Is China a Revisionist Power?

“Understanding Chinese Revisionism in International Affairs”
Matthew Stinson
April 2, 2014

Whenever I start to think I know something about international relations (my major in school three decades ago, and my predilection ever since), I need only read something by Matthew Stinson to send me, humbled and chastened, back to the library.

Stinson, who is on the faculty at Tianjin Polytechnic University in China, is not a paid political scientist, but he writes like one, albeit rather more clearly than most. It pains me to note that much of his output is in the form of Facebook posts, a fine way to engage his friends, but not so much to give him the profile he deserves.

The most recent entry in his blog Like Cooking a Small Fish is a happy exception. In an wide-ranging and highly erudite article, Stinson explains in detail how China is changing the rules of international relations simply by refusing to play by those established by the U.S. and European powers over the last two centuries. He concludes:

In 1996, the popular Chinese nationalist book China Can Say No advanced the concept that China should no longer follow America’s lead in world affairs. Roughly twenty years later, we may be reaching a point where, thanks to Chinese power, authoritarian regimes of the Global South can also “say no” to the West and pay no penalties for it.

Thought-provoking, and for those of us who place value in the international system as it currently stands. What Stinson suggests that we face is not a future of bad actors, but one in which we will have two systems operating by separate rulesets operating side-by-side. It is the perfect recipe for global conflict.

Prospects for the Shanghai FTZ

The Role of Economic Development Zones in National Development Strategies: The Case of China by Wang Xiao is a doctoral dissertation submitted to the Pardee Rand Graduate School. The author takes a methodical, data-driven approach to determine the extent to which economic development zones actually helped China’s development, when they did so, when they were less helpful, and what makes for more effective zones. The conclusions offer a hint as to the prospects for Shanghai’s much-ballyhooed Free Trade Zone to help in China’s search for an economic second wind.

For the PLA, Has War Already Begun?

“China’s ‘Three Warfares’ and India”
Abhijit Singh
Journal of Defence Studies
October-December 2013
pp. 27-46

Cymraeg: Sun Tzu. mwl: Sun Tzu. Português: Sun...

Sun Tzu (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The author, who is a research fellow at India’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, offers up a highly readable paper with a fascinating proposition: China is already at war with India.

Singh calls out what he calls China’s “Three Warfares” (3Ws) strategy, by which China wages war against an adversary by influencing public opinion, conducting psychological operations, and laying the legal groundwork to support its territorial claims. The PLA, through “work regulations” issued in 2010, is now focusing that effort on India.

It does not demand much effort to see that China is pursuing the same approach in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. What is disturbing is that this effort is not directed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but by the PLA. This is not diplomacy as far as the Party is concerned: this is asymmetrical warfare.

The paper is a fascinating, short, and essential read for those looking to understand China’s near-abroad foreign policy, and who inside of Beijing’s guarded compounds is actually running the show.

China’s Cloud

We have made the point often and publicly that China wants to create its own, separate cloud for both commercial and security reasons. The United States – China Economic and Security Review Commission gets that, and commissioned Defense Group, Inc. to study why China is creating its own cloud and how it is doing it. The result is Red Cloud Rising: Cloud Computing in China. Much to my personal pleasure, the study vindicates my point of view, but it goes further, assessing the impacts to US security and the economy, and making recommendations as to what th US needs to do about it. As with many such efforts, it is not a casual read, but a scan of the text offers interesting nuggets aplenty.

Lies and Damned Lies

In “How to Make China More Honest,The Heritage Foundation‘s Derek Scissors contends that Chinese statistics are little more than politically-motiviated lies. He suggests that this means that the “Chinese miracle” could be part of the grand fib. More to the point, though, he says that the only way to keep China honest is to collect enough data about China to give lie to its own prevarications, and use that data to undermine China’s propaganda. The challenge, of course, is how to collect that data if China really doesn’t want you to do so.

Asia and Disease

In The Global Burden of Disease: Generating Evidence, Guiding Policy—East Asia and Pacific Regional Edition, the World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics and Examination summarize differences in diseases, injuries, and risk factors for the East Asia and Pacific region and summarizes intraregional differences in diseases, injuries, and risk factors. Unsurprisingly, some countries do a better job than others.

