Jaw-Jaw: Rethinking Our Assumptions About Chinese Aggression
Is it possible that China, far from its recent reputation for assertiveness, is in fact a remarkably stable and reticent actor on the world stage? Is there any way that the United States can counteract China’s growing influence on international institutions? Should the United States extend security guarantees to countries like Vietnam? Lyle Goldstein discusses these issues and many more in the fourth episode of “Jaw-Jaw,” the newest addition to the War on the Rocks family of podcasts.
Lyle Goldstein is a research professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the United States Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. A speaker of both Chinese and Russian, he writes frequently for The National Interest on national security issues. He is the author of Meeting China Halfway: How to Defuse the Emerging US-China Rivalry (2015), among other works.
Brad Carson is a professor at the University of Virginia, where he teaches in the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2001-2005 and was Undersecretary of the Army and acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel & Readiness in the Obama Administration. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.
- John Fairbank, The United States and China, (Harvard University Press, 1983)
- Lyle Goldstein, Meeting China Halfway: How to Defuse the Emerging US-China Rivalry, (Georgetown University Press, 2015)
- Richard McKenna, The Sand Pebbles, (Naval Institute Press, 2001)
- Hugh White, The China Choice: Why We Should Share Power, (Oxford University Press, 2013)
- The Sinica Podcast
- Sean’s Russia Blog
Brad: Professor Lyle Goldstein from the Naval War College. You’ve written that there’s a small probability that China will emerge as a genuine aggressor state. But, many people including those in the Department of Defense believe that China is already an aggressor state. Can you explain why your views might differ from the conventional wisdom here in Washington, D.C.?
Lyle: I think you’re certainly correct that conventional wisdom has it that China is already an aggressive state and that’s part of the reason I wrote that sentence as I did, because I wanted it to be jarring to people. I wanted people to rethink that supposition which I think is not really based on a very objective rendering of evidence.
I frequently put down, what are the examples that we can put forward of so-called Chinese aggression? Really what we have today amounts to essentially these reef bases, which I hope we’ll discuss in some detail. But of course, you know China occupied those features in the 1980s so, yes they’re moving some sand around but they’re hardly the only great power to move sand around.
When it comes to the question of overseas bases, I think we have them beat by something like 799 to 1 or something; 800 to 1. To me, that in itself cannot be called aggression. I don’t think we should throw around the term aggression. The kind of aggression I’m talking about is like when Nazi Germany invaded Denmark or the Netherlands or France in 1940.
If you can try to think back to those days and what that was like, it probably is hard to conceive of from this historical vantage point. That’s aggression undoubtedly, and we haven’t seen anything like that from China, not even close. I’ll ask you to keep in mind that China has not used force in a major way. They have not basically conducted a war in going on 40 years.
Brad: Since the Vietnamese.
Lyle: Right, since 1979. We can talk about that war, and I think many Chinese would wish they hadn’t fought that war but for a great power, that’s a darned impressive record of restraint is what it is. So, I think we want to be very careful about this term aggression and not call putting a coast guard vessel next to a rock or using a water cannon some grave instance of aggression.
Is there some intimidation going on? Sure, absolutely. To me, I’m a realist. Great powers do engage in that of course, and they engage in wars. I actually expect that China probably would fight wars over the next two decades. There are some Chinese who badly want to fight a war if you can believe it and think that China appears weak before the world because it hasn’t fought these wars. But, I think we have a fairly commendable record of restraint and we should not exaggerate the threat. On the contrary, we should encourage what we’ve seen, which is Chinese restraint.
Brad: You stated a moment ago that you would expect China could easily fight a couple of wars over the next few decades. Where would you see the flashpoints arising? Who would be the combatants in such a conflict that they thought was helpful to their country in some way and wouldn’t be biting off more than they could chew?
Lyle: I’m a little hesitant on this subject because I think there isn’t much evidence to suggest that China will embark on this kind of approach. But, I have seen some Chinese writings that have; these are nonofficial writings and could be dismissed as snarky comments by people without particular influence, but they run to the effect that China is not taken seriously on the world stage because it doesn’t use military force and that therefore China must use military force.
