How to keep a ris­ing China in line

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - Ali Wyne is a con­tribut­ing an­a­lyst at Wik­istrat and a global fel­low at the Project for the Study of the 21st Cen­tury. He is a coau­thor of “Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Mas­ter’s In­sights on China, the United States, and the World.” RE­VIEW BY ALI WYNE book­worl

Thomas J. Chris­tensen opens his new­book by ob­serv­ing that post-1978 China has achieved eco­nomic progress that is “un­prece­dented in world his­tory” and has reg­is­tered “equally dra­matic” ad­vances in its eco­nomic and diplo­matic ties abroad. Since the mid-1990s, more­over, its of­fi­cial mil­i­tary bud­get has grown even faster than its econ­omy.

It was per­haps in­evitable that such a dra­matic rise — or resur­gence, from China’s per­spec­tive — would elicit ex­ag­ger­ated anal­y­sis. Es­pe­cially in the United States, to whose pre­em­i­nence that phe­nom­e­non poses a sin­gu­lar chal­lenge, one tends to en­counter de­pic­tions of China as ei­ther a fear­some jug­ger­naut or a pa­per dragon. Chris­tensen, a for­mer U.S. deputy as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of state for East Asian and Pa­cific af­fairs, avoids both fal­la­cies, of­fer­ing in­stead a model of ju­di­cious anal­y­sis: Care­fully de­con­struct­ing the eco­nomic, mil­i­tary and diplo­matic bal­ances be­tween the United States and China, he re­veals the mag­ni­tude of the lat­ter’s chal­lenge with­out in­flat­ing it.

First, the bad news: While China’s con­ven­tional and nu­clear ca­pa­bil­i­ties are a long way from ap­prox­i­mat­ing Amer­ica’s, they pose grow­ing threats to U.S. in­ter­ests, par­tic­u­larly in the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion. Chris­tensen notes that an in­creas­ingly con­fi­dent China “en­joys mil­i­tary su­pe­ri­or­ity over most, if not all” of Amer­ica’s re­gional al­lies, three of which (Ja­pan, the Philip­pines and Tai­wan) have in­tractable ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes with China.

Of greater long-term con­cern, in his es­ti­ma­tion, is en­list­ing its sup­port in up­hold­ing the lib­eral world or­der that has been so in­stru­men­tal to its as­cent: “No gov­ern­ment has ex­pe­ri­ence . . . per­suad­ing a uniquely large de­vel­op­ing coun­try with enor­mous do­mes­tic chal­lenges and a his­tor­i­cal chip on its na­tional shoul­der to co­op­er­ate ac­tively with the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.” Chris­tensen fo­cuses on the ob­sta­cles to U.S.-China co­op­er­a­tion in the are­nas of non­pro­lif­er­a­tion, global eco­nomic man­age­ment, peace­keep­ing and, most vex­ing of all, cli­mate change.

Still, “The China Chal­lenge” strikes a tone of cau­tious op­ti­mism, and Chris­tensen makes a per­sua­sive case that con­flict be­tween the United States and China is far from in­evitable. The scale of eco­nomic in­ter­de­pen­dence world wide is un­prece­dented, and transna­tional pro­duc­tion, a mar­ginal fea­ture of eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity in the run-up to World War I, has ex­ploded over the past quar­ter-cen­tury. In 2012, China’s trade with the United States, for­mal U.S. al­lies in East Asia and U.S. se­cu­rity part­ners in Asia ac­counted for roughly two-fifths of its over­all trade (about a fifth of its gross do­mes­tic prod­uct) and one-third of of­fi­cial for­eign di­rect in­vest­ment flow­ing into the main­land. Con­flict would risk those benefits and com­pound China’s diplo­matic iso­la­tion: Chris­tensen ob­serves that it “lacks any strate­gi­cally im­por­tant al­lies.”

Fi­nally, while China re­gards to­day’s world or­der as more of a West­ern im­po­si­tion than a just con­sen­sus— al­ter­na­tively re­act­ing with con­fu­sion and ir­ri­ta­tion to Amer­ica’s ex­hor­ta­tion to be­come a “re­spon­si­ble stake­holder” — it has nei­ther a co­her­ent al­ter­na­tive to of­fer nor a com­pelling ra­tio­nale for pos­ing a sys­temic re­vi­sion­ist chal­lenge: Ja­pan, Ger­many and the Soviet Union suf­fered greatly for un­der­tak­ing that course in the 20th cen­tury.

Yet one won­ders if Amer­ica and China’s sen­si­ble rhetoric — about forg­ing a new type of great-power re­la­tions and avoid­ing what Gra­ham Al­li­son calls the “Thucy­dides trap” (in his words, “the nat­u­ral, in­evitable in­escapable dis­com­bob­u­la­tion that ac­com­pa­nies a tec­tonic shift in the rel­a­tive power of a ris­ing and [a] rul­ing state”)— be­lies in­creas­ing pes­simism about the tra­jec­tory of their re­la­tion­ship. Chris­tensen notes that “John Mearsheimer is seen by many Chi­nese as the one hon­est Amer­i­can strate­gist, will­ing to ad­mit that the United States has deep-seated na­tional in­ter­ests in de­lay­ing and halt­ing China’s rise.” In the new, con­clud­ing chap­ter of “The Tragedy of Great Power Pol­i­tics,” orginally pub­lished in 2001, Mearsheimer, a dis­tin­guished po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at the Uni­ver­sity of Chicago, warns that “if China con­tin­ues to grow eco­nom­i­cally, it will at­tempt to dom­i­nate Asia the way the United States dom­i­nates the West­ern Hemi­sphere. The United States, how­ever, will go to enor­mous lengths to pre­vent China from achiev­ing re­gional hege­mony.”

The path of least re­sis­tance, but also of great­est dan­ger, would be for the two coun­tries to con­clude that they are pris­on­ers of his­tory. While im­ple­ment­ing their shared de­sire for a con­struc­tive part­ner­ship will be among the most daunt­ing projects of the new cen­tury, they must spare no ef­fort in pur­suit of that goal.

FRED­ERIC J. BROWN/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IMAGES

China’s mil­i­tary bud­get is grow­ing quickly, though the na­tion’s con­ven­tional and nu­clear ca­pa­bil­i­ties are a long way from match­ing Amer­ica’s, Thomas J. Chris­tensen writes.

THE CHINA CHAL­LENGE Shap­ing the Choices of a Ris­ing Power By Thomas J. Chris­tensen Nor­ton. 371 pp. $27.95

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