March 28, 2013

THE ONLY CHINA THAT COULD COMPETE WOULDN'T BE ANY DIFFERENT THAN US:

Will the Chinese Be Supreme? (Ian Johnson, 4/04/13, NY Review of Books)

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."

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. [...]

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.
Posted by at March 28, 2013 7:42 PM
  
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