One could imagine certain scenarios that China for example may find it useful to use force against say Vietnam and not against the Philippines because Vietnam is not a treaty ally of the United States. These things are logical and I do believe China during 2011 and again in 2014 was very close to using force against Vietnam. And again, if you look at the details of those incidents, the second one was particularly severe.
It involved the deaths of some Chinese nationals and nationals from other countries. As it were, Beijing had its casus belli. If it wanted to use force against Vietnam, it probably would’ve been a broadly supported by the Chinese people. So again, it’s an interesting case of restraint.
I’ll just put this out there for your listeners to see what they make of it, but everybody says that China is much more aggressive since people say the date of 2008, 2009 that China suddenly became more aggressive. I don’t buy that at all actually. China has used force in a very significant way during the 1950s, during the 1960s, during the 1970s, and during the 1980s to a lesser extent, and less so since then.
So, this idea that China is becoming ever more aggressive I think is just contrary to the facts.
Brad: How do you respond to a critic who might look at China who, yes they used aggression against Vietnam in 1979, intervened in the Korean conflict against the United States, but today who have enormous capabilities that are only going to grow over time. So, their abilities are increasing.
At the same time while they’re not engaged in blitzkrieg against Vietnam or serious naval conflict with a neighbor, it may be more akin to the 1930s, that here you have an incipient war that if the right policy decisions are reached will keep the conflagration from coming. But if we don’t make the right decisions, there will be a day when blitzkrieg or major conflict occurs.
Lyle: Well, I’m a little bit skeptical. I think China has studied history carefully. I think that they understand nationalism and they understand what it’s like to be bullied. So, I think they’re a bit reticent and have not pushed the limits there. I think they’re far too wise to … I mean, try to think into that dark scenario where China literally rolls tanks over the border and tries to take Hanoi or something like that.
The Chinese know from experience actually just how hard Vietnam would fight for its sovereignty and they’re not going to I think engage in that kind of aggression. And again, they have had many excuses. Some thought they might move into Kyrgyzstan for example when there was some major unrest about 10 years ago in Kyrgyzstan.
There have been Chinese diplomats assassinated I think in Bishkek. There have been a decent amount of ordnance flying over from a kind of unrest of civil disturbances and small wars among ethnic groups in Myanmar. So, there have been plenty of excuses. I can give you more I think, and yet to China somehow does not see a kind of blitzkrieg type approach in its interest.
Now, again like any great power, will they use their armed forces occasionally to intimidate, to serve their interests, to make it clear that certain behaviors or certain actions are not tolerable? Yes, yes I think that they will do that and they have done that. But, that generally is not new either.
As you’re hinting your question, what is new is that China increasingly has those capabilities to make that threat much more credible. To me as a realist, that’s just a logical conclusion and we had better keep that in mind. If you saw U.S. actions in 1995, ’96 Taiwan Crisis as more or less a rational response to Chinese pressure, one could look at the military calculus today and say maybe it’s not prudent, and prudence I take as a very, very important principle of good foreign policy.
Brad: Speaking of prudence for the United States, you’ve written that the American policy for decades now seemingly has been to be committed to defending simultaneously everything, including more or less every reef across the Asia-Pacific area and you seemingly are critical of such a stance. What should the American policy be to the rising China? From a defense perspective, how should we think of this? And, what’s the likely outcome of U.S.-Chinese relations if current trends are maintained on both sides?
Lyle: Let me take the second part of the question first. Unfortunately, I’m a bit pessimistic if current trends persist. That is, the United States seems to from what I can tell, is kind of putting off any hard choices. We sort of are committed to everything and there is a strong lobby in Washington that wants to commit to more and more things out there.
To me, the more things that we’re committed to suggest the greater possibility that some kind of casus belli or a misperception, an accident even could set this off. For example, there’s a group now in Washington that is very interested in partnering with Vietnam and wants to take on that defense commitment and is implying with ever greater seriousness that we should defend Vietnam in all circumstances.
You can imagine like I said earlier and in our discussion that I can tell you at least twice in the last few years that war was very close with Vietnam. That would obviously entail a war with the United States. What I’m saying is, it used to be that we China specialists could say fairly firmly that there’s only one scenario that could bring the U.S. and China to war, maybe even a nuclear war and that was Taiwan.
