“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.

Will there be war?

At the heart of Cliff’s book is an assessment of who would win if a war broke out between the US and China in this region. The US has been a guarantor of Taiwan’s security for a long time, and has defence treaty obligations to Japan and the Philippines that Washington has been working to strengthen, under what the Obama administration has called a ‘rebalance’ of American strength towards Asia. Beijing has denounced these efforts, claiming they are aimed at containment of China. Cliff assumes, as the European analyst Jonathan Holslag does in China’s Coming War with Asia, that as China’s strength continues to grow, so does the possibility of conflict with the US, the dominant power in the Western Pacific since the Second World War.

Copyright The London Review of Books

A review of the following titles:

  • China and Global Nuclear Order: From Estrangement to Active Engagement by Nicola Horsburgh
    Oxford, 256 pp, £55.00, February 2015, ISBN 978 0 19 870611 3
  • BUYChina’s Military Power: Assessing Current and Future Capabilities byRoger Cliff
    Cambridge, 378 pp, £21.99, September 2015, ISBN 978 1 107 50295 6
  • BUYChina’s Coming War with Asia by Jonathan Holslag
    Polity, 176 pp, £14.99, March 2015, ISBN 978 0 7456 8825 1

On 1 October 1949, Mao Zedong stood on top of the Gate of Heavenly Peace to proclaim the victory of his revolution, and told the world that the long-suffering Chinese people had finally ‘stood up’. After decades of tremendous violence and turmoil, China was going to relaunch itself into the arduous and disorienting task of embracing modernity. This project had begun in the late 19th century, near the end of the thousands-year-long imperial era under the Qing dynasty, and continued at the start of the republican period in the early 20th century. But it was cut short by chaotic warlordism, followed by Japan’s vicious attempted conquest of China and finally by brutal infighting between Communists and Nationalists. It was Mao’s armies’ outmanoeuvring of the forces of his longtime rival, Chiang Kai-Shek, that landed him triumphantly in Tiananmen Square that day in 1949. What set China apart from almost every other people whose lands were subjugated by European imperialism, then thrown into chaos by the turmoil that followed its collapse, is that through all the violence the nation suffered, one ambition remained constant: to restore to China what those who aspired to lead it believed was its civilisational birthright and heritage – a position of pre-eminence in world affairs.

Self-belief of this sort has always been a feature of Chinese thinking. But during Mao’s early years in power, the notion that China could make progress only by adopting imported ideas was still a relatively new and radical concept. As recently as the late 18th century, China was still displaying utter disdain for the ideas and innovations coming from Europe. When George Macartney, Britain’s first envoy to China, arrived at the head of a delegation in 1793, the Qing Emperor Qianlong refused his request to establish a permanent embassy in Beijing. Qianlong also spurned Macartney’s gifts, which had been carefully selected to demonstrate British progress and greatness. ‘Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders,’ Qianlong wrote. ‘Therefore there is no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.’ There are few better examples of how pride precedes a fall. Among Macartney’s gifts were several brass cannons capable of firing seven shots a minute – an astounding feat at that time. Britain even proposed to export them to China, but the Qing declined. A half-century later, Britain would return to the country with cannons blazing, humiliating China and its technologically backward armies in the first Opium War.

The country that Mao inherited was poor and economically devastated. Its situation compared to the major powers was arguably worse than it had been when the Europeans made their scramble for China a hundred years earlier. Mao knew this and had no intention of repeating the errors of Qianlong – this was no time for false pride. Beijing aligned itself closely with the USSR, believing that Marxism-Leninism offered the best chance of reordering Chinese society and allowing it rapidly to make up lost ground in economic and geopolitical power. Barely two months after taking power he made a pilgrimage by train to Moscow, spending two months holed up in a dacha awaiting infrequent audiences with Stalin in order to plead his case for assistance on an unheard-of scale. Mao asked for factories of all sorts to be dismantled and shipped off to China; he wanted the Soviets to accept huge numbers of Chinese students into their universities and technical institutes; and he requested that the Soviets send thousands of advisers to China to help oversee the country’s economic take-off.

From the outset, however, Mao had something more ambitious in mind than creating modern industries and generating economic growth. Having ‘liberated’ China at the beginning of the nuclear age, there was one Western gadget he coveted more than any other: the bomb. Though it conspicuously lacked this ultimate symbol of great power status, China fought the US to a standstill on the Korean peninsula and began to project its ambitions into other parts of the world. During this period, Mao publicly affected disdain for weapons of mass destruction, arguing that against the immensity of China they counted for little. ‘The atom bomb is a paper tiger … it looks terrible but in fact it is not … the outcome of war is decided by the people, not … weapons,’ he said in the late 1940s, as Nicola Horsburgh recounts in China and Global Nuclear Order. Privately, though, atomic weapons were an early obsession of his, so much so that his eagerness to acquire an arsenal of his own drove a wedge between Beijing and Moscow and was one of the factors that led to the termination of their alliance in the early 1960s. In 1949, Liu Shaoqi was sent to Moscow, where he sought and was denied access to Soviet nuclear facilities. By 1954, however, Moscow had acquiesced, enabling China rapidly to master the nuclear fuel cycle. The following year, the two countries signed the Sino-Soviet Atomic Co-operation Treaty, which led to the creation of 39 atomic research centres in China. But by 1957, there were signs of trouble in the relationship. A new technical accord signed that year seemed to promise that the USSR would supply China with a blueprint for an atomic weapon, or even a prototype – but in the end no device was provided. Horsburgh says that Moscow had demanded joint military control, a loss of sovereignty that Mao rejected as intolerable.

