Jaw-Jaw: When it Comes to China, America Doth Protest Too Much, David Kang Thinks
Is East Asia balancing against a rising China? No way, says David Kang. Is China’s island-building a unique provocation? Not at all, says Kang. Does the world have anything to fear from a powerful China? Not really, and, indeed, a weak China is the greater threat to world order. Listen to the “unconventional perspective” of Professor David Kang in the latest edition of Jaw-Jaw.
David C. Kang is Maria Crutcher Professor in International Relations, Business and East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Southern California, with appointments in both the School of International Relations and the Marshall School of Business. At USC, he is also director of the Korean Studies Institute. Kang’s latest book is American Grand Strategy and East Asian Security in the 21st Century (Cambridge University Press, 2017). He is also author of East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute (Columbia University Press, 2010); China Rising: Peace, Power, and Order in East Asia (Columbia University Press, 2007); and Crony Capitalism: Corruption and Development in South Korea and the Philippines (Cambridge University Press, 2002).
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.
- Brad Glosserman, Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions, (Georgetown University Press 2019)
- Michael Green, By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783, (Columbia University Press 2017)
- Victor Cha, Power Play: Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia, (Princeton University Press 2016)
Brad: Professor David Kang, you’ve written that, when it comes to a rising China, the best approach for the United States is to get out of the way. That’s a provocative opinion, can you explain what you mean by that and why that’s the most advisable course of action?
David: Sure. The issue that we have with the United States and China is, do we balance rising power? Do we get out there and lead a counter-coalition? So you hear over and over again, various ideas about how East Asian states are coming towards us, the bigger that China gets, the more threatening it’ll be. And although this is possible, it’s not really backed up by the evidence that you actually see in East Asia. Most of the regional countries aren’t clamoring for further U.S. involvement in the region and particularly a military response, they’re crafting their relations with China across a range of areas. Not just military, but economic and social and diplomatic. And most of those countries don’t want to choose between the United States and China.
So, in that sense, an American attempt to contain or build a containment coalition against China, is probably going to face a lot of difficulties. Because I don’t think countries in the region are eager for that type of a strategy. So, in many ways, what the United States can do, is end up exacerbating regional tensions, the more we try and force countries to go along. And I think you see this along a range of various issues in the region. One of them, of course, being TPP, just as one example, the countries are moving along without the United States. The United States, when the United States says, “We’re not doing this,” the countries in the region said, “Well, we still are.”
Same thing with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. So, in many ways, it’s not clear that American policy should be military first. In many ways, I think, making a military-first policy is what gets us into trouble.
Brad: Well, that seems to break down into two questions. First is, should the United States seek to balance China in some way? And then second, is it possible for the U.S. to do that, even if it was desirable? Let me talk about that second question first, because much of your recent book goes country by country throughout Southeast Asia and discusses the bandwagon that got most of these nations onto China’s ambitions. So, let’s start with a country like South Korea. What’s South Korea’s view of the China threat and what’s going on with its defense posture?
David: Well, I mean, and I think in some ways, South Korea is such an interesting and key case to study. Because, often in the United States, particularly in D.C., what you get is a perspective of, “Well, the Koreans, they’re eager, too eager to embrace North Korea or to get along with China.” The idea being, it’s somehow that Koreans are either being naive, don’t understand what they’re doing, or really should be choosing to more closely go along with the United States and, in particular, in Japan. But the thing is, Korea shares some of America’s interests, but not all of them.
And in some ways, Korea, South Koreans, Koreans in general, view the world very differently than we expect them to. In particular, Chinese and Koreans agree on some of the most large major issues of the 20th century. Who was at fault for starting the war? Who were the victims? And who’s responsible? China and Korea agree on those things in ways that the United States does not. In other words, China and Korea agree that Japan was at fault, Japan started it, Japan is responsible. And this isn’t going to change. It’s not because Koreans don’t understand what’s going on, it’s because Americans view the region fundamentally differently than Koreans and Chinese.
So, although Korea doesn’t necessarily like China, and although they don’t necessarily want to become a satellite of China, they also have a very different set of threat perceptions around the region than most people in the United States would expect Korea to have. And this leads to differences in their foreign policies.
Brad: And this is one of the reasons for perplexing to many Americans, of why the Korean leader showed up in Beijing for the anniversary of World War II along with Vladimir Putin. Something that many Americans looked a bit askance at.