We’ve been saying that for 20, 30 years or more. We can’t say that anymore. This is getting really, very troubling of course. Maybe we’ve now multiplied from one scenario to maybe three or four scenarios. Are we on the way to eight or 10 scenarios? To me that is when we’re not only in a Cold War, but we are dangerously close to getting into some kind of hot war.
Now, the first part of question was what to do about it. In my 2015 book I advocated for a whole series of strategies that would entail more or less a mutual accommodation, one where we walk our commitments back a little bit, but China also, China has to meet us halfway and undertake some major commitments to enhancing global security. There are many things I’m asking of the Chinese side.
For example, recognizing the median line in the East China Sea of pulling back their missiles away from Taiwan. Maybe that China would support a United Nations Security Council seat for India. One can think of many things that China can do to help contribute to a more peaceful environment, but I do think as part of this whatever you want to call it, you can call it a sort of G-2 Framework if you will.
By the way, the Chinese hate that phrase and most Americans do too, but I’m not opposed to it. I do think China and the U.S. need to work constructively. By the way, there’s a great example of the U.S. and China working constructively for global peace and security. That was in 2014. Both powers were very active in combating the Ebola crisis. China sent a lot of aid, including military aid. They made some real contributions and so did the United States.
The two powers together really played a significant role in mitigating the crisis. To me, that is the positive vision which we should be striving for. Most of this militarized rivalry really can be clever strategies, a little give and take. I think the Chinese will be amenable to that. Really what they want most of all is respect, security and so forth and these are things that the United States can reasonably accord to China.
Brad: There seems to be a widespread view in the United States today that it is China’s ambition, whether it’s through military means or not to dominate East Asia, the Western Pacific. Then they take from that same group that that would be an unmitigated disaster for the United States, and maybe the world for China to achieve that. Can you talk about both of those? Do you think that is China’s ambition? Through what it means? Then the question is, if they were to achieve that, would it be something that we should care about?
Lyle: These are great questions and I think the second one is particularly important. Let’s think historically for a moment. I would suggest that … I mean, like it or not, for most of history China was the dominant power in East Asia. This is not a Chinese history blog, but one could come up with many reasons for that, not least China’s central geography. That is, it touches Northeast Asia, it touches Southeast Asia and it really touches Central and South Asia as well.
That extraordinary not just size, but also the breadth and all those geographical touch points allow it to play this, let’s say outsized role in the region. Now, we can bring some historians in who can debate whether this has been generally positive or not for the region, but I would suggest if … This is a fascinating bit of David Kang’s research. He’s looked a lot at the diplomacy of the tributary system and so forth.
He has this extraordinary chart in his book, China Rising, where he puts European history up side by side against Asian history. From 1500 to 2000, those 500 years of history. He shows that the number of wars, he defines what a war is and so forth, but if you put the wars up against one another you see that European history was much more bloody and much more full of war, after war, after war, after war.
I mean, that had some positive effects in terms of building Europe and these very strong states and so forth. One cannot say that was all negative, but what I’m getting at is, China is likely to be a very powerful country. It might be the most powerful country on Earth already in many respects. I know Americans don’t like to hear that, but I think to me the data shows that China has exceeded us on many, many parameters.
So, we shouldn’t be at all surprised that China will, whether you like it or not or whether China seeks to or not frankly, but China will dominate East Asia. Now, of course it has very strong neighbors like Japan, India, Indonesia and Vietnam. So, dominate is probably a strong word, but will it have any kind of peer in East Asia? No, absolutely not. Will its influence surpass that of the United States? Of course.
Brad: I think there’s two interesting questions I’d like to tease out from what you just said. First is the notion that, David Kang I think has promoted this as well, that it’s the natural order of Asia to have Chinese leadership and that goes back centuries. And, that most countries in Asia can be begrudgingly at least, accepting Chinese of leadership.
Then there’s the issue that some people would say that won’t happen. India, Japan, Vietnam, nations that have substantial capabilities themselves will somehow rally against them, balance against China. You’ll be in arms races, you’ll be in what we saw in Europe in the 19th century or early 20th century. You’re going to have these security hot zones that erupted the global conflict.