Losing our Sinocism

Picture of the Confucian philosopher Mencius.

Picture of the Confucian philosopher Mencius. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I began covering China and writing a monthly newsletter in the early 1990s (the long-gone and unmourned “China Business and Economic Review,”) daily coverage of the region was scant and very general. As late as 1996, I was able to keep a weekly clippings file on all China coverage in the mainstream english media. (I did this with scissors, glue, and manila folders.)

Things have changed. Coverage of China has exploded, and keeping up with it all is a job I now leave to professional clipping services. But those services, whatever their virtues, do not give me or anyone an idea of what in this avalanche of copy is important, or how it all fits together.

For the past 18 months, Bill Bishop has tried to do that and more with his outstanding Sinocism newsletter. Fluent in Chinese and able to read through both the mass of English and Chinese coverage, Bill has provided a daily roundup of all of the news worth reading on China, curating all sources, clustering them as topics, and adding his own thoughtful annotations that put everyting into context.

For many of us, his was a vital resource. We stepped out into the day fortified with at least a feel for how things were going in China, all without having to slog through our RSS feeds or a stack of newspapers. Given how fast things move in China, that daily feel for the market was a lifeline for those of us whose jobs depend on knowing what is going on.

Today that all ends.

Despite having over 14,000 email subscribers, such a tiny percentage of those readers actually paid the paltry $5 per month for the service that Bill could not make a go of it. Bill has folded the daily publication, returned any prepaid subscription fees (did I mention he’s a mensch on top of everything else?), and out of pure passion has gone to a weekly publication.

China is a vexing place, I suspect no less for Chinese than for those of us born in parts far flung from the People’s Republic.
No single viewpoint will ever be sufficient to understand this complex place. But to lose the glasses provided by an astute observer like Bill Bishop is a mighty loss indeed.

I hope he will find some other way to continue his service, and that more of us will see fit to dig deep and support it. I fear, however, that Bill is destined to have his insights privatized and put to work for a small coterie of wealth managers and high net worth clients.

He would only be continuing a trend. One by one, the wiser heads on China have been snapped up by organizations willing to pay them for their insights. In the process, they have either slowed their published sharing, curtailed it, or placed it behind a paywall. Those wise heads receive the compensation they richly deserve. We, on the other hand, are left at a growing disadvantage to those of greater means.

This is something for us to contemplate the next time a Bill Bishop comes along. We can either shell out to support wisdom and insight, or we can lose out to those who will.

What the World Thinks about China and the US

America’s Global Image Remains More Positive than China’s
Pew Global Attitudes Project

July 18, 2013

The Pew Research Center has released the full text and backup materials for a report that the Center interprets as saying that the US is still largely seen in a better light than China worldwide.

The entire report is worth a read, but I came away with a few interesting tidbits after diving into the data a bit.

There are chunks of Asia that view China more favorably than others, and that view the US more favorably. Distance, it seems, lends enchantment: Koreans, Japanese, Filipinos, and Australians prefer the US, while the Indonesians, Malaysians, and Pakistanis favor China. The reasons for these preferences are likely complex, but they hint at the possible emergence of rival spheres of influence in the region.

It is also fascinating that the nations preferring China are predominantly Muslim. This gets even more interesting when you note that China is viewed far more favorably than the US in the Middle East – and in no other region. At first blush, China seems to have avoided Muslim approbation for its handling of its Uighur population. At the same time, the comparison is deceiving. Diving into the data, it is clear that the people of the Mideast are divided at best over whether China is a positive or negative influence.

One other matter that caught the eye was that Europeans believe that China is already the world’s dominant economy, but the rest of the world agrees that China has not yet passed the US. Again, divining reasons for such perceptions is difficult, but recent Chinese dollar diplomacy in the EU could not have hurt.

The report is available for free download, but for those without a lot of time, there is a slideshow available for a quick peruse.

A Glance at the World through the Dragon’s Eye

Shadow Monk

Shadow Monk (Photo credit: AkumAPRIME)

China Threat? The Challenges, Myths, and Realities of China’s Rise
Lionel Vairon
CNTimes Books
August, 2013
160pp

As any follower of China, of global geopolitics, or The Peking Review will attest, the most troubling question about the future of China is whether or not the Middle Kingdom poses a threat to the security of its neighbors, or to any other country in the world. Ink aplenty has been split arguing both ways, and some authors (most notably Bill Gertz at the Washington Times) have made careers painting China as the inevitable adversary, our new foil in a new cold war.

