NIALL FERGUSON ON THE RISE OF CHINA: A COMMENT
"The conventional wisdom is that China is miles behind in military terms, and that's certainly true if you conceive of a military conflict in 20th century technological terms. But in 21st century terms, in the realm of cyberspace, in fact the gap between China and the United States is very narrow indeed. There are even those who say that the Chinese have overtaken the United States in the battlefield of the future. Third, and finally on this point, when one contemplates China's medium-term future, a future in which growth will slow, that's almost guaranteed, but the Communist Party will seek to maintain its monopoly on power, a question arises. And that question is how does the Chinese regime legitimate itself in the eyes of its population if it can't deliver growth as rapid as eight, nine, 10 percent per annum? One obvious answer to that question which has some very familiar historical precedents, is through nationalism. And nationalism is one of the most important and growing factors in Chinese politics today. My argument, in other words, is that we shouldn't assume that China will somehow revert to Ming or Song, or for that matter Qing precedents in the way that it conducts its foreign policy, now that the great reconvergence has put China back to where it used to be in terms of its relative economic importance. It may be that in downloading the killer applications of capitalism, that China has also downloaded some other aspects of Western institutional life, of which informal empire is an extremely important part….
Either it can become the policy of the West to balance the rise of China with some kind of Asian coalition in which India would clearly have to play a crucial role, or we need to accept that that's not a viable strategy and that we must come to terms therefore with the rise of China through a kind of appeasement. Which, for example, would get rid of the kind of potential flashpoints that currently exist over, say, Taiwan. Anachronistic commitments by the United States which could prove extremely troublesome in the case of a showdown. At any event, the argument I want to make this afternoon is that the status quo is an illusion. Chimerica is dead and we are entering a new world in which I think after the change of leadership next year, China will be altogether more assertive and altogether less quiet about its rise. I hope that here at Chatham House, minds are already being applied seriously to this problem and to what it implies for the future of British foreign policy. For me, the troubling news is that I don't see much sign of that happening in the United States right now".
Niall Ferguson, "The West and the Rest: the Changing Global Balance of Power in Historical Perspective," The Royal Institute of International Affairs. 9 May 2011, in www.chathamhouse.org.uk
Niall Ferguson is one of the marvels of the Anglo-American historical profession. In some ways he is a modern-day A.J.P. Taylor, in his wonderful ability to crank-out well-written books seemingly at will. In the erste-klasse, Oxonian, mandarin manner, which combines stylistic fluidity with a soupcon of profundity and at times indeed wisdom. Unfortunately, unlike Alan Taylor, Ferguson also suffers from a tendency to be facile and glib something which his 2004 book Colossus, with its celebration of American hyper-power primacy immediately brings to mind. With all that being said, what is one to make of the prognosis which he outlines here, given earlier this week, at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) headquarters in Saint James Square, on the future of the Chinese foreign policy?
Let me say that in point of fact, there is much sense in what Ferguson has to say about the likely evolution of the PRC's foreign policy. And while I am not as quite alarmed as Ferguson is about the PRC's ability to impact negatively the International system, since Ferguson in his thesis overlooks the fact that China's per capita income levels will not match the those of the United States for another fifty years if not longer, I do agree that the pattern of Peking's foreign policy is changing and is more likely than not to change future years in the manner that he describes. And indeed, I also agree with him why this will be the case: primat der innenpolitik. Simply put, as long as the current regime in Peking stays in place, there will be great incentives for China's rulers to shift any domestic discontent onto the foreign plane. This is something which China's leaders have practiced over the past twenty years and there is nothing short of real democratization with all that implies (id est. de facto if not de jure Independence for Sinkiang and Tibet), which will end such policies. Contrary to those like former American Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, who believe that the PRC will in the future follow the path of sweet reason, or our bien-pensant liberal bourgeois commentators`a la Philip Stephens of the Financial Times, who believe that the PRC will eschew the path of machpolitik unless 'provoked' (id est. along the lines of 'China's peaceful rise') 1.
Where I disagree with Ferguson is in his 'geopolitical reductionism' (to coin a phrase) as per China's future great power status. Specifically, there is in Ferguson's analysis, an unstated tendency to assume that China's path in the next twenty to thirty years, will be akin to those of the USA or Great Britain. In addition to the issue of China's relative per capita income, Ferguson thesis seems to me to ignore salient aspects of China's strategic position vis-`a-vis its rivals. Whereas the USA at the beginning of the 20th century, had already achieved regional predominance, if not hegemony in North America, this is very far indeed the case for the PRC 2. In particular, unlike the USA circa anno domini 1900, the PRC, notwithstanding its current economic standing, and greatly increased military expenditure is still surrounded by powers who are either overtly hostile, or at the very least de facto opposed to China's perceived regional ambitions: Japan, India, Vietnam, South Korea, Formosa [Taiwan], and of course the USA. Which in effect means that there are serious structural constraints to China following the earlier paths of either USA or the UK. Similarly, while the PRC has world-wide economic interests, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa and to a lesser extent Latin America, it has singularly failed to anchor these interests via military bases and or alliances. Indeed, given the extent of American military bases and alliance systems worldwide, it is somewhat difficult to imagine exactly how China (or for that matter any other power), could possibly 'muscle-in' and oust the USA from these various alliances & locations. In the absence of the USA unilaterally withdrawing from the same. And while Peking has made headlines with talk of its (finally) launching its first aircraft carrier in 2012, as one analyst has noted, militarily speaking the ship is more of a damp squib than anything else 3. Similarly, it does well to recall, the China's last military engagement was 1979, and in that episode it was ignominiously defeated by North Vietnam. Au fond, it is my surmise that while Ferguson is 'spot-on', in positing that the PRC's future foreign policy will feature more of a challenge to the existing international order, and in addition is correct in posting that the idea of Chinese-American symbiosis is indeed 'an illusion', that per se, does not obviate the structural blockages that can and will make difficult if not impossible for Peking to assume the mantle of primacy, much less hegemony `a la the USA and the UK in the 19th and 20th centuries. Which in turn does not in any fashion take away from Ferguson's point that now is the time for the West (Europe and the United States) to combine together, otherwise the regime in Peking shall happily play the old game of divide et impera against both.
1.On Kissinger's lastest thinking on China see: Henry Kissinger, On China (2011). For an initial review of the same, see: Max Frankel, "Henry Kissinger on China," The New York Times. 13 May 2011, in www.nytimes.com. For a typical example of bien-pensant thinking on China see: Eswar Prasad, "Re-balancing the U.S.-China Relationship," The Brookings Institute. 17 January 2011, in www.brookings.edu; John Pomfret,"Interview:
U.S.-China Knotty but Necessary Ties," Council on Foreign Relations. 13 May 2011, in www.cfr.org.
2. Kenneth Bourne, The Balance of Power in North America (1967), pp. 321-398 and passim.
3. Douglas H. Paal, "The Chinese are Coming!" The Carnegie Endowment. 26 April 2011, in www.carnegieendowment.org.