And, that the American role in Europe, or in Asia as it has been in Europe, has been to prevent those kind of things, to keep the security competition down and that China’s rise will inevitably stoke security competition, especially if America has any form of retrenchment. You seem to be more at peace with the idea that China can rise. It will naturally dominate East Asia without causing security conflicts with Japan, India, Vietnam or even the Philippines.
Lyle: I wouldn’t want to simplify these incredibly complex relationships. I think any great power that’s surrounded by, let’s say weaker powers, there’s going to be confrontations. Some of them difficult, and there may even be some wars. To me it’s very likely, that’s how history happens. But, I think we have to step back first of all and ask, is that a threat to the United States? That’s one question.
Now, of these other countries, call them middle powers or aspiring great powers. Countries like Japan and India, those countries are different of course. First of all, they’re very strong countries. Everybody agrees that Japan has a first rate navy and in some respects, that their capabilities exceed that of China for example.
I do think those countries have to be quite careful of course for a number of reasons. But the bottom line is this, if you look across the spectrum of Japanese national interests and Chinese national interests and you see where they’re alignment and where they’re conflict, I’ll tell you it’s shocking just how closely they align. That is, it’s very hard to actually find these points of massive disagreement.
Even on North Korea more or less, the Chinese and the Japanese position while in practice, they may end up a bit different, but actually they both … You sign up for mostly the same … They want the same end point.
Brad: You think those interests will transcend the kind of personal enmity that the peoples might have through the history that has developed with them?
Lyle: Well, frankly I think it’s one of the more important chapters of my book. I really deal with that whole issue of historical enmity. I do think that relationship is badly, badly poisoned right now by both sides, the Chinese kind of stoking nationalism on the subject. But also, I think there is a failure to reckon with past history in Japan that really has poisoned this as well.
The two combine to make for a dangerous environment, but it shouldn’t be that way. As realists we should say, “Well look, all this historical baggage or ideology, let’s put it aside and deal with concrete national interest.” Well okay, maybe that at some level is too much to ask, but I think clever American diplomacy and frankly clever Japanese and Chinese diplomacy can break through these historical ideational issues, which when you look below the surface actually, a lot of it is exaggerated.
For enormous periods of East Asian history, Japan and China got along swimmingly. China has had great influence on Japan, a lot of that history is revered and it goes the other way to. I’ve been many times in Northeast China where people turn to me and say, “Look at this fantastic piece of infrastructure,” or, “We learned this from Japan,” and things like that. The fact is, there’s a lot to build on in that relationship.
By the way, do you know Chinese tourism to Japan has been skyrocketing for various interesting reasons? That doesn’t imply that the two countries are permanently loggerheads, not at all. I think if we can rescue this relationship from the hawks who seem to want to use it endlessly to drive defense budgets or defense planning and this and that, I think we can move that relationship to a safer place.
It is undoubtedly key to the future of East Asia. I can’t emphasize strongly enough how peace in East Asia starts with a constructive China-Japan relationship. I think we’ve been slowly working our way that way. I mean, things were really bad in 2012, 2013, but I think there’s some more maturity both in Tokyo and in China.
Brad: Well, you do also talk about this notion that China has spurred some controversies in the region with Japan, in the East China Sea with the Philippines, with Vietnam. Do you have any sense that that behavior is being counterproductive, or seen by the Chinese as counterproductive?
An example I’m thinking of is the writer, the strategist Edward Luttwak called their behavior autistic, the Chinese behavior autistic. That a smarter Chinese government would not carry quite the heavy hand that Xi has in dealing with its neighbors and causing countries like Vietnam to rally to the U.S. side, or India to contemplate closer American ties. That more clever Chinese leadership could forestall some of the balancing that he sees as inevitable.
Lyle: It’s an interesting question. One could always posit or hope that that China could somehow escape from its past and be quite satisfied, focus inwardly and things like that, and not for example build up its military and so forth. I think, what was it Donald Rumsfeld who said, “There’s no threat to China, so why on earth would they want to build up their military?”
This is to me though seems to be an incredibly kind of naive approach, especially given China’s history of conflict. Anybody who goes to China, you’re reminded they think themselves having been invaded some 200 or more times … You actually don’t have to scratch the surface to see really that that is the case. I’ve been in very obscure parts of China, For example Wuhan in the middle of China or Yantai on the Shandong Coast.
