BRANDON J. WEICHERT | AMERICAN GREATNESS
Steven W. Mosher’s new book, Bully of Asia: Why China’s Dream is the New Threat to World Order, couldn’t arrive at a better time. Mosher is a leading scholar of China, who has written a retinue of books on the subject. With the recent publication of Graham Allison’s Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? and with President Trump’s ongoing Asia trip, the topic of China’s rise is ripe for discussion.
The critical difference between Allison’s work and Mosher’s is that Bully of Asia relies heavily on Chinese history to illuminate China’s strategic intentions today. Allison, by contrast, likens the competition between China and the United States to that of ancient Athens and Sparta, which led to the quarter-century-long Peloponnesian War and ended in the destruction of the Athenian Empire. While Allison rightly draws universal and eternal lessons from Thucydides, Mosher looks more carefully at China’s particular experience for a fuller picture and, specifically, to China’s Warring States period for a snapshot of China’s distinct strategic outlook.
While no earthly state is exempt from universal lessons of human experience, a nation’s peculiar culture is also derived from its particular historical experience. So it makes more sense to consider how Chinese strategists would make inferences from their country’s bloodiest period, as opposed to limiting our understanding by boxing them into inferences drawn from the history and experiences of the West. What is universal is universal. But what is particular to China cannot be understood within artificial categories extrapolated from Western experience.
Our strategic culture differs from Chinese strategic culture, which Mosher explains has been dominated by cold realists for thousands of years. America’s strategic culture, once rooted in its own kind of realism, has been hijacked by postmodernism and globalist utopians. If present American strategic culture is informed by the wistful claims of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, then Chinese strategic culture is predicated on painful memories of the Warring States period, the “Century of Humiliation,” and the terror of Maoism.
When China looks around the world, they see every state as potential fuel for their meteoric rise. When America looks to the world, they see partners seeking to cooperate in an American-dominated international system. Given the disparity in outlooks—and the rise of China’s power—Americans would do well to abandon the naïve sentiments of the idealists and notions about an inevitable “end of history” that culminates with the global embrace of liberal democracy. Instead, we should return to an understanding of realistic American strategic concepts such as “peace through strength.”
Throughout Mosher’s brilliant work is a common and vital theme: culture matters.
Mosher uses the recently deceased Chinese political dissident (and prisoner), Liu Xiaobo’s criticism of the Chinese Communist Party’s “bellicose nationalism” as an example of how China’s culture is being warped to favor an aggressive and competitive relationship with the rest of the world. Mosher believes “[a] Great Wall against truth has been erected in the minds of the Chinese” which results in most of China’s population “uncritically accepting [the] Party’s propaganda.” This has happened to such a degree that, “[the Chinese people] mistook the illusions spun by a dictatorial regime intent upon its own aggrandizement for actual reality.”
It’s clear why China, on pace very soon to become the world’s largest economy (in GDP terms), would risk its future by threatening Taiwan (and therefore the United States) rather than leaving well-enough-alone. It’s a cultural thing, which Mosher calls “Han chauvinism.” Trying to understand it in Western terms won’t do.
Mosher’s perspective matches nicely with renowned geostrategist Edward N. Luttwak’s 2013 criticism of China’s strategic culture. Luttwak accused the Chinese Communist Party of suffering from “Great State Autism,” which meant China was not actually listening to what the United States and other states were saying to them. Instead, Chinese foreign policy was crafted according to an internal logic that contained, “highly simplified, schematic representations of unmanageably complex realities, which [are] thereby distorted to fit within internally generated categories, operations, and perspectives.” In short, if one wants to understand Chinese intentions in foreign affairs, one need only listen to what Chinese state media tells its citizens to believe.
To get a working sense of China’s alternative worldview, just ask any Chinese citizen if he believes the 1999 U.S. bombing of the Chinese consulate in Belgrade during the Kosovo War was an accident. I’ve yet to meet a Chinese citizen—regardless of his background or political orientation—that doesn’t believe the most deranged, anti-American conspiracy theory about purported American guilt in that instance. In the Chinese mind, the United States destroyed China’s consulate to keep China down. In reality, the consulate bombing was the result of bad intelligence. It was a simple screw up.
With all this in mind, Allison’s conclusion in Destined for War—that the United States must move out of China’s way in Asia and mind its own business to prevent the breakout of another apocalyptic Peloponnesian-style war—strains credulity.
If the idealists in the American foreign policy community get their way and the United States retreats from Asia, the Chinese would not merely run roughshod over the region; they would almost certainly expand into other parts of the world (since they would feel that Chinese regional hegemony was secure). It should be obvious that making China feel more secure at home would result in greater Chinese adventurism abroad. This is all bad for American security and interests, given China’s “internally generated” worldview.
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