David: Absolutely. I mean, that’s a perfect example. People said that the president of that time, Park Geun-hye, she looks really uncomfortable up there, as if she didn’t know what she was getting into. A commemoration of the end of the Pacific War. Yeah, they showed up and they agreed. And in fact, what she did at the time, was, talk to the Chinese about building a shrine to an American — not American — a Korean independence activist who had been fighting in China at the time. And the two sides agreed that they were going to build a shrine, a memorial to them.
So, there was very different perceptions out there about what the nature of Chinese power is. And one of the interesting things, of course, that we often forget is that like, nobody in East Asia is moving away, right? They’re stuck. They’ve lived with Chinese power, the reality of Chinese power for centuries. And you have to deal with it in one way or another.
Brad: Well, that brings up the question of Japan as well. There are many people in the United States who now look toward Japan, as we seek to perhaps deal with a rise in China as the future U.K. of our Asia- Pacific Alliance, right? The stalwart ally, who is quite capable themselves. But, you and your writings seem to believe that Japan is not only unwilling to fulfill this role, but will find themselves unable to do so.
David: Yeah, and I think this is one of the things, again, there’s been a lot of, I think, aspirational hope, that Japan was going to step up and be the regional leader of a forward-based American containment policy in some ways. We don’t use those words, because we’re too sophisticated to do so. But the belief is always, “Well, the Japanese, they understand what’s going on. China is a threat, they’re going to rearm any moment now.” One of the biggest problems I have. So, 10 years ago, I wrote a book called China Rising. And some of the Japan experts at the time, I titled the chapter on Japan, well, 12 years ago now. The title, I titled it, “Japan is not a leader.” I got so much pushback from Japan experts that I changed the title.
But I should have kept it, that title. They’re not a leader in East Asia. Japan does not bring a whole bunch of countries along with them on these types of policies. And Abe, we are at, in many ways, peak Japan. Abe Shinzo, who has ties back to the old, the Japanese imperial era, and who clearly wants to make Japan great again. The limit of what he’s been able to do, has been to reinterpret Article Nine of the Constitution, the peace constitution. It’s increasingly clear, he doesn’t even have the capacity to actually change it, the Constitution. And despite tremendous talk about Japanese rearmament, two things are happening. It’s a 5% increase in Japanese military spending that Abe is overseeing.
That is minuscule, they spend $60 billion now, China spends some $200 billion. 5% increase isn’t going to catch up with Japan. Secondly, the way that they’re doing it, is by reinterpreting a lot of things that aren’t defense spending, such as Coast Guard, as defense spending. So, if this is peak Japan, I don’t see how, given the demographic and economic issues that Japan faces over the next generation, given those problems, I just don’t see Japan. They’ll be strong, they’ll be rich, they’ll be safe. But, this isn’t the 20th century where there was chaos in East Asia and Japan rearmed and was a military power. I just don’t see how that’s going to happen.
Brad: Can you talk a bit about that? Because, in a lot of your writings, you discuss the unique circumstances that gave rise to Japan in the late 19th century. And a situation that you see completely different than what we see around the world today.
David: Yeah. I mean, this is, I think, very interesting. Japan has never been a leader in East Asia historically. I mean, the story of the East Asian region, and one of the reasons I think we fundamentally have a hard time in America understanding regional dynamics in East Asia, is, our models of what should happen, are based on the European experience. Which is historically, a bunch of similarly sized multipolar states, jockeying for position. So, over the last thousand years, you had the rise and fall of various countries in Europe, but it was essentially a multipolar system.
Well, Chinese power has risen and fallen over the last 2,000 years, but it’s essentially been a hegemonic system. As I said, the reality of Chinese power, or, at the time China is weak, the idea that China will eventually return, has been the constant in East Asia. And so, regional dynamics are very different, and Japan has never been a leader. Every now and then, Japan has tried to influence regional security, an invasion of Korea in 1592, that failed miserably. And Japan, for 300 years, before and after, didn’t try. Then, as China’s falling into disarray, total collapse of the Qing Dynasty in the late 19th century. The Japanese, for a number of reasons, decided that their future lay in imperialism.
