The Gathering Uncertainty

In August, delivering the Michael Hintze Lecture at the University of Sydney, Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, author of The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, said:

Australians should be worried about China’s rise, because it is likely to lead to an intense security competition between China and the United States, with considerable potential for war. Moreover, most of China’s neighbours, including India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Russia, Vietnam, and yes Australia, will join with the United States to contain China’s power. To put it bluntly: China cannot rise peacefully.

The title of Professor Mearsheimer’s lecture was “The Gathering Storm”, which was, of course, also the title of the first volume of Winston Churchill’s multi-volume history of the Second World War. I have called this article “The Gathering Uncertainty”, because I disagree with Professor Mearsheimer, but I do not by any means for that reason counsel ease or complacency.

I will argue that Professor Mearsheimer was correct in every word he used except one: the word cannot. China may not rise peacefully, but this is by no means foreordained. There are, indeed, reasons for concern, but the realist framework that Professor Mearsheimer uses to develop his argument is flawed in important ways. The consequence is not that we can safely ignore his warnings and rest assured that trade will trump security concerns and that China will rise peacefully. Rather it is that we need to do even more careful thinking and develop even more adroit and thoughtful strategies than his outlook would suggest. And this is especially evident if we do no more than ponder the wise reflections of Winston Churchill, writing in 1948, looking back on the antecedents to the Second World War and what he described, with reference to the 1920s and 1930s, as the gathering storm. I shall, therefore, use Churchill’s reflections as a touchstone for how to think about where we now stand and the kinds of policies we may need to adopt if we are to ensure that China both rises and does so peacefully. First, however, I wish to challenge directly one of the fundamental assumptions on which Professor Mearsheimer’s approach to the matter is premised.

Mearsheimer’s book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics was published in 2001. In Chapter 10, “Great Power Politics in the Twenty-First Century”, he laid out what he described as the five assumptions on which the realist view of the international order of things is based. As a graduate of the Australian National University’s department of international relations, founded by Hedley Bull, I fully appreciate the basis for these assumptions. They are, in Mearsheimer’s words:

  • States are the key actors in world politics and they operate in an anarchic system;
  • Great powers invariably have some offensive
    military capability;
  • States can never be certain whether other states have hostile intentions towards them;
  • Great powers place a high premium on survival; and
  • States are rational actors who are reasonably effective at designing strategies that maximize their chances of survival.

He then commented that, especially since the end of the Cold War, experts of various kinds have argued that the nature of great power politics has changed in such a way as to promise a welcome peace of a more or less Kantian nature in the twenty-first century: “Although there are sharp differences among these optimists about the root causes of this purported transformation, each argument is essentially a direct challenge to one of the realist assumptions described above. The only claim that the optimists do not challenge is the claim that states are rational actors” (emphasis added).

I do not regard myself as an optimist and I will not challenge any of Mearsheimer’s first four assumptions. I do, however, challenge precisely that assumption, the fifth, which he says the optimists do not challenge. Indeed, I will go so far as to say that the actual tragedy of great power politics is closely bound up with the fact that states are not rational actors, at least not if this term is rigorously defined, as for example in neo-classical economics, where rational actors are individual, value-maximising, information-computing utilitarian agents with perfect and symmetrical access to information. It is one of the crucial symptoms of the weakness in Mearsheimer’s view of international relations that he would hold the strange assumption that states behave in this manner. But so set is he in this opinion that there is no entry in his index under the term “rational actor” and none under the names “Herbert Simon”, “Daniel Kahneman” or “Amos Tversky”, perhaps the best-known critics of rational-actor analysis of human behaviour.

I believe that, in holding to this assumption, Mearsheimer and those who think like him are seriously in error. States are not rational actors. They do not go to war, for the most part, out of a rational calculation of costs and benefits. They do so for reasons that are, at best, the product of what Herbert Simon dubbed a “bounded rationality”; they often waver where they would do better to be decisive and persist in courses of action on the basis of numerous cognitive fallacies of the kinds identified by Kahneman and Tversky or because of severe deficits in cognitive efficiency. They also quite certainly do not share perfect or symmetrical access to information.