You come upon remarkable, or in Qingdao, really remarkable signs of European colonization. At that point you realize that China although we say it was semi-colonized, you realize it really was colonized, colonized. That is, was dominated by foreigners in a very awful way. I don’t deny that there were some benefits of that system, that is for example, American missionaries had a very positive effect for example on the development of medicine in China. That’s the fact, and also higher education also benefited.
But nevertheless, the history is a sad history of one has to say, a good amount of oppression and remind people that may not know, your listeners may not be aware that the U.S. Navy was patrolling the Yangtze River from about the period of the 1850s onward, all the way through the 1920s. Now, think about that. What would you feel like if you knew that the Chinese navy was patrolling the Mississippi for almost a century of American history? It would make you see the world differently.
And indeed, China does see the world differently than we do. They have a chip on their shoulder. They were more or less the most powerful civilization on Earth and they were brought low. Now they see themselves as a re-rise to greatness. We’re just not going to avoid a China that is in their; the way they put it is “fu qiang.” That is, one that is enormously wealthy and enormously strong. That is the kind of China they are going to build. There’s no doubt about it and there’s nothing really we can do to stop it in my view.
But, what we can do is try to get along with that China. In fact like I said, there’s a decent amount of evidence to suggest that they will be … It’s not to say that they’ll give way on every point, but that they will be quite reasonable. In the crises for example, even lately with India, there have been a couple of, let’s say worrying crises that I’ve seen in the last couple of years. The border crises say.
I don’t want to sugarcoat these. It’s been a little dicey and I have heard Chinese say we just have to teach the Indians a lesson. You hear things like that. It’s kind of frightening. Not for us as Americans, but for Indians and Chinese because many would die in that situation. And yet, both in these circumstances, leaders on both sides in New Delhi in Beijing have realized that this is just not worthwhile for both countries and that they just have to find a way forward.
Now, I hope the United States … We didn’t talk about this before. I want to see the United States play a role as offshore balancer. That is, we come in, in a situation where we need to. It doesn’t mean we’re defending every rock or we’re up there in the Himalayas manning border outposts. No, not at all.
It turns out the Himalayas are a tremendously nice fence and they say fences make good neighbors. So, I’m quite optimistic that India and China can find a way to get along. I’m quite optimistic that Japan and China can also get along. After all, they’re mostly arguing about a rock that has some goats on it.
Brad: There’s this threshold question of, what are China’s intentions in the region? It seems to me that maybe both the hawks and the doves on the China question concur that a rising China with its wealth, with its power, with its history would aspire to be the dominant power in Asia. Would you agree with that? Maybe to different policy conclusions about whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but would you agree that that’s what the ambitions?
Lyle: They put it somewhat differently. The way they put it of course, doesn’t sound aggressive. The way they put it is, China will be wealthy and strong. Very wealthy, very strong. Now, does that mean … They don’t see that as relative to anyone else. They’re not saying they need to be the wealthiest and the strongest. The way they define it in their mind is so wealthy, so strong that they will not be pushed around.
But, there is somewhat of a difference there. There I’ll use the words of your wise colleague Harry Harding, who wrote some time ago. Actually, he was at the Naval War College. He gave a very brilliant lecture and he said that it’s not that China seeks hegemony, it’s nothing like hegemony actually. What they seek is a veto. They want to be so strong that if something really upsets them in the region they can say no, that’s not going to fly.
That’s very different than going into Myanmar and saying, you’re going to build a dam here and do this. You’re going to support Chinese investments here, you’re going to behave this way you’re going to do this with the Americans. I think that is not really what China is seeking I think.
Brad: Do you think they are seeking to push the United States out militarily of its role in Asia?
Lyle: Well, it’s an interesting question, I guess the jury is out. Of course, you won’t find anywhere in their documents, certainly in their official statements. Not only do they never say that, but they say the opposite. They say they welcome the U.S. presence. I’ve understood from the naval officers I know who have for example sailed through on various missions in the South China Sea recently, that their bridge-to-bridge communications are cordial, even more than cordial, actually downright friendly.