So, very unlike Japanese history, for the second time they tried to influence politics in the mainland. A weak China, total chaos around the region, countries rising and falling, Western imperialism. And the Japanese were able to temporarily, for about 50 years, have an impact. But, that is not the case anymore. It’s not a weak China, it’s a strong China. And the idea that a Japan that is a 10th the size of China is going to take that same type of, frankly, disastrous policy that they tried 100 years ago, I just don’t see any appetite in Japan for that going for trying again.
Brad: And do you think that’s true, irrespective of the policies that China might pursue? So, I mean, is there a world you can imagine where China becomes even more assertive than they’ve been in the last three or four years? They become, indeed, quite aggressive? Maybe they take action against Taiwan? I mean, is that a situation where you could imagine Japan, you knew, thinking about more seriously? Even perhaps, broaching the issue of nuclear weapons as, especially, a younger generation comes of age, not as scarred by Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
David: Yeah. I mean, so, those are great questions, and this is how we usually discuss this. Is like, what are the conditions under which they might actually be pushed? One of the reasons that I avoid that is, you can get into playing out very fanciful notions. We do this on North Korea all the time. Right? There’re books out right now on the market that imagine a North Korean nuclear attack on the United States. Sure, I can tell you circumstances under which Japan might do that, I don’t think any of them are realistic. Because, here’s the thing, right? I don’t see any indication that China has actual existential challenge to Japan.
Sure, if it was an existential challenge, like it was 100 years ago, not from Japan, but from, say, the United States. The Japanese, of course, would fight. But the reason that most countries in East Asia aren’t preparing to fight an existential war is, they don’t see their existence is being threatened. So, China, they made disputes in Senkaku Islands and this, that and the other thing, but China makes no claim on Japan. And I don’t know what fevered…nobody claims that China plans to invade and conquer Japan. So, I don’t see the conditions, as being that, and the Koreans don’t see that. No one in Vietnam or the Philippines actually sees that. So, they’re not preparing for China as if they were.
Brad: Well, about Vietnam, you’re right, that it’s widely perceived that Vietnam fears China, and are seeking to hedge with its relations with the U.S. But in fact, you say that it’s the United States chasing Vietnam, not the other way around.
David: Yeah. I mean, interesting to decide Vietnam because, in many ways, what we see with Vietnam is, a country where we are again — the United States is — projecting onto Vietnam. I think, a lot of hopes and aspirations that I don’t think the Vietnamese are in any interest in joining. Right? So, for example, what you hear a lot is hedging. I really dislike the term hedging as a description of national policy. And the reason I dislike it, is because, it implies — first of all, it’s completely unfalsifiable, right? “Oh, they’re hedging.” That can mean anything. Very easy to find whatever you want in hedging. But more than that, what it implies is that a country is actually deciding between two choices. We might do balancing, we might do bandwagoning, I’m right in the middle.
Everything I know about Vietnam is, they may not like China, they may argue with them about certain things, some maritime disputes. But again, Vietnam is not moving anywhere. And joining an actual containment coalition against China, is, in many ways, going to be totally counterproductive to Vietnamese interests. So, I think I have a quote in the book from a Vietnamese official who said, “Every Vietnamese leader needs to know how to push back against China, and every Vietnamese leader needs to know how to get along with China. And if he can’t do both of those things at the same time, he doesn’t deserve to be a leader in Vietnam.” And that’s how they view the situation. There are…We focus on the first naval visit by an American ship, but, of course, that’s us asking Vietnam to let our ships dock there.
The Vietnamese have a… They’ve let Indian ships dock, obviously Russian ships, et cetera, et cetera. So, there is tiny steps towards American-Vietnamese military interactions, but I think we overstate them drastically as to the implication of what this means. And again, it’s the American. Another example is, America, we lifted the arms embargo on Vietnam, we wouldn’t sell them arms. And if someone in Vietnam said, “Why would we buy American arms? We bought our arms from Russia for 50 years, we’re not going to change.” That’s America leaning towards Vietnam, not the other way around.
Brad: So, across the board, you argue, and I think it’s a persuasive one, and even some harsh critics of China like David Shambaugh at The George Washington University, discuss how most of the nations in southeastern Asia are bandwagoning with China. Let me segue to the question of, whether this is something that the U.S. should fiercely resist. And I did find it interesting in all of your writing, that you seem to be fairly sanguine about what Chinese leadership in the region and maybe the world might be. Well, in Washington, D.C., among Democrats and Republicans alike, people are deeply concerned about the illiberal nature of China, especially under Xi Jinping. Does that concern you at all? Okay, maybe the countries are bandwagoning, but we should do everything in our power to get them on board with greater resistance to what China is doing.