The corollary of this is that it is not the rational self-interest of states which drives them to engage in intense security competitions and fight wars, but often deeply flawed, ideologically coloured and seriously information-poor calculations of costs and benefits by a shifting combination of competing national elites and ignorant popular opinion. This is what Thucydides showed in his classic history of the Peloponnesian War. It is what history after history has shown regarding the First World War. It is what Winston Churchill demonstrated with regard to the origins of the Second World War. It is what we must bear in mind with regard to China, if we are to avoid a war with that great and complex empire as its wealth and power increase.

It is worth underscoring this point, because it has the most important implications for how we think about the possibility of confrontation, to say nothing of major war, with China or between China and an American-led alliance at any time in the next generation. Let me repeat: states are not rational actors. Strictly speaking, states do not exist as univocal cognitive agents, that is to say “actors” with a single mind which could even in principle behave in a formally and substantively rational manner. They consist of institutions of widely varying descriptions and capabilities, of interest groups and agents of influence, of populations and passions, all of which influence the manner in which that commonly irrational and counter-productive thing, security policy in the national interest, is conducted. Such security policy is a witches’ brew of inputs like that in the cauldron of the hags in Macbeth. It is anything but a formally rational calculation of the interest of the polity as a whole based on perfect information and specified utilitarian weightings. Yet only the latter procedure would justify us calling anyone or any state a rational actor.

This is not, of course, to say that the strategic behaviour of states bears no relation to their survival or perceived advantages. But between formally rational pursuit of these and no relation lies a world of difference and many a grievous error of policy and statecraft. This and not a fixed assumption that states necessarily pursue their interests rationally is actually where we need to focus our attention—as rationally and critically as we are able—if we are to avoid tragedies in great power politics. But of course, our efforts will count for little if they cannot be co-ordinated with those of many others over an extended period—and that is enormously difficult to accomplish. The failure to accomplish such co-ordination or to sustain it over extended periods is the chasm into which international power politics tumbles again and again, to our immense collective cost. The many ways in which even the calculations of single states fail the tests of rigorously rational analysis are exhibited time and time again in strategic intelligence assessments.

Consider the miscalculations on all sides which led to the catastrophic disaster of the First World War; to the series of errors by the Western Allies in the 1920s and 1930s which made possible the resurgence of an armed and vengeful Germany; to the reckless gambles by Adolf Hitler which put his opponents out of their reckoning again and again, but finally led to the apocalyptic Second World War and the utter destruction of Nazi Germany; to the judgment by Stalin that Hitler would never invade the Soviet Union until he had settled accounts with the British empire, because he was “not a complete idiot”; to the refusal of Israel’s cabinet and high command in 1973 to credit the plain evidence that Egypt and Syria were about to launch a war against it; to the CIA’s judgment in early 1990 that Saddam Hussein would not invade Kuwait; or for years before 1998 that India would not test a nuclear weapon and so on. The list is endless. In short, it is not with the rational calculation of the Chinese state that we should be chiefly concerned in the years ahead, but with the possibilities for misperception, miscalculation, irrational commitment and strategic error, whether theirs, ours or that of our great and powerful allies. And it is this consideration which makes international relations both interesting—rather than merely formulaic—and the arena for intractably challenging problems.

In the preface to The Gathering Storm, written in March 1948, Churchill reflected that he had been “perhaps the only man who has passed through both the two supreme cataclysms of recorded history in high executive office”. This gave him an unusually rich perspective on the causes and courses of the First and Second World Wars. It is, therefore, of more than passing significance that, when President Roosevelt was wondering what the Second World War should be called, Churchill had responded, “the Unnecessary War”. There are times when, reading theoreticians like Mearsheimer, one gets the impression that he believes all wars to be necessary, because deemed so by the states which fight them; or because they are a natural and unavoidable consequence of the rational pursuit of self-interest by states under conditions of international anarchy. Yet Churchill wrote of the greatest war of them all that “There never was a war more easy to stop than that which has just wrecked what was left of the world from the previous struggle.” It is this reflection that I want to interpose between Mearsheimer’s proclamation that China cannot rise peacefully and the disposition that you may have with regard to that grim proclamation.

