6: Grappling with the Rise of China

Graham Allison Destined For War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap? (Scribe, 2017)

Bates Gill and Linda Jakobson China Matters: Getting It Right for Australia (La Trobe University Press and Black Inc, 2017)

Jonathan Fenby Will China Dominate the 21st Century? (2nd edition)(Polity Press, 2017)

The rise of China is the biggest story in geopolitics. We fuss about where we stand between China and the United States; the end of the commodities boom and our future place in China’s economic development; the uncertainties engendered by Donald Trump’s leadership style; and the systematic efforts of the Chinese Communist Party to buy influence within our institutions and stifle criticism of its own policies and mode of government. These three books should be read and discussed, in order to enliven debate. From an Australian point of view, the most useful is China Matters. From the point of view of international security and geopolitics, Allison’s Destined For War is the most important. Fenby’s book is a very useful supplement to the other two, especially to Arthur Kroeber’s chapter on the Chinese economy in China Matters.

Jakobson and Gill came to Australia from abroad. Jakobson created a forum called China Matters to bring together specialists from business, government, academia and journalism. Her book, with the always quietly thoughtful Bates Gill, builds on that foundation.

They remark:

Upon moving to this country several years ago, we were both struck by a sense that Australians do not entirely grasp how vast China’s impact will be on Australia’s future.

Among their many recommendations, they urge that:

Australia needs a national peak body with a mandate to advance the Australia-China relationship as it enters an unpredictable and challenging era.

Also that:

Asian literacy needs to be institutionalized. Learning about Asian cultures and societies should be made compulsory from Year 1 onward.

These and other suggestions call for critical assessment.

A peak body of the kind they urge would run the risk of being captured by interest groups and infiltrated by Chinese money. Think of Bob Carr’s institute (ACRI) in Sydney, so determinedly committed to avoiding acrimony in Sino-Australian relations, because of the ACRI money flowing to it from Chinese sources. It’s not a ‘peak body’ that we need, but serious scholarship and policy engagement among our universities and research institutes to bring new ideas and voices into the policy debates and to build broader understanding of the challenges ahead.

Kevin Rudd poured sixty million dollars into the Centre for China in the World at ANU. It has shown a very poor return on that investment in terms of strategic analysis, real world scholarship, or public outreach. Any new initiative must be based not on the casual whims of politicians, but on robust principles designed to deliver outcomes in the national interest. And it must not take Chinese money – whether directly from the Chinese government or through billionaire ‘philanthropists’ with close links to the Chinese Communist Party.

A mandatory curriculum is also problematic. We don’t teach our children any coherent course on Western civilization. How, then, are we going to teach them about a multitude of Asian histories and cultures? The proposal also shows a lack of awareness of the institutional restraints on mandatory curricula innovation in Australia’s state-based schools system and little familiarity with the last thirty years of educational debate on Asia literacy in this country.

Rather than another foray into ill-conceived mass education, we need a few good university seminars comparing and contrasting classical Mediterranean and classical Chinese history. One such might be the parallel between the history of classical Greece and Rome and that of China during the warring states period and the rise of the Qin and Han empires – in both cases running from roughly 500 BCE to 50 BCE.

Arthur Kroeber, a veteran analyst of the Chinese economy resident in Beijing, in his chapter ‘China’s Economic Transition: Will It Succeed?’, makes the striking judgement that:

If current trends continue unabated, it is likely that China’s debt burden will trigger either a financial crisis or a severe growth slowdown by 2020 at the latest and quite possibly sooner.

That is a very near time frame. He argues that major reforms are imperative if growth of around 5% per annum is to be sustained beyond 2020, that these are unlikely to be achieved and that growth could stall, as it did in Japan in the 1990s or in the EU in recent years. This argument needs to be rigorously tested.

Fenby argues that China will not dominate the 21 st century because it’s growth probably will stall, trapping China in the middle income bracket so that it grows old before it grows rich; bedevilling the Party’s determined efforts to remain in control. He also argues that China’s soft power offensive will fail, because it’s narcissistic view of itself as the ‘Middle Kingdom’ and its overweening ambitions alienate almost all its neighbours and lack the cosmopolitanism of the Western culture that has created globalization.

Allison, a Harvard scholar of international security affairs, urges us all to ‘re-read’ Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War in order to think seriously about the psychology of conflict and the logic of power. He is generous, since most of his audience have surely never read Thucydides at all. But he believes that Thucydides teaches a vital lesson that we should heed before it’s too late: a rising power (read China) tends to challenge a declining one (read America) – and we should not want a Sino-American war.

He offers a number of historical analogies in an attempt to show that Thucydides was right about rising and declining powers. But his central lesson is ill-founded. The ‘declining’ power in ancient Greece (Sparta) won the war. The rising power (Athens) lost. And the lessons Thucydides offers us are much more complex than the one Allison wishes to draw.

In any case, his history of China is embarrassingly clichéd and at a number of significant points just factually wrong. He uncritically buys into the ‘5,000 years of civilization’ mystique and the notion that the Chinese think far ahead in ways that we in the West do not. This is nonsense. Their utter failure to do such things under the Ming (14th to 17th centuries) and Manchus (17th to early 20th centuries), in stark contrast with the Japanese, for example, from 1868, hobbled them.

He writes uncritically about China being the globally dominant state for ‘millennia’ before the Western powers ‘humiliated’ it in the 19th century. It was nothing of the kind. It fragmented in the middle of the first millennium CE on several occasions; and was conquered by the Mongols in the 13th century and by the Manchus in the 17th century. Even their empires, far larger than China, under any of its native dynasties, did not dominate the world. And, if anything, both sets of invaders held China back.

The Manchus were foreign and resented; but it was them, not the Han Chinese, who conquered Central Asia, Mongolia and Tibet, in the 18th century. Allison writes of their downfall without any reference to the huge civil wars within China such as the Taiping Rebellion, the belated constitutional reforms in the 1900s, the non-communist republican movement or the serious intellectual debates in China about modernity and liberty.

He uncritically reproduces the cliché about Mao Zedong’s party saving China ‘from domination by foreign imperialists’. It was the United States that saved China by defeating Japan in the Pacific War. Mao’s guerrillas faced crushing defeat by Chiang Kaishek, had it not been for the Japanese invasion, the American defeat of Japan and the Soviet occupation of Manchuria and arming of the Chinese Communist forces.

He writes that Japan took over Manchuria in 1894. It did not do so until 1931. In the decades prior to that, it had invested intensively in Manchurian infrastructure and industrialization. By the early 1930s, Manchuria was the most developed and prosperous area of a China otherwise mired in internal warlordism.

He writes that Taiwan’s 23 million people are descended from those who fled Mao in 1949. In fact, only 15% of Taiwan’s population is of that lineage. The rest have far deeper roots on the island. The native Taiwanese resented the imposition of Nationalist rule from the mainland in 1945, openly rose against it in 1947 and were brutally crushed. This was the seedbed of the independence and democracy movements and of the Democratic Progressive Party which governs Taiwan now - and of resistance to the idea of rule from Beijing.

All this is rather disturbing, given that Allison urges the rest of us to study history carefully ourselves. That an emeritus strategic thinker at Harvard, surrounded by China scholars, could make so many elementary errors about his core topic is dismaying. That topic is important and the book addresses a debate we have to have. Alas, the Harvard professor gets it off on the wrong foot. It is to be hoped that he will rethink and rework his understanding of China. In the interim, however, by all means take his advice and read Thucydides, who really was a great historian.