“Destined for war? China, America and the Thucydides trap”

“As China’s self-regard has swollen, along with its newfound power, Japan has returned to the center of the Chinese gaze in the form of a bull’s-eye,”

Copyright The Financial Times March 30, 2017

As Trump and Xi prepare to meet, Gideon Rachman looks at the tests ahead for the world’s most important bilateral relationship
An excerpt follows. To read the entire piece, please click here.
“A big difference, however, may be that Xi’s vision of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” seems much more fully formed than that of the new US president. As the journalist and academic Howard French tells it in Everything Under the Heavens, China’s leader is essentially seeking to return his country to the position it has traditionally exercised in Asia — as the dominant regional power, to which other countries must defer or pay tribute. “For the better part of two millennia, the norm for China, from its own perspective, was a natural dominion over everything under heaven,” writes French. In practice, this meant “a vast and familiar swath of geography that consisted of nearby Central Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia”. This traditional Chinese aspiration had to be shelved for almost two centuries. From the mid-19th century, China was humbled by powerful outsiders — first European imperialists and then Japanese invaders. After the Communist victory in 1949, the country went through a period of economic and cultural isolation and relative poverty. By the late 1970s, when China reversed course and embraced capitalism and foreign investment, it had fallen far behind the “tiger economies” of east Asia. In its catch-up phase, China pursued friendly relations with its capitalist neighbours — including Japan, its old wartime foe. These Asian neighbours were important sources of expertise and foreign investment for a country that was desperate to make up for lost time. But French, like many observers, sees a change of mood and tone in China’s relationship with the outside world since Xi came to power in 2012. The primary target of Chinese muscle-flexing and ambition is not, in fact, the US — but Japan. “As China’s self-regard has swollen, along with its newfound power, Japan has returned to the center of the Chinese gaze in the form of a bull’s-eye,” writes French. Much Chinese resentment of Japan is focused on the Japanese invasion and occupation of the 1930s. But, as French makes clear, the roots of the resentment stretch deep into the 19th century. In one of the most compelling sections of this fluent and interesting book, French shows the importance of Japan’s annexation of the Ryukyu Islands in 1879. These islands retain their significance today, as they include Okinawa — the site of the largest US military base in east Asia. The current focus of territorial disputes between Japan and China is the much smaller set of islands known as the Senkakus to the Japanese and the Diaoyu to the Chinese. But reading French’s book, one cannot but wonder whether Chinese ambitions will also eventually encompass Okinawa.”

What China’s Past Says About Its Hegemonic Ambitions

Interview with Jerome McDonnell of WBEZ, Chicago Public Radio World View program

March 23, 2017

We speak with former New York Times Shanghai bureau chief Howard French about what he thinks motivates China’s strategy in the Asian Pacific.

French’s most recent book, Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power, French asserts we can assess China’s hegemonic ambitions by examining its past and how the Asian power treats its neighbors.

Howard W. French’s Everything Under the Heavens, reviewed: The last empire

For Canada, managing relations with an expansionist and impatient China will not be easy. French’s closing words seem particularly apt for us. He notes, reasonably enough, that China has much to contribute and deserves to be treated as an equal. That’s not a problem. It’s the next part of French’s formula that Ottawa so often either avoids or gets wrong. It is also important, he says, to approach China with “understated but resolute firmness.”

Howard W. French’s Everything Under the Heavens, reviewed: The last empire

  • Title Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shapes China’s Push for Global Power
  • Author Howard W. French
  • Genre Non-Fiction
  • Publisher Knopf
  • Pages 330
  • Price $36.95

Donald Trump isn’t the only global leader with wall-building ambitions. China’s President, Xi Jinping, recently called on his officials to encircle restive Xinjiang province, home to China’s Muslim Uyghur population, with a “Great Wall of steel.”

Trump’s Great Wall can be dismissed as an opportunistic policy gambit, but Xi’s wall-building impulse has deeper roots. The default symbol for the United States is the Statue of Liberty, which famously welcomes the huddled masses. China’s most notable structure, the Great Wall, was built to keep the masses out, particularly those with dynastic ambitions.

For China’s mandarins, trouble typically arrives in the form of the twin calamities captured in the gloomy couplet, “Nei luan, wai huan”: chaos at home and invasion from abroad.

