A Reluctant Convert

In which the competition with China is seen to have entered a more dangerous phase

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I have, at least since 1989, been a believer that competition between the West and China is likely to dominate global history for the foreseeable future.  By that I mean at least the next hundred years or so.

I am a reluctant convert to the view that the contest has arrived at a new and more dangerous phase. The increasing belligerence of Chinese foreign policy in the last few years has overcome my doubts.

It was a quarter century ago that I read World Economic Primacy: 1500-1990, by Charles P. Kindleberger. I held no economic historian in higher regard than CPK, but I raised an eyebrow at his penultimate chapter, “Japan in the Queue?”  His last chapter, “The National Life Cycle,” made more sense to me, but even then wasn’t convince he had got the units of account or the time-scales right.

The Damascene moment in my case came last week after I subscribed to Foreign Affairs, an influential six-times-a-year journal of opinion published by the US Council on Foreign Relations. Out of the corner of my eye, I had been following a behind-the-scenes controversy, engendered by an article in the magazine about what successive Republican and Democratic administrations thought they were doing as they engaged with China, starting with the surprise “opening” engineered by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in 1971. I subscribed to Foreign Affairs to see what I had been missing.

In 2018, in The China Reckoning, the piece that started the row, foreign policy specialists Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner had asserted that, for over fifty years, Washington had “put too much faith in its power to shape China’s trajectory.”  The stance had been previously identified mainly with then-president Donald Trump.  Both Campbell and Ely wound up in senior positions in the Biden administration, at the White House and the Pentagon.

In fact the proximate cause of my subscription was the most recent installment in this fracas. To read The Inevitable Rivalry, by John Mearsheimer, of the University of Chicago, an article in the November/December issue of the magazine, I had to pay the entry rate. His essay turned out to be a dud.

Had U.S. policymakers during the unipolar moment thought in terms of balance-of-power politics, they would have tried to slow Chinese growth and maximize the power gap between Beijing and Washington. But once China grew wealthy, a U.S.-Chinese cold war was inevitable. Engagement may have been the worst strategic blunder any country has made in recent history: there is no comparable example of a great power actively fostering the rise of a peer competitor. And it is now too late to do much about it.

Mearsheimer’s article completely failed to persuade. Devotion to the religion he calls “realism” leads him to ignore two hundred years of Chinese history and the great foreign policy lesson of the twentieth century: the disastrous realism of the 1919 Versailles Treaty that ended World War I and led to World War II, vs. the pragmatism of the Marshall Plan of 1947 which prevented World War III. There is no room for moral conduct is his version of realism. It is hardball all the way.

My new subscription led me to the archives, and soon to Short of War, by Kevin Rudd, which persuaded me that China’s designs on Taiwan were likely to escalate, given President Xi Jinping’s intention to remain in power indefinitely. (Term limits were abolished on his behalf in 2018.)  By 2035 he will be 82, the age at which Mao Zedong died.  Mao had once mused that repossession of the breakaway island nation of Taiwan might take as long as a hundred years.

Beijing now intends to complete its military modernization program by 2027 (seven years ahead of the previous schedule), with the main goal of giving China a decisive edge in all conceivable scenarios for a conflict with the United States over Taiwan. A victory in such a conflict would allow President Xi to carry out a forced reunification with Taiwan before leaving power—an achievement that would put him on the same level within the CCP pantheon as Mao Zedong.

That led me in turn to The World China Wants, by Rana Mitter, a professor of Chinese politics and history at Oxford University. He notes that, at least since the global financial crisis of 2008, China’s leaders have increasingly presented their authoritarian style of governance as an end in and of itself, not a steppingstone to a liberal democratic system. That could change in time, she says.

To legitimize its approach, China often turns to history, invoking its premodern past, for example, or reinterpreting the events of World War II. China’s increasingly authoritarian direction under Xi offers only one possible future for the country. To understand where China could be headed, observers must pay attention to the major elements of Chinese power and the frameworks through which that power is both expressed and imagined.

The ultimate prize of my Foreign Affairs reading day was The New Cold War, a long and intricately-reasoned article in the latest issue by Hal Brands, of Johns Hopkins University, and John Lewis Gaddis, of Yale University, about the lessons they had drawn from a hundred and fifty years of competition among great powers. I especially agreed with their conclusion:

As [George] Kennan pointed out in the most quoted article ever published in these pages, “Exhibitions of indecision, disunity and internal disintegration within this country” can “have an exhilarating effect” on external enemies. To defend its external interests, then, “the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.”

Easily said, not easily done, and therein lies the ultimate test for the United States in its contest with China: the patient management of internal threats to our democracy, as well as tolerance of the moral and geopolitical contradictions through which global diversity can most feasibly be defended. The study of history is the best compass we have in navigating this future—even if it turns out to be not what we’d expected and not in most respects what we’ve experienced before.

That sounded right to me. Worries exist in a hierarchy: leadership of the Federal Reserve Board; the US presidential election in 2024; the stability of the international monetary system; arms races of various sorts; climate change. Subordinating all these to the China problem will take time.