Monday, May 16, 2005

Dr. Thomas P. M. Barnett blasts reporter-author Robert D. Kaplan for his controversial cover article in The Atlantic Monthly magazine " How We Would Fight China".

I had a feeling this one was going to come hot and heavy just from seeing the sinister " Yellow Peril" cover on The Atlantic Monthly alone, but Dr. Barnett's vehemence may have overshadowed his substantive critique of the PACOM strategic worldview being transcribed by Mr. Kaplan. Wow ! I'm glad I'm not going to be handling the resulting email on this one. Critt may need body armor just to open his NRSP inbox.

In terms of the Kaplan piece, I'm reminded of Abraham Lincoln's answer when Secretary of State Seward proposed that the best way to resolve the crisis over Fort Sumter and reunify the North and South was to start a war with Spain, France, Great Britain and Russia. Lincoln paused a moment and said:

" One war at a time"

It may be that events in China, probably over Taiwan and not North Korea, might someday compel the United States to have to fight China but having a war with a nuclear-armed nation of over a billion people is not a war we ought to go looking for on a lark. Particularly not when when we have more than enough to do fighting a war against radical Islamism. China is one we'd take only by force of circumstance rather than by choice.

As for my thoughts on China as a potential enemy or friend of the United States, I'm re-posting an essay from an earlier date that I think retains some relevance to the current Barnett-Kaplan debate on China:

" The Globalization Bull in the China Shop: Promise and Peril in PNM Strategy"

Even before Deng Xiaoping defeated his hardline Maoist opponents in the late 1970’s to set Beijing on " the capitalist road", China’s potentially bright future has been the topic of investors and statesmen. Richard Nixon foresaw China as the superpower of the 21st century. So did Brooks Adams more than a century ago. So when academics and economists are awed this year by China’s stunning, near 9 % GDP growth rate, it appears the long-predicted arrival of China may be finally coming to pass.

Since we are discussing The Pentagon’s New Map it’s of no surprise that China is a critical country in Dr. Barnett’s strategy ( which I discussed earlier here and here ). Rivaled only by India, China would be the most important part of the " New Core " of states that decided to join the " old Core" by adopting their rules and engaging with the world instead of isolating themselves from it. Barnett however, quickly identifies the crux of the problem with China's progress ( p. 241)

" Of that New Core group, China is the most worrisome, while India is the most promising…China is most worrisome because the hardest rule-set still needs to be changed – the authoritarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party"

This is an aspect that clearly worries the United States government as well. ( hat tip to Jodi) Dr. Barnett has ample descriptions in his book of Pentagon war planners and defense intellectuals envisioning China in a worst-case scenario war for dominance of East Asia. To focus on military might alone - where the increasingly professional PLA is really still not all that impressive next to say, the IDF much less the U.S. Navy - is a mistake that Dr. Barnett does not make. He's looking at the global parameters of power that an economic surplus is giving- and demanding of - China for the first time since the fall of the Q'ing dynasty :

"Paul Krugman likes to point out that China's central bank is one of the main purchasers of Treasury bills in the world, so -in effect- they finance our trade deficit" (p. 311)


" China has to double its energy consumption in a generation if all that growth it is planning is going to occur. we know where the Chinese have to go for the energy: Russia, Central Asia and the Gulf. That's a lot of new friends to make and one significant past enemy to romance. "(p.230)

Overall, Dr. Barnett is betting that the growing complexity of connectivity's interactions as China rewrites its rule sets to accept " the four flows " of globalization is the ultimate hedge against conflict with China. Or China lapsing into the disorder that plagues the Gap states.


First, I am not a Sinologist by training and my knowledge of Chinese history lags considerably behind my understanding of say American diplomatic history, Soviet history and a few other topics. On the other hand, the last part of what I'm going to state about China here applies analytically to most societies that would have to make the transition to " the New Core ".

While China's current growth rates are amazing we have to keep a few things in mind and try to see some of this PNM scenario through Chinese rather than western eyes.

First, China's cultural values formed during the warring states period and that China was twice unified and given stable government only by the most ruthless application of totalitarian rule. First by the Emperor Shih Huang-ti who followed the tenets of Han Fei-tzu 's Legalist-Realist school and secondly by the equally indomitable Mao Zedong, with his own particular version of Marxism-Leninism. In between the two despots dynasties rose and fell and generally tried to tie together a continental-sized nation with a natural centrifugal tendency to split into unrelated regional economies and eventually warlordism, civil war and dynastic collapse. In short, China's rulers do not take the unity of their country for granted the way the French or the British or postbellum Americans do. Chinese leaders are crazed about Taiwan because in their minds if Taiwan is ever recognized by the world as an independent state than so can Tibet...and Xinjiang..and perhaps the rich coastal provinces might feel better off without their inland cousins. An authoritarian ledership of already shaky political legitimacy may choose the economically suicidal course if they believe that Taiwan's independence will bring their regime down regardless.

