Are China and the United States Headed for War?
Professors, pundits, and journalists weigh in on a heated topic.
Overheated topics invariably produce ill-considered books. Some people will remember the time, in the late nineteen-eighties, when Japan was about to buy up America and conquer the world. Many a tidy sum was made on that premise. These days, the possibility of war with China is stirring emotions and keeping publishers busy. A glance at a few new books suggests what scholars and journalists are thinking about the prospect of an Asian conflagration; the quality of their reflections is, to say the least, variable.
The worst of the bunch, Graham Allison’s “Destined for War” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), may also be the most influential, given that its thesis rests on a catchphrase Allison has popularized, “Thucydides’s Trap.” Even China’s President, Xi Jinping, is fond of quoting it. “On the current trajectory,” Allison contends, “war between the U.S. and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than currently recognized.” The reason, he says, can be traced to the problem described in the fifth century B.C.E. in Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War. Sparta, as the established power, felt threatened by the rising might of Athens. In such conditions, Allison writes, “not just extraordinary, unexpected events, but even ordinary flashpoints of foreign affairs, can trigger large-scale conflict.”
Allison sees Thucydides’ Trap in the wars between a rising England and the established Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century, a rising Germany versus Britain in the early twentieth century, and a rising Japan versus the United States in the nineteen-forties. Some historical tensions between rising powers and ruling ones were resolved without a catastrophic war (the Soviet challenge to U.S. dominance), but many, Allison warns, were not. And there’s no disputing China’s steep military and economic rise in recent decades. Its annual military budget has, for most of the past decade, increased by double digits, and the People’s Liberation Army, even in its newly streamlined form, has nearly a million more active service members than the United States has. As recently as 2004, China’s economy was less than half that of the United States. Today, in terms of purchasing-power parity, China has left the United States behind. Allison is so excited by China’s swift growth that his prose often sounds like a mixture of a Thomas Friedman column and a Maoist propaganda magazine like China Reconstructs. Rome wasn’t built in a day? Well, he writes, someone “clearly forgot to tell the Chinese. By 2005, the country was building the square-foot equivalent of today’s Rome every two weeks.”
Allison underrates the many problems that could slow things down quite soon: China’s population is aging so rapidly that an ever smaller pool of young people will have to support a growing number of old people, who lack proper welfare provisions; the country is an ecological disaster zone; the dead hand of Communist Party control makes necessary economic reforms difficult; innovative thinking is hampered by censorship; and so on. In terms of military hardware—aircraft carriers and the like—China still lags well behind the United States. And the United States has a wide network of allies in Asia, while China has almost none. Still, China plainly aspires to be the dominant power in East and Southeast Asia, and this is making the United States and its allies increasingly nervous. Southeast Asians are spooked by Chinese claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea, bolstered by the construction of artificial islands with landing grounds. Japan, although it has a substantial military force, is saddled with a pacifist constitution. South Korea doesn’t quite know whether to resist Chinese domination or cozy up to it. The British historian Michael Howard’s remark about nineteenth-century France, quoted in Allison’s book, could easily apply to the United States today. The “most dangerous of all moods,” Howard said, is “that of a great power which sees itself declining to the second rank.”
Allison finds risks of Thucydides’ Trap on both sides of the divide: the rising power feels frustrated and the established one feels threatened. The thesis, in those general terms, isn’t implausible. His book would be more persuasive, however, if he knew more about China. Allison’s only informants on the subject appear to be Henry Kissinger and the late Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, both of whom he regards with awe. This leads to some odd contradictions and a number of serious historical howlers. On one page, quoting Kissinger quoting the ancient military strategist Sun Tzu, Allison assures us that China likes to outclass its enemies without using force. On a later page, he warns us that Chinese leaders may use military force “preemptively to surprise a stronger opponent who would not have done likewise.” Allison says that he wishes, with “my colleague Niall Ferguson,” to set up a council of historians to advise the U.S. President, and yet his own grasp of history appears to be rather shaky. He imagines that George Kennan’s Long Telegram in 1946 argued that “America could survive only by destroying the USSR, or transforming it”; Kennan’s argument was, rather, that Soviet aggression needed to be contained. Contrary to Lee’s propaganda, Singapore was far from an “inconsequential fishing village” when Lee came to power, in the nineteen-fifties. (It was already a populous and significant port city.) Twenty-three million Chinese did not flee to Taiwan to escape Mao (the number is more like two million) and build “a successful democracy” (the native Taiwanese mostly did that). And how does Allison know that “few in China would say that political freedoms are more important than reclaiming China’s international standing and national pride”? Lee Kuan Yew may have told him that. But, given the absence of freedom of speech in China, we cannot know.