David: Yeah. No, I agree a hundred percent. Like, this is one reason that I’m often introduced as an unconventional perspective. I think, I find it interesting that, the arguments that I make within the region are taken as, essentially, conventional wisdom. People from Japan through Singapore are like, “Yeah, so?” And in the United States, and particularly like the Beltway and academia people are like, “What? How can you say these things?” In large part, because I think, we have a view of American grand strategy, that from Democrat and Republican, is just increasingly grown expansive. So, I’ll bet, if you went back 50 years or 100 years, there would not be this idea that the United States must intervene everywhere, must push for democracy everywhere, must use force when necessary.
And in many ways, I think that the United States is better off with a much more minimal definition of what our grand strategy is. In other words, what do I see going on for East Asia? Look, China is not great, it’s still a communist dictatorship. But you know what? Singapore is still a dictator state, we just don’t say so?
Brad: But they seem to be very different countries. I mean, Singapore is what we might aspire for China to be, but Singapore doesn’t have gulags for 1.5 million Uyghurs out in Xinjiang. And they’re not developing a seemingly digital totalitarianism for export. I mean, is there a reason that we should be concerned about China? That seems, I mean, I understand it may be irresistible to try to keep China down, and maybe the nations in the region will bandwagon with China, but it does seem to be that China does present a major problem for us.
David: Well, I mean, this goes back to the question of mission creep, right? When I think about national security, nothing you said threatens American national security. And so, are we going to start a war with China over the Uyhurs? I mean, it’s not great. But I’d actually be much happier about the United States, if we worried about having consistent application of the laws in our own country. And then, when we actually face national security threats that we deal with them, but none of that is our business, necessarily. But we’ve made it our business in ways where other countries are not going along with us. And I think it harms American policy to have such an expansive definition that everybody needs to be like us, when we ourselves don’t live up to our own values.
And even values is, it gets us away from what national security is. Let me put it different way, right? If we think about what really is a threat to American national security, you could probably come up with way more domestic issues than foreign, meaning, an economy that is increasingly unbalanced, deep political divisions between left and right, racial issues, right? There’s a lot of things that are making America weaker. Yes, I’d like to have better trade relations with China. There’re issues of commerce, that I think we can handle better. Ironically enough, I wish we were still in TPP. Because, we would be handling them better. But the idea that somehow because countries don’t have our same values, we have to get involved in them, I think is a road, which is where we’ve gotten today. Where we are in essentially, involved everywhere, for reasons that aren’t necessarily directly related to our national security.
Does China pose a national security threat to us? No. No, they’re not about to invade America. So, in many ways, I think we should keep the threat, at the level at which it actually poses to the United States.
Brad: They may not be getting ready to invade America, but there are lots of policymakers, again, in both parties, who see them doing things like supporting rogue regimes in Sudan or Myanmar, and offering support across the board to non-democratic and corrupt regimes, pursuing aid policies in Africa that seem to undermine international efforts to promote good governance. This seems to be the China way, and is that not something inimical to American interests? And world interest for that matter?
David: Here’s the thing, this is an extremely American perspective. We do everything right, they don’t. I find it fascinating, this whole Huawei thing, right? Is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. In the United States, Huawei is viewed as an arm of the Chinese government, et cetera, et cetera. Maybe it is, maybe it’s not, I don’t know. But countries in East Asia, are not turning down Huawei, they’re going 5G with Huawei. All I’m saying is, we need to recognize that. Maybe it’s good for us to take a stand on this and everything else, but the United States has not been very successful in its attempts to get other, particularly, East Asian countries, to go along with it. Same thing for the Belt and Road Initiative. First about BRI, right? I don’t see that as a policy by China, I see that as a vague phrase that is trying to loop together a whole bunch of unconnected disparate ideas from a whole bunch of different people in China. Right? This is not a some grand strategy.
Even so, American attempts to say, “How dare they?” Most countries around the world, are like, “Okay, that’s fine.” Like, Malaysia is a great example. There was a lot of crowing when Mahathir took power in Malaysia last year because he put a halt on some of the initiatives he was doing with China. Well, they just started them up again. So, I think, it may or may not be right, that BRI is some insidious initiative. My point is that, as we watch other countries, and particularly in East Asia, they’re not going along with the American interpretation of what BRI is, or Huawei, or these kind of things. And I think that this isolates the United States, by ignoring that reality.
