Deadly guess­ing game: Will China and the U.S. go to war?

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY JAMES MANN James Mann, a fel­low at the Johns Hop­kins School of Ad­vanced In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies, is the au­thor of “The China Fan­tasy” and “About Face: A His­tory of Amer­ica’s Cu­ri­ous Re­la­tion­ship With China.”

China may be time­less and en­dur­ing, but Amer­i­can per­cep­tions of it and as­sump­tions about it change with stun­ning speed — par­tic­u­larly when it comes to China’s mil­i­tary power and its role in the world. As re­cently as three decades ago, China was thought to be hope­lessly back­ward and weak. In 1984, when Amer­i­can of­fi­cials were try­ing to de­cide what level of arms to sup­ply to the Chi­nese, for­mer sec­re­tary of state Alexan­der Haig told a Pen­tagon of­fi­cial: “We ought to give them what­ever they want. They’re not go­ing to use it against us.”

A decade later, when China’s lead­ing diplo­mat, then-For­eign Min­is­ter Qian Qichen, as­serted in 1995 that Bei­jing no longer ac­cepted Amer­ica’s claim to be keep­ing the peace and sta­bil­ity in East Asia, Amer­i­can of­fi­cials thought this was just for show. The U.S. as­sump­tion at the time was that, what­ever China might say in pub­lic, it wanted and needed the U.S. pres­ence in Asia, above all to keep a lid on the rise of an independent Ja­pan.

As late as 2005, Amer­i­can lead­ers be­lieved that China might be sat­is­fied with merely get­ting a seat at the ta­ble in­side ex­ist­ing in­ter­na­tional in­sti­tu­tions. In the phrase of then-Deputy Sec­re­tary of State Robert Zoel­lick, China could be­come a “re­spon­si­ble stake­holder” in the post-World War II or­der built by the United States.

So, it is a telling sign of how far Amer­i­can per­cep­tions of China have been trans­formed, even over the past decade, that a prom­i­nent Har­vard pro­fes­sor, Graham Al­li­son, has now writ­ten a book about Amer­ica and China with the ti­tle “Destined for War.”

Al­li­son’s book is de­voted to the ques­tion of whether an es­tab­lished power and a ris­ing power are bound for con­flict. The book’s sub­ti­tle, “Can Amer­ica and China Es­cape Thucy­dides’s Trap?,” refers to the fact that Sparta, the es­tab­lished power in an­cient Greece, was grad­u­ally drawn into con­flict with Athens, the ris­ing power, in a chain of events re­counted by the his­to­rian Thucy­dides.

Al­li­son traces a dozen ex­am­ples over the past 600 years in which pow­er­ful na­tions sim­i­larly ended up at war with ri­vals who seemed to be threat­en­ing their supremacy: Bri­tain with Ger­many in the late 19th and early 20th cen­tury, for ex­am­ple, and the United States with Ja­pan in the early 20th cen­tury. He also lists four cases in which ri­val­ries be­tween es­tab­lished and ris­ing pow­ers did not re­sult in shoot­ing wars: Bri­tain and the United States in the late 19th cen­tury, for ex­am­ple, or the United States and the Soviet Union af­ter World War II.

As th­ese con­flict­ing prece­dents demon­strate, Al­li­son does not ar­gue that war is in­evitable be­tween China and the United States (though the ti­tle of the book may sug­gest oth­er­wise). Rather, he says the sheer ex­is­tence of an es­tab­lished power and a fas­tris­ing one cre­ates built-in struc­tural con­flicts that can lead to mil­i­tary con­flict.

The book is ex­tremely un­even, a hodge­podge of bor­rowed his­tory, gee-whiz cliches about cur­rent China and, oc­ca­sion­ally, some gen­uine in­sights. Al­li­son has worked or con­sulted for the Pen­tagon in sev­eral ad­min­is­tra­tions, and he is at his best in writ­ing with author­ity about de­fense is­sues. The book con­tains a use­ful run­down of sev­eral sce­nar­ios that could lead to war be­tween Amer­ica and China: a col­li­sion at sea, the col­lapse of North Korea, a for­mal dec­la­ra­tion of in­de­pen­dence by Tai­wan, an eco­nomic con­flict, or a war be­tween China and a U.S. ally.