For its part, China’s leaders have done little to clear the air, choosing obfuscation over transparency whenever possible. There are three possible reasons for this: Beijing may see fostering strategic uncertainty as a viable strategy while it builds national strength; the leaders may yet be unaware that it devolves on a major power to telegraph its intentions in the name of peace; or it just may be the case that there is yet no consensus or clarity in Beijing about China’s grand strategy.

Actions bespeak the same confusion. On the day after China injected itself into the fraught Mideast peace process, the People’s Daily escalated uncertainty on its doorstep by calling into question Japan’s claim of sovereignty over Okinawa.

It is into this fraught milieu that former French diplomat Lionel Vairon wades in his new book China Threat? The Challenges, Myths, and Realities of China’s Rise. Vairon pulls no punches, but he is no panda-slugger. On the contrary, some readers will be tempted to brand him a Sinopologist after reading the introduction:

“The May 2008 Sichuan earthquake, with its toll of over 80,000 dead and over fifteen million displaced, was “karma”—well deserved—for crimes supposedly committed by the Chinese against the Tibetans. This statement by American actress Sharon Stone, made at the Cannes International Film Festival in France that same month, illustrates perfectly the level of insensitivity, propaganda, and growing, gratuitous hostility that characterized the attitude of some of the Western public in the face of the successes achieved by the Chinese and their leaders after thirty years of hard work.”

To quickly dismiss Vairon with such an easy ad hominem “j’accuse” would be unwise. There is substance to his argument that, if nothing else, invites a little honest self-examination from the rest of us. Harkening to Jean-Francois Revel and his parallel examination of the ugly roots of Anti-Americanism, Vairon probes whether there may not be a similarly-motivated Anti-sinicism growing in the West.

Paradoxically, the anti-Chinese frenzy that swept over Western media and politicians at the time, in anticipation of the Olympic Games in Beijing, seems to mark the beginning of a new historical period in light of China’s rise, which may comport to some extent with Revel’s statement. This exploitation of the visible manifestations of Chinese power achieved its aim, first planting a seed of doubt in public opinion regarding the true designs of Chinese leaders behind their usually appeasing discourse before the international community, then transforming that doubt into a growing conviction that behind this façade of cooperation lurked solid hegemonic ambitions.

And therein lies Vairon’s theme: are we reading into China’s words and behaviors a veiled intent, or is that interpretation merely the projection of our own fears of decline and irrelevance? Do we not come to the whole question of China with a mille-fuille of personal biases?

Fair questions. Yet Vairon dives into even more uncomfortable territory. Do we not fear China’s implicit challenge to our Western secular ethos of ultraliberalism and globalization? A half-century after the decolonization of Africa, do our criticism’s of China’s African ventures not taste faintly of hypocrisy?

Vairon peppers his essay – for that is what this book is, an extended essay – with a series of jarring, now-wait-just-a-damned-minute assertions that provoke the American reader almost to the point of turning the book/Kindle into a lethal projectile hurled across a room. There are moments where you want to say “hey, Lionel, mon ami, can we look at what China is doing beneath all of this?”

Slogging through ninety-thousand odd words of this is hard on the preconceptions, but for any of us who care about the role of China in the future and who pride ourselves in a degree of intellectual honesty, it is essential tempering. And Vairon provides an unusually well-articulated look at the most important bi-lateral relationship in the world from the other side of the table.

Barring the unthinkable, a long road lies ahead in the relationship between China and the West. The time to ask hard questions not just about how we percieve China, but also about the nature and roots of our prejudices, is now. If we re-emerge after an honest assessment and find Bill Gertz’s voice speaking most loudly in our heads, then at least we have asked. But if we come out the other end after encountering a card-house of ill-formed opinion, then we will have been driven back to, as Deng Xiaoping once said, seek truth from facts.

