[Marxism] Can China Replace the West?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Apr 26 06:23:46 MDT 2017

NY Review, May 11 2017 issue
by Jessica T. Mathews

Easternization: Asia’s Rise and America’s Decline from Obama to Trump 
and Beyond
by Gideon Rachman
Other Press, 307 pp., $25.95

Gideon Rachman’s Easternization, his new survey of a transformed Asia, 
admirably does what so little writing on foreign affairs attempts. It 
treats with equal facility economics, geopolitics, security, enough 
history for needed background, official thinking, and public attitudes. 
Rachman, chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times, has an 
eye for the telling statistic and for the memorable detail that makes it 
stick. He packs an enormous amount of information into a short book and 
opens windows of understanding for nonexperts onto this immensely 
important three fifths of humanity. And while not directly concerned 
with the new American administration, the story he tells shows well why 
Donald Trump’s foreign policies could end so badly for the United States 
and for the world.

But Rachman does not, in the end, make a convincing case for the book’s 
thesis—embodied in its one-word title. The central issue, he writes, is 
“how the rise in Asian economic power is changing world politics.” His 
momentous answer is that “the West’s centuries-long domination of world 
affairs,” stretching back to 1500, “is now coming to a close.” Without 
doubt, Asia’s economic ascent has been extraordinary, but 
Westernization—the spread of the West’s influence and values—has rested 
on much more than its wealth and the military power derived from it. 
Those other elements—including open governments, readiness to build 
institutions, and contributions to others’ security and growth—are weak 
or absent in Asia today. Easternization is neither here nor coming soon.

Asia is the world’s largest continent and home to 4.4 billion people. 
But its story is disproportionately about China’s economic growth. 
Beijing’s official statistics are notoriously unreliable, but by most 
reckonings, China became the world’s largest economy (measured by 
purchasing power parity, PPP) in 2014. What isn’t so well known is how 
astonishingly fast the end came for the 140-year reign of the American 
economy as the world’s largest. According to numbers Rachman cites, 
China was just 12 percent of the size of the US economy in 2000 and only 
half as big as late as 2011. Such meteoric growth has been enough to 
lift hundreds of millions out of poverty, finance the US deficit, and 
still allow China to increase its military spending at double-digit 
rates every year for two decades.

In matters of national security the momentum of Chinese growth has 
meant, for example, that while Japan’s military spending was triple 
China’s in 2000, it was only half as large by 2015. A rapidly expanding 
military has underwritten Beijing’s surging confidence in its own 
strength vis-à-vis both its neighbors and the US, and increasingly 
aggressive behavior in the South and East China Seas, where it has 
claimed islands, rocks, and waters also claimed by Japan, Vietnam, and 
the Philippines. It has built artificial islands and constructed runways 
and other dual-use facilities on them. It has deployed planes and ships 
to assert its rights and challenged others’ rights to fishing areas, oil 
resources, and even freedom of navigation in areas of open ocean. It has 
vehemently rejected a strong ruling against its claims by a tribunal 
under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Though Chinese leaders have not specified exactly what waters they claim 
and insist that China wants a peaceful, negotiated solution to these 
disputes, it is easy to see their actions in a very different light. 
Beijing has notably failed to clarify its goal: whether to assert its 
newfound strength, to test others’ resolve, to extend its regional sway, 
or to claim sovereignty over everything within the so-called nine-dash 
line (a demarcation of China’s claims to the South China Sea that dates 
back to 1947) and attempt to push the US out of the western Pacific—an 
outcome Washington will not accept. In the atmosphere of profound 
strategic mistrust that defines US–China relations, the potential for 
tragic miscalculation by both sides is obvious.

This is not the only or even the most immediate security risk in the 
region. Taiwan’s official status as part of mainland China—known as the 
One China policy—is nonnegotiable for Beijing. Trump’s biggest blunder 
to date was to suggest that he might no longer accept that policy, which 
has kept the peace among the US, Taiwan, and China for four decades 
while allowing Taiwan to flourish. Beijing instantly—and entirely 
predictably—froze all communication with the US, and Washington was 
forced to back down.

Assuming that the Trump administration has permanently learned this 
lesson, the far more serious threat is North Korea’s advancing nuclear 
capability (it could soon have enough nuclear fuel for one hundred 
warheads) and its progress toward nuclear-armed ICBMs that could reach 
the US. Though it is formally China’s ally and largely dependent on it, 
Pyongyang routinely ignores Beijing. In a rare misjudgment, Rachman 
devotes only a few short paragraphs to what may well be the first major 
crisis the new US administration confronts, and a source of acute 
contention between it and China.

