The Asian Century 2 12 July 2019.

In the 1960s, Charles de Gaulle believed that the bi-polar international system of the Cold War would eventually give way to a multi-polar system.  This—correct—belief led him to imagine that the future world already had come into existence.  He pursued policies that put up the hackles on Americans, without advancing the interests of France.

Fifty years later, de Gaulle’s vision has come true—kinda-sorta.  It’s fair to say that America has been living through a prolonged dark hour.  The Soviet Union has collapsed into something more than a “regional power” but less than a superpower.  Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East count for little in the councils of the world.  The European Economic Community of his day has grown stronger and larger, and then has begun to go into retreat for the moment.  The Peoples Republic of China has emerged as an economic and military powerhouse.  Today, many smart people are uncertain of what the future holds.

Early in the Trump Administration, the highly-intelligent and highly-experienced journalist Gideon Rachman[1] took a stab at prognostication.[2]  The new multi-polar world is, Rachman thinks, “unstable and dangerous.”  The Chinese American relationship stands at the center of the new world order.  The competition between these two states is likely to spread into every corner of the globe.  The core area, however, will be the Western Pacific.  Since 1945, these waters have been an American lake.  Many of the countries surrounding that “lake” are American allies or under American protection: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines.  Now Chinas economic growth is enabling it to increase its own military power.

Is “Asia’s Rise and America’s Decline” unstoppable?  Hardly.  For one thing, China isn’t all of Asia.  Even if Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are not China’s equals, they are prosperous societies which have benefitted greatly from the American-sponsored global economic system.  If Xi Jinping hopes to reverse China’s “century of humiliation,” these other countries won’t want their own humiliation forced on them by China.  For another thing, while China may want to construct its own global system, Westerners know how to work the actually existing system.  Finally, like every other country, China has its own vulnerabilities.  At the heart of these vulnerabilities is the very thing that has made China so strong.  The Communist Party has led a rapid industrialization of the country.  That industrialization has sucked tens of millions of people out of the countryside into urban slums.  It has generated immense wealth, but distributed it very unevenly.  It has degraded the environment.  And the Communist Party is an in-bred elite that protects its own interests ahead of those of the people.

Nothing is written.  It can blow at any seam.

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gideon_Rachman

[2] Gideon Rachman, Easternization: Asia’s Rise and America’s Decline (2017).

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The Asian Century 1 11 July 2019.

Much of our understanding of the contemporary world is essentially historical.  (OK, you wouldn’t know this from watching the news on the devil-box.  Still,…)

“Manifest Destiny” = “An Obvious Fate.”  It’s a term in American history, but it applies to China as well.  Both countries believe themselves to be “bound away” to greatness.  Historically, China was the “middle kingdom,” an axis around which the rest of the world revolved, and where civilization and good government prevailed.[1]  From this point of view, China’s degradation at the hands of the “Southern barbarians” is but a speed-bump in History.

Since the economic reforms launched by Deng Xiaoping, China has become the center of world manufacturing.  Literally hundreds of millions of people have been lifted up out of an abject poverty of a kind most Western progressives cannot imagine.

Industrial power transforms into military power.[2]  China’s potential for a military build-up and its effort to shoulder-aside other claimants to various reefs and islets in the South China Sea have alarmed many observers.  What if China tries to seize Taiwan or test America’s will to back its traditional allies like the Philippines, Japan, or South Korea?

If we did an audit of China’s problems, what would we find?  First, state-owned firms are gigantic and powerful.  They’re also inefficient and deep in debt.  Second, Communist China has not regained the high level of creativity that characterized much of the history of Imperial China.  As a result, it depends on the massive theft of intellectual property from the West.  Third, the income inequality and environmental degradation have begun to arouse resistance.  (There are as many as 180,000 demonstrations each year.)  Fourth, the lack of well-established legal norms is scaring people.[3]  There is a grave danger of an elite “brain drain”: one report says that up to half of the wealthiest citizens want to move abroad within the next five years.  A Gallup poll recently estimated that 120 million Chinese would like to move to America.[4]

Then, “off-shore China” has done best of all.  Places where traditional Chinese values have been combined with Western legal codes—Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan—have done even better than has mainland China.  Yet the current Chinese leadership seems not to take the obvious, if uncomfortable, point.

For a long time, American policy has been to encourage the liberalization of trade and economic management in other countries, China included.  The underlying theory holds that economic liberalization will lead to the growth of a middle-class.  A growing middle-class will demand political liberalization.[5]  This “long game” will then lead to the spread of economically and politically congruent societies.  Wars will end.  Prosperity will flourish.  Well, “Scotch verdict” on that.

[1] Michael Auslin, The End of the Asian Century: War, Stagnation, and the Risks to the World’s Most Dynamic Region (2017).

[2] See: Germany, 1865-1945.

[3] It looks very much like the long-running “anti-corruption campaign” is directed chiefly at rivals and opponents of the current leadership.  If you’re a “FOX” (“Friend of Xi”), you’re probably safe.

[4] It seems at least reasonable to think that many of the would-be migrants are people who have already been to the US.  In 2015, there were just over 300,000 Chinese students in American universities and colleges.  See: https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/11/16/china-us-colleges-education-chinese-students-university/

[5] That’s what happened in 19th-Century Europe.