The Rise of China vs the Logic of Strategy

November 15, 2012

The rise of China has provoked such shock and awe that predictions of the time when the People’s Republic will dominate the world have become commonplace. Sustained strong economic growth, especially at a time of stagnation in the West, must, it is assumed, lead to corresponding geopolitical power as the global balance shifts to East Asia and to its most populous nation.

On closer examination, this picture of a future dominated by the last major state on the planet ruled by a Communist Party becomes a good deal less convincing. Beijing has been generally unsuccessful at translating its economic achievements into political influence. Its relations with the other superpower across the Pacific remain scratchy. Those with Europe consist of little more than bilateral commercial links. Predictions of synergy between China and India have proved unfounded. Conflicting maritime claims envenom the political context in East Asia. Despite a sustained military build-up, China’s military capabilities lag far behind those of the regional strategic protector, the US.

Edward Luttwak detects a fundamental conflict between China’s search for continuing economic growth, which the Communist Party has made its prime claim to rule, and its quest for military expansion combined with increased foreign policy assertiveness. The second characteristic of today’s China, he argues, is bound to produce self-defensive reactions from Pacific states that see it as a rising strategic threat. If this continues, he foresees, economic counteraction will negate China’s fundamental economic ambitions.

Luttwak’s book, which includes a refreshing put-down of the supposed superiority of traditional Chinese statecraft so admired by Henry Kissinger among others, is timely, coming as it does amid the current maritime confrontations in East Asia. Luttwak, who made his name as a resolute Cold Warrior, provides a comprehensive account of countries where there is “mounting opposition to China’s aggrandizement”. The hostility China has aroused, he says, risks leading to a vicious circle as Beijing reacts with more “hubristic contempt than prudent restraint” to action by those it has offended by high-handed behaviour.

That leads him to conclude that it is time for “geo-economic resistance” to China, linking the US with nations that feel threatened. Such an economically based strategy is, the book argues, the best way of checking a power that Luttwak paints as being marked by a dysfunctional strategic culture that treats other states with contempt and sees little need to cultivate friendly relations.

However, viewed in the realities of Asian politics, the prospect of forging such an alliance seems about as distant as the probability that China will dominate the world. One has only to look at President Obama’s efforts to launch a Pacific free trade zone. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, as it is known, looks lightweight since its terms would exclude China, while Japan and the Republic of Korea are reluctant to join for domestic political reasons - and it has not won Congressional approval.

Meanwhile, Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul are negotiating a tripartite free trade zone and a wider economic agreement with the countries of Southeast Asia. China is increasing the use of its currency in regional swap arrangements. The mainland plays a growing role as a manufacturing base for major Japanese and South Korean companies and is a major buyer of commodities from Australia and Indonesia. Such matters Luttwak does not address. Nor does his book take account of the slowing of China’s growth and the search for new economic models; he is stuck in the 9 per cent growth parameter.

The concerns about the People’s Republic on which Luttwak would build a geo-economic framework of restraint are real enough, but it is hard to see other Pacific nations mobilising in the way he imagines. The web of regional interests with China at its centre has developed too far to be unpicked and, so long as Washington maintains its overwhelming military superiority, the reality of Beijing’s military build-up is less impressive than its assertive rhetoric suggests.

China poses many problems but containment is not the answer, however neat the strategic option advanced in this book may appear, for the simple reason that it would not work. Once again, the rising superpower attracts a theoretical construct that does not match reality.

The Rise of China vs the Logic of Strategy

By Edward N. Luttwak. Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 320pp, £19.95. ISBN 97806740664. Published 29 November 2012

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