Rachman links China’s newly aggressive policies to President Xi Jinping, 
noting that the month after he took office “Chinese military aircraft 
entered Japanese-controlled airspace for the first time since 1958,” and 
that in his first eighteen months Xi “paid more official visits to the 
People’s Liberation Army than his predecessor had done in a decade.” Xi 
has paid equal attention to building public support for his newly 
assertive policies, bolstering decades of Communist Party propaganda 
that China, at long last, is claiming its rightful place as a world 
power after more than a century of foreign humiliation.

This “aggrieved nationalism” coexists with an equally strong feeling of 
insecurity within the Chinese government—a dangerous mixture. The 
Communist Party’s legitimacy no longer rests on ideology but on economic 
growth, which is slowing. The Party is convinced that the West fomented 
the string of so-called color revolutions demanding democratic 
governance that took place during the 2000s—from Ukraine, Georgia, and 
Kyrgyzstan to Lebanon and Iran. It fears and expects similar subversion 
in China. Outrage at elite corruption was a common feature of these 
movements, and corruption is rampant in China. So Xi has launched a 
vigorous campaign against it—conveniently jailing many of his political 
opponents. The difficulty, as Rachman points out, is that “arresting 
more than one hundred thousand people…risks creating political 
instability by another route.”

China may appear an economic and military powerhouse but it is 
confronting critical challenges at home. Environmental 
pollution—especially of the air—is not only hugely unpopular and 
economically costly; it is a killer, responsible for the deaths of a 
staggering million to a million and a half Chinese annually. China also 
faces a looming demographic crisis with its aging population, shrinking 
workforce, and huge number of people who will retire with only a single 
child and a drastically inadequate social safety net to support them. 
The cost of pensions and health care will balloon. Anticipating the 
coming cliff, Beijing changed its one-child policy to a two-child policy 
in late 2015, producing a small increase in births but not yet what is 
hoped for. Stalled economic reform also belongs on this list of 
weaknesses, as does widening inequality and continuing deep poverty in 
rural areas.

Not surprisingly, China’s recent belligerence has intensified 
long-standing fears among its neighbors. Many of these fraught 
relationships stretch very far back. Rachman recounts the Vietnamese 
joke that the shape of its coastline reflects a spine bent under the 
weight of China, with which it has fought seventeen wars. In Southeast 
Asia, too, countries fear China, look to the US for support, and hope 
that they will not be forced to choose between them. In China, the 
memory of Japan’s brutal World War II occupation remains fresh, while 
Japan fears that China’s new militarism may be a repeat of its own 
mistakes of that period. And India, Asia’s other superstate—and one of 
China’s four nuclear-armed neighbors—sits across the longest disputed 
border in the world.

India is growing faster than China and may one day surpass it as the 
world’s largest economy, but today it is far behind. Indeed, the country 
faces a list of challenges so long that one is forced to conclude that 
it is little short of a miracle that a unified, democratic state exists 
at all. But in Narendra Modi, India now has dynamic leadership for the 
first time in many years. Led by the Hindu nationalist BJP party, the 
Modi government has come under criticism for its restrictions on civil 
liberties and its failure to protect religious minorities. But with his 
recent landslide win in state elections, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, 
India’s largest state, Modi may be consolidating enough political 
strength to force through long-needed reforms in New Delhi.

Though Rachman takes India’s growth as more evidence for Easternization, 
culturally and politically India is facing west. In contrast to its wary 
and sometimes actively contested relationship with China, India’s 
relations with the US have been growing steadily closer since the George 
W. Bush years. Russia is no longer India’s major arms supplier; the US 
is. And the stunning success of Indian immigrants in the US, from 
Silicon Valley to Wall Street to academia, is a powerful draw for others 
to follow.

Russia, too, is turning east, Rachman argues. Its doing so is “part of 
the same phenomenon” as China’s increasing assertiveness, namely 
relative Western economic and political decline. Evidence includes joint 
Russian–Chinese military exercises, shared pressure against color 
revolutions, and, in 2014, a loudly trumpeted natural gas deal (though 
the latter has yet to be implemented). In reality, Moscow’s latest turn 
toward China happened because it could not get what it wanted—respect as 
a great power and equality in NATO—from the West. Then Russia’s actions 
in Crimea and Ukraine triggered tough sanctions that the US and its 
allies show no sign of lifting. Thus, the turn is at least as much a 
push from the West as it is a pull toward the East.

