Howard French

China’s erstwhile “peaceful rise” has been less peaceful over the past years. Will China face a pushback from its neighbors, asks former foreign correspondent Mary Kay Magistad author Howard French of Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power in a wide ranging interview about his book in PRI.


French: That’s really the $64,000 question, and it’s kind of the core of my book really. I think that we are entering, right now, a moment of very serious danger, which in my view, and I kind of roll out this argument in an extended way in my book, is likely to last for the next 10, 15, at the longest 20 years, after which, I think, if we can get through this transitional period, tensions will subside.

But we are entering the danger period. And we’re entering the danger period because China has advanced so far, so quickly. And its strength, economically speaking, in terms of industrial competitiveness, military capability, and particularly in terms of capacities for self-defense and projection of force in the nearby seas, have come to draw close to the capacities of the United States. In a situation where you’ve had a rising power and a status quo power in history, where the gap between the two narrows rapidly and dramatically, that is the precise situation of highest danger — because neither side is absolutely certain that it is able to prevail in a moment of instability or of conflict.

In the rising power, you have strong constituencies that are tied up in the investment and effort to acquire capabilities, which say, ‘what’s the point of acquiring all of these capabilities, if you don’t use them?’

And meanwhile, in the status quo power, what was once a very clear and unambiguous lead in all of these key areas from economic strength and competitiveness, to high tech to military capacity, as the gap narrows, anxiety begins to increase. And … a corresponding constituency says, in effect, ‘if we don’t do something now to nip this threat in the bud, then it’s going to be too late. We have to assert ourselves now to make clear who’s in charge, or to make clear what the rules are.’

What’s happening in the surrounding region is that, again I think one most usefully must resort to the realism that political scientists speak of. The neighboring powers are watching kind of anxiously to understand which way the wind blows. And so, how did they respond to this? Well the first thing they want to do is to avoid having to explicitly choose sides. And that means that most of them will want to obtain the benefits of economic cooperation with China, because China has been growing so fast and represents a huge market that’s right on their doorstep, and to simultaneously enjoy the benefits of security arrangements with the United States, because the United States is this off-shore power far away that has been the trustee and guardian of the established rules of the road and who doesn’t seem threatening.

And so you see lots of countries — Vietnam is the most interesting example of this — Indians are training Vietnamese submarine crews on how to run submarines that are used, among other ways, to deter Chinese attacks. The Japanese are helping pay for a new Philippines Coast Guard, and a Vietnamese Coast Guard as well. Australia plays in this game. All of the smaller countries, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand are seeking ways to balance against China — soft balancing against China in ways that are not meant to be offensive to China, but allow them to hedge their bets.

Magistad: You mentioned an important point in your book, which is, if China doesn’t show respect for the rules and norms of the region, it pretty much encourages those countries to seek assistance, to seek support, to seek backup from the United States, and that actually plays against China’s interests. How much do you think China’s leaders are aware of that?

French:  So there’s a political scientist named Edward Luttwak, who I quote in the book at one point, who has developed a theory. He’s basically a strategic thinker. And he’s developed a theory, which is not exclusive to China, but describes a mentality or mindset that’s common to very fast rising powers, as they begin to emerge, and to begin to more and more obviously contend with the status quo power. This mentality that he speaks of is called Great Power Autism. And, apologies to anyone who might take offense at this — this is not my term.

The point he’s trying to make is that rising this far this fast is a giddy experience. And amid the giddiness that you experience during this rise, caution and all sorts of other perspectives are kind of lost. And so, you are not likely to be terribly perceptive of the cost that you may incur by offending other people, meaning in this case, your immediate neighbors, much smaller countries, because you think that when you rise as far and as fast as a country like China has risen, that this is an affirmation of your correctness.

So the next 10 years could be very messy, by accident or by design, to one degree or another. China could push in a way that involves hard power, to make gains in the immediate region at the expense of the status quo powers, most importantly for this conversation, the United States and Japan, which are the most important status quo powers in the region. And there could be a war. Or there could be at least some more limited form of conflict that could be ugly and very dangerous.

That’s one scenario that’s very real, cannot be discounted, which we must be very attentive to, and that our diplomats have to figure out a way to prevent/

You can imagine a leadership that says ‘look, in 10-15 years, we can be down to 2 to 3 percent economic growth per year. … This is the moment when we have to go we have to make our big push. We have to lock in whatever gains we can lock in right now, meaning in the next 10 years.’

Still, I’m hopeful that we’ll muddle through. Once we’re past this transitional period of 10, maybe 15 years, then other things begin to happen. The demographics of China, I think, kick in — with hundreds of millions of people over the age of 65, with immense costs in medical care, possibly residential care, and China doesn’t have that infrastructure yet, because it hasn’t yet been at that stage of economic development. And so, if we get past this transitional period of 10 or 15 years, I’m very hopeful that China will say, ‘listen, the status quo isn’t as bad as we thought it was. We don’t need to be such a grudging, victim-centric country. We’ve done well. We’ve come a long way.

More in PRI.

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