Guest Post: Dean Cheng on “Coming to Terms with the Post-Post-Cold War and the Rise of China”

Today’s post is by my friend and popular LENS conference speaker, Mr. Dean Cheng.  Dean is a Senior Research Fellow at the Asian Studies Center and the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and one of the nation’s very top experts on China.

This essay was prompted by the U.S. decision to widen the aperture for the sale to foreign countries of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) more commonly known as drones.  It did so by re-interpreting the non-binding Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a move that has been called “reckless” by some critics who believe it will proliferate the technology.

China, however, is not a member of the MTCR and has been selling drone (and other) technology essentially to whoever can pay.  Dean puts this issue in a wider strategic context (the “post-post-Cold War” era) as he explains why it “is no longer possible for the United States to determine, or dictate, who can and cannot incorporate UAVs into their inventory.”

US’s MQ-9 Reaper

Essentially this means that the U.S. either sells American drones to selected countries with the restrictions and oversight that still remain, or cede the field to China.  The fact is that nations want this capability and they will get it from wherever they can.

What Dean does so cogently and clearly is to give us insight into China’s thinking on this and related issues.  As importantly, he suggests why they think as they do.  Spend a few minutes reading this post and, believe me, you’ll learn a lot!

Coming to Terms with the Post-Post-Cold War and the Rise of China

by Dean Cheng

Mr. Cheng

Determining when a historical era begins sometimes is easy.  The end of American isolationism occurred definitively on December 7, 1941, amidst the palls of smoke emanating from Battleship Row.  Similarly, the post-Cold War period began sometime between the fall of the Berlin Wall and Boris Yeltsin leaping on the back deck of a tank during the abortive 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev.

Less clear is when the post-post-Cold War period began. In Europe, some might point to 2014, when the Russians seized Crimea and backed “little green menin Ukraine, overturning the post-World War II borders that had been settled by the Helsinki Accords of 1977 Others might point to 2008, when the Russians engaged in open warfare with Georgia.

The post-post-Cold War era in Asia

USNS Impeccable

In Asia, it might have been 2007, when the Chinese tested their anti-satellite system in the worst debris-generating event of the Space Age.  Or 2009, when they began to openly interfere with the operation of US ships and aircraft in the South China Sea, such as the USNS Impeccable.

This, of course, is from the American perspective.  For the Chinese, on the other hand, there may not be any difference at all since the end of the Cold War.  The Chinese see far more of a continuum of American antagonism towards their rise.  

From Beijing’s perspective, the American imposition of sanctions in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre of 1989; the dispatch of two carriers, including sailing through the Taiwan Straits during the 1995-1996 Taiwan crisis; the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999; and the 2001 EP-3 incident, where a US patrol aircraft collided with a Chinese fighter, all reflect American discomfort with the rise of China.

This fundamentally different outlook between Beijing and Washington is a key part of the growing competition and rivalry we see between the US and the PRC. It speaks to the very different lenses that each side uses in examining both bilateral relations, and broader international trends.

For the United States, for example, China’s island-building in the South China Sea is an effort to dominate, if not outright seize control of, some of the busiest waterways on Earth, where some $5.3 trillion in trade transits.

From China’s perspective, on the other hand, this is a defensive move to assure that China retains control of waters that it has historically always dominated, waters as much a part of China as Chesapeake Bay is part of the US.

Historical context

Some of this is typical power politics. Germany, too, asked why it should defer to Great Britain, as it sought its “place in the sun.”  But it is also China’s far longer history and attendant perspective.  Unlike Germany, which was only born 1871, China has existed for 5000 years.  There is an underlying foundation for China’s argument that it has historical rights that predate many current rules, treaties, and laws.

Moreover, for most of those five millennia, China has enjoyed the deference of its neighbors.  Rather than confronting a balance of power, China enjoyed being the center of a tributary state system, where many of its neighbors paid literal and figurative tribute, rather than balancing against it.  It should not be surprising, then, that China is unwilling to submit to rules set by others, when it typically has been the rule-maker.