With India, China, and Japan accounting for three of the world’s four 
largest economies (as measured by PPP), and rapid growth in two of them, 
Asia is becoming the world’s economic center, though today the US and 
the EU together remain substantially larger. Arms purchases and greatly 
increased military strength have followed Asia’s growth. China, in 
particular, is closing the gap, though the US retains a huge advantage. 
When alliances are added to the picture—as they should be—the picture 
becomes much more lopsided and more complicated since Japan and South 
Korea and several other Asian states, together with the twenty-eight 
members of NATO, number among America’s vast global alliance network. 
China’s main allies, Pakistan and North Korea, may be a net burden.

But, as Rachman shows, the West’s ability to impose order on the world 
is not what it once was. Among the many reasons is its relative decline 
in military power, the advent of asymmetrical warfare, decades of 
underspending on defense by European powers, and the salutary 
disappearance of the artificial order imposed first by colonial empires 
and later by the cold war. America’s European allies have placed such a 
strong priority on social spending over defense spending that in many 
cases their individual military capabilities have become negligible. 
Rachman notes that when Britain’s cuts are completed next year, its army 
would fit comfortably in London’s Wembley Stadium with 16,000 seats to 
spare. Even collectively, the EU has been content to largely offload its 
strategic responsibilities to the US.

For its part, the US is still fighting the longest and most expensive 
wars in its history in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Trump administration 
may well escalate US military operations in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, but 
special operations and even missile strikes can only achieve so much. 
The American public has little appetite for any new commitment of ground 
troops, especially in the Middle East. Taken together, these trends do 
create an unsettling new environment in which the Western powers are 
less in charge. But this does not translate into a greater influence for 
Asian nations.

More telling, though, is that throughout history, the dominance of the 
West has been driven as much by values, ideas, and political attraction 
as by economic and military power. The West has stood for open, usually 
democratic and secular polities and a shared culture that places a high 
value on individual freedoms. Western nations have preferred open trade 
to mercantilism. They have evolved a uniquely successful capitalist 
economic system and been devoted to the rule of law. They have 
prioritized education and technological innovation. And in the decades 
since World War II, Western nations have invested enormous effort and 
money into building a liberal, rules-based world order and a panoply of 
international institutions whose work benefits all countries. In short, 
Westernization has spread as much through the positive attraction of its 
model as through overt or implicit coercion.

What does Asia-based Easternization look like in this light? The first 
thing to be said is that Asia is not remotely cohesive. There is no 
“East” comparable to “the West.” Though the region is integrating 
economically, it is riven by active conflicts, bitter historical 
memories, and deep cultural divisions. Economic and political systems 
vary widely. Adherence to the rule of law is extremely uneven. One 
result is the rampant flight of capital—to the West. Wealthy Russians 
and Chinese flock to put their money in US securities or real estate in 
London or Miami. Education lags behind the West. Not a single Asian 
university ranks in the globe’s top tier.

China is becoming much more active in international governance and many 
Asian countries have staffed United Nations peacekeeping missions. But 
by and large Asians have been the beneficiaries rather than the creators 
of the regimes, agreements, and institutions conceived and built by the 
West, whether to manage global finance, underwrite economic development, 
control nuclear proliferation, govern the Internet, slow climate change, 
detect epidemics, preserve shared natural resources, manage air travel, 
and so on. And except for the city-states of Singapore and Hong Kong, 
there is no Asian nation whose governance stands as a model others seek 
to emulate.

Rachman sees Asian countries choosing to “reassert their own histories 
and heritages, and scrape away some of the accumulations of 
Westernization.” Others see the opposite. Kishore Mahbubani, an 
influential former Singaporean diplomat, has been writing about the dawn 
of Asia and the “sunset” of the West for two decades, urging the West to 
learn to share power gracefully. In his book The New Asian Hemisphere: 
The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East (2008), he argues 
that the fast-growing Asian economies owe their success to having 
finally adopted the “pillars of Western wisdom,” namely open polities, 
free markets, and the rule of law. (This was easier to say about China 
nine years ago than it would be today.)

Powered, above all, by China’s economic dynamism, Asia is stronger than 
it has ever been. At the same time, the United States and much of Europe 
are struggling with deep challenges to their democracies. The EU faces 
what may be existential threats from Brexit, from populist, right-wing 
parties, and from member states in Eastern Europe that have turned away 
from democracy. NATO is in disrepair. The US is more divided now than it 
has been at any point in the past century, with no discernible path out 
of what appears to be a political dead end. Yet the West still provides 
the robust institutional infrastructure that undergirds the global 
economy. And as it has for decades, the United States still provides 
global leadership and the security that has enabled Asia to achieve its 
tremendous growth.