Avoiding these linked perils remains a priority for Xi, a preoccupation that shapes his foreign and domestic policy. Xi presides over the world’s last surviving empire, a country that has devoured ethnic rivals such as the Uyghurs and Tibetans whole, and that treats neighbouring states as vassals to be kept in line. All non-Han “Others” are expected to understand and appreciate the concept of tian xia, or “everything under heaven,” the rather ambitious zone of influence that China has traditionally attributed to itself.

Living up to this imposing mandate means that China is forever managing others, walling them in or fending them off, hoping to pacify them with the offer of membership in a China-dominated order.

In his new book, appropriately titled Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Shapes China’s Push for Global Power, former New York Times journalist Howard W. French makes it clear China’s sense of national superiority is of more than historical significance. While China’s power has waxed and waned, its sense of being the Middle Kingdom has remained constant. So, too, has its inclination to manage those who lie outside the centre. Living up to its awesome self-image has required China to dispatch fleets and armies, and to develop a highly sophisticated diplomatic stagecraft of flattery and intimidation. For centuries, exercising this mandate of heaven has meant relentless efforts to manage and cajole, to pacify and control.

Nothing is quite what it seems. The generous offer of inclusion in a Chinese world masks a condescending disregard for partially sinicized neighbours, such as the Vietnamese and Tibetans, and contempt for the barbarians beyond. The offer of a peaceful place in a Chinese world is inevitably backed up by the sword.

French’s account, not surprisingly, runs counter to the official Chinese narrative. Admiral Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch who led a Chinese armada to Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka and the east coast of Africa, is lauded in China as an unconventional explorer. Unlike his Western counterparts, whose voyages were marked by greed, violence and conquest, Zheng, the story goes, was an ambassador of Chinese benevolence. The reality, as French reminds us, is that Zheng’s massive ships were actually troop carriers, whose menacing arrival conveyed a distinctly different message about the nature of the Chinese deal on offer.

Modern China continues to proclaim this theme of benevolent internationalism, something French challenges with numerous examples. The most chilling is his account of the Chinese navy’s 1988 massacre of flag-waving Vietnamese troops on the disputed Johnson Reef in the South China Sea. The Vietnamese protest is captured on a grainy YouTube video that is suddenly interrupted by Chinese naval gunfire. When the smoke clears, the Vietnamese are, shockingly, gone. It’s worth noting this happened just a year before the Chinese military perpetrated another massacre, this time of student protesters in Tiananmen Square. Nei luan, wai huan.

China is clearly in the midst of a new period of exuberance and expansion, and, as French makes clear, this inevitably involves friction with the two powers, Japan and the United States, that have come to dominate its neighbourhood over the past 200 years.

In recent decades, Japan, seduced by the lure of the China market and by the friendly pragmatism of previous (and needier) Chinese leaders, played down territorial disputes as it helped to rebuild China. The tables have since turned. All things Japanese are now demonized by China, which evokes past Japanese aggression as it steadily encroaches on the rocky outcroppings that mark the beginning of the Japanese archipelago.

Even more worrisome is China’s growing rivalry with its most formidable adversary, the United States. China is rapidly acquiring the weapons and technology to make it highly risky for the U.S. Navy to operate in the western Pacific, an ambition furthered by China’s construction of military airstrips on artificial islands in the South China Sea. French ominously quotes another Chinese aphorism: “When two emperors appear simultaneously, one must be destroyed.”

French suggests the current period of Chinese expansionism is particularly dangerous not just because it involves a clash between two nuclear-armed powers, but also because China’s leaders are in a race against time. The window on their ambitions for regional and broader domination is closing. China’s slowing economy means less money for military modernization. Worse for China is the fact its population will likely peak by 2025, while the United States will continue to enjoy a steadily increasing population, and resulting economic growth, for a long time to come. Much of this U.S. population growth will be powered by immigration. Trump may wish to rethink his wall.

All of this matters for Canadians. Any armed clash between the United States, our closest ally, and China would be devastating. Even if conflict is avoided, we can expect China’s larger ambitions and anxieties will influence the way it manages relations with Canada. The carrots and sticks are familiar.

Trade is one potential motivator. Even though it flows in China’s favour, its partners, Canada included, are all-too-easily persuaded that permission to do business is a benefit conferred only on those who agree to play by China’s rules. And access to China’s leaders is so carefully meted out and stage-managed that it becomes an objective in itself. Leaders refuse to kowtow at their peril. Recall that former prime minister Stephen Harper was widely castigated for declining to attend the Beijing Olympics in 2008, which took place only months after ugly scenes of unrest and repression in Tibet.