For all that, China’s challenge to the established postwar order needs to be taken seriously. Gideon Rachman, the Financial Times foreign-affairs commentator, considers China’s increasing clout in the broader context of what he calls, in a remarkably ugly phrase, “Easternization,” which is also the title of his well-written new survey (just published by Other Press). The gravity of economic and military power, he argues, is moving from West to East. He is thinking of more than the new class of Chinese billionaires; he includes India, a country that might one day surpass even China as an economic powerhouse, and reminds us that Japan has been one of the world’s largest economies for some time now. Tiny South Korea ranks fourteenth in the world in purchasing-power parity. And the Asian megacities are looking glitzier by the day. Anyone who flies into J.F.K. from any of the metropolitan areas in China, let alone from Singapore or Tokyo, can readily see what Rachman has in mind. There is a great deal going on in Asia. The question is what this will mean, and whether “Easternization” is an illuminating concept for understanding it.
One difficulty is that East and West are slippery categories. The concept of European civilization has at least some measure of coherence. The same can be said for Chinese civilization, extending to Vietnam in the south and Korea in the north. But what unifies “the East”? Korea has almost nothing in common with India, apart from a tenuous connection through ancient Buddhist history. Japan is a staunch U.S. ally and its contemporary culture is, in many respects, closer to the West than to anything particularly Eastern. Previous attempts to create a sense of Pan-Asian solidarity, such as the Japanese imperialist mission in the nineteen-thirties and forties, have been either futile or disastrous.
In fact, many of Rachman’s informants belong to an international élite that cannot be easily pinned down to East or West. It is refreshing that he does not depend on Lee Kuan Yew or Henry Kissinger for his knowledge of Asia, but his is still very much a view from the top. This isn’t a criticism: we want to know what senior diplomats, government ministers, heads of state, and well-connected academics think. But, if we’re trying to understand a large number of diverse Asian countries, the approach has its limitations.
Since the struggle for dominance in East and Southeast Asia is the hot topic at hand, the bulk of Rachman’s book concerns that question, and he has interesting things to say about it, even though his conclusion is a trifle lame. He does not argue that China seeks to rule the world. But he does claim, persuasively, that “the question of whether and how the Americans should resist Chinese ambitions in the Asia-Pacific is likely to be the most critical issue in international relations over the coming decades since it pits the world’s two most powerful nations against each other.”
Behind that tension is a clash between two competing forms of nationalism. The pride in the glorious poetry of the Tang dynasty, the sophisticated statecraft of the Han dynasty, or the fine arts of the Ming is less prominent than reminders of historical hurts. Contemporary Chinese nationalism—propagated in schools, museums, monuments, television series, movies, and political speeches—increasingly rests on that most explosive of goals: wiping out the national humiliations of the past. In particular, there’s a desire to avenge the sufferings inflicted in the past century and a half, notably by the British in the mid-nineteenth-century Opium Wars, and by the Japanese in the nineteen-thirties and forties. The Chinese Communist Party still pays lip service on occasion to Marx, Lenin, and Mao, but the main message is clear: only under its steady leadership will China be a great power again, one that will not only show Japan and other peripheral powers their proper place but also make sure that past indignities at the hands of the West will never be repeated. This is the core of what Xi Jinping, the country’s most authoritarian leader since Mao, calls the “Chinese Dream.” Allison, curiously, compares this dream to F.D.R.’s New Deal. (Even more curiously, he cites Lee Kuan Yew’s comparison of Xi with Nelson Mandela.) In fact, the dream is nationalist through and through: hatred of Japan is officially encouraged, and so is resentment of the United States.
