There is a history of miscommunication between the United States and China. During President Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972, for instance, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was asked for his assessment of the French Revolution. “Too early to say,” he responded, giving credence to the notion that China’s leadership is far-sighted and circumspect. Yet as we know now of this oft-invoked anecdote, Zhou was referring not to the revolution of 1789, but rather to the 1968 student revolt in Paris. One side was taking the long view, the other the short view, it was just not clear which was which.
Today, the perspective problem between Washington and Beijing persists.
The short view is dominated by North Korea, which was front and center as US and Chinese defense and foreign policy officials met on Wednesday for their regular Diplomatic and Security Dialogue. A series of recent missile tests by Pyongyang, along with its advancing nuclear weapons program, led Secretary of Defense James Mattis to reaffirm earlier this month that “the most urgent and dangerous threat to peace and security in the Asia-Pacific is North Korea.” It is a rare point of agreement with the previous administration, which warned the incoming Trump team that North Korea was “the most urgent problem” it would face. On Tuesday, President Trump’s cryptic tweet that the Chinese effort to curb North Korea’s actions “has not worked out” raises new questions about what the White House intends to do next.
Meanwhile, the long view of China-US relations is dominated not by North Korea, but rather by Ancient Greece. Destined for War, a new book by Harvard’s Graham Allison, develops his idea of Thucydides’ Trap, in which the rise of Athens led to war with Sparta 2,500 years ago. Since then, the trend has largely held, Allison argues. In sixteen cases of a major rising power threatening to displace an existing power, twelve ended in war. And the next such case looks to be emerging now between Beijing and Washington.
The book has admirers in the White House, and Allison briefed Trump’s National Security Council in person last month. Yet despite the ominous title, the book should not be read as suggesting that war between the United States and China is inevitable -- and Allison argues as much. War can be avoided. What is inevitable, however, is that as its economic and political power grows, China will increasingly push back against what it sees as the American-led global order. “Americans urge other powers to accept a ‘rule-based international order,’” Allison explains. “But through Chinese eyes, this appears to be an order in which Americans make the rules, and others obey the orders.”
In fact, the grand ambitions already articulated by President Xi Jinping suggest that Beijing is playing the long game and seeking to forge an order that is most conducive to its own interests. In its own immediate neighborhood, China is well along in gaining de facto control of the South China Sea by establishing a robust military presence on the artificial islands it has created over the previous few years. China has also begun to push back on US-dominated economic institutions like the IMF and World Bank by championing its own Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and its "One Belt, One Road” initiative. And in Africa, as the Financial Times essay below by David Pilling details, China is developing an international engagement agenda on a scale that was once the lone purview of the United States.
So, short or long, is it too early to say which view wins? Not really. While North Korean provocations are important, the much more significant trend is the challenge posed by a rising China that sees itself as at odds with the existing world order. After all, America has dealt with nuclear-armed regimes before, through deterrence. But Washington has not managed a hegemonic antagonist to the post-Cold War world order before. Success will certainly require renewed US leadership and alliance strengthening. Yet as the articles in This Week’s Reads show in greater detail, there are plenty of obstacles on that front already.
Judith Shapiro/The New York Times
Two new books reviewed by Judith Shapiro in the New York Times start in vastly different places, but both reach the same destination when it comes to China’s rise and America’s response. Howard W. French’s Everything Under the Heavens looks to China’s long history to better understand what propels Beijing’s modern global ambitions. China, French argues, sees itself as not rising per se, but rather returning to its rightful station of regional and even global preeminence. Meanwhile, the second book, Graham Allison’s Destined for War, looks to Ancient Greece and to the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta to suss out the long history of rising powers challenging established powers. Today, China and the United States fill the roles once held by the ancient city-states. Both books raise important issues about China that, Shapiro writes, Washington has not adequately dealt with to date.
Zalmay Khalilzad/The National Interest
While North Korea is the main focus of the Trump administration at the moment, Washington should not overlook that China has growing regional and global ambitions reaching far beyond Pyongyang, writes Zalmay Khalilzad in the National Interest. Khalilzad, a former US ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the United Nations, recommends a mix of containment and engagement with Beijing. Taking the long view when it comes to China, and implementing the twelve-point strategy he outlines in his essay, is the best option available for the United States in dissuading Beijing from turning hard against the international system, he argues.
