zijn vrij, maar ook in oorlog met Rusland en China. Noordhollands Dagblad, 11 Juli 2020.

(15) Knowles, Michael, 2020. Top Army general in warning on China ‘Authoritarian political warfare’. Express, 8 July 2020.

(16) European Council, 2009. European Security Strategy. Brussels: European Council Secretariat, p. 42.

(17)European Commission, 2019. EU-China: A Strategic Outlook. Brussels: European Commission, p. 1 & 4.

(18) Two dedicated edited volumes with predominantly European contributions: Kirchner, Emil et al. eds, 2016. Security Relations between China and the European Union. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Putten, Frans-Paul, and Chu Shulong, 2010. China, Europe and International Security: Interests, Roles, and Prospects. London: Taylor and Francis.

(19) Casarini, Nicola, 2007. The International Politics of the Chinese Arms Embargo Issue. The International Spectator, 42, 3, pp. 371-389; Kamerling, Susanne, and Frans-Paul van der Putten, 2011. An Overseas Naval Presence without Overseas Bases. Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, 40, 4; Duchatêl, Mathieu, and Alexandre Sheldon-Duplais, 2011. The European Union and the Modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army Navy. China Perspectives, 2011, 4, pp. 31-41; Putten, Frans-Paul, 2015.China’s Evolving Role in Peacekeeping and African Security. Clingendael Research Paper, 14 September 2015; Legarda, Helena, and Meia Nouwens, 2018. Guardians of the Belt and Road. Merics China Monitor, 16 August 2018; Nouwens, Meia, 2018. China’s Military Power is Growing Faster than You Think. IISS Analysis, 21 February 2018; Duchatêl, Mathieu, 2019. Overseas Military Operations in Belt and Road Countries. NBR Special Report, September 2019.

(20)  World Bank, World Development Indicators Database. Retrieved from:

(21) I develop this point in: Holslag, Jonathan, 2016. China’s Coming War with Asia. op. cit.

(22) Point developed in Holslag, Jonathan, 2019. Silk Road Trap. Cambridge: Polity.

(23) Point developed in Holslag, Jonathan, 2018. A Political History of the World. London: Penguin. (24) Calculations based on the current GDP between 2010 and 2019 in the World Bank’s World Development Indicators database.

(25) Calculations based on the historical GDP in Angus Maddison, 2014. Historical Statistics of the World Economy. Data for 1800 and 1600.






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