Brad: I guess, I want to come back to this idea, though, about what China wants from the world. I mean, do you think that they aspire to, obviously, regional domination, which is their historic lot? Do they have ambitions to supplant the United States, do you think? As the world’s leading power?
David: No. Let me put it this way, right? China already is the regional hegemony in East Asia. The power transition is over regionally. By any measure, if you look at Japan in 1990, as the biggest regional country. Japan in 1990 was about 70% of regional GDP. If you took like the top 12 countries, like China, Japan, Korea, Philippines, et cetera. Japan was 70% of that, and China was like 10%. Those lines crossed about 10 years ago, and now China is about 50% of regional GDP. Those lines are never going back, and this is the reality of East Asia. China goes through problems. China, for whatever reasons, has managed to come, after a century or so, comes back. That is a reality.
In our lifetime, China is not blowing up into little balls into warlords or something like that. So, countries in the region are dealing with China as a fact. So, with that, in terms of the actual where they are, I think, that game is already over, and I think the Chinese, anybody else realizes that they’re basically, regionally, the largest country. As to anything beyond that, I don’t think even Xi Jinping cares. I mean, you can find… If you look, there’s a billion people there, you can find somebody who claims that they want to be the regional hegemon, but I don’t think that’s taken seriously at all. I think that China, just like the United States, is much more focused on internal issues than external issues. So, there’s this old factoid, which is actually true, that Chinese spend more on internal security than they do on external defense.
And if I’m Xi Jinping, when I wake up, what do I think he wakes up and he worries about? I don’t think he thinks about world domination, or even the United States. I think they worry about massive environmental problems, incredible corruption. Again, all these ethnic conflicts, an economy that is slowing down after four decades of economic growth, a political system that has become increasingly — in some ways, we see a strong hand of Xi Jinping — in other ways, I see that as potentially a sign of weakness, that you have to hold tighter and tighter to political control. Right? So, I mean, I look at China, I see a lot of internal problems. So, in many ways, I think where they are now is at a very interesting inflection point. Meaning, the easy part of four decades of growth, quote “Easy,” is over.
And now as a country, they need to figure out where they go from here. And I don’t think, that’s it’s all clear in China itself.
Brad: So, as they do assert themselves internationally, they’re developing a blue-water navy, building these islands in the South China Sea. None of this, you think is of any U.S. concern?
David: I mean, I wouldn’t go that far. I just wonder, like, the interesting about U.S. concern is like, so, we do FONOPS in the South China Seas, right? The freedom of navigation operations. But I was just talking to a U.S. DoD official about this, about a week ago. And the claim, of course, is that, we do this, and we do… actually, we do as many with like Vietnam, and we don’t just do them around China. We do them through all of the regions, because, all these countries make claims, that are outside of, “International law.” So, we do them all over the place. And this DoD official said, “And increasingly, other countries are going along with us.” They’re sending their navies to do FONOPS, as well, with United States. So, I said, “Oh, what countries?” And he said, “Well, U.K., France.”
And so, I said, “Are any regional countries joining in?” And he said, “No.” So, maybe it is our responsibility. I think we should ask that question a little more carefully. If the countries in the region aren’t going to do it, are we going to do it all by ourselves? I think we ought to ask that question.
Brad: Well, we should ask the question, but I guess, it doesn’t necessarily answer itself, just because, the countries in the region aren’t doing it. And we see this in the U.S., for example, where Chamber of Commerce, economic interests, have certain desires, relationships with China that perhaps from a national security standpoint, seem unwise. So, I may think, right? From the national security perspective, you have a nation that is engaged in hundreds of billions of dollars of cyber espionage a year, stealing our equipment. Again, the work in Xinjiang, seemingly coddling authoritarian regimes around the world, developing whole new ways to track and monitor people. And perhaps, exploiting that as well.
I mean, that thus, end a nation with the heft economically, to make this a real challenge to the way the world was operated in the last 70 years. And that does seem to have caused a lot of concern in Washington D.C. But you just seem so sanguine about that.
