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Will the Chinese Be Supreme?

Mike King

And yet this repeatedly fails, as Luttwak demonstrates, because other countries emphasize other practices. In 2007, for example, India was to send 107 young elite civil servants to China as part of a goodwill tour. But China refused to grant a visa to one, saying that because he was from a part of India claimed by China, he didn’t need a visa. Luttwak sees this as part of China’s strategy of manufacturing crises in hopes of obtaining a favorable solution.

Likewise in 2010, China responded to the arrest of a Chinese fishing captain who had violated Japanese territorial waters by issuing inflammatory statements, arresting Japanese businessmen, and effectively suspending rare earth shipments to Japan. Then it did an about-face and sought to make a deal with Japan. But the Japanese were shocked and frightened by China’s actions and this led directly to the 2012 crisis, with an emboldened nationalist governor of Tokyo threatening to buy the lands claimed by China and assert Japanese sovereignty, which forced the national government to step in to buy the land. This purchase was then the basis for Beijing permitting yet more protests against Japan last autumn that lasted the requisite week before being shut down.

This sounds like bad leadership but Luttwak says that even Bismarck couldn’t fix China’s problem. All rising powers cause a reaction, he says, and rarely gain hegemony unless they create or take advantage of a historic turning point, such as a war. The United States used Japan’s defeat and the decline of Britain and France after World War II to move decisively into the Pacific. Even so, the United States didn’t enter the region making loud demands for territory but as a donor of economic aid. This helped soften America’s rise in the Pacific, even though it was still accompanied by much bitterness—consider how it lost its air and sea bases in the Philippines. By contrast, China is already seen as a predator and has achieved almost nothing.

If accurate, Luttwak’s theory means Americans don’t have to worry too much. China will essentially self-destruct, at least diplomatically. And the list of problems facing China make it seem that this could well be happening right now.

Odd Arne Westad isn’t quite as sure. The Norwegian historian at the London School of Economics believes that China’s history is a burden but it also shows an underestimated ability to adapt and change. A Sinologist who has written widely and lucidly on the cold war, Westad’s Restless Empire is a rich history of the past 250 years of Chinese foreign policy. Like Luttwak, Westad has a revisionist streak in him but this leads him to more optimistic conclusions.

Westad shows how the current crises are in part due to idealism—a belief that the international system has some sort of justice that China can appeal to. In China’s mind, it was humiliated in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and some of its territory, including the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, was stolen. It doesn’t demand that all this land be returned—no one in Beijing wants control of Mongolia, now an independent country that used to be part of the empire—but it has linked some of its maritime claims to this narrative of humiliation and justice. This isn’t the view of a rogue power but one that has a self-interested and one-sided view of justice and history, which is probably how most countries view the world and their past.

Westad is also convinced that the Chinese have been very willing to adapt. One popular view of China is that it didn’t embrace change fast enough, but Westad shows that this really isn’t true. It raced to build railroads, shipyards, and factories in the nineteenth century—as early as in his native Norway, he writes—and the Qing dynasty might have succeeded if it hadn’t been afflicted by a particularly bad run of luck: famines and uprisings, not to mention being invaded and carved up by foreign powers. He also makes a good case for the adaptive abilities of Chiang Kai-shek’s much-maligned Republic of China. Were it not for Japan’s invasion in 1937, the republic probably would have survived.1

“Chinese who embraced the new—when given a chance to do so—always far outnumbered those who did not,” Westad writes, making another important point: the current era of “opening up” isn’t new but the norm. Instead, it was Mao’s thirty years of being cut off that were the anomaly. The reason for this interlude, he says, was World War II. It fatally weakened the republican government—and here he gives a good corrective to the view that the Nationalists didn’t fight, showing how Chiang threw his best troops into battle while the Communists killed more Chinese during the war with their purges and backstabbing than they did Japanese. In addition, foreign powers failed to support China during the war, with the United States giving just 1 percent of its aid to China until 1945. This made people willing to hear Mao’s message that it didn’t need the outside world, leading to the tragedy of his rule. Had history played out otherwise, Mao would have remained a guerrilla and China’s modernization would have continued after the war.