That doesn’t suggest to me that China is seeking to push us out. It seems like in some ways the harder they would try to push us out, the harder that task might become. Now that said, do I think that China would weep if we were to pack up and go? No, I don’t think so, of course not. But, I don’t think that … It’s not to say they’re indifferent of course, and I do think they are wary of some of our activities, especially when they take on a blatantly anti-Chinese character which unfortunately many have.
But no, I don’t think that they have an illusion. They know that many countries in the region, more than a handful, you could almost say most countries in the region want the U.S. presence to stay in some degree. But, that to me fits decently well with the concept of offshore balancing. That is, sure we’ll keep some forces in the region. We keep some presence, but it’s not a dominant presence. It doesn’t seek to really push anyone around.
We’re just, if somebody needs to call 911, we’ll be there. But, we’re not going to take provocative actions. The key role here being defensive. I think we do have to reorient our alliance relationship so that they are truly defensive. I think that word has somehow been lost.
Brad: So, come back to how worried should we be? Then maybe if we should be very worried, maybe it’s impossible to stop. It’s inevitable and one reconciles themselves as much as possible to the inevitable. You seem to be much more sanguine about the rise of China and this dominance than American foreign policy thinkers for 75 or 80 years.
Lyle: Well, I am pretty sanguine about it. I think that [Sir Halford John] Mackinder is living a new life here. He’s the talk of Washington as it were. But, I really am very doubtful about the wisdom of taking British imperial thinkers as our models. I mean after all, this was the security dilemma that in order to defend India, they needed to take the whole Middle East. In order to defend the outreaches of that, they got themselves into endless security competitions all over the periphery.
Basically, there were British soldiers fighting all over the world all the time. That was the British Empire and I would remind listeners that, that was not the America that our forefathers were trying to set up. We wanted something different. We wanted a peaceful republic that was not fully militarized. So, I think we need to be very cautious of that approach.
Now look, there was a reasonable approach that was, as it were, a compromise. That is George Kennan’s approach to the world, where he said actually, yes there are certain power centers that we need to keep out of Russia’s hands. Frankly if we had stuck to that formulation, that is we have to protect Germany. We cannot let Russia take over Germany. We cannot let Russia take over Japan.
Those very simple principles that could be understood by everyone. That would have been a wise approach to the Cold War, but of course we got mired in all kinds of crazy adventures in Vietnam. By the way, if we hadn’t fought in Vietnam, it was proposed before that we would have a similar war in Laos, but Kennedy was wise enough to say, “No, we’re not going to draw the red line in Laos. We’re going to draw it in Vietnam.”
By the way, the same arguments were made. Do you know why we went into Vietnam? Because of Red China. Red China was on the march through East Asia. I just would caution Americans again to realize that we have had a lot of these arguments before. I think it was in 1965 was it that the U.S. was tangling with the Chinese fighter aircraft in the Gulf of Tonkin and so forth. I mean, this is not really a new problem.
Brad: Would it bother you though in the sense, for the average American citizen, would their life be different if China dominated East Asia and Japan, India, Vietnam, the Philippines were in their thrall. As were Australia and New Zealand. That increasing authority in the Central Asian republics where one road would bring economic development. They’re tied into Russia and therefore increasingly on the European perimeter as well.
If that is a world that develops as China becomes this extremely powerful nation, is that something that would in any way impair America’s welfare? Because, that does seem like a possible outcome.
Lyle: A couple of answers. I didn’t quite finish the last question too. I want to make the point that the world is different today than it was in 1945. In 1945, 1950, those were pretty scary times. Not only did Communism seem to be on the march, but literally all of these societies, they were rubble, they were broken, they were prone to Communist infiltration and radicalism to a degree that we couldn’t even think about today. I mean, they had been decimated, these societies.
So, we absolutely had to stand with them, stand them up and be very active, Marshall Plan and NATO. All that was absolutely necessary of course. But, we lost our way at a certain point, where now you have a situation where all these societies turn out to be very strong, robust societies. Look at South Korea today, it’s one of the most powerful countries on earth. Do we really think that the South Koreans are quaking in their boots at whether the North Koreans or even the Chinese? I mean, it’s probably the other way around. Same with Japan.
