Perspectives on China’s Rise

Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017)
Richard McGregor, Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century (Viking, 2017)

by Thomas Cavanna

Originally published in Orbis: FPRI’s Journal of World Affairs

The prodigious rise of China in the last few decades has stirred intense debates about the scale of America’s relative decline and the risk of a catastrophic hegemonic war between Beijing and Washington. Graham Allison and Richard McGregor’s recent studies offer superb analyses of the powerful forces underpinning those dynamics and of the latter’s threatening implications for international stability.

Destined for War is a brilliant exercise in “applied history,” a method of enquiry that seeks to “illuminate current predicaments and choices by analyzing historical precedents and analogues.” The starting point of the book is the “Thucydides trap,” named after the Athenian general whose study of the Peloponnesian war (fifth century B.C.) constitutes a foundational bedrock of the disciplines of history and international relations. According to Allison, the most fundamental lesson to draw from Thucydides is that beyond the immediate sparks that triggered the famous conflict between Athens and Sparta, the key problem was “the severe structural stress caused when a rising power threatens to upend a ruling one.” As Athens bridged the gap with its rival, the two city-states and their respective allies found themselves on a seemingly unstoppable path to collision. Some of their leaders made diplomatic gestures while trying to reason with radical domestic forces on both sides. But these initiatives were defeated by the deadly combination of three primary conflict drivers: “interests, fear, and honor.” The result was a ruinous war that terminated the golden age of the Greek civilization. Allison’s book then explores sixteen power transitions that unfolded in the last five centuries and argues that the same structural rifts between declining and aspiring hegemons emerged again and again. In twelve cases, those tensions triggered major military encounters. The case of Britain and Germany before World War I receives particularly close attention. However, building on the four transitions that occurred peacefully, Allison explains how a combination of contextual factors (economic interdependence, cultural affinities, etc.) and enlightened leadership can help reduce “transitional frictions” and steer away from disaster. The other half of the book applies this analytical framework to the U.S.-China competition, contending that war is more likely than we think, but not inevitable. The current policy options, ranging from accommodation to aggressive moves, are described objectively. Allison’s recommendations (differentiating vital interests from secondary ones, fixing problems at home, etc.) rightly call for drastic course corrections in U.S. grand strategy. Unfortunately, the pivot/rebalance to Asia seems no more than a futile continuation of Washington’s post-Cold War “engage but hedge” approach, which may prove both self-defeating and dangerous.

Destined for War offers a somber, but highly compelling, account. Allison extensively describes the many tenets of China’s rise, its determination to recover its prestige after a “century of humiliation,” largely inflicted by Western powers and Japan, and the many cultural and political differences between Beijing and the West. He also aptly discusses America’s growing limitations (strategic and domestic), enduring delusions (expecting China to become “more like us”), and historical amnesia.

From this perspective, the author spends an entire chapter portraying the aggressiveness of the United States as it emerged as a potential hegemon at the turn of the twentieth century. The book also offers highly credible scenarios that could lead protagonists on both sides to drift swiftly (albeit sometimes reluctantly) from benign skirmishes to a major military encounter on sensitive issues such as Taiwan, North Korea, or trade. Though the outcome is in no way inevitable, uncertainty, conflict accelerants (“fog of war,” disruptive weapons, etc.), and the pressures exerted on decisionmakers to act tough are cause for pessimism.

Despite its impressive historical breadth and the complex contemporary trends that it intertwines, the analysis remains clear and accessible. Some could argue that the case studies are too brief to disentangle the many causal mechanisms at stake. Yet, privileging fundamental trends and critical junctures seems inevitable given the vast scope of the book, where the core ambition is to uncover the paramount “Thucydidean stress” that characterizes power transitions. It might have been interesting to see Allison compare his insights more closely with power transition theory (Robert Gilpin, A.F.K. Organski and Jacek Kugler, etc.) and debate in more details recent scholarly studies that questioned from different (military, economy, corruption, environment) perspectives China’s ability to become number one (Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth, Michael Beckley, David Shambaugh, and Elizabeth Economy). One would also be interested in knowing more about his views on the geographic constraints that might hamper Beijing’s power projection (insecure borders, island chains, the questionable feasibility of “One Belt, One Road”). However, the tremendous qualities of the book far outweigh these minor points.