China’s experience with “unequal treaties”

Finally, the experience with “unequal treaties,” imposed by Western powers on the weak Qing Dynasty throughout much of the 19th century, has left Chinese leaders wary of being compelled to accept arrangements and conditions that are asymmetric and distinctly disadvantageous to China.  It was one such treaty that led to the ceding of Hong Kong harbor to the British Empire, in the wake of the Opium War.

In this context, then, it is not so much that China rejects the “rules based order” that the US champions, as it questions WHOSE rules should be the basis of the world order.  

This has important implications for American policies which have too often been predicated on the assumption that the United States could dictate, or at least heavily influence, international behavior and set the norms and rules.  

The Missile Technology Control Regime

A prime example is the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).  Established in 1987, the MTCR is a voluntary measure, where adherent agree not to export missiles and related technologies that can reach 300 kilometers with a payload of 500 kg.[1]  The US has prodded many of its allies to comply with the MTCR, including South Korea and Japan.  Notably absent has been China.

China’s D-15 missile

China has long been one of the biggest proliferators of ballistic missiles. In particular, China supplied complete ballistic missiles to Pakistan, a key Chinese ally. This included the M-9 (also known as the DF-15) and the M-11 (also known as the DF-11).

More recently, it has been reported that China exported the DF-21 intermediate range ballistic missile to Saudi Arabia.[2]  While the Chinese indicated they might be willing to adhere to the MTCR, they also noted that they would not want to join an agreement that they had not had a hand in negotiating.[3]

As important, the United States has sought to apply MTCR restrictions to the sale of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).  It has restricted the sale of medium and large UAVs, including systems such as the Predator and Global Hawk.  But the United States has no monopoly on UAVs.  Indeed, China has developed a substantial array of UAVs of its own, and is happy to sell them globally.

Various nations may prefer American systems, but are not allowed to obtain them because of the American decision to adhere to the MTCR.  Consequently, they instead now field Chinese systems such as the Wing Loong I and II and CH-4, all of which are capable of carrying weapons.  

Notably, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have employed such systems in the war in Yemen.  Overall, in the decade 2008-2018, China sold 163 weapons-capable drones to 13 countries, while the US exported only 15.[4]

The situation today

It is no longer possible for the United States to determine, or dictate, who can and cannot incorporate UAVs into their inventory.

Nor is it just weapons. China also has developed an array of surveillance and facial recognition software that can be used to identify criminals—or dissidents.  Not surprisingly, it has sold such systems to such states as Venezuela, Bolivia, Ethiopia, and Saudi Arabia.[5]

The West has similar technology, but the Wassenaar arrangement, which seeks to limit the export of various security and military-related technologies, prohibits their sale by signatories (which includes most Western countries).

Again, the PRC is demonstrating that it has both the technology and the willingness to circumvent various rules created by the US and the West.  Indeed, China’s clientele suggests that it is pursuing a policy of making the world safe for autocracy.  So does China’s willingness to use both financial and diplomatic tools to support repressive regimes in Caracas, Harare, and Damascus.

The realities of post-post-Cold War world

The post-Cold War period was marked by enormous optimism.  It was even characterized asThe End of History.”  Democracy and capitalism had clearly won. The post-post-Cold War is far more sobering.  It is no longer clear that the West can dictate the rules and norms that will undergird the global order.

In particular, it does seem clear that the PRC is challenging that order, not only technologically and economically, but politically. The purpose is not simply to oppose the United States, but to reshape the global order to match China’s revived position. It is not revising the “rules based order,” but revising whose rules will provide the basis for the order.

[1] Kelsey Davenport, “The Missile Technology Control Regime at a Glance,” (July 2017)


[3] China subsequently sought to formally join the MTCR, but its application was rejected by the US.



The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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