In the best sec­tion of the book, Al­li­son cri­tiques Amer­ica’s strat­egy to­ward China since the end of the Cold War (he calls it “en­gage but hedge”) and lays out al­ter­na­tive strate­gies. Th­ese run the full spec­trum, from ac­com­mo­dat­ing China by lim­it­ing U.S. com­mit­ments to Tai­wan and with­draw­ing troops from South Korea, on the one hand, to un­der­min­ing the regime by seek­ing to foster demo­cratic change and even pro­mot­ing in­sur­gen­cies. (“Fis­sures in the Chi­nese state al­ready ex­ist. Tibet is es­sen­tially oc­cu­pied ter­ri­tory,” Al­li­son writes.) It is to Al­li­son’s credit that, what­ever he may think per­son­ally of th­ese vastly dif­fer­ent strate­gies, he lays them out equally and in neu­tral terms.

The pri­mary de­fect of the book is that it is weak­est in the chap­ters on China it­self. The view of China that Al­li­son con­veys too often re­flects the dis­tant, top-down view of out­side elites, in which the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party is all-pow­er­ful, en­joys pub­lic sup­port and is firmly in con­trol of the coun­try.

The author­ity on China he cites most often is the late Sin­ga­porean pres­i­dent Lee Kuan Yew, whom Al­li­son treats as an all-know­ing or­a­cle. (Al­li­son wrote a pre­vi­ous book called “Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Mas­ter’s In­sights on China, the United States, and the World,” a ti­tle that should give some in­di­ca­tion of his ador­ing view of the man.) At one point, Al­li­son in­forms us that Lee likened Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping to Nel­son Man­dela, “a per­son with enor­mous emo­tional sta­bil­ity, who does not al­low his per­sonal mis­for­tunes or suf­fer­ings to af­fect his judg­ment.” One won­ders if Al­li­son re­al­izes that the views of Xi may not be so glow­ing on the streets in China or for that mat­ter within the Chi­nese bu­reau­cracy; Xi has also been por­trayed as the most cun­ning and power-hun­gry of China’s princelings, more Machi­avelli than Man­dela. There are prom­i­nent China schol­ars in the United States whose work Al­li­son might have con­sulted (Minxin Pei, David Sham­baugh or Rod­er­ick MacFarquhar, for ex­am­ple), who pos­sess a much greater sense of the lim­i­ta­tions and the weak­nesses of the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party.

Al­li­son also ac­cepts at face value the procla­ma­tions by the regime and its top leader. He says that Xi is “com­mit­ted to restor­ing a liv­able en­vi­ron­ment by tack­ling ram­pant pol­lu­tion,” though or­di­nary Chi­nese, or lead­ing out­side ex­perts such as El­iz­a­beth Economy, could have of­fered him a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive. Al­li­son cred­its Xi, as he took power in 2013, with the in­sight that the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party must study the col­lapse of the Soviet Union and pre­vent the rise of a Chi­nese Gor­bachev — although this has been a con­sis­tent strand of think­ing among top lead­ers of the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party since the early 1990s.

Al­li­son does not seek to ask whether some of the at­tributes of China’s overseas be­hav­ior ob­serv­able to­day are per­ma­nent or tem­po­rary. For ex­am­ple, China’s re­cent growth has been fu­eled by debt, and there are indi­ca­tions it can’t con­tinue; Moody’s re­cently cut China’s debt rat­ing for the first time since 1989. The book takes for granted that China has long been mo­ti­vated by an un­end­ing de­sire to over­come the griev­ances of a “cen­tury of hu­mil­i­a­tion” af­ter the Opium Wars. Yet in the 1980s, un­der Deng Xiaop­ing, that phrase was rarely heard, as China turned its at­ten­tions out­ward.

In short, it is pos­si­ble that the ag­gres­sive na­tion­al­ism China often dis­plays to­day is a re­flec­tion not so much of the regime’s strength but of its un­der­ly­ing weak­nesses. Chi­nese lead­ers have ex­hib­ited dif­fer­ent traits in the past — an au­gust seren­ity, for ex­am­ple — and they may do so in the fu­ture.

Cit­ing China’s grow­ing power, Al­li­son asks, “Could the U.S. be­come num­ber two?” — and he sug­gests that in some ways, it al­ready is. Such fore­casts inevitably call to mind an­other book writ­ten nearly four decades ago by one of Al­li­son’s col­leagues, Har­vard pro­fes­sor Ezra Vo­gel. It was called “Ja­pan as Num­ber One.” That book is now widely seen as time-bound and out­dated. One won­ders if Al­li­son’s book will have a sim­i­lar des­tiny.


Chi­nese sol­diers leap into muddy wa­ter dur­ing train­ing last month. Au­thor Graham Al­li­son writes that his­tor­i­cally, es­tab­lished pow­ers have often been drawn into wars with ris­ing ones, though con­flict isn’t in­evitable.

By Graham Al­li­son Houghton Mif­flin Har­court. 384 pp. $19

DESTINED FOR WAR Can Amer­ica and China Es­cape Thucy­dides’s Trap?

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