Pankaj Mishra on China

by Reihan Salam

Pankaj Mishra believes that the fact that China has not had a substantial military presence outside of its borders over the past seven centuries means that westerners are foolish to be concerned about its geopolitical ambitions:

In some extreme versions of Western Sinophobia, China is always plotting, while talking up its “peaceful rise,” to take over the world — a conspiracy insidiously advanced, if we are to believethe U.S. Congress, by such global Chinese companies- cum-Trojan-horses as Huawei.

Such scenarios omit the fact that, unlike Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the U.S., among other erstwhile “rising” powers, China has virtually no record of military interventions in far-off countries.

Indeed, the history of China’s relationship with its neighboring states during its long centuries as the supreme power in East Asia furnishes some remarkable facts: the relative lack, for instance, of violent conflict between major states such as China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

China fought plenty of wars with the nomadic communities on its western and northern borders. But while the map of Europe was continuously and often brutally altered during the last millennium, the boundaries of China’s neighbors — Korea, Japan and Vietnam — remained largely stable for nearly seven centuries. China’s successful intervention on Korea’s side against a Japanese invasion in the late 16th century, for example, did not lead to a Chinese military presence abroad.

Its uncharacteristic invasion of Vietnam in the early 15th century ended in defeat; but the victor, Vietnam’s legendary rebel-turned-emperor Le Loi, opted, like his predecessors, to become a tributary of the Middle Kingdom.

What I find odd about Mishra’s thesis is that the borders of China have been contested for much of this period, much of which precedes the rise of the post-Renaissance national state, and if we think of Tibet or the Muslim-majority regions of western China as culturally distinct regions, it seems fairly clear that China has indeed gone through expansionist phases. To be sure, Mishra seems to believe that nomadic communities don’t count, which certainly helps his argument along. 

And while Mishra notes China’s invasion of Vietnam in the early 15th century, he neglects to mention China’s invasion of Vietnam in 1979, which was successfully repelled. One possibility is that China has not been more militarily active because it senses that it is relatively weak in relation to its neighbors. As China grows stronger, it is not obvious that this logic will continue to obtain. 

This is not to say that China has always been in the wrong. Far from it. China’s 1962 border dispute with India, for example, represents an instance in which China had the stronger historical claim. But Misra’s column is strangely self-refuting:

Trade with their big neighbor anchors the economies of almost all members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which renounced decades of hostility and distrust to establish close relations with China in the 1980s and 1990s.

Few Asian countries can afford a war with China, even one fought with enthusiastic U.S. assistance. Also, Asian policy makers are unlikely to have forgotten how badly the previous U.S. engagement with Southeast Asia ended in Saigon in 1975, forcing even Thailand, an eager facilitator of the U.S. war effort in Vietnam, to start deferring to China.

Given this, fantasies of militarily balancing China often appear little more than a desperate attempt by Cold War-era American think-tanks to keep themselves solvent.

The Jakarta Post columnist is right: the U.S. should not engage in the futile and counterproductive task of dividing co- dependent Asian countries into rival camps of friends and enemies.

The truth, however, is that East Asian states, Japan first and foremost, are bristling at China’s rising influence. And the reason is precisely that “few Asian countries can afford a war with China,” a fact that China can leverage to extract concessions. Indeed, anxiety about Chinese influence is at least one reason why the military regime in Myanmar has been keen to embrace political reform — to help guarantee that it is not at the mercy of a single regional power. Unless Mishra believes that Cold War-era American think tanks secretly control policymakers in East and Southeast Asia, which would be a difficult feat in light of the budget constraints Mishra sees as binding, this undermines the thesis that “Sinophobia” — that is, a belief that rising Chinese strength warrants the preservation of collective security arrangements in the Western Pacific — is a western fixation. 

In criticizing Western Sinophobia, I imagine Mishra has foreign policy scholars like Aaron Friedberg, author of A Contest for Supremacy and a veteran of the Bush White House, in mind. Consider Friedberg’s recent op-ed in The Diplomat

Other Asian nations have no desire to be caught up in a new cold war, but they are also deeply fearful of being left alone to confront an increasingly powerful China.  The point of the pivot was to reassure them that, despite its present difficulties, the United States is not going to pull back and abandon them to their fates.  While they have generally welcomed recent signals of American commitment, many regional observers remain unconvinced that the United States has the will or the wallet to follow through.  Impending defense budget cuts and indications that, after a few months of tough talk, Washington is already prepared to soften its stance towards China can only reinforce these doubts.

As China grows stronger other countries are going to have to work harder to preserve a balance of power that safeguards their interests and helps keep the peace.  Taken together, the United States and its Asian friends and allies have more than sufficient means to maintain such a balance.  But if Washington wants others to do their part it needs to stand firm in its dealings with Beijing.  Even more important, it needs to make costly, long-term investments in the military capabilities that will be needed to counter China’s own.  When it comes to Asia, the United States does not have the option of leading from behind.

My sense is that Friedberg has a better sense of the security dynamics in the region than Mishra. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.