Richard McGregor’s Asia’s Reckoning examines the complex relations between Washington, Beijing, and Tokyo since the early Cold War. A journalist with long experience in China and Japan, McGregor is in a perfect position to explore these dynamics, using a wide array of newly declassified archives and interviews from all sides. His outstanding analysis offers many fresh insights and key reminders. It provides a balanced evaluation of Washington’s regional policy, including its responsibility in the persistence of Asia’s divisions and its enduring determination to maintain its economic and military domination over both allies and rivals. The narrative emphasizes the mistrust, opportunism, and jockeying that have characterized the three countries’ interactions in the last 70 years. McGregor reminds us that, for all the lofty rhetoric surrounding it, the U.S.-Japan alliance was always fraught with severe ambiguities. Disputes abounded on countless topics such as Washington’s military occupation, its “betrayals” (1971 opening to China and abandonment of the gold standard, etc.), mutual cultural gaps, Tokyo’s low contribution to America’s hub-and-spoke system, and the anxiety that its economic breakthroughs fueled among U.S. leaders in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Indeed, Asia’s Reckoning shows how Tokyo and Beijing regularly sought to forge better ties despite bilateral tensions. In the 1950s and 1960s, an isolated China was even ready to put the question of Japanese war atrocities behind to reach that goal. The book also stresses how Chinese decisionmakers looked up to Japan’s model and investments during their country’s economic liberalization from the late 1970s onward. However, reconciliation efforts were undercut systematically by either geopolitical competition, U.S. policies, or the weight of history. The disputes left unsettled at the end of World War II resurfaced with a vengeance after the mid-1980s, gathering an overwhelming momentum in both countries’ domestic politics. Combined with Beijing’s skyrocketing rise, these patterns revived a string of tensions (Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, among others) that could easily turn into a large-scale high-intensity conflict, especially as the United States and Japan tighten their strategic alliance. Yet, President Donald Trump’s decision to cancel America’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the uncertainties surrounding many of his other foreign policy positions also raise doubts about Washington’s future commitments, adding new unknowns to an already unstable equation.

McGregor’s analysis acknowledges the role of geopolitics—including America’s post-WWII superiority, the containment of the Soviets, the first Gulf War, the Taiwan crisis of 1996, Washington’s pivot to Asia—in the twists and turns of U.S.-China-Japan relations. However, he delves more deeply into the problems that “stoke the fires” of the geopolitical “furnace”: identity, memorial disputes, and domestic politics. One would have liked to read a little more on the changing naval dynamics of the South and East China Seas, Beijing’s increased influence in South Korea and parts of Southeast Asia, the debates about America’s military presence along the first and second island chains, how India and Australia fit into the picture, and the North Korean nuclear crisis.

On a similar note, McGregor often privileges factual thoroughness over more general trends and provides few citations or references to other seminal studies. However, this editorial choice also has its advantages, including the depth of the narrative and the empathy that pervades the meticulous descriptions of these leaders’ encounters, experience, and views. For instance, one of the book’s most critical strengths is to expose how domestic politics (i.e., the will to exploit historical disputes to gain power at home) progressively took Sino-Japanese relations hostage in the last three decades, straitjacketing even the wisest decisionmakers into aggressive rhetorical outbursts and inflammatory policies, and casting a long shadow over the future of Asia’s stability.

Destined for War and Asia’s Reckoning are two major contributions to the field and must reads for anyone interested in great power politics. Each in its own way demonstrates the deep roots, multi-faceted manifestations, and dramatic implications of China’s rise. Both books also shed crude light on the limits of U.S. power and on the arrogance, bias, and opportunism that tainted its leadership. The challenges ahead are daunting, from human folly to ignorance, volatile domestic politics, geostrategic strains, and entangling alliances. Yet such sobering assessments are a prerequisite to developing policies that will avoid repeating the tragic mistakes that led to great power conflicts in the past.

Thomas Cavanna is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Strategic Studies at The Fletcher School at Tufts University.

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