David: I don’t seem sanguine about it, I just wish we didn’t do the same things. I find it to be really… People around the world are like, “Well, you guys do as much as China does.” Right? I have, in my lifetime, I have watched us go from going to the airport, we all know this, right? We’ve been tracking and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. This is not a China problem, this is a general problem for many, many countries. I’m not happy about any of it. But I find it little hard to say, “Well, we do it, but they shouldn’t do it.”
Brad: But we don’t monitor U.S. students when they’re studying abroad, but the Chinese government is reported to do that. That’s just one example.
David: I am not quite so sure about any of this stuff, because, we have a lot more interest of this now than ever before. I’ve been visited by U.S. officials, talking about various issues on campus, right? There are shades, I’m not going to say were equivalent to China, but I always find it really difficult for us to set up, as if we are a paragon of freedom and they’re not. I think, we are dealing with a lot of these issues. I think, the Chinese are dealing with all these issues. In many ways, this is an issue for all of us to deal with as we’re going forward. But it’s not like, we don’t do it and China does.
Brad: So, just to tease at that a little bit, I see the argument that you’re making, that, we are, in some ways, equivalent to China, that’s no doubt quite contestable. But if you accept that, then China supplanting the U.S., doesn’t do the world any disfavor. But, my question, I guess, comes back to, if you do believe that the U.S. and China are qualitatively different, is China about to supplant the U.S. in these international institutions? And the way that —
David: I started to say no, right? I mean, the thing is, no, right? Nobody is looking at China. This is why, I mean, we overblow the China threat. First of all, a lot of the stuff you’re talking about, whatever they’re doing in China, that’s not a threat to us. Right? So, fine. But, in terms of this, like, “Oh, well, China is about to take over the world.” Right? I don’t think the Chinese think that. Certainly, I don’t think anybody else thinks that. Right? We’ve wound ourselves up into this kind of a belief that, this China is this huge thing. You realize, we still spend three times as much on our military, than China does. They spend about 200, maybe, generously $250 billion on their military. In the U.S., is $750 billion. We have created a culture of overreach, I think. Particularly, in Washington, D.C., about what America has to do, to be safe.
And we do not need to do it. We are spending so much more, we are creating threats now, that the only way that we won’t be worried about China, is if they become a democracy and blah blah, that’s never going to happen. That’s never going to matter. Yeah, they’re going to be Chinese, right? They’re going to be a different country, it’s probably going to be an authoritarian dictatorship for as long as I live. I don’t have to like it. Every time I go to China, you have to use VPN, the Great Wall, et cetera, et cetera. It’s not great. But, is that a threat to the United States? That is something that I’m not convinced of.
Brad: Well, then you cited in your book, people like Barry Posen, who do argue for a more restrained foreign policy. But, most of the people in that camp seem to believe that if the U.S. were to withdraw or lessen its footprint in Asia, the other nations would rise to the challenge of balancing China. You’re coming at, it seems like from a slightly different perspective, which is, you can imagine an Asia that is dominated, and maybe already is dominated by China. And that, they are back as it was in the Qing Dynasty’s heyday, that that is a cause of no concern for the U.S. Is that a fair statement, do you think?
David: Other than the last part about the no concern, right? The issue here is this, right? So, yeah, there’s a lot of restrainers out there. I was just reading something by Steve Walt, classic restrainer. Most of the realists tend to be restrainers, where we don’t have to get as involved in the world as we think. So, Barry is like that, right? So, Barry’s argument is extremely consistent. We spend too much, we don’t have to get involved, other countries problems aren’t our concern. But in East Asia, we’re going to have to balance China. And I was like, “Why? Why is this area different?” Steve Walt just published something in foreign affairs where he said the same thing, he was like, “We’re spending too much abroad, endless war in the Middle East. We need to redouble down on balancing China.” I’m like, “Why? They’re not going to invade us. Where does this go?” Right?
The second thing about the argument, and I was just out at MIT last year, we had a lot of fun talking to Barry. The idea that somehow, if we leave, they will balance. There’s no evidence of that at all, that’s pure wishful thinking. These countries are not balancing, the Philippines is not going from 1% GDP on defense to 10% in building a blue water navy in the next 20 years. That’s not happening. The reality is, these countries aren’t preparing for war. Why? They’re not worried about Chinese invasion. The region is safer and more stable today than it’s been in 100 years. Again, go back to the rise of Japan in 1910 and Korean colonization. The countries then, yes, every single country in the region faced extinction. And they faced extinction up through 1945, many of them immediately became embroiled in civil wars. Whether you’re Korea, Vietnam, China, Singapore and Malaysia, Indonesia. I mean, it was into the 1970s, that countries could realistically face extinction.