The opening chapter of The Gathering Storm is titled “The Follies of the Victors”. In what might be seen as an anticipation of Mearsheimer’s realism, Churchill quotes the French Marshal Foch as saying of the Treaty of Versailles, in 1919, “This is not peace. This is an armistice for twenty years.” But Churchill then proceeded to explain that there was nothing inevitable about war recurring after an interval of twenty years. His erudition and wisdom provide food for thought in our time and his prose is a joy to read, redolent, as I’m sure he knew, of the prose of such great English historians as Gibbon and Macaulay. He wrote:

Wise policy would have crowned and fortified the Weimar Republic with a constitutional sovereign in the person of an infant grandson of the Kaiser, under a Council of Regency. Instead, a gaping void was opened in the national life of the German people. All the strong elements, military and feudal, which might have rallied to a constitutional monarchy and for its sake respected and sustained the new democratic and Parliamentary processes, were for the time being unhinged. The Weimar Republic, with all its liberal trappings and blessings, was regarded as an imposition of the enemy. It could not hold the loyalties or the imagination of the German people. For a spell they sought to cling as in desperation to the aged Marshal Hindenburg. Thereafter, mighty forces were adrift, the void was open, and into that void there strode a maniac of ferocious genius, the repository and expression of the most virulent hatreds that have ever corroded the human breast—Corporal Hitler.

Who in their right mind would venture to suggest that Hitler’s Germany was a state that pursued its national interest as a rational actor? Few enough, I would like to think. But Nazi Germany was not merely a bizarre exception. It simply threw into high relief what an abundance of history shows, that states are not in any but the vaguest and most rudimentary of senses rational actors and that this is the real source of security dilemmas in international politics. Churchill summed up his argument in the following terms:

It is my purpose, as one who lived and acted in these days, to show how easily the tragedy of the Second World War could have been prevented; how the malice of the wicked was reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous; how the structure and habits of democratic states, unless they are welded into larger organisms, lack those elements of persistence and conviction which can alone give security to humble masses; how, even in matters of self-preservation, no policy is pursued for even ten or fifteen years at a time. We shall see how the counsels of prudence and restraint may become the prime agents of mortal danger; how the middle course adopted from desires for safety and a quiet life may be found to lead direct to the bull’s-eye of disaster. We shall see how absolute is the need for a broad path of international action pursued by many states in common across the years, irrespective of the ebb and flow of national politics.

It was a simple policy to keep Germany disarmed and the victors adequately armed for thirty years, and in the meanwhile, even if a reconciliation could not be made with Germany, to build ever more strongly a true League of Nations capable of making sure that treaties were kept, or changed only by discussion and agreement. When three or four powerful governments acting together have demanded the most fearful sacrifices from their peoples, when these have been given freely for the common cause, and when the longed-for result has been attained, it would seem reasonable that concerted action should be preserved so that at least the essentials would not be cast away. But this modest requirement the might, civilisation, learning, knowledge, science of the victors were unable to supply. They lived from hand to mouth and from day to day, and from one election to another, until, when scarcely twenty years were out, the dread signal of the Second World War was given …

It is by way of thoughtful reflection on all these contingencies and dilemmas that I invite you to consider how all those with a stake in China’s rise will need to act if that rise is to be peaceful.

Today we do not stand at a point strictly comparable with where Churchill stood in 1948. We have not just come through a cataclysm, nor do we yet stand at the threshold of a grim Cold War. Some of the tenacity and vision and international co-operation the lack of which between the First and Second World Wars he lamented, ensured that the Cold War did not end in a cataclysm, though more than once we came perilously close. The twenty years that have passed since its end have seen wide-ranging international co-operation and the expansion of global trade to an unprecedented extent. And yet, looking ahead, we might do well all the same to ponder Churchill’s sombre reflections, because the rise of Chinese wealth and power in this context could end in a cataclysm. And, short of a cataclysm, there are all too many ways for things to go awry, if “the might, civilisation, learning, knowledge and science” of the society of states is unable to supply sufficient rationality to ensure that China’s rise is peaceful.

Let me, therefore, state my own argument as pithily as I can and then expound on why I see things in these terms and what we in Australia might most effectively do in the circumstances. The dimensions of China’s economic growth and military acquisitions will constitute an almost unprecedented challenge to global stability over the next twenty years which may lead to serious turbulence and possibly, but not inevitably, to major war. The key contentious word in Mearsheimer’s argument is the word cannot. The key term in my own argument is almost. Why do I say that China’s rise presents an almost unprecedented challenge? Quite simply because it has five key characteristics which, taken together, will surely make it difficult for its rise to be any more peaceful than that of other great powers over the past 500 years:

  • Very rapidly growing economic power and weight which could transform it into the world’s single largest economy within a generation;
  • Very rapid development of military power across the full spectrum of defensive and offensive capabilities;
  • A dictatorial and opaque system of government;
  • A deeply ingrained sense of historical dignity, grievance and entitlement;
  • Territorial ambitions which set the security of many of its neighbours at risk.