Rachman claims that the Party’s embrace of this aggrieved type of nationalism “can be dated quite precisely” to June, 1989, when Deng Xiaoping decided to crack down violently on the peaceful protests against one-party rule—not just in Tiananmen Square but all over China. After having gunned down its own citizens, the regime promoted nationalism in order to restore the tarnished legitimacy of Communist Party rule. In fact, “patriotic education” focussing on the shame of the past began earlier than that. When, in the early nineteen-eighties, Deng Xiaoping opened China’s doors to capitalism, and is thought to have used the slogan “To get rich is glorious,” nationalism began to replace Maoism as the official ideology. After the horrors of Mao’s bloody purges and man-made famines, Communist ideals no longer convinced many Chinese. So Deng was faced with the problem of how to make one-party rule acceptable. He also had to cover himself against accusations of selling out to the former enemy by courting Japanese investments and cheap loans. This is why, in 1985, the massive Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall was built, reminding people of the slaughter perpetrated in that city by Japanese troops in 1937—a slaughter to which little attention had previously been paid.
Since nationalism is now the main ideology propping up the legitimacy of China’s regime, no Chinese leader can possibly back down from such challenges as Taiwan’s desire for independence or Tibetan resistance to Han Chinese rule or anything else that might make China look weak in the eyes of its citizens. This is why Donald Trump’s loose talk about revising the One China policy inflamed a mood that is already dangerously combustible. It’s worth bearing in mind that “The China Dream” is actually the title of a best-selling book by Colonel Liu Mingfu, whose arguments for China’s supremacy in an Asian renaissance sound remarkably like Japanese propaganda in the nineteen-thirties. Rachman quotes him saying that “when China becomes the world’s leading nation, it will put an end to Western notions of racial superiority.” The only Western power that might stand in the way of this project of Chinese hegemony is the United States.
Since 1945, the United States, with its many bases in Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, has effectively played the role of regional policeman. Partly out of institutional habit, partly out of amour propre, and partly out of fear of seeing its power slip, the United States has had its own issues with nationalism, even before Trump came blundering onto the scene. Joseph Nye, the scholar and former U.S. government official, once argued that accepting China’s dominance over the Western Pacific would be unthinkable, because “such a response to China’s rise would destroy America’s credibility.” In a conversation with Rachman in 2015, another American official put this in saltier terms: “I know the U.S. navy and it’s addicted to pre-eminence. If the Chinese try to control the South China Sea, our guys will fucking challenge that. They will sail through those waters.”
American swagger will always have its enthusiasts. Gordon G. Chang, the author of a 2001 book titled “The Coming Collapse of China,” recently wrote a piece in The National Interest that praised Trump effusively for cutting “the ambitious autocrat down to size” during Xi’s visit to Mar-a-Lago. Trump, Chang recounts, arrived late to greet his guest. He announced a missile strike against Syria over the chocolate cake. He made Xi “look like a supplicant.” Trump may have revelled in this behavior, but Chang’s acclaim is idiotic. Deliberately making the Chinese leader lose face, if that’s what happened, can only worsen a fraught situation. American bluster—the reflex of the current U.S. President in the absence of any coherent policy—is a poor response to Chinese edginess. Now that China has developed missiles that can easily sink aircraft carriers, and the United States is responding with tactical plans that would aim to take out such weapons on the Chinese mainland, a minor conflict could result in a major showdown.