This goes for many societies throughout the world. I mean, it’s true there are still some of these failing states and so forth that need help, but so many of the states which for some reason, I don’t know why we would need to commit major resources for example the defense of Europe. I mean, these are incredibly robust and wealthy societies that know a few things about military technology and they’re really quite capable of defending themselves.
The other point there is that we live in an age of nuclear weapons. Does anybody really think that the Chinese are going to invade Hawaii or something, much less California or the rest of that? Look, in Washington today you have this vast, kind of miasmic, I’m not sure what the right word is, but it’s kind of like a quicksand type situation, discussion about foreign influence. It’s extremely debilitating frankly.
But, it comes down to this question of whether … Yes, China will be a very, very powerful country. Probably significantly more powerful than the United States, maybe by quite a bit in 20 years, it’s not that far away. So what? Will they invade Mexico, take over Mexico or buy a lot of Mexican newspapers or something like that? To me, these scenarios are really far-fetched in the 21st century.
In 20 years when China is very, very strong, I don’t think they’ll even succeed in pushing around India, or Japan, or Indonesia, or Vietnam even because guess what? Vietnam is also going to be very strong, so is India and so is Japan. So, this so-called threat that China, which is … I hesitate to use the word dominant. I mean, they will dominate in terms … If you look at the statistics, they will have a very impressive economy and military but no, I don’t see a major threat.
Now look, unfortunately, this could be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy because if you call China a threat enough times, then it may change its policy. I think it could become more aggressive and it could … People don’t realize, but China by our reckoning is spending somewhere under 2 percent on its military, 2 percent of GDP Now, we spend something approaching 5 percent I think or 4.5 percent.
If China were to go to that elevated posture, well boy, you’d see a lot of ships out there in the South China Sea, a lot of their aircraft around and so forth. I think we have to be … This is a critical period and that’s why I wrote this book, Meeting China Halfway, because I do believe we are at a decision point. Now, great powers are bound to be rivals. I’m a realist, I know.
But, civilized people, thinking people can realize that that can have incredibly destructive effects. It’s not just the possibility of nuclear war or other very destructive war, it is also an incredible waste of resources. I mean, really ask yourselves how much better American infrastructure could be had we not spent $1 trillion in the Middle East over the last 10 years.
Then ask yourself how many trillions are going toward preparing for a major war against both China and Russia right now. This is our future, this is our children’s future that is on the line. It’s not just the risk of war, which is considerable. We have to be very prudent and try to calm these rivalries down.
Brad: Well, one of those flashpoints that could lead to war has been Taiwan. America, and the people, and Congress have generally been supportive of American security guarantees in Taiwan. What should the American approach to Taiwan be and do you think we have it right?
Lyle: Well, no I don’t think we have it right. Taiwan has prospered and is a very vibrant society. I’m told you can get the very best Chinese food in Taiwan. It’s also a place, many Americans are not aware, but this a place that’s called the Republic of China. That’s actually the formal title. It’s in the Constitution of Taiwan. So, it is not the Republic of Taiwan. There’s a lot of history behind that of course.
We’ll have to keep in mind that when Kissinger secretly flew into Beijing and met with Zhou Enlai. There were two subjects on the table for those several conferences that created the breakthrough that ended up in what we have today, with reasonably good U.S.-China relationship. The two issues were Vietnam and Taiwan.
If you look through Henry Kissinger’s fine book on China, you’ll see that in all the years over the decades, China really has not changed its position at all. That if you want to have good relations with the mainland, you cannot recognize Taiwan. We’ve had this situation for many years, decades and really the mainland and Taiwan have benefited from it. But, we can no longer like be agnostic. Agnostic is really not, how to put it. I don’t think we’ve been agnostic, but I think we have to make some hard choices here.
I often ask an audience or colleagues to consider what a war over Taiwan would look like, whether and how many American lives you’re ready to put on the table for such a war. It does tend to have a kind of a sobering effect. A lot of people kind of support Taiwan in the abstract but if it’s their kid on that ship or they know friends in Taiwan who would certainly be killed as many would be, then maybe have a different approach.
Look, I think the problem if you study the history and you study the history of negotiation, the problem is actually not that complicated. It could be solved. I think we need to start to be creative. We need to realize that the military balance is not just unrelated, it’s extremely related. The military balance has shifted-
Brad: What would that solution look like? What would the solution look like?