As the British empire rose, it was a constitutional monarchy in which there was far more transparency and accountability than there is in China right now, yet it fought many wars and extended its power around the globe. When the United States of America was rising to continental and then global power it was a democracy committed to liberty, yet it built a powerful navy and took possession of far-flung maritime territories in order to project its power, even before the First World War. The Japanese empire posed a formidable challenge to both China and the West in the first half of the twentieth century, but was overwhelmed by the far greater industrial and military power of a fully aroused United States. The economic and military power of the Soviet Union turned out to be far less well founded than liberal fear or millenarian hope had imagined, yet such as it was it had the entire world balanced on a knife edge for half a century. When Japan surged back economically after the Second World War it was a disarmed and democratised state and only residual paranoia in Asia and the United States saw it as likely to pose a direct security threat. But this made it an exception and one premised on overriding American hegemony and security guarantees.

Then there is the case of Germany, first under Bismarck and the Kaiser, then under Hitler. Germany had all five of the characteristics I have enumerated, both in the lead-up to the First World War and even more so in the 1930s under the Nazi regime. But what Germany had in those two periods, China has in spades in the early twenty-first century: it is growing much faster, is far more opaque and has a more deeply ingrained sense of historic grievance and entitlement. Moreover, when Germany was rising rapidly in both economic and military terms, a hundred years ago, the British empire was at its peak and the United States of America was also rising very rapidly in economic terms. But now we see the relative economic decline of the United States, the absence of substantial military power in the EU and indecisive leadership in Japan. Meanwhile, China’s economy is growing at a compound rate of 10 per cent per annum and its military expenditures are growing even faster. All this should give us pause, though it need not for the present induce panic. It is causing growing unease among virtually all of China’s neighbours, to thoughtful people in strategic and intelligence circles in the United States and to our own defence planners, as was made evident in the 2009 Defence White Paper. It is, at least broadly speaking, because of all these considerations that scholars like John Mearsheimer can gain an audience for declaring that China’s rise cannot be peaceful.

Now, I do not wish to suggest too literal an analogy between China now and Germany under the Kaiser, much less under Hitler. China is not Germany and the strategic circumstances of the 2010s are very different from those of the 1910s, to say nothing of the 1930s. The analogy should, therefore, be taken as a provocation to thinking carefully, rather than as the prompt for leaping to alarming conclusions. There is no serious room for doubt, moreover, that some of the finest strategic minds in China have pondered carefully the histories of the defeat of Germany in both 1918 and 1945, of Japan in 1945 and of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War, and they do not wish to see China suffer similar defeat by making ill-considered strategic moves in the great game in which it is now unambiguously engaged with the United States. Under the leadership that has held sway since the primacy of Deng Xiaoping and which seems likely to continue for some years, China has played its hand carefully as well as relentlessly. It is playing a long game and in this, at least, it differs from both the Kaiser and Hitler.

But China as it is now emerging is actually in certain key respects a more formidable player than Germany could ever have been. It is more than a decade since Lee Kuan Yew said of Deng Xiaoping’s resurgent China, “This is not just another big player. This is the biggest player in the history of man.” In a recent speech under the auspices of the Australia China Business Council, Ross Garnaut declared that China is resuming its natural and historic role as the greatest power in the world, which has been preponderant for the past two millennia, except for the brief interlude of Western predominance since the First Opium War of 1839-42. He was echoing the claim by Samuel Huntington, in The Clash of Civilizations, written a decade or so ago. This claim is both romantic and misguided in several ways, but it contains a kernel of truth, which is that for more than two millennia the Chinese empire has been the single most persistently large and powerful territorial state.