David Pilling/Financial Times
In Africa, “China sees opportunity,” writes David Pilling in the Financial Times. Since 2000, Pilling notes, China-Africa trade has increased more than 20-fold, with one-sixth of all lending to Africa now coming from China. Yet the new links go well beyond business. Beijing is expanding its diplomatic reach as well, and now has more diplomatic missions in African capitals than the United States. In short, China brings the continent a choice. African countries that had been limited to accepting aid from Western capitals conditional on, for example, enacting reforms and upholding human rights meet no such demands from Beijing.
Bret Stephens/The New York Times
Deportation is the answer, Bret Stephens writes in the New York Times. He is not talking about kicking out illegal immigrants from the United States, but rather removing Americans who have been here for generations. “Complacent, entitled, and often shockingly ignorant on basic points of American law and history, they are the stagnant pool in which our national prospects risk drowning.” The tone is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the point Stephens makes is serious: “We’re a country of immigrants -- by and for them, too.”
Michael Kimmelman/The New York Times
The clue is in the name -- Rotterdam has experience in water management. Since much of the Dutch city sits below sea level, vast engineering projects work around the clock to keep the land from being inundated. Now, global warming is raising these sea levels in the Netherlands and around the world even higher. Having dealt with elevated tides for longer than most, Rotterdam has become an important example for coastal cities as far away as Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City, New York, and New Orleans. “Rotterdam is clearly trying to cast itself as a model of inventive urbanism,” Michael Kimmelman writes in this insightful essay in the New York Times.
Nathan Hodge and Julian E. Barnes/Wall Street Journal
It is an odd couple, but U.S. Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov make a compelling pair in this essay on how American and Russian military strategies are shifting. The two have never met, but McMaster and Gerasimov have each taken a keen interest in the other’s way of war. Each has also been key in implementing the military posture of his country against the other’s armed forces. This article by Nathan Hodge and Julian E. Barnes in the Wall Street Journal is an important reminder that beneath national agendas and defense strategies are strong individuals with strong personalities shaping the work.
Bjorn Lomborg/Wall Street Journal
Bjorn Lomborg has previously billed himself as the “skeptical environmentalist,” and in this essay in the Wall Street Journal he turns his skepticism toward the Paris climate accord. After reviewing the details of the agreement, which has been signed by nearly 200 countries, Lomborg has concluded that it does not do enough to curb global warming. Yes, Lomborg writes, he does have concerns about President Trump’s recent announcement that the United States would leave the agreement, not least the president’s failure to acknowledge climate change as a real threat. Yet the bigger concern, Lomborg sums up, “is that his administration has shown no interest in helping to launch the green-energy revolution that the world so urgently needs.”
Jose A. DelReal and Scott Clement/The Washington Post
The big divide in America today is less about where your politics live on the left-right spectrum, and more about where you live. The Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation recently surveyed nearly 1,700 Americans from rural areas and small towns to better understand the growing divide between rural and urban America. The results, Jose A. DelReal and Scott Clement write in the Washington Post, “bring into view a portrait of a split that is tied more to social identity than to economic experience.” From religious observance to social values, and from immigration to race, rural and urban America are increasingly apart. Sadly, the United States in 2017 seems a lot like Benjamin Disraeli’s Britain in the 1840s: “Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.”
Josef Joffe/Wall Street Journal
In this fiery piece in the Wall Street Journal, Josef Joffe makes the case that “Donald the Crude and Barack the Cool” have more in common than it would seem when it comes to US foreign policy. “Each in his own way -- softly or brutally -- has signaled: America, previously the ‘indispensable nation,’ is vacating its penthouse at the top of the global hierarchy,” he writes. Nor does America need to be made “great” again, Joffe says: “By any measure, America was not a limping giant on Jan. 20 but the greatest power on earth. . . .” The piece is, in its own way, a call to recognize and to revive America’s long-standing leadership role in the world.
The image accompanying this smart piece in the Economist -- and, indeed, the image that graces the issue’s cover -- depicts new French President Emmanuel Macron walking on water. There is indeed a great deal of hope placed in the young president, who has risen from obscurity in just a few years and whose new party won more than 300 of 577 seats in the recent parliamentary election. “Mr. Macron offers a fresh answer to the popular discontent that has swept through Western democracies,” the Economist explains. “He promises a new politics that ditches divisions between left and right." Yet, with the elections over, the hard part lies ahead. Macron must show meaningful progress on at least two fronts, the Economist says: lowering the unemployment rate and winning over the support of Germany. It will not be easy. French politicians have frustrated such efforts before. But achieving both with the support he has gained in the last year is still more of a realistic expectation than actually walking on water.