Likewise, Westad gives an important corrective to the facile view that Mao’s destruction opened the way for its capitalistic revival:

China in the 1970s could have gone in many different directions—from genocidal terrorism of the Cambodian kind to democratic development such as on Taiwan. The potential for market developments was there, not because of the destructiveness of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but despite it, since China had experimented with integrated markets for a long time before the Communists attempted to destroy them.

Like Luttwak, Westad paints a bleak picture of the Communists’ foreign policy. In the 1960s, China had gained some prestige in the developing world for having shunned the United States and, eventually, also spurning the Soviet Union. But it lost this goodwill through Mao’s erratic policies. By blocking aid for Vietnam during its struggle with the United States, Mao ruined the once-close ties between the two and set up China’s humiliatingly inept invasion of Vietnam in 1979. China also had won points for aiding African countries but then frittered this away by supporting Maoist insurgencies, for example in Ghana. One wonders if China’s current forays into Africa aren’t similarly narcissistic; many Africans are amazed at China’s economic successes and investment muscle, but also realize that China operates without even the minimal altruism offered by Western countries.

Relations with the United States likewise haven’t gone how Chinese leaders envisioned. Mao was so out of touch that he believed that Nixon faced an imminent revolution at home and thus had come from a position of weakness to meet the Great Helmsman—after all, in the Chinese Weltbild, what leader comes to the Chinese capital unless to pay tribute? Later, Deng allied China with the United States against the Soviet Union but was essentially just helping the stronger superpower defeat the weaker one, helping set up the past quarter-century of US global hegemony. It’s hard to know what China should have done differently, but Westad is right to poke fun at Westerners’ infatuation with Chinese leaders’ foreign policy savvy.

The Chinese leaders’ gnomic statements on international strategy were taken as ultimate examples of the realist wisdom of an ancient civilization, instead of the ignorance about the world that they really represented.

And yet for all its missteps, China remains the biggest challenge facing not only its neighbors but the United States as well. One of the deans of US–China studies, David Shambaugh, writes of this in the introductory essay to Tangled Titans, an edited volume he put together to try to explain how relations between the two countries had become so bad. “Mutual distrust is pervasive in both governments, and one now finds few bureaucratic actors in either government with a strong mission to cooperate.”2 Shambaugh’s book doesn’t answer exactly how things got this bad but he makes an implicit case that both countries are suffering from Luttwak’s “great-power autism”—set in their ways and unable to change the dynamics.

The dilemma facing American policy makers is well summarized in the forthcoming book by Vali Nasr, a former State Department adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Although his interest is the Muslim world and not so much the territories of East Asia, Nasr describes China and its foreign interventions as at the center of US concerns even in those parts of the world.3 China’s thirst for oil and willingness to pay big for exploration rights is one reason; so is its desire to bring that oil home, either through shipping routes—which necessitate its naval buildup—or pipelines that run through the fragile states of Central Asia.

How optimistic should one be about a changed China being less of a strategic threat? Toward the end of his book, Westad basically assumes that China will rise. As China emerges as “the master player of international capitalism, it is also obvious that the rules of the game are being remade in China,” he writes: a statement that seems to reflect the post-crash period when the West seemed doomed and China’s rise assured. He also writes somewhat implausibly that the Communist Party has “taken over many of the management methods of foreign enterprises”—perhaps, but surely only the worst. Still, his optimism is supported by China’s ability to adapt over the past centuries. Luttwak doesn’t rule out China’s ability to change but puts it another way: only by changing in a way that it has so far resisted, can China rise:

Only a fully democratic China could advance unimpeded to global hegemony, but then the governments of a full democratic China would undoubtedly seek to pursue quite other aims.
  1. 1

    One annoying exception to Westad’s exemplary fairness toward the republican era is his decision to use the mainland pinyin form of rendering Chinese characters for places and groups in Taiwan. Thus the island’s capital is written in the non-standard form “Taibei” instead of “Taipei” and the “Kuomintang” is written “Guomindang” and abbreviated as GMD instead of KMT. Self-determination should apply to spelling too, and outsiders should not choose sides by imposing Communist orthography. 

  2. 2

    Tangled Titans: The United States and China, edited by David Shambaugh (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013), p. 5. 

  3. 3

    Vali Nasr, The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat (to be published by Doubleday this month). 

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