Squeezed between the rivalry of China and the United States are China’s immediate neighbors and America’s allies. They are driven, mostly for domestic reasons, by their own forms of nationalism. Japan and South Korea have competing claims over a group of tiny islands in the Sea of Japan. Old wounds inflicted during the Japanese annexation of Korea between 1910 and 1945 are periodically reopened for political ends in South Korea, and the current Japanese government, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, espouses a hard-right nationalism that downplays Japanese wartime atrocities. Abe wants to revise the postwar pacifist constitution, and his more ardent supporters think that the best way to do so is to present Japan’s past imperialism as a heroic effort to liberate Asia.
Abe’s nationalism is further complicated by its ambivalence toward the United States. The Japanese right has resented American interference in its domestic politics since the postwar occupation, especially when it concerns interpretations of Japan’s wartime past. At the same time, Abe is terrified that the United States might not come to Japan’s rescue against China or North Korea. One of Rachman’s most cogent insights is that having so many Asian allies dependent on U.S. military force may turn out to be a weakness rather than a strength. President Obama, perhaps foolishly, promised Abe in 2014 that the United States would intervene on Japan’s behalf if China were to threaten a number of tiny uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, which are claimed by both countries. Would the United States really risk a war over a few disputed rocks just for the sake of “credibility”? Rachman concludes his survey with a fine sentiment: “The great political challenge of the twenty-first century will be to manage the process of Easternization in the common interest of humankind.”
In a short book pointedly titled “Avoiding War with China” (University of Virginia), Amitai Etzioni has a more concrete idea of how China should be accommodated. Etzioni, a professor at George Washington University, is no softie. Having escaped from Nazi Germany as a child, he served as a commando in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. Etzioni knows what war is like, in contrast to most armchair warriors in Washington or indeed Beijing, and he refuses to get overexcited by China’s martial prowess. China’s military, he writes, “seems to pose no credible threat to the United States in the region, let alone on a global scale. This conclusion is further supported by the observations of how and when China uses its clout.”
Etzioni admits that China has flouted international laws by claiming rights over islands far from its coastlines. It clearly wants to expand its influence from the Siberian borders all the way down to the sea-lanes running along Vietnam and the Philippines. But so far China has used almost no force to achieve its ends. Etzioni is convinced that Chinese policies are more concerned with rhetorical and symbolic assertions than with the outright projection of force. This means that, in his view, there is room for tension-easing compromise. Resources in the South China Sea could perhaps be shared. Certain concessions might be made; this or that island could be developed by China in exchange for territories elsewhere.
At the same time, he insists that there should be “clear red lines.” Certain “core interests” must be defended. The United States would have to intervene if Taiwan were in danger of being invaded. Free travel through sea and air around China has to be maintained. But Etzioni warns against “habitually interpreting Chinese acts of assertion as aggressive,” which, he says, “is symptomatic of a strategy that holds that China cannot be accommodated and that it must be contained by any means necessary.” This sounds eminently sensible. China’s intentions may, of course, not be quite as benign as Etzioni claims, and any territorial concession by the United States is likely to be read as a sign of weakness both by China and by America’s regional allies. Nonetheless, the United States, which is still the most powerful nation in the Pacific, should resist the temptation of belligerent posturing when it isn’t strictly necessary.
If Etzioni seeks to tone down the threat of China’s rise to power, Howard French, a former Times correspondent in China and Japan, attempts to normalize it, in his “Everything Under the Heavens” (Knopf). The book, which I blurbed, is the only one under review that gives us a look at China from the inside as well as from the outside. French knows the country well, and has talked to many more people than the sort you encounter at academic conferences or Davos panels. Like Graham Allison, French explains Chinese politics through its history. But he avoids the kind of cultural generalizations that Lee Kuan Yew was fond of showering on grateful Western interlocutors. He has no truck with the idea, for example, that the Confucian tradition is essentially about obeying authority. Instead, he stresses a political history that helps illuminate territorial conflicts between China and its neighbors. China, traditionally, is neither a nation-state nor a colonial empire, even though it currently includes areas of imperial conquest. The classic view of the world from China’s imperial capital cities took the country to be the center of civilization. The emperors ruled “all under heaven,” or tianxia. Peripheral areas, inhabited by less civilized people, would not have to be dominated by force, provided they paid sufficient tribute to the dragon throne. As long as the superiority of the Middle Kingdom was acknowledged, the blessings of Chinese civilization could be shared, and harmony would reign.