By the late 1950s, after several years of an unrestrained arms race, Moscow and Washington had begun to take their nuclear competition seriously. The US had installed tactical atomic weapons at bases in Taiwan, South Korea, Guam and Hawaii, and had hinted at the possibility of their use during crises in Indochina in 1954 and over Taiwan in 1955. When Mao confronted Taiwan over the small, Taiwanese-controlled islands of Quemoy and Matsu in 1958, risking war with the US, Moscow got spooked by its ally’s seeming recklessness – some in Moscow began asking whether Mao was crazy. Unlike the USSR, China also insisted on supporting wars of national liberation in other parts of the world – a principle that Mao regarded as sacrosanct.

China’s frustration at the Soviets’ foot-dragging over the sharing of atomic weapons technology, combined with Mao’s disapproval of Khrushchev’s posthumous attack on Stalin and his cult of personality in the secret speech of 1956, destroyed any remaining allegiance to the USSR. In Mao’s view, Khrushchev was legitimising challengers to his own rule. The Soviets were denounced as ‘revisionists’, which in this instance meant that they were willing to make accommodations with the US in order to avoid war. By the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, which Beijing read as Soviet capitulation, this had become the mainstream view in China.

In June 1959, Khrushchev abrogated the USSR’s two-year-old treaty with Beijing, declaring that no nuclear weapon prototype would be provided to China after all because of his country’s commitment to the recently negotiated Partial Test Ban Treaty with the US. A year later, Moscow withdrew all of its nearly three thousand technical advisers from China. Until this point, Beijing had stuck closely to Moscow’s line on atomic weapons, endorsing Soviet calls for arms control, even disarmament. Speaking in Geneva in 1954, for example, Mao’s number two, Zhou Enlai, said: ‘The arms race must be halted, universal disarmament be carried out and atomic and hydrogen weapons and weapons of mass destruction be prohibited.’

When Soviet assistance was cut off, and the relationship between the two communist powers became increasingly hostile, China’s position on nuclear weapons changed. Mao’s administration took to arguing that arms control was a scam designed to perpetuate the global hegemony of the two rival superpowers, the US and the USSR. It also began to claim that the spread of nuclear weapons beyond this cartel could have a stabilising influence, and for a time promoted what it called ‘socialist proliferation’. Horsburgh quotes Zhou Enlai: ‘If all countries have nuclear weapons,’ he said in 1961, ‘the possibility of nuclear wars would decrease.’

To view the entire article, please see the LRB website.

What’s behind Beijing’s drive to control the South China Sea? (Guardian Long

Copyright The Guardian

A satellite image of Chinese land reclamation on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands.
 A satellite image of Chinese land reclamation on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. Photograph: DigitalGlobe/Getty Images

On 26 May, CNN broadcast an unusual clip of a US navy intelligence flight over the South China Sea. The P-8A Poseidon surveillance plane – one of the newest weapons in the Pentagon’s arsenal – had taken off, with a CNN reporter on board, from Clark airbase in the Philippines, once part of America’s largest overseas base complex during the cold war. After about 45 minutes, the plane reached its first target – which had, until recently, been an obscure, almost entirely submerged feature in the Spratly Island group.

Fifteen thousand feet below, dozens of Chinese ships tossed at anchor. Their crews had been working day and night for weeks, dredging sand and rock from the ocean floor to fill in a stunning blue lagoon – turning a 3.7-mile-long reef that had only partially revealed itself to the daylight at low tide into a sizable man-made island nearly 1,000 miles away from the Chinese mainland.

At the approach of the American aircraft, a Chinese radio operator can be heard addressing the pilot: “This is the Chinese navy. This is the Chinese navy … Please leave immediately to avoid misunderstanding.” When the plane, which was busily photographing the land-reclamation effort, failed to heed these instructions, the operator grew exasperated, and the recording ends as abruptly as it had begun, with him shouting the words: “You go!”

 China’s land grab in the South China Sea

For many people who viewed this clip, it might have almost passed for entertainment, but the plane continued on to a place called Fiery Cross, whose history and recent development point to how deadly serious the struggle over the South China Sea has become. Fiery Cross came under Chinese control in 1988, following a confrontation with Vietnam at a nearby site, Johnson Reef, where Chinese troops opened fire from a ship on a contingent of Vietnamese soldiers who stood in knee-deep seas after having planted their country’s flag in the coral. A YouTube video of the incident shows dozens of Vietnamese being cut down in the water under a hail of machine-gun fire.

To read the entire piece, please follow this link.