The Corner

China Moment

We’re having a China moment. First came Fareed Zakaria’s thought-provoking overview in Newsweek. There followed two cover articles in the latest issue of The Atlantic. Finally, Sunday’s Washington Post featured a superb China op-ed by Robert Kagan. To really appreciate Kagan, you’ve got to read him in tandem with Benjamin Schwarz’s piece from The Atlantic. Kaplan is responding directly to Schwarz–-and gets the better of the argument, I think. These two smart op-ed’s lay out a debate we’re bound to be enmeshed in for decades.

Robert D. Kaplan’s long article on the coming military face-off with China is stunning–chock full of insight and eye-opening information. Kaplan describes the coming competition with China as a second Cold War. Looking at the world today, you’ve got to say Samuel Huntington called it. For decades it’s going to be the West against Islamic terror on the one hand, and China on the other. A better way of putting it may be that Huntington and Fukuyama may have both been right. Huntington is more right now, but we darn well better hope that Fukuyama will be more right later. (For my take on Huntington vs. Fukuyama, see “The Future of History.” )

But framing the future as a choice between regional rivalries and advancing universal democracy doesn’t tell us exactly how to proceed. Should we accommodate China while slowly enticing her into the modern world-system, and presumably eventual democracy? Should we delicately bottle China up without much regard to her internal workings, and hope for democratization over time? Or should we contain China a bit more aggressively, knowing that someday the outcome of a cold or hot war may decide the issue of China’s internal structure? Schwarz argues for accommodation, Kaplan for patient, realist containment, and Kagan for a more aggressive form of containment.

Kaplan is a brilliant realist–-and I like that. But I think Kaplan sets up a false choice between realism and aggressive democratization. We’ve got to balance both. Even if Iraq ends up bringing a measure of democracy to the Middle East, argues Kaplan, that sort of war is too costly in an Asian setting. OK, but that’s an argument in favor of Iraq, not against it. We used force in the one place we could. That display of toughness will help us in contexts where war is less of an option.

Kaplan thinks our Middle East battles are a passing phase on the way to the new cold war with China. I think Kaplan’s wrong about that. Even with success in Iraq, nuclear terror from the Middle East is going to remain an all-too-real possibility. So once the Cold War with China starts in earnest, our military’s going to be over-stretched. Kaplan has great ideas for integrating our forces with those of other countries. Yet with the growing challenges we face, an eventual expansion of our military is in the cards. Of course, with Democrats eager to use that issue as a scare tactic against the Republicans, it will take another terrorist strike–-or a sea-going confrontation with China’s navy–to get us a bigger military. But wether via an expanded volunteer force or a draft, our military is destined to grow.

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