Monday, April 1, 2013

On China . . .

A number of interesting essays over the last week on China that are worth reading.  Dr. C. Raja Mohan had an excellent essay on how India should approach China, arguing that “a healthy respect for China’s power . . . rather than romantic notions about building an Eastern Bloc against the West, must guide Indian diplomacy.”  Romanticism unfortunately dies hard in Indian foreign policy tradition, so we will have to wait and see how far his advice finds resonance in Delhi. 

The second essay that caught my attention was Geoff Dyer’s take on China’s rise on the FP website.  He argues that despite China’s impressive rise, “China will not dislodge Washington from its central position in global affairs for decades to come.”  While I found the essay convincing in many aspects, I did have some issues with it. 

First, the general expectation is not that China will take over as the global hegemon next year or in a couple of years but only over the next couple of decades.  But Dyer is definitely right to push back against the over-hyping of the China-rise story and to that extent his essay is a necessary corrective. 
Second, like many American writers, he overemphasizes the US soft-power advantages.  He dismisses the various efforts that China has taken to spread its soft power including the setting up of the Confucius Institutes around the world.  He is correct about efforts like the Confucius Institutes – this is nothing but a bureaucratic response to half-baked notions about cultural soft power.  

On the other hand, culture spreads with power: the spread of American culture began after the US ascended to hegemony, not before.  Did American culture suddenly become more attractive after the 1950s?  Hollywood and Coca Cola predated America’s rise but became global phenomenon only after – and most likely as a consequence – of America’s rise.  Another example I use in my class lectures is about the spread of sports: it is not accidental that former British colonies play cricket and countries like Japan, Philippines and Cuba play baseball.  Culture spreads with the sword. 

If China really becomes the global hegemon, its culture would become naturally more attractive.  Talent would flock to China, just as it did to European powers such as Britain and France in the nineteenth and early twentieth century and to the US after 1945.  My sense is that too much is made of Chinese soft-power weakness. 

But I do agree with him that given Chinese heavy-handedness over the last few years, other Asian powers are more likely to join the US to balance against China, which reduces China’s options.  On the other hand, China’s rise will also owe a lot more to its domestic economic capacity rather than to international circumstances – the rise and fall of great powers is ultimately the consequence of domestic efforts though external conditions play a part. 

Another notable essay last week was Ian Johnson’s review of three recent books on China’s rise.  Johnson himself seems to lean towards a somewhat greater skepticism about China’s inevitable rise thesis, but I might be reading more into this than he intended.

Finally, there was Sergey Radchenko’s great essay, also in Foreign Policy, about the changing nature of Sino-Russian relations.  These changes have garnered very little attention in New Delhi though they have an important impact on India.  A dramatic change in Sino-Soviet relations in October 1962 had disastrous consequences for India.  I am not suggesting that anything of that nature is afoot, but if the Sino-Russian relationship should move from being a soft-balance against the US to something more serious, it will impact India severely. 

To round this up, we also had a visitor at the School of International Studies, Ron Pruessen, who gave an excellent lecture about the current US debate about China’s rise.  A historian, Ron was much more tentative about how these predictions stack-up and what might ultimately result, but I think that is the prudent way to go.  Theorists, of course, are much happier jumping off prediction peak!

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