Why do I say that the idea of its being naturally and historically the world’s number one power is romantic and misguided? Because it has several times over those two millennia fallen into disarray and fragmented; because even at its apogee under the cosmopolitan eighth-century Tang dynasty it was defeated by the armies of Tibet, Korea and the Arab caliphate—the last of these decisively defeating Tang forces at the battle of the Talas river in 751, permanently replacing Chinese power in Central Asia; because in its most sophisticated and technologically advanced form, the Song dynasty, it was unable to fend off first Khitan and then Mongol invaders and did not break through to a scientific revolution despite apparently having many of the preconditions for doing so; because under the Ming dynasty it gave up on the thousand-year Chinese attempt to subdue Vietnam, sent an armada into the Indian Ocean only to then turn its back on the world, and built the Great Wall to keep barbarians out, but failed, being defeated and conquered by the foreign Manchus; because the Manchus trebled the size of the old Chinese empire, by adding Manchuria, Xinjiang, Tibet, Mongolia and Taiwan, but presided over the long, slow decay of China’s economic and military strength. History alone, therefore, suggests that there is nothing either natural or inevitable about Chinese primacy in world affairs.

In fact, China is rapidly accumulating what for it are unprecedented presence and potential power on the world stage. In a characteristically pungent essay in the May-June issue of Foreign Affairs, “The Geography of Chinese Power”, Robert Kaplan wrote that what he called “China’s blessed geography—its 9,000 miles of temperate coastline with many good, natural harbours, combined with its vast continental mass and strategic location in Eurasia—means that China will stand at the hub of geopolitics even if the country’s path toward global power is not necessarily linear.”

The theoretician of geopolitics Halford Mackinder, in 1904, identified China, not Russia or Germany, as the pivotal power in Eurasia and therefore in global geopolitics. In Democratic Ideals and Reality (1919), Mackinder forecast that the English-speaking powers and China would end up guiding the world to a new civilisation, neither quite Eastern nor quite Western. There are quite a few voices now prophesying such a development, among them Zachary Karabell in his recent book Superfusion. But Robert Kaplan does not for the present see China contributing to any such laudable goal. He declares that:

China’s foreign policy ambitions are as aggressive as those of the United States a century ago, but for completely different reasons … Moral progress in international affairs is an American goal, not a Chinese one; China’s actions abroad are propelled by its need to secure energy, metals and strategic minerals, in order to support the rising living standards of its immense population.

Your own visceral response to that sentence will tell you intuitively where you stand in regard to this great question.

Consider, whatever your gut response to Kaplan’s talk of moral progress, that China’s influence, in both hard power and soft power, is spreading far and wide and at a remarkable pace. Moreover, China’s geography is more congenial to the expansion and sustainment of its power than is that of perhaps any other major power except the United States. And China is growing at this frantic pace at the very time when the United States is faltering in both economic and geostrategic terms. The decade immediately after the Cold War saw American prestige at its acme. The decade after that saw that prestige and America’s actual capabilities seriously undermined by the misjudgments of the White House and the Pentagon and the follies of Wall Street. Those missteps have given a considerable boost to an incipient and potentially dangerous hubris in Chinese public opinion and strategic planning. They encourage the thought that China’s hour is approaching, when it will emerge from beneath the shadow of the West and bestride the world like a colossus as a matter of right. It is this confluence of circumstances that presents us with the policy and planning challenges we now confront and will have to grapple with for many years to come.

Harry Gelber, writing in the Australian on August 19, observed that we should not be unduly alarmed by the plans China has to build three aircraft carrier battle groups and other sophisticated platforms and capabilities, because the United States has far more power than this and China will take decades before it can effectively deploy such assets. He may be correct, but we would be very foolish to rest on our laurels until a formidable power has developed mature capabilities of this nature. And, in any case, as the prolific and brilliant historian Niall Ferguson remarked, in an essay in the March-April issue of Foreign Affairs under the title “Complexity and Collapse”, there are disturbing signs that the underpinnings of American strength have been seriously weakened and that decline could be non-linear and fairly dramatic. His central argument derives from complexity theory and pivots on the proposition, “When things go wrong in a complex system, the scale of disruption is nearly impossible to anticipate.” He warns that “debating the stages of decline may be a waste of time—it is a precipitous and unexpected fall that should most concern policymakers and citizens”.