It is no wonder, then, that the comparatively recent depredations suffered by China at the hands of barbarians—particularly of the “dwarf pirates” to the east (i.e., the Japanese)—were so keenly felt. In 1895, a superior Japanese Army humiliated the Chinese empire. A little more than forty years later, Japan caused the deaths of more than fourteen million Chinese. French, Allison, Kissinger, and Lee Kuan Yew all agree on one thing: China’s dream is to restore something of the old order that was lost almost two centuries ago. The Communist Party is effectively stirring up feelings that have been simmering at least since the eighteen-forties.
If Chinese emotions can be easily understood, so can those of the people living in the vicinity. The fact that the Japanese behaved appallingly in the nineteen-thirties doesn’t mean they should be left at the mercy of a regime that murders its own citizens for political reasons. But French agrees with Etzioni that China’s aspirations must be accommodated up to a point. This will mean “stopping China somewhere short of the maximal pursuit of its strategic goals.” French sees the United States as a regional facilitator, helping to strengthen coöperation among its allies. The most salient goal, he rightly observes, is “thickening the web among China’s wary neighbors, who have a shared interest in keeping China from using force to upend the existing order.”
The problem is that the existing order, put in place by the United States after the Second World War, might be exactly what hampers efforts to thicken that web. In a sense, America is experiencing the dilemmas typical of an empire in its twilight years. Imperial powers in the middle of the twentieth century used to argue that they couldn’t withdraw as long as their colonial subjects were not ready to rule themselves. But, as the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once explained to a rather baffled William F. Buckley, Jr., the continuance of colonial rule would not make them more ready. If the United States were to give up its policing duties in Asia too quickly, chaos might ensue. The longer its Asian allies remain dependent on U.S. military protection, however, the harder it will be for them to take care of themselves.
The most desirable way to balance the rising power of China would be the creation of a regional defense alliance stretching from South Korea to Burma. Japan, as the leading economic and military power, would be the logical choice to lead such a coalition. This would mean, in an ideal world, that Japan should revise its pacifist constitution after a national debate, led not by a government of chauvinistic revanchists but by a more liberal administration. But we do not live in an ideal world. Abe’s revisionism (he has currently set 2020 as a deadline for the amended constitution) is unlikely to achieve its aims in Japan. Most Japanese are no keener than most Germans to play a major military role once again. And as long as Japanese leaders insist on whitewashing their country’s recent past they will never persuade other countries in the region to trust them.
This is the status quo that dependence on the United States has frozen into place. As much as Abe’s government wishes to remain under the American military umbrella, the American postwar order, including the pacifist constitution, still inflames right-wing resentment. Yet Washington, and especially the Pentagon, which shapes much of U.S. policy in East Asia, has consistently supported conservative governments in Japan, seeing them as an anti-Communist bulwark. Meanwhile, as long as the United States is there to keep the peace, the governments of Japan and South Korea will continue to snipe at each other, instead of strengthening their alliance.
China’s own attitude toward the status quo is far from straightforward. China may dream of sweeping its seas clean of the U.S. Navy. But, if the alternative is the military resurgence of Japan, the Chinese would probably opt for maintaining the Pax Americana. At the moment, though, the United States itself appears to be drifting. Trump has accused Japan of playing the U.S. for a sucker. He has even suggested that Japan and South Korea might build their own nuclear bombs. But the ex-generals and corporate executives who run his foreign policy seem to favor sticking to the world we know. Both of these policies are flawed. There is no ideal solution to the late-imperial dilemma. But the surest way to court disaster is to have no coherent plan at all. ♦