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Will the Chinese Be Supreme?

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Ng Han Guan/Reuters
Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of Japan’s New Komeito party, delivering a personal letter from Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to China’s President-in-Waiting Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People, Beijing, January 25, 2013

During the turbulent Maoist era from the 1950s to 1970s, China clashed militarily with some of its most important neighbors—India, Vietnam, the Soviet Union—and embarked on disastrous interventions in Indonesia and Africa. But by the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping had put China on a development-first policy, advising the country to “hide its capacities and bide its time.” This wasn’t exactly reassuring—implying that at some point China would reveal its true intentions—but from the 1980s through the mid-2000s China had relatively few confrontations, despite its rising economic, political, and military power.

Suddenly, it seems this modesty has evaporated. China’s territorial claims to islands and waters in East Asia are long-standing but they have turned insistent, bellicose, and even provocative, causing a sharp rift between China and many of its neighbors. Most recently, the Philippines and Japan announced that they would become “strategic partners” in settling their maritime disputes with China—anathema to Beijing, which prefers to see these disputes handled separately. Regardless of the merits of China’s claims and actions, from a realpolitik standpoint these disputes and new alliances bespeak major policy blunders in China’s past.

The most serious conflict involves Japan. While China’s actions in Southeast Asia cause many angry statements, most countries there lack the capacity to prevent Chinese ships from patrolling waters they claim as their own. But in Japan, China faces one of the world’s most capable maritime powers. Unlike the Philippines, which hasn’t been able to stop Chinese ships from encroaching on its territorial waters and even dropping markers onto disputed reefs, Japan has actively defended claims to several disputed islands known as the Senkaku in Japanese, Diaoyu in Chinese, and Tiaoyutai by nearby Taiwan (which also claims them, largely based on the same historical arguments used by China).

While other disputes have ended after a few days or weeks, this one has continued now for months. In February, Japan claimed that a Chinese frigate had locked weapons-targeting radar on a Japanese destroyer and helicopter. Almost every few days, Japanese media report on Chinese ships—especially China Marine Surveillance survey ships—sailing without permission inside Japan’s territorial waters around the islands. (At least twenty-eight such violations have been reported since the issue heated up last autumn.) Last year, these tensions helped prepare the way for the election of a nationalistic Japanese prime minister.

It would be easy to blame China’s current leaders for all these problems, but their origins predate the People’s Republic of China and unite many ethnic Chinese from around the world. Although historical records are sketchy, many Chinese are convinced that old maps and mentions of the islands in imperial records imply historical Chinese control. In 1895, China and Japan fought a war and Japan annexed the islands, having declared them uninhabited and belonging to no one. Part of the Ryukyu chain, the islands were administered by the United States after World War II. In 1972, Washington returned the Ryukyus to Tokyo, including the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands.

It was this act that angered many Chinese people, who thought Washington should have returned the islands to a Chinese government. Taiwanese Chinese were especially angry; back then the island saw itself as China’s legal government in exile, and the islands lie quite close by. Also possibly a factor was a 1969 UN survey that suggested vast petroleum reserves under the islands. In the 1970s, Taiwanese civilians made several forays to the islands. Later, Hong Kong residents with no ties to Beijing followed suit.

The most recent wave of activism began in 2006, when private citizens in Hong Kong grew impatient and sent ships to the islands. Over the past year or two, however, the Chinese government seems to have more actively joined in the competition to control the islands, sending government-controlled fishing boats into the islands’ waters. They have now been joined by the survey ships and, outside the territorial waters, the Chinese navy. Many commentators in the Chinese blogosphere note that China’s economy has now surpassed that of Japan and that Japan needs China’s market more than China needs Japan’s products or technology. Whether this sense of superiority has a part in the recent maneuvers is unclear; but the two countries are somewhat suddenly locked in their most sustained and bitter dispute since the war, one that doesn’t have an easy way out for either side.

How all this has come to pass is drawn out in several important new books. They come at the Chinese puzzle from very different perspectives and at times are in sharp disagreement. But at heart they share a common idea: China is burdened with historical baggage that makes its rise less linear than many imagine. By extension the authors imply that the current troubles aren’t inevitable and may be more manageable than some would believe.

Many writers have made the case that China’s rise is imminent and unstoppable. The most famous is probably the columnist Martin Jacques’s When China Rules the World (2009), which has spawned a mini-industry of writing by those who agree or disagree with his op-ed-style take on China’s industrialization and its consequences. The most recent to join the debate is Arvind Subramanian of the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics. In Subramanian’s book Eclipse, China is all but unstoppable—even if its growth slows from the 10 percent it has averaged over the past three decades to, say, a more reasonable 6 percent.