Lyle: Well, most people who have looked at it suggest that there is only one solution, and that is a confederation arrangement. The Chinese are on record under Deng Xiaoping’s pen saying since 1983, that they would accept in a final status agreement that Taiwan would maintain its armed forces. Think about that for a minute. They’re going to negotiate a situation of autonomy for Taiwan where Taiwan preserves its armed forces. That’s a pretty generous arrangement.
My honest opinion here, and I know many will disagree with me and that’s fine of course, but my honest opinion is what we’re talking about is what flag goes over that building in Taipei. That’s about how much … It could be as little as that. I think a lot of people want to exaggerate these issues, but the Chinese are not crazy. Even look at how they’ve treated Hong Kong, and here many will disagree with me as well.
The worst instance of human rights, egregious human rights violation has been the nabbing of a bookseller, which I agree it’s despicable. But again, put that up against putting millions of people in gas chambers, and it doesn’t really quite compare. In other words, I think Hong Kong continues to prosper, has a high degree of freedom if not the highest degree. My understanding is Hong Kong doesn’t pay any taxes at all to the federal Chinese government, so I believe people in Hong Kong maintain some of the highest standards of living in the world and have quite a high degree of freedom of expression and so forth.
So, I think Taiwan can look forward to a very favorable future. But, they have to be honest with themselves, have to be honest about history. They have to be a little flexible and I think Americans can be enormously helpful rather than seeking confrontation, but seek for a vision that’s consistent with the Shanghai Communique, which is that Taiwan is actually part of China. If we go on fighting that fact and arguing about that fact forever, we’re going to get in some very, very dangerous situations in the coming decades. Arguably we already are in one.
Brad: Lyle Goldstein, we ask everyone who comes on “Jaw-Jaw” to give two or three books they would recommend people read if they would like to learn more about the issues we’ve discussed. Also, perhaps podcasts or websites that they should go to the if they’re interested in understanding China better. What would you recommend?
Lyle: I’m pleased to offer a few thoughts. Well, I’ll give you three books on China, which I have on my bookshelf that I am pulling off all the time, and then maybe a couple of podcasts to because I think podcasts are the way of the future as we were discussing. The three books are … I think that perhaps the most foundational book on understanding China is going to be John Fairbank’s, The United States and China, published some decades back. I must say, that is the one I reach for all the time.
I don’t think I’ve read a more penetrating analysis of Chinese culture and the Chinese approach to politics. I think that it’s really essential that we Americans grapple that more and more. Another book which I recommend, and this book is so good that I almost stopped writing my book when I read it, is Hugh White’s China Choice. If you don’t have time, just go back to I think it’s the final chapter there. Literally it’s supposed to be a speech by an American president outlining how the U.S. and China might get along and really learn to share the Pacific as they should.
Hugh White, his analysis is extremely penetrating. The good thing about White’s book is he really understands the military details as well as anybody, and so this is not some idealistic fluff, he gets it. Finally the last book, and here’s the most important one, I saved the best for last. This is a book by Richard McKenna. It’s called Sand Pebbles. I believe it’s on the CNO, that’s the Chief of Naval Operations. It’s actually on his reading list.
I think really this treasure of a book, which reads a bit like Hemingway about the story of the U.S. Navy serving on the Yangtze River in the 1920s. I’ll tell you, the interaction between Chinese and Americans in this book, the cultural interaction is really stunning. All the best of that interaction and all the worst. The most racist kind of stereotypes on both sides.
I think this is a fabulous window into that U.S.-China cultural environment that everybody today needs to be familiar with. You’d be amazed how much the lessons of that period are important for understanding today. Then just the last thing I’ll say on these. To understand China today, I recommend the Sinica Podcast as a terrific way. The interviewers are great and the speakers. You can learn a lot about China that way.
We were talking about a Russia blog also I like very much called “Sean’s Russia Blog.” Those two blogs are just … This is the way I try to stay current on both the Russia and China issues. It’s a very important set of issues there.
Brad: We will put links to those books, to the podcasts and the website in the show notes. Doctor Lyle Goldstein, professor at the Naval War College, author of Meeting China Halfway and prolific columnist at The National Interest. Thank you for being with us today.
Lyle: Thanks for having me.