And, if nothing else, we will have had a precious opportunity to see the worldview from Beijing. That can only be a good thing as we move forward. It might provide the beginnings of the empathy necessary to cross the gap between East and West. Or, in the worst of all cases, we will at least better know our enemy.

Justice in North Korea After the Kims

Start Thinking Now About Transitional Justice in a Post-Transition North Korea
Oknam Yi, David Sungjae Hong
Center for Strategic and International Studies

July 11, 2013

If and when the Korean peninsula reunifies – or when the Kim Family Regime gives way to a new form of government – there is going to be a fair sum of Hell to pay for the family and its collaborators.

Yi and Hong argue with force and conviction that we need to think about these issues in advance if we are to avoid a tragedy of a different kind when Kim’s Hermit Kingdom finally returns to the light.

India and Japan Grow Closer

The Expanding Indo-Japanese Partnership”
K.V. Kesavan

East-West Center
July 10, 2013

K.V. Kesavan of the Woodrow Wilson Center writes that the growing institutional ties between Japan and India lay the groundwork for closer economic, political and even military ties. No doubt China will be less than happy to hear it.

Why TPP is Not a Four-Letter Word

Strategic Implications of TPP: Answering the Critics”
Ellen Frost
East-West Center 

July 9, 2013

The East-West Center’s Ellen West explains how TPP is a good thing not only for Japan and Korea, but for the entire region. In so doing she explains – concisely – why we shouldn’t be worried about Beijing’s reaction to the treaty.

Chatham House on the Xi Administration

 

Xi Jinping - Caricature

Xi Jinping – Caricature (Photo credit: DonkeyHotey)

“The New Leadership in Beijing: Political and Economic Implications”
Kerry Brown
Chatham House
July 2013

If you have grown tired of reading analyses of Xi Jinping and his leadership program, you are not alone. The tea-leaf readers have been out in force this year, and anyone coming to the party at this point is somewhat late. But if you really care about what is going on in China, you are left with little choice but to keep reading. I do. Not necessarily because I expect a revelation with each new document, but because the better ones sharpen the definition of an incredibly fuzzy picture.

Many of my fellow China Condors and I are hoping to get some clarity about the next ten years following the coming plenum of the Party congress. The leaders have been chosen, the theory goes, and now it is time to lay out the policy platform that will guide the country over the next decade. There is much wishful thinking here: none of us are betting that we are going to be any clearer about the new leadership’s priorities then than we are now.

So we keep scouring the literature, and Kerry Brown’s paper is delightful in its brevity and clarity. Of all of his conclusions, the one that is likely to spark the most controversy (see the Eurasia Review link below) is this:

This is a leadership set up therefore for a domestic agenda and that will resist attempts to pull it more deeply into international affairs, which are seen as lying beyond what the elite define as in China’s national interests (preservation of stability, building up economic strength, safeguarding sovereignty), despite the very real pressures that will be put on it to that effect.

Comforting words, if true, particularly to China’s neighbors. Japan and the Philippines in particular are understandably worried about Chinese adventurism. Yet there is a limit implicit in Brown’s statement. The moment that China’s elite define the national interest as a plunge into international affairs – perhaps as a palliative to a restive populace, or in defense of the threatened assets of national enterprises – all bets are off.

A great read, and if you have read nothing else about the new leadership, Brown’s paper is an excellent précis of a vast and growing corpus of analysis.

Do U.S. Overtures to ASEAN Matter?

English: A screen shot from this White House v...

President Obama attends a working lunch with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations around the United Nations General Assembly Meeting in New York City. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“US-ASEAN Relations: Advances Made But Challenges Remain”
Prashanth Parameswaran
East-West Center
December 13, 2012

As a part of his “grand pivot tour” last fall, Barack Obama engaged with the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in an effort to rejuvenate ties that had gone fallow for nearly a decade and a half.

While progress was made, as the author of this paper points out, the bigger questions are the continuing relevance of both the U.S. and ASEAN to the futures of the nations in the region. Regional trade ties are supplanting both Europe and the United States in economic importance. The U.S. realistically does not have a lot of diplomatic bandwidth for the region. And in the face of a series of more relevant groupings, like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP,) ASEAN is starting to look dated, much as SEATO became in the wake of the fall of South Vietnam.