For Canada, managing relations with an expansionist and impatient China will not be easy. French’s closing words seem particularly apt for us. He notes, reasonably enough, that China has much to contribute and deserves to be treated as an equal. That’s not a problem. It’s the next part of French’s formula that Ottawa so often either avoids or gets wrong. It is also important, he says, to approach China with “understated but resolute firmness.”

That’s another way of saying that, like China, we need to align our international strategy with a hard-nosed reading of national interest. Let’s hope Ottawa’s mandarins are paying attention.

David Mulroney is the author of Middle Power, Middle Kingdom: What Canadians Need to Know about China in the 21st Century, and is president of the University of St. Michael’s College. He was Canada’s ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012.

My Year in Reading – 2016

As per custom, near years-end, or in this case at the new year’s start, a list of the books I read in the past year. I’ve placed them in alphabetic order, by name of author. A goal for 2017 is to read a LOT more fiction, which I’ve drifted away from as I’ve worked on a couple of book projects of my own. Excitingly, the first of these is due for publication by Knopf in March 2017, under the title: Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power.

https://www.amazon.com/Everything-Under-Heavens-Chinas-Global/dp/0385353324/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1483401858&sr=1-2&keywords=everything+under+the+heavens

I hope to have more to share about the second of my book projects soon.

The novel that most impressed me this year was Colson Whitehead’s widely and deservedly acclaimed Underground Railroad, which was so much more than I expected it to be. In addition to his extraordinary mastery of language and voice, the book read like an ambitious secret history of the United States, consummately literary but with learned payoffs on most every page.

The Immobile Empire, by Alain Peyreffite (originally published in 1992) was my favorite among many works of history I read this year.

THE LIST:

The Curse of Berlin: Africa After the Cold War

Adebajo, Adekeye

 

Markets and States in Tropical Africa: The Political Basis of Agricultural Policies

Bates, Robert H.

 

When the Walking Defeats You: One Man’s Journey as Joseph Kony’s Bodyguard

Cakaj, Ledio

Bad Luck and Trouble

Child, Lee

 

Persuader

Child, Lee

 

China’s Military Power: Assessing Current and Future Capabilities

Cliff, Roger

 

Known and Strange Things: Essays

Cole, Teju

 

The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History

Dikotter, Frank

 

This Present Darkness: A History of Nigerian Organized Crime

Ellis, Stephen

 

The Most Wanted Man in China: My Journey from Scientist to Enemy of the State

Fang Lizhi

 

 

One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment

Fong, Mei

 

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

Frankopan, Peter

 

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Neapolitan Novels, Book Three

Ferrante, Elena

 

Six Recording of a Floating Life

Fu, Shen

 

Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China

Gewirtz, Julian

 

99 Poems

Gioia, Dana

 

Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States

Hirschman, Albert O.

 

1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline

Huang, Ray

 

The Age of Trade: The Manila Galleons and the Dawn of the Global Economy

Giraldez, Arturo

 

Inside Rwanda’s Gacaca Courts

Ingelaere, Bert

 

Homegoing

Gyasi, Yaa

 

Mayor of Mogadishu: A Story of Chaos and Redemption in the Ruins of Somalia

Harding, Andrew

 

China’s Coming War with Asia

Holslag, Jonathan

 

China and Global Nuclear Order: From Estrangement to Active Engagement

Horsburgh, Nicola

 

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts

Kingston, Maxine Hong

 

The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations

Lasch, Christopher

 

The Land at the End of the World: A Novel

Lobo Antunes, António

 

They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement

Lowery, Wesley

 

The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers

McDonell, Terry

 

Memories of Myself

Lyon, Danny

 

After the Circus: A Novel

Modiano, Patrick

 

The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of a Revolutionary Invention

Munro, Alexander

 

The Sympathizer

Viet Thanh Nguyen

 

the Immobile Empire

Peyrefitte, Alain

 

The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom

Pomfret, John

 

Shanghai Redemption

Qiu Xiaolong

 

City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp

Rawlence, Ben

 

The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century

Ringen, Stein

 

Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China

Smith, Sheila A.