Subramanian argues persuasively that China will eclipse the United States even if Washington pulls off an increasingly improbable 1990s-style turnaround—balancing the budget and getting growth back on track. Thus the common view in Washington is wrong—the game isn’t America’s to lose; barring some sort of catastrophic meltdown, China will win. Within the foreseeable future it will surpass the United States as the world’s biggest economy and, if Washington continues the economic policies that the fiscally conservative author considers suicidal, China will be in a position to dominate it politically as well. The best Washington can do is prepare for relative decline.

This economic point serves a broader foreign-policy argument. To make this, he begins and ends the book with a startling analogy to the 1956 Suez Crisis. Britain had previously won control of the canal at the apogee of its power when it was able to force a debtor state—Egypt—to hand over control. But not too many decades later, in the mid-twentieth century, Britain lost control when it became a debtor country and the rising power, the United States, told it to pull out its troops or face bankruptcy.

Could China do the same? Right now that might seem far-fetched, but Subramanian points out that the United States regularly uses its economic muscle to achieve foreign policy goals. Since World War II, he says, the United States has accounted for 70 percent of economic sanctions imposed around the world; it’s not unimaginable for China to do the same within a few decades. And if the United States remains in huge debt to China, what can Americans do? Could the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute be determined this way? Or China’s claims over Taiwan?

Fortunately, we have some non-economists in the room who make more soothing cases based on the rules of other games. Subramanian argues essentially that economic growth will lead to political dominance. The others concede China’s economic advances but say that supremacy is less likely. They do this from two radically different viewpoints.

The most entertaining and provocative is Edward Luttwak’s The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy, a bold book that flatly predicts that China won’t successfully rise as a superpower, indeed that it cannot in its current incarnation. This isn’t due to growth rates or debt ratios—Luttwak concedes the force of both with a wave of the hand—but because of what he sees as the iron law of strategy, which he says “applies in perfect equality to every culture in every age.”

Luttwak says observers like Subramanian look at China’s economic growth and the rate of military spending and, even allowing for recessions or depressions, project into the future the day that China rules the waves. “Yet that must be the least likely of outcomes, because it would collide with the very logic of strategy in a world of diverse states, each jealous of its autonomy.”

Luttwak argues that China’s growth will cause countries to band together and stymie its rise. Just as nineteenth-century Germany’s economic and military growth caused one-time enemies like France and England to ally with each other (and England to swallow its disgust over tsarist Russia’s primitive repression of human rights and make friends with it), China’s beeline to the top is already causing a reaction, as we see with Japan and the Philippines, not to mention the new welcome being shown to the United States in the region.

Why doesn’t China change course? Here is one of Luttwak’s most interesting ideas, which he calls “great-state autism”—the failure of powers to break free of ways of acting and behaving. Just as Wilhelminian Germany should surely have seen that building a blue-water navy would cause Britain to form alliances against it, so too should China understand that demanding control over islands far from its shores but close to its neighbors’ would cause a backlash. (Here one thinks not so much of the Senkaku/Diaoyus but of the shoals, reefs, and islets in the South China Sea.) Even the battle for the Senkaku/Diaoyus seems to have no satisfactory endgame for China except a permanent state of tension with its most important neighbor.

China’s blindered approach to international affairs leads Luttwak to a humorous discussion of many Chinese people’s conviction that they are heirs to a tactically clever and sophisticated civilization. The Chinese, Luttwak notes, often assume that foreigners are stupid or naive—certainly not up to the wiles of the people who begat The Art of War. In 2011, Luttwak writes, Wang Qishan, a Chinese official who is a head of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue with the United States (and currently a member of the powerful seven-man Standing Committee of the Politburo), said of Americans and Chinese: “It is not easy to really know China because China is an ancient civilization…[whereas] the American people, they’re very simple.”

And yet Luttwak points out that these assumptions haven’t served China well historically or today. Two of China’s last three dynasties were controlled by tiny nomadic groups who outmaneuvered the Chinese, while today the country’s tactics have left it surrounded by suspicious and increasingly hostile countries; indeed, it’s probably no exaggeration to say that China has no real allies. The reason is that Chinese thinking about diplomacy originated in an era when relations were between Chinese states—the Qin, Chu, Lu, Qi, and the others that populated Sun Tzu’s classic work. Almost all were essentially Chinese, facilitating practices like espionage, subversion, and quickly changing sides to cut a quick deal. “Chinese foreign policy evidently presumes that foreign states can be just as practical and opportunistic in their dealings with China.”

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