All of this complicates U.S. foreign policy, but it plays into the hands of a China looking to define Asia outside the grasp of the United States, Russia, and Europe. For the first time since the Second World War, then, the region is starting to wonder what it needs America for in the first place. Perhaps it is time the U.S. began reassessing our own interests in the region.

Viewing the Pivot from the Air

 

A B-2 Spirit soars after a refueling mission o...

A B-2 Spirit soars after a refueling mission over the Pacific Ocean on Tuesday, May 30, 2006. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Summer 2013 issue of the Strategic Studies Quarterly is out, and the Air Force publication spends most of its space this quarter on Asia, China, and the Pivot. Starting with an excellent essay by David Shambaugh (“Assessing the US Pivot to Asia,”) the publication amounts to a quiet announcement that the Air Force Research Institute (AFRI) is now focused on China.

No surprise. But what is disappointing is the AFRI’s failure to ask the most difficult political question: does the USAF have the wherewithal – in doctrine, in training, in force structure, and (most critically) in equipment – to credibly face off against China in even the coldest of conflicts? Of all the services, this is most important to the Air Force, which was guided in its formative years by leaders who were shaped in the crucible of European wars and hardened during the Cold War face-off with the USSR in Europe. Tactical warfare over vast distances is not in the USAF’s DNA, and it is not in the DNA of the aircraft upon which it has chosen to bet its future.

What one can hope, however, is that the AFRI is leading the Air Force by its nose into a future that demands a different kind of air service by compelling the organization to contemplate its challenges and look itself in the mirror. The odds are long: the AFRI sits under the Air Force, and as such depends on the kindness of the very leaders it should be criticizing.

The USAF lacks what the Navy has in the Naval Institute, an independent forum of officers and senior enlisted people who can have an unimpeded conversation about the future of the service. That’s bad. There are Air Force officers with vision who understand that the future of the USAF as an independent service is on the line. That they must depend on an in-house organ to make their case makes it too easy to pull punches, to step back from the brink of saying what needs to be said.

Pick up the new edition of SSQ. If nothing else, it marks and important beginning of a conversation too long delayed.

Does Thailand Want the US to Pivot?

Thailand guard

Thailand guard (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

“After Obama’s Visit: The US-Thailand Alliance and China”
Sasiwan Chingchit

East-West Center
December 4, 2012

The underlying assumption of U.S. President Barack Obama‘s strategy to shift the focus of the U.S. security establishment away from Southwest Asia and Europe to Southeast Asia is that the locals are going to be happy with the idea. A read of Sasiwan Chingchit’s essay, though, makes you wonder.

The author suggests that despite a long friendship with the U.S. that peaked in the early 1970s, Thai attentions and affections have since shifted north, to China. Little wonder: since China backed the Thai economy during the dark days of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the money has continued to flow from China and into the Thai economy in the form of loans, direct investment, and plume of tourists that grows by the year. That one Thai in five is ethnically Chinese probably doesn’t hurt. The message is clear: don’t think you’re going to swoop in here and turn us against our new benefactors to the north.

Chingchit makes a fair point, but the elephant in the room should be obvious to any Thai realist: what happens if the price of Chinese friendship gets a little too high?

Thailand is not alone in Southeast Asia in finding itself caught between two giants. On the one hand, relations with the rising China carry the promise of commercial and economic benefit. On the other, the U.S. presence in Asia stands as a guarantor that limits China’s ambitions to the commercial sphere. Having the U.S. and China at loggerheads on their behalf suits the smaller nations of Asia as the competition between two eligible bachelors suits the coquette.

What happens, then, when the U.S., tired of a low diplomatic return on its security investment, allows the pivot to become a dead letter and leaves Southeast Asia to manage its own fate? The last time the region was without a capable protector it fell under the shadow of Japan’s East-Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. It does not take a surfeit of imagination to see something altogether similar happening again.

My Power is Softer than Yours

English: Press room of State Council Informati...

Press room of the State Council Information Office of China (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

China’s Soft Power in East Asia: A Quest for Status and Influence?
Chin-Hao Huang
National Bureau of Asian Research
January 2013
24pp

China has pledged itself to winning the “soft power” game in Asia and worldwide ever since the phrase became a buzzword among international relations literati following the 204 publication of Joseph Nye‘s Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. Beijing has spent billions on this campaign, funding schools of Chinese language and culture, big-budget films, and an expanding global media network of foreign language television, radio, magazines, newspapers, and wire services all controlled by the State Council Information Office.