 

A Short History of China and Southeast Asia: Tribute, Trade and Influence

Stuart-Fox, Martin

 

Middle Kingdom and Empire of the Rising Sun: Sino-Japanese Relations, Past and Present

Teufel-Dreyer, June

 

Force and Contention in Contemporary China: Memory and Resistance in the Long Shadow of the Catastrophic Past

Thaxton, Ralph A.

 

The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931

Tooze, Adam

 

China Under Mao: A Revolution Derailed

Walder, Andrew G.

 

Eat the Heart of the Infidel: The Harrowing of Nigeria and the Rise of Boko Haram

Walker, Andrew

 

Harmony and War: Confucian Culture and Chinese Power Politics

Wang, Yuan-kang

 

The Underground Railroad

Whitehead, Colson

 

The Red Guard Generation and Political Activism in China

Yang Guobin

The Books I Read in 2015

As they occur to me I’ll add things that have escaped me.

 

A short history of China and Southeast Asia : tribute, trade and influence, Stuart-Fox, Martin

Early Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago and the Malay Peninsula, Paul Michel Munoz

The Looting Machine: Tom Burgis (Reviewed)

China Under Mao: A Revolution Derailed, Andrew G. Walder

Political Demography: How Population Changes are Reshaping International Security and National Politics, edited volume

China’s search for security / Andrew J. Nathan, Andrew Scobell

The Long Defeat: Cultural Trauma, Memory, and Identity in Japan, Akiko Hashimoto

Fixing the Facts: National Security and the Politics of Intelligence, Joshua Rovner

Art of Rulership : A Study of Ancient Chinese Political Thought, Roger T. Ames

Confucianism as a World Religion: Contested Histories and Contemporary Realities, Anna Sun

The Birth of Vietnam, Keith Weller Taylor

Frontières de sable, frontières de papier : histoire de territoires et de frontières, du jihad de Sokoto à la colonisation française du Niger, XIXe-XXe siècles, Camille Lefebvre

Taming Tibet : Landscape Transformation and the Gift of Chinese Development, Emily T. Yeh

Markets over Mao : the rise of private business in China, Nicholas R. Lardy

How Pol Pot came to power : A history of communism in Kampuchea, 1930-1975, Ben Kiernan

Collateral damage : Sino-Soviet rivalry and the termination of the Sino-Vietnamese alliance , 1964-1979, Nicholas Kay-Siang Khoo

Southeast Asia in the Fifteenth century : the China factor, edited by Geoff Wade and Sun Laichen

Lost soul: “Confucianism” in contemporary Chinese academic discourse, John Makeham

A History of the Vietnamese, K. W. Taylor

The Rings of Saturn, A novel, W. G. Sebald

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari

Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, P. W. Singer

The Incarnations: A Novel, Susan Barker

Shike, Time of Dragons, Robert Shea

Travels with a Tangerine: A Journey in the Footnotes of Ibn Battutah, Mackintosh-Smith, Tim

Stop-Time: A Memoir, Frank Conroy

Imagined Communitities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson

Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day, Leanne Brown

Tram 83, Mwanza Mujila, Fiston

The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr

Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa, 1830-1914, Bruce Vandervort

My Struggle: Book 2: A Man in Love Karl Ove Knausgaard

Thomas Sankara: An African Revolutionary, Ernest Harsch

The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the 21st Century, D.W.  Gibson

Light Years, James Salter

Burning the Days: Recollection, James Salter

Preparation for the Next Life, A Novel, Atticus Lish

Lines of Descent: W.E.B. Dubois and Emergence of Identity, Appiah, Kwame Anthony

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehesi Coates

Black Dragon River: A Journey Down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empires, Dominic Ziegler (Reviewed)

Confucius and the World He Created, Michael Schuman (Reviewed)

The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower, Michael Pillsbury (Reviewed)

A Perfect Crime, A Novel, by A Yi (Reviewed)

The Most Wanted Man in China, Fang Lizhi (Reviewed)

City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp, Ben Lawrence (Reviewed)

Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, Anjam Sundaram

Kongo: Power and Majesty (The Metropolitan Museum)

Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations, Jessica Chen Weiss

The China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era, Liu Mingfu

The China Boom: Why China Will Not Rule the World, Ho-fung Hung

Brothers in Arms: Chinese Aid to the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979, Andrew Mertha

A History of Korea, Michael J. Seth

Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion, Donald Keene

Making and Unmaking Nations, Scott Straus

The Mind of the African Strongman, Herman Cohen

Asian Maritime Strategies, Bernard Cole