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, 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.”
When China's leading diplomat 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 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 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, now writes 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.
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. He also lists four cases in which rivalries between established and rising powers did not result in shooting wars.
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 fast-rising one creates built-in structural conflicts that can lead to military conflict.
The book is extremely uneven, a hodgepodge of borrowed history, gee-whiz clichés 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, 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 whether 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.
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.”