Today, there’s literally only two countries that do so: Taiwan and North Korea. So, they are safer, stable, and far richer than they’ve been in the last hundred years. So, what’s the result? Countries aren’t preparing for war.
Brad: They’re not preparing for interstate invasion, no doubt about that. But, may I guess, it comes back to this question I would pose to you. In 25 years, if the world has more Chinese characteristics, Xi Jinping characteristics, than say, American characteristics, is that something we should be indifferent about?
David: Let me put it this way, right? Countries aren’t preparing for war because they’re not worried about being invaded. Beyond that, what do I wish the United States would do? Engage much more economically, get more involved in the region, because, that’s where the future is going. Right? If you talk about this larger thing about U.S. and China in 25 years, that’s all pure speculation. But I’ll point out one thing, the last time the Chinese military fired its weapons was 1989.
Brad: So, we make from that what? That they’re not going to use military power?
David: Well, I don’t know, right? I mean, you’re the one who wants to speculate about these things, right? I mean, if you’re talking about a country that’s getting involved in wars and everything else, it’s been over 25 years. We’re getting on 30 years in which the Chinese military has not even fought, has not even fired its weapons. I’d say, that’s not a bad record.
Brad: Now, I guess the question is, I’m not worried so much about the U.S. Marine Corps fighting the PLA, as to say, I don’t guess I’ve been pushing you on this. It does seem to me, that a world that has more Xi Jinping characteristics, whether it’s next year or 10 years, or 25 years from now, is one that, from a standpoint of human welfare, is a much worse place. And that we should do everything in our power to resist it.
David: Well, no. I think you’re making a bunch of leaps there, right? First of all, a much worse place. I find, this is sort of interesting. So, let’s go back 50 years, let’s go back to China in 1969, height of the Cultural Revolution. Massive chaos, unbelievable disruption, incredibly poor. We think that every day the Chinese wake up and say to themselves, “Oh, I’m…jackbooted thugs, I’m Xi Jinping,” right? Over the last 50 years, China has gotten richer, for many people, safer, et cetera, et cetera. Right? It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. But there’s a reason that people are basically going along and getting along. China is facing this issue now, how do they deal with the consequences of that? But the idea that somehow there’s a massive threat, and secondly, that the U.S. should do something about it, right? Let’s say, so, China is an authoritarian dictatorship 25 years from now. Are you suggesting we invade them? We bomb them? You think that’ll make a difference?
Brad: No, not bomb them. But, doing everything you can to —
David: Well, doing everything you can sounds like starting a war, right? I mean —
David: Sure, we can set a good example, we can get involved in other things, we can do economics and diplomacy. But doing everything we can, sounds pretty extreme to me.
Brad: Now, I guess it starts that from the threshold question of, is this okay or not? Then, there are limits to what one can do. But the issue is, should I be concerned about this rising China?
David: Here’s the difference, let me cut off, you’re very concerned with the normative aspect of this? Should we be concerned? Is it okay? My work focuses on what’s going on in the region? I don’t have any judgment, I’m not going to make a moral judgment about China, I’m not… You notice, I avoid making moral judgment about us. Right? I’m not saying what our country is currently doing, I try to avoid it. What I am telling you is, if the United States decides to make a big deal out of it and do everything we can, I am quite convinced that very few East Asian countries will go along with them. And I think we need to recognize that, that very few countries are going to react towards China, with the kind of same moral abhorrence that seems to be coming from you.
Brad: Well, I think that is one of the most interesting things about your work, in that, I mean, it is a widespread view in the United States that, if the U.S. were to lessen its presence in Asia, the security competition would result. But you in your writings, seem to be quite confident that a China-led Asia is something that, Vietnam, Japan, Korea, and others would accept.
David: Yes, absolutely. That is true, right? And one of the funny things about this scholarship, is, I’ve been writing about it for a long time. 25 years ago, literally, like 1993, 94, you have some of those seminal scholarship on the rise of the East Asia or the rise of China, right? As China gets bigger, countries are going to get more afraid. 10 years later, just wait, it hasn’t happened yet. 10 years later, just wait. We are still in the position of, well, in 25 years, China will become a threat, and countries will react the way we think they will. This is why I write the stuff I do. There’s only so long you can be waiting for Godot, that is an American preoccupation with Chinese power, that clearly East Asian countries are not going along with.
