“It is not easy to really know China, because China is an ancient civilization.”
So said Wang Qishan, a recently re-appointed member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo, in the U.S. last year. On the other hand, he said “the American people, they’re very simple.”
This American book suggests otherwise.
Don’t be misled by its abstruse-sounding title, “The Rise of China Vs. The Logic of Strategy.” Its author, Edward N. Luttwak, is Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Strategy can be dry and abstract. In Luttwak’s hands the subject comes alive, not to say explosive.
The loudest retorts will come from China specialists, where the conventional view is that, given intelligent U.S. policies, China can accomplish the “peaceful rise” its leaders promise. Luttwak isn’t so sure.
Since the 2008 recession, Beijing’s international policies have hardened, he says, because it sees the U.S. as in decline.
Examples of what he calls “premature assertiveness” are everywhere, from China’s trade policies to its bullying of Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines over disputed islands. In effect, Beijing is making a claim for the entire South China Sea -- an outrageous power grab, in Luttwak’s eyes.
Which is where his “logic of strategy” comes in. China’s search for rapid economic and military growth and global influence are incompatible, because they are bound to provoke resistance. Already her neighbors are seeking new forms of collective security designed to contain her. Even Vietnam has begun developing closer ties with the U.S.
“Great state autism” is Luttwak’s phrase for Beijing’s insensitivity to the effects of its overbearing style. While other countries can suffer from it too, China’s position as the world’s most populous nation and isolated historical development make her especially prone to the disease.
The tributary system that developed 2,000 years ago is still in her bones. Hence the echoes of “barbarian-handling” in Beijing’s attitude to inter-state relations.
The chapter on which sinologists are most likely to choke is entitled “The Strategic Unwisdom of the Ancients.”
Our awe for China’s venerable military thinkers, Luttwak believes, is misplaced. Exquisite as their writings could be, they didn’t prevent the country’s repeated subjugation by small numbers of primitive invaders. He cites as an example the much- quoted “Art of War” by Sun Tsu, compiled during the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.).
Henry Kissinger is chided for the claim in his book “On China” that Mao Zedong was inspired by such writings. On the contrary, Luttwak retorts, Sun Tsu’s precepts rarely apply outside the Middle Kingdom, and the Chairman’s military strategies were frequently unsuccessful.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, a former student of China, is also accused of succumbing to the country’s mystique in his pusillanimous policies on currency levels and technology transfers.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is congratulated on her robust line with Beijing. Meanwhile “great state autism” will prevent China from seeing that she could become a victim of her own success.
As other states combine to curtail her power, the country will be weakened at the grand strategic level. The only cure -- a slowing of her rush for global hegemony -- is not one she seems likely to take.
Luttwak isn’t prophesying war: a China that grows at anything like current rates would not have to be aggressive to impose its will. He also cautions the U.S. against over-reliance on military countermeasures, which could further stimulate China’s growth and defense spending.
So what do we do? If China persists in disrupting power balances through over-assertive behavior, the author argues, the only effective weapon could be to impede her economic growth.
Luttwak’s contribution to the China debate is to be welcomed. We need informed outsiders to weigh in with their views, and he has spent years visiting the country and talking to the Chinese, including the People’s Liberation Army.
Written with his customary panache, his vigorous and highly readable contribution will challenge congealed thinking.
“The Rise of China Vs. The Logic of Strategy” (320 pages, $26.95) is published by the Belknap Press, Harvard. To buy the book in North America, click here.
(George Walden is a former U.K. diplomat specializing in Russia and China. He was a Conservative minister and a Member of Parliament. He is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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