Secondly, in assessing China's might keep in mind the reality of per capita facts. As Brad DeLong conveniently noted the other day hundreds of millions of Chinese remain extremely poor, living on less than a dollar a day. Hundreds of millions more are better off than a generation ago but they still hover not terribly far above subsistence. These people are not, as most suppose, a danger to the regime. Peasants have starved for a millenia without ill political effect and these people are, fortunately, at least eating. What they represent instead is an enormous claim on the economic surplus that China is currently generating - a claim on roads, schools, hospitals, infrastructure, basic comforts - before providing " rich " urban Chinese with internet cafes, dance clubs, imported cars or more missile frigates for the Chinese Navy. These people need exceptionally robust economic growth for decades to see real improvement in living standards

Thirdly, the inner circle of China's leadership have undergone an important transformation during the end of Deng Xiaoping's tenure as paramount leader. Unlike in the USSR where the Red Army was strictly subordinate to the CPSU, Mao's guerilla war left far greater cohesion between the PLA and the CCP. Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping were bona fide military leaders. Zhu De and Lin Biao were also political leaders. PLA generals routinely sat in the Central Committee and higher party cadres did military work. Today, China's generals and politicians are distinct leadership classes with factional interests. The generals have become much more the military professionals and no one mistakes Jiang Zemin for a field marshal. To a certain extent, the politicians are appeasing the military elite while the latter are developing a far more narrow outlook.

Lastly, globalization brings with it to all societies a danger of raising up a countervailing power. For example, in one sense al Qaida's radicalism is merely the culmination of an ideological debate that has been going on within Islam since the Turks retreated from the gates of Vienna in 1689. But in a general sense bin Laden's violent answers only have traction among Muslims because globalization has created enough new " connections " to create economic and social upheaval in very traditional, formerly disconnected, Arab and Central Asian nations.

China's previous experience with opening up to the outside world is not a heartwarming tale. The Ming and Q'ing dynasties, like the Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan, had " disconnected " from the world even as the European nations began explosive advances in science, wealth and technology. The world intruded anyway. Japan opted to reconnect via the Meiji Restoration and catch up to the West. China resisted and suffered not only external humiliation at the hands of the West, Russia and Japan but also two internal rebellions - the Taiping Rebellion and the Boxers. The former revolt, fired by half-understood western religious ideas, was warfare of a magnitude not exceeded in scale until the western front in 1914.

China's current rulers have chosen connection but the threat of countervailing power comes not from the still disconnected but from the already connected but discontented. Al Qaida and Hizb ut-Tahrir are not filled with illiterate fanatics but lawyers, engineers, doctors and businessmen who have chosen a radical political program for the goal of Islamist religious reaction. The Nazis appealed most to the lower middle class and unemployed intellectuals who had risen but feared to sink back into the ranks of the workers during the Depression. The Russian peasant who was most helped by Petr Stolypin's land reforms flocked not to support the Tsar but the Socialist-Revolutionaries in 1917. In our own history the Populists and Alliancemen who agitated for cooperative economics and against banks and monopolies in the 1880s were not workers but ex-yeomen turned tenant farmers, commercial farmers with mortgages and deflating prices.

If China's growth sags trouble will come not from the rural areas but from the tens of millions of educated, new middle-class Chinese who have had their expectations raised by cell phones, scooter bikes, refrigerators, internet access and discman players. They will not return to the countryside and nor will they abide a loss of status that Richard Hofstadter once identified as the root of paranoid politics.

That is the tightrope China will be walking for a long time to come.
Mark, with all due respect, Kaplan is not calling for firefight with China by any means -- far from it. A "Cold War" means one that is not hot, and a long-term bipolar balance between the US and China in the Pacific, with fluid alliances that shift over time, could preserve the peace like the second half of the 20th century or like in 19th century Europe. Dr. Barnett blew his top like only 20-yo leftist undergrads should/could, but no amount of technology/advancement/integration is going to prevent conflict between an up-and-comer like China and the established hegemon, the US. An oldschool realist balance of power is the only thing that will save us.
Hi Curzon,

Dr. Barnett did indeed blow his top, you are correct, and I think his strong disagreement with Mr. Kaplan might have been more effectively expressed in a less personalized vein.

On the strategic merits though, I think we have the makings for a superb debate.

I suggest we have one on whether we are in/should have a Cold War with China with Coming Anarchy taking the affirmative position and Zenpundit arguing the negative. I think we would pull in a high level of commentary and analysis from the readers as a result.

What say you ?
If the central point of my series of posts on China is not clear, let me make it so: China has its own problems. It's not all about us. These are problems that only China can deal with and drumming up a war with the United States will neither solve the problems nor will it convince the Chinese people that the leadership is doing the right thing.

China is inward-looking in a way that neither Russia, nor the United Kingdom, nor the United States have ever been. And its leadership is elitist in a way that the leaderships of Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States can't even imagine.

The notion that China will adopt Core rule-sets is fatuous. They'll say they'll do it but they'll never do it.

We need not fear China. But by the same token we should deal with China very, very carefully.
Useful caveats Dave. Well said !
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