Rachman writes that China’s long-term goal is “overturning America’s 
global role.” If he means that Beijing sees itself as a strategic 
competitor and wants to replace the US as world leader, he has gone too 
far. China would like to see a weaker US where US policies threaten its 
interests, especially in its neighborhood, but it has shown no desire to 
possess America’s global preeminence. China is a challenge to the United 
States on several fronts; not an enemy. However, the relationship is 
riven with tensions that could escalate into open conflict. Neither side 
understands or trusts the other. Avoiding these thorns will depend on 
steady leaders and skilled diplomacy in reading each other’s behavior. 
Improvisation or short-sighted deals made for a domestic audience are 
likely to end badly. History also warns that success will not be easy. 
Most often, in the past, rising new powers have clashed with reigning 
ones. The US–China relationship will remain the most consequential in 
the world for decades to come.

So far President Trump has sent decidedly mixed signals about how he 
intends to deal with China. He attacked China throughout the 
presidential campaign, promising to designate it as a currency 
manipulator on his first day in office and to slap on punishing 
tariffs—a step that would have ignited a trade war. He stumbled into a 
needless hole by suggesting a US reversal on the status of Taiwan. He 
appointed several top officials known for their fierce anti-China views, 
but also a treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, with different ideas. 
While Trump had called the Chinese “grand champions” of currency 
manipulation, Mnuchin promised a review based on established criteria 
that will show that China has not, in recent years, been devaluing its 
currency. Notwithstanding an early summit with Japan’s prime minister, 
the president’s frequent derogatory remarks about allies and alliances 
left Asians fearful and guessing about American intentions.

And then, at his summit with President Xi in early April, Trump reversed 
himself in tone and substance from all he had said before. There was no 
mention of unfair trade, of China “raping” the US economy or failing to 
do enough about North Korea. The two presidents stressed their personal 
relationship and the basis they had laid for future progress in 
resolving issues between the two countries. It could not have been a 
more conventional preliminary meeting, or more distant from what 
candidate and even President Trump had earlier promised. While 
presumably relieved by this, Xi surely did not appreciate being taken by 
surprise and completely overshadowed by a US missile strike on Syria in 
the middle of the meeting. And who can know whether this welcome 
traditional approach—new to this administration—will last when the 
governments actually tackle the differences between them?

Several of the administration’s actions, however, have been unequivocal 
and unequivocally harmful. The president followed through on his 
campaign promise to take the United States out of the Trans-Pacific 
Partnership. The TPP would have made a relatively small economic 
difference—most of its members already have low trade barriers—but it 
was geopolitically important. The partnership, which did not include 
China, was a means of drawing America’s Asian allies closer together and 
of signaling US resolve and permanent engagement in Asia. China wasted 
no time in taking advantage of the diplomatic gift it was handed with 
the TPP’s demise. At January’s global forum in Davos, President Xi 
appeared as the spokesman for globalization and open trade. A few weeks 
later, China sent high-level officials to a meeting of the eleven 
remaining TPP members to discuss forming a new regional trade regime in 
which it, and not the US, would be a member.

The administration’s reversal of measures to reduce greenhouse gas 
emissions created a similar opportunity for China. Whether or not the 
president decides to formally renounce the Paris climate accord, these 
steps will make it unlikely that the US will be able to meet its 
commitments under the agreement, moving the US from leader to outlier. 
Here, too, China immediately acted to reassert its own commitments and, 
by default, international leadership.

The president’s policy choices, as revealed in the budget he submitted 
to Congress in mid-March, promise more of the same. Draconian cuts to 
the State Department, to foreign aid, to most international 
institutions, and to the international programs of most domestic 
agencies suggest that Trump holds a dangerously one-dimensional view of 
what constitutes US security.

Both Democrats and Republicans have underinvested in diplomacy relative 
to the military for decades, but both have generally recognized the 
immense value of the nation’s nonmilitary assets to securing the whole 
gamut of its interests. As General James Mattis, then the head of the US 
Central Command and now Trump’s defense secretary, famously put it in 
shorthand to a congressional panel in 2013, “If you don’t fund the State 
Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”

Never before has a president suggested handing over most of the currency 
of US global leadership to others, free of charge. China will not 
hesitate to seize every opportunity offered. A much diminished and less 
influential America, and consequently a much less secure Asia, would be 
the result.

—April 11, 2017

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