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.

China’s Twilight Years: The country’s population is aging and shrinking. That means big consequences for its economy—and America’s global standing.

“It really doesn’t matter what happens now with the fertility rate,” a demographer at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told me. “The old people of tomorrow are already here.” She predicted that in another decade or two, the social and fiscal pressures created by aging in China will force what many Chinese find inconceivable for the world’s most populous nation: a mounting need to attract immigrants. “When China is old, though, all the countries we could import workers from will also be old,” she said. “Where are we to get them from? Africa would be the only place, and I can’t imagine that.”

Copyright The Atlantic – June 2016

On opposite sides of the globe, two debates that will profoundly affect the future of the United States, and indeed the world, are raging. One of them has become shrilly public, while the other remains almost secret. On the surface they might seem to have little to do with each other, but at bottom, they are inextricably linked.

The first debate, which is unfolding in America, concerns immigration. Republicans like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have staked out some of the more radical positions in this debate, such as urging that the U.S. build a wall to keep out illegal immigrants and that it deport the millions who are already here. The other debate, which is playing out in Beijing, is about how big a navy China should build, and how much it should contest America’s primacy in the world’s oceans.

To a degree scarcely suspected by most people, both debates—and more generally, America’s chances of maintaining its standing in the world—are bound up in the two countries’ sharply contrasting population dynamics.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has until very recently appeared to be a global juggernaut—hugely expanding its economic and political relations with Africa; building artificial islands in the South China Sea, an immense body of water that it now proclaims almost entirely its own; launching the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, with ambitions to rival the World Bank. The new bank is expected to support a Chinese initiative called One Belt, One Road, a collection of rail, road, and port projects designed to lash China to the rest of Asia and even Europe. Projects like these aim not only to boost China’s already formidable commercial power but also to restore the global centrality that Chinese consider their birthright.

As if this were not enough to worry the U.S., China has also showed interest in moving into America’s backyard. Easily the most dramatic symbol of this appetite is a Chinese billionaire’s plan to build across Nicaragua a canal that would dwarf the American-built Panama Canal. But this project is stalled, an apparent victim of recent stock-market crashes in China.

Many economists believe that these market plunges are early manifestations of a historic slowdown in the Chinese economy, one that is bringing the country’s soaring growth rates down to earth after three decades of expansion. But the current slowdown pales in comparison with a looming societal crisis: In the years ahead, as China’s Baby Boomers reach retirement age, the country will transition from having a relatively youthful population, and an abundant workforce, to a population with far fewer people in their productive prime.

The frightening scope of this decline is best expressed in numbers. China today boasts roughly five workers for every retiree. By 2040, this highly desirable ratio will have collapsed to about 1.6 to 1. From the start of this century to its midway point, the median age in China will go from under 30 to about 46, making China one of the older societies in the world. At the same time, the number of Chinese older than 65 is expected to rise from roughly 100 million in 2005 to more than 329 million in 2050—more than the combined populations of Germany, Japan, France, and Britain.

The consequences for China’s finances are profound. With more people now exiting the workforce than entering it, many Chinese economists say that demographics are already becoming a drag on growth. More immediately alarming are the fiscal costs of having far more elderly people and far fewer young people, starting with the expense of creating the country’s first modern national pension system.

Unlike residents of China’s prosperous eastern cities, hundreds of millions of peasants and migrant laborers have scant personal savings and rudimentary retirement coverage, if any. “One goal is to extend pension coverage to everyone,” says an economist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in Beijing. “But that will be very expensive, because most people haven’t paid anything into the system at all. Basically, what this means is a wealth transfer.” Providing health care to these same disadvantaged classes will also be vastly expensive.Mark L. Haas, a Duquesne University political scientist, has for some time warned of a looming contest between guns and canes—a variant on the old idea of guns versus butter—as the world’s major countries grapple with demographic change. “China’s political leaders beginning in roughly 2020 will be faced with a difficult choice: allow growing levels of poverty within an exploding elderly population, or provide the resources necessary to avoid this situation,” Haas writes in Political Demography. If China’s government decides in favor of the latter option, Haas argues, American power will benefit. More broadly, he foresees a coming “geriatric peace,” as nations around the world find themselves too burdened to challenge America’s military preeminence.