Brad: Well, the other thing our listeners would be interested in hearing you talk about, is something that you have written about recently, which is the Battle of Imjin in 1592, which, for many students of military history, is perhaps something they’re not aware of, but should be.
David: Okay. So, this is a great example. This is one reason that I, again, that I started to write this stuff I do. This war, 1592, roughly contemporaneous with the Spanish Armada. In 1592, Japanese general, Hideyoshi, invaded Korea, intending to conquer China. He took 200,000 troops on 700 ships. Eventually, 100,000 Chinese and about 60,000 Koreans fought him off. The South Korea’s most famous military leader, Yi Sun-sin, was a naval commander who repeatedly cut the supply lines. It was one of the main reasons that the Japanese lost. This war, was 10 times the size of what you could imagine in Europe at the time. The Spanish Armada, the biggest military force in Renaissance Europe, consisted of about 30,000 Spanish and 20,000 British, or English. Like, 10 times the scale of war fighting going on in… than going on in Europe.
That in of itself is just an interesting factoid. Wow, these countries in Asia, they had huge power. But, what is more interesting about that is, almost nothing about this war fits any of our standard theories of international relations. Number one, China at the time, massive hegemon, Ming Dynasty. Japan was maybe a 30th the size, tiny, compared to China. The small country invaded the big country. Secondly, Korea and Japan didn’t align together against China. Rather, Korea was the one that appealed to China. Right? So, there’s no balance of power, the alliance is not work to balance power, the small invaded the big. Not only that, it was the only war between Japan and China for 600 years, 300 years beforehand. And 300 years afterwards, Japan and China didn’t fight. But they clearly had the logistical capability to cross water with hundreds of thousands of troops. It was a choice not to fight, even as the Ming began to collapse 50 years later, in the mid 17th century, the Japanese didn’t take advantage of that at all.
It’s not like they said, “Now’s our chance, let’s try again.” And in fact, there was discussion in the Tokugawa chord in Japan about supporting the Ming, because they trusted the Ming better than they did these usurpers the Qing. So, there’s a lot of reasons why the world doesn’t work the way that we think it does. And even being aware of East Asian history or what’s going on, I think, would widen the dynamics. And most of this, I think, will help the United States make better policy.
Brad: Well, we ask every guest of Jaw-Jaw to conclude by giving us two or three books they’d recommend for people who might be interested in reading further, what would you recommend someone?
David: The first book I’d recommend is by Brad Glosserman, it’s called, Peak Japan. It just came out from Georgetown University Press. He wrote a great article a couple years ago, and this is a book, and Brad is just an amazing guy. And essentially, he’s influenced a lot of the way I think about Japan. But essentially, that’s the basic point, which is, there’s a lot going on, Japan is a very strong country. But, you’re at the beginning of what is a tipping point or whatever else, right? The second book is by Michael Green, By More Than Providence, do you know this book? Grand Strategy and American Power Since 1783?
Brad: I do.
David: Fabulous, fabulous book from Columbia University Press. Looks at American foreign policy, and unlike me, Mike has a more positive view. But, he says, essentially, America has always had a consistent policy. We haven’t always done it well, but American grand strategy to East Asia has always been focused on preventing the rise of any hegemonic challenger, and keeping the Asia-Pacific open for commerce. And that, we’ve done it over 200 years. It’s a really, really good book. The last book I would suggest, of course, is by my friend, Victor Cha, called, Power Play: Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia. Where, he explains, why America created the types of alliances it did. This is also from two years ago, I think. It took him forever to write this book, because he got involved in government. He had the idea way back, like mid-2000s. But it’s a great book about America’s alliances in East Asia. And how the Americans, essentially set up these alliances to stop from being pulled into wars by Chiang Kai-shek and Syngman Rhee and people like that.
So, we set up alliances to keep us from getting pulled into wars we didn’t want to fight. Now, obviously, my argument is that it’s the other way around, sort of pushing them. But it’s fabulous, really wonderful book. So, all of those are great.
Brad: We will put links to all of those in the show notes to the podcast. Professor David Kang of the University of Southern California, thank you for being a guest on Jaw-Jaw.
David: Thank you so much for having me, this is great.