Beijing has done little to help itself in this campaign, especially with its neighbors. Armed belligerence in the South China Sea and the Senkakus, bolstered by questionable legal claims, has made China look less attractive to its neighbors and more like a teenaged dragon out to test the limits of its growing power.

Chin-Hao Huang of USC tells us not to let ourselves get lulled by this ham-handed behavior. China appearing itself in the foot does not mean that the U.S. and Europe can let up their efforts to build attraction and influence in the region. In fact, it doesn’t mean that it is losing the soft-power war, either. Studies indicate that China’s soft power is rated just below that of Japan and the United States by populations in Asia. So, in fact, the U.S.  needs to get better at playing the game right now, both to exploit the current opportunities and as a hedge against the day that China begins playing the coquette again.

We also have to consider the possibility that the elements that invite soft power may vary from culture to culture. We see that in our own efforts to build soft power among Muslim populations worldwide. It may be that by compartmentalizing the Senkakus and South China Sea disputes that China is able to play divide-and-conquer among its neighbors. Or it may be that some cultures respect the might China has created even as that power is aimed at them, especially if China is able to rise at the cost of Japanese and American prestige in the region. Asia for the Asians Redux, if you will.

Whether you buy Huang’s argument or whether you think he is repeating the obvious, he deserves credit for pointing out that just because China is playing the bully doesn’t mean they’re losing hearts and minds, and we need to figure out how to play that game much better in a region that has stymied us for half a century.

Why China will make its own rules

Drawing of an early Chinese soldier lighting a...

Drawing of an early Chinese soldier lighting a rocket (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“More Security for Rising China, Less for Others?”
Denny Roy

East-West Center
January 2013
8pp

In this brief but thoughtful paper, Denny Roy suggests that China’s days of playing by international rules are over. He notes that despite China’s assertions that it will play within international bounds and rise peacefully, mounting evidence suggests otherwise.

Specifically, Roy points to two factors that will put an end to the “peaceful rise.” First is a strong sense of Chinese manifest destiny that the nation is the rightful leader (read “hegemon”) in Asia, both among the leaders in Beijing and the Chinese people. The second is the constant stoking of nationalism by a new generation of leaders who, uncertain about the course to chart for the nation at home, is turning to international conflict to keep the country united.

What will determine China’s success, Roy suggests, is not what is said in Washington or Brussels, but what the nations of Asia do in response to China’s efforts. The nations of the region can simply give in to becoming satellite states within an uncontested Chinese sphere of influence, or they can work to stop it.

To date, the region has been happy to let the US fight its battles, but it will be Asia, and in particular India and Japan, who will be compelled to respond to an increasingly aggressive – and entitled – China.

Finding Innovation in Dark Corners

“Global Technology Sourcing in China’s Integrated Circuit Design Industry: A Conceptual Framework and Preliminary Findings”
Dieter Ernst and Barry Naughton
East-West Center
August 2012

For nearly a decade, Chinese policy-makers have been on a seemingly Quixotic quest to turn the nation’s low-cost manufacturers into innovation-driven firms. The question that has plagued that effort from the start is whether Beijing’s “indigenous innovation” drive isn’t just a form of techno-protectionism, and if not, whether and how policy might actually aid in the emergence of world-class innovative firms.

That question remains largely unanswered, but Dieter Ernst and Berry Naughton have gone looking for answers in China’s integrated circuit design business. What the paper reveals is an example of how innovation is taking place outside the purview of government industrial policy, calling into question the value of centrally-driven strategic emerging industries.

A growing body of evidence suggests that the ship of state capitalism will founder on the rocks of innovation. The emergence of the new and the novel from overlooked quarters offers a reminder of the agrarian entrepreneurialim that emerged in 1980s China when Deng Xiaoping simply lifted the heavy hand of central planning. Ernst and Naughton’s study seems to points the nation toward a more productive approach to industrial innovation, yet one that would sorely test the natural interventionist urge of Party aparatchiks.

