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Understanding China's rise

Books review of 'Everything Under The Heavens' and 'Destined For War'

Judith Shapiro 

How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power
Howard W French 
Alfred A Knopf; 330 pages; $27.95

Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?
Graham Allison
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books
364 pages; $28

The Chinese superpower has arrived. Could America’s failure to grasp this reality pull the United States and China into war? Here are two that warn of that serious possibility. Howard W French’s Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power does so through a deep historical and cultural study of the meaning of China’s rise from the point of view of the Chinese themselves. Graham Allison’s Destined for War: Can American and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? makes his arguments through historical case studies that illuminate the pressure toward military confrontation when a rising power challenges a dominant one. Both urge us to be ready for a radically different world order, one in which China presides over Asia, even as Chinese politicians tell a public story about “peaceful rise.” The argue persuasively that adjusting to this global power shift will require great skill on both sides if conflagration is to be avoided. 

Mr French says in his exhaustively researched and fascinating account of geopolitics, China style, that the Chinese era is upon us. But, he asks, “How will the coming China-driven world look?” How best should its neighbours and its rival North American superpower respond?

Mr French, a former reporter for The Washington Post and The New York Times, argues that China’s historical and cultural legacy governs its conduct of international relations, a legacy that sits uncomfortably with the Western notions of equality and noninterference among states. China’s relations with its neighbours in Japan and Southeast Asia were for millenniums governed by the concept of tian xia, which held that everything “under the heavens” belonged to the empire. A superior civilisation demanded deference and tribute from vassal neighbours and did not hesitate to use military force. China’s testy relationship with Vietnam became fraught whenever a Vietnamese leader dared to demand equal footing with a Chinese emperor; the Japanese claim to divine origins was unacceptable.

When China lost its regional dominance at the hands of colonial powers and invading armies, it saw the situation as temporary. The struggle in the East China Sea over the Senkaku Islands claimed by Japan since 1895, for example, has long been a sore point in Sino-Japanese relations. But the reform-era strongman Deng Xiaoping advised China to “hide our capacities and bide our time” on this and many other issues. Hostility between China and Japan simmers in disputes over hierarchy, wartime apology and historical narrative, with the two “in a situation resembling galaxies locked in each other’s gravitational fields, destined to collide repeatedly only to sail past each other after wreaking their damage.” French shows convincingly that China’s goal is now to displace the American barbarians and correct historic humiliations imposed by those who dethroned China from its rightful position at the centre of the world.  China’s recent spectacular land grab in the South China Sea is a fait accompli, given China’s superior power in the area and its assertion that the region is a core national interest. Arbitrators for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea issued a 500-plus-page decision against China and in favour of the Philippines in a dispute over the definitions of islands versus rock formations; they concluded that Chinese arguments had no legal basis. But as Mr French explains in sobering detail, China has unilaterally determined to claim much of the sea as its own. Similarly, China’s projection of economic might through the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and One Belt, One Road initiative, which intends to bind a huge swath of Asia to China economically via new land infrastructure and consolidated control of the seas, generates “a kind of fatalism or resignation about the futility of trying to defy it.”  Mr French’s book was written before President Trump’s repudiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, but clearly the resulting power vacuum is nothing short of a gift to an empire bent on restoring its tributary realm.

Graham Allison’s Destined for War, asks why, when a new superpower threatens to displace a ruling power, the clash of hubris and paranoia often (but not always) results in war. Mr Allison’s examples include the Sparta-Athens conflict of the famous “Thucydides trap,” when both sides laboured strenuously to avoid war but were seemingly driven to it by forces beyond their control, as well as Germany’s challenge to the dominance of its neighbours at the start of the 20th century, which led to two world wars. Mr Allison’s 16 cases also include four examples of power shifts in which war was avoided, as when Britain adjusted to the rise of the United States in the Great Rapprochement of the turn of the last century, choosing forbearance and eventually reaping great rewards through the countries’ “special relationship.”

Mr Allison, the director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, resurrects the Samuel Huntington thesis of a coming clash of civilisations to explain that China thinks in longer time frames and with a greater sense of hierarchy than the United States. In order to avoid the Thucydides trap, he writes, American policy makers must reject the tendency to think that China is like us and that it will respond as we would to identical provocations. Numerous situations could spark military conflict, from accidental collisions at sea to misunderstandings caused by cyberattacks to actions taken by third parties like North Korea or Taiwan. 

© 2017 The New York Times News Service