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Not Fade Away: The Myth of American Decline

Copyright The New Republic

Is the United States in decline, as so many seem to believe these days? Or are Americans in danger of committing pre-emptive superpower suicide out of a misplaced fear of their own declining power? A great deal depends on the answer to these questions. The present world order—characterized by an unprecedented number of democratic nations; a greater global prosperity, even with the current crisis, than the world has ever known; and a long peace among great powers—reflects American principles and preferences, and was built and preserved by American power in all its political, economic, and military dimensions. If American power declines, this world order will decline with it. It will be replaced by some other kind of order, reflecting the desires and the qualities of other world powers. Or perhaps it will simply collapse, as the European world order collapsed in the first half of the twentieth century. The belief, held by many, that even with diminished American power “the underlying foundations of the liberal international order will survive and thrive,” as the political scientist G. John Ikenberry has argued, is a pleasant illusion. American decline, if it is real, will mean a different world for everyone.

But how real is it? Much of the commentary on American decline these days rests on rather loose analysis, on impressions that the United States has lost its way, that it has abandoned the virtues that made it successful in the past, that it lacks the will to address the problems it faces. Americans look at other nations whose economies are now in better shape than their own, and seem to have the dynamism that America once had, and they lament, as in the title of Thomas Friedman’s latest book, that “that used to be us.”

The perception of decline today is certainly understandable, given the dismal economic situation since 2008 and the nation’s large fiscal deficits, which, combined with the continuing growth of the Chinese, Indian, Brazilian, Turkish, and other economies, seem to portend a significant and irreversible shift in global economic power. Some of the pessimism is also due to the belief that the United States has lost favor, and therefore influence, in much of the world, because of its various responses to the attacks of September 11. The detainment facilities at Guantánamo, the use of torture against suspected terrorists, and the widely condemned invasion of Iraq in 2003 have all tarnished the American “brand” and put a dent in America’s “soft power”—its ability to attract others to its point of view. There have been the difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which many argue proved the limits of military power, stretched the United States beyond its capacities, and weakened the nation at its core. Some compare the United States to the British Empire at the end of the nineteenth century, with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars serving as the equivalent of Britain’s difficult and demoralizing Boer War.

With this broad perception of decline as the backdrop, every failure of the United States to get its way in the world tends to reinforce the impression. Arabs and Israelis refuse to make peace, despite American entreaties. Iran and North Korea defy American demands that they cease their nuclear weapons programs. China refuses to let its currency rise. Ferment in the Arab world spins out of America’s control. Every day, it seems, brings more evidence that the time has passed when the United States could lead the world and get others to do its bidding.

Powerful as this sense of decline may be, however, it deserves a more rigorous examination. Measuring changes in a nation’s relative power is a tricky business, but there are some basic indicators: the size and the influence of its economy relative to that of other powers; the magnitude of military power compared with that of potential adversaries; the degree of political influence it wields in the international system—all of which make up what the Chinese call “comprehensive national power.” And there is the matter of time. Judgments based on only a few years’ evidence are problematic. A great power’s decline is the product of fundamental changes in the international distribution of various forms of power that usually occur over longer stretches of time. Great powers rarely decline suddenly. A war may bring them down, but even that is usually a symptom, and a culmination, of a longer process.

The decline of the British Empire, for instance, occurred over several decades. In 1870, the British share of global manufacturing was over 30 percent. In 1900, it was 20 percent. By 1910, it was under 15 percent—well below the rising United States, which had climbed over the same period from more than 20 percent to more than 25 percent; and also less than Germany, which had lagged far behind Britain throughout the nineteenth century but had caught and surpassed it in the first decade of the twentieth century. Over the course of that period, the British navy went from unchallenged master of the seas to sharing control of the oceans with rising naval powers. In 1883, Britain possessed more battleships than all the other powers combined. By 1897, its dominance had been eclipsed. British officials considered their navy “completely outclassed” in the Western hemisphere by the United States, in East Asia by Japan, and even close to home by the combined navies of Russia and France—and that was before the threatening growth of the German navy. These were clear-cut, measurable, steady declines in two of the most important measures of power over the course of a half-century.

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