When the French Left Fell Out of Love with Maoism

Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

The Sideways Gaze: Roland Barthes’s Travels In China
Dora Zhang
Los Angeles Review of Books
June 23, 2012

I am an unabashed fanboy of the Los Angeles Review of Books, for several reasons. First, the publication was pulled together by a group of literary critics that had been marginalized since Tribune & Company all but disowned serious coverage of the arts in the Los Angeles Times. The very existence of LARB is a thumb in the eye of both the Times and the local alternative press. Perhaps more important, it stands as testament that the vibrancy of culture in California does not depend on the support of mainstream media: the Golden State has become a center of the arts and literature to rival New York and Paris nearly ex nihilio.

The third reason I am such a fan is that LARB under co-founder and publisher Tom Lutz chose Megan Shank as Asia Co-Editor. That Lutz was motivated to give Asia such a profile in the publication spoke volumes both about the publication and the comparative short-shrift the region is given among other mainstream publications. That he chose Shank, who spent six years living in and covering China, speaks volumes about how serious he wants that effort to be.

A great example of the fruit of that effort is Dora Zhang’s excellent review of Roland Barthes’ Travels in China. Zhang offers more than an essay extolling the book’s virtues and vices. What she offers instead is a chronicle of how in the wake of a 1974 trip to China, the elite of the French left fell out of love with Maoist China.

In the process, she holds up a mirror to those of us who, at some point in our lives, believed with perhaps a tad too much credulity that China represented the birth of a new world order. We may sneer at the gullibility of those French Maoists of the 1960s and 1970s, but what of we pale-faced Dengists of the 1990s and 2000s? Did some of us not believe that China would grow rich and strong and change the world, even for the better? Do some of us yet bristle and lash out at those who criticize the Middle Kingdom? And why do we do so?

Even at its most inscrutable moment in modern history as the Cultural Revolution reached its final crescendo in the mid 1970s, China beguiled outsiders. Zhao focuses on Barthes not because he was the least beguiled, but because his disenchantment was incited by small things that with others might have been dismissed or unnoticed. Try as he might, Barthes could never “connect” with China on his terms. I come away from Zhao’s review wondering if each of us, in our own time, will find ourselves disconnected from China, and thence disenchanted.

What then?

Zbigniew Brzezinski and America’s Pivot

How U.S. Can Secure the New East
Zbigniew Brzezinski

The Diplomat

All too often I find myself on the opposite side of an issue with Mr. Brzezinski, but his recent contribution to The Diplomat is deserving of consideration. His feeling: the U.S. should stay out of direct military involvement of conflicts among Asian powers.

While not altogether unique (I hear echoes of Douglas MacArthur), the warning is timely. With our strategic pivot to Asia, the U.S. looks altogether too ready to leap into a fray over the South China Sea, to give one example. In that there are some twenty unresolved border conflicts involving China alone, we may be writing a check the U.S. armed forces could never cash.

What worries me about Mr. Brzezinski’s advice are telltale signs that Jimmy Carter’s former National Security Advisor has some reasonably large blind-spots in Asia. In describing the strains between India and China, for example, he is oddly silent on the matters of Tibet, the Himalayan republics, and Sino-Indian territorial disputes. Instead, he isolates Pakistan and India’s naval power as the core points of contention.

He suggests getting too close to India would open the door for Russia in Central Asia as America would be “distracted.” All of this, of course, assumes capability that it is unclear lies within the grasp of Putin’s Kremlin and that China and India would sit idly while it happened.

More disturbingly, Brzezinski seems blind to the calculation of the Asian nations who on the one hand are concerned about China’s growing power, but on the other hand want to profit from deep engagement in its rise. Walking this fine line would be served elegantly by drawing the U.S. into the “bad cop” role in Asia, allowing Singapore, Indonesia, South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines to play off the US and China against one another to their benefit.

He concludes:

Ultimately, the United States’ geopolitical role in the new East will have to be based on mediation, conciliation and balancing and not on military engagement in mainland Asia.

A fine sentiment, but allow us to suggest an alternative formulation.

Ultimately, the United States’ geopolitical role in the new East will have to be based on a careful calculation of our interests, a recognition that, paradoxically, our power and influence in the region may best be served by engagement at a distance.

China’s appetite for regional and global influence far exceeds its current and projected capabilities. A true realist might suggest giving China enough rope to make its own noose.

On the Rack: China Brief

English: Gordon G. Chang 中文: 章家敦

English: Gordon G. Chang 中文: 章家敦 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

China Brief
The Jamestown Foundation

Of all of the free publications circulating about China, the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief has frustrated me the most – but in a good way.

Let me explain.

When I first started reading China Brief, I was struck by the number of authors who were unrepentant Panda Punchers, people like Gordon Chang (pictured) who seemed more interested in foisting a negative perspective on the PRC than on adding insight to the debate.

There is still some of that, as Chang remains a contributor and Willy Lam is a columnist. Under the editorship of Peter Mattis, who comes out of the National Bureau of Asian Research and the U.S. Government, the publication has become less shrill but much more insightful.

The tone is serious but not so academic that it is off-putting. The style strikes a balance between the insider insight of The Economist and the deep-diving thoughtfulness of professional and academic journals. In short, it belongs in the inbox of any regular reader of The Peking Review.

I have to confess that the fortnightly arrival of China Brief means that I don’t always get to read through the whole publication, but I feel intellectually naked if I don’t at least scan its pages.

The China Brief is a free download.

Dead Dinosaurs and Asian Geopolitics

“Oil and Gas for Asia: Geopolitical Implications of Asia’s Rising Demand
Philip Andrews-Speed, Mikkal E. Herberg, et. al.
The National Bureau of Asian Research
September 2012

Though it seems obvious now, the first inkling I had that Asia’s future – and the world’s – would be determined largely by the region’s thirst for fossil fuels was when I read Thomas P.M. Barnett’s excellent The Pentagon’s New Map in 2004. Barnett noted that one of the four major forces that would shape the world of the future was the growing demand for energy coming out of Asia, and how that positioning Asia in potential conflict with both the U.S. and the E.U. as competitors for those resources.

In Oil and Gas for Asia, the NBR offers six essays that dive into the details of how that demand in Asia is intensifying. Naturally the authors cover the matter of the region’s role in (or effect on) global energy security and the entire issue of China’s relationship with Iran, two areas that have come to global attention.

Intriguingly, they also examine the effect that Japan is having on the global market of LNG after the Fukushima melt-downs all but put Japan out of the nuclear energy business, and the question of whether investments by national oil companies (think China National Offshore Oil Corporation, Sinopec, and PetroChina) actually enhance energy security at home. They then wrap up the analysis with policy recommendations for U.S. leaders.

There is a lot written about China and energy, much of it driven by petrodollars in an effort to create a policy environment in the U.S. that is favorable to greater development of oil resources within the Western hemisphere. China is an effective boogeyman to drive the development of deep-water drilling, hydrofracking, and tar sands. This study, however, is notable in its focus not on specific policy goals but in describing how the world’s most populous region is changing the rules for all of us.

Is Anybody Following as We Pivot?

“Is America Listening to its East Asian Allies?”
David Kang
PacNet, Number 64
Pacific Forum CSIS
October 18, 2012

In a review of Hugh White’s new book The China Choice, David C. Kang of USC suggests that the U.S. attempt to form a loose coalition of nations to counter China’s growing assertiveness may be entirely wrongheaded. Kang notes that the reason erstwhile US allies are not jumping in to line up behind Washington is that they can less afford to irritate Beijing than they can to irritate Washington.

Both Kang and White make cogent points, and their comments add to a growing corpus of commentary questioning the Obama Asia pivot. What is unclear from the review is a more vital question: is the US effort to create a soft containment field around China doomed to fail? Or are Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton, and their teams are simply going about it the wrong way? Are we correct in drawing a thick black line around China in its current borders, implying a Cold War-esque forward-based containment effort? Or should we be thinking more of a realistic approach that accounts for our national will and resources, perhaps stepping back to a line that runs Alaska-Hawaii-Guam-Samoa-Australia?

These are hard, unpleasant questions, not least for the people of Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines, all of whom take for granted the iron umbrella provided by the United States. But this is the direction toward which Kang and White are, more subtly than I, driving us.