To these considerations about the geography of Chinese power, the relative decline of the United States, the different geopolitical agendas of the two great powers, and the findings of complexity theory, there must be added yet another reason for us to pause and think hard about the nature of the challenges that we may face in the next decade or two. I referred earlier to the “great game” in which China is now engaged with the United States. I remarked that, unlike Germany or Japan in the first half of the twentieth century, China is playing a “long game”. Now, when we think of strategic games in the West we tend to think in terms of chess. In China, it is more likely to be a game called Go or Wei-ch’i. That most people in the Western world, even in strategic policy and studies circles, are not even acquainted with this game is one symptom among many that we have given insufficient thought to the nature of China as a civilisation, a state and a strategic power.

In 1969 Scott Boorman, a precocious undergraduate student at Harvard, studying applied mathematics and Chinese, wrote a little book called The Protracted Game: A Wei-Ch’i Interpretation of Maoist Strategy. The doyen of game theory, Thomas Schelling, commented, “I’ve seen a number of efforts to shed light on strategy by the analysis of a game and this is the first one that really works.” It works better applied to China’s global strategy now, though, than it ever did to Mao Zedong’s strategy. Go differs from chess in a critical respect. Whereas chess is directed at the concentration of forces at a strategic point on a board in order to attack and capture key enemy pieces, in Go the aim is to extend one’s control of territory, avoiding direct confrontations, encircling the opponent’s pieces and, when they are surrounded, simply removing them collectively from the board. The point I wish to make is this: we have at present an uncanny situation in play, in that the United States and China are more and more clearly engaged in a great game of geopolitics, but they are apparently playing the game in different ways. The United States is playing chess, while China is playing Go. Although the game is far from over, many things appear now to be going China’s way, as it were.

Now, you might ask, if I dispute that states are rational actors, how can I claim that these two great states are consciously playing grand strategic games, even if they are playing according to different perceptions of what the game is and how to play it? Well, of course, I do not mean that either state is a unitary rational actor deliberately playing out a game according to a clear set of rules and with an unwavering goal. Rather, I mean that, just insofar as the strategic decision-makers on either side think at all coherently about the interests of their state, they tend to think roughly in terms of these games. But most of the citizens and leaders of both the United States and China do not think with any coherence at all about grand strategy. They respond to all manner of incentives, perceptions, passions and distractions. And even as between the two sets of strategists, the different perceptions of what game is being played provide rich possibilities for mutual misunderstanding and strategic miscalculation. In such a context, accidents will happen and the effects of such accidents can be far greater than anyone anticipates.

Finally, all of this is occurring amid technological changes of completely unprecedented scope and swiftness. The implications of these changes are almost beyond the grasp even of specialists. When I was running the China desk for the Defence Intelligence Organisation in the mid-1990s, one of the most thoughtful and prescient strategic analysts with whom I made contact was Paul Bracken at Yale University. He had written a fascinating paper for the Pentagon called “The Army After Next”. In 1999 he published a little book called Fire in the East: The Rise of Asian Military Power and the Second Nuclear Age. In it, he made the following opening remarks:

For two hundred years the world has been shaped by the fact of Western military dominance. Gunboats as agents of national power have been supplanted by warplanes and they, in turn, by missiles and satellites and computers, but until very recently all were a monopoly of Europeans and North Americans. Now that monopoly is coming to an end. Missiles carrying atomic and biological warheads will, within the decade, be within the reach of as many as twelve Asian nations, from Israel to North Korea. The world the West has known—constructed in part for its own convenience—will change enormously. Whether that change will also be catastrophic is the subject of this book.

The decade to which he referred has passed. Much of what he anticipated has started to occur. The ongoing and acute concerns about North Korea, Iran and Pakistan remain with us and the United States has been fighting expensive and inconclusive small wars in Afghanistan and Iraq throughout most of that decade. But the rise of China is what most tellingly resembles Bracken’s forecast. Its recent acquisition of Dongfang 21D carrier killer long-range missiles is but one of many signals as to the power shift that is under way. Whether it will be catastrophic must be our concern.

And here I return to my opening observation about whether China can or cannot rise peacefully. China’s present leadership may have every intention of seeing their country rise peacefully. Now, it could well be their unexamined assumption that this means the United States gracefully abdicating its long-held sway in the Western Pacific, starting with the Yellow Sea, the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. However, senior American figures, such as the commander of Pacific forces, Admiral Robert Willard; the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have all been making clear in the past six months or so that this is not the intention of the United States—nor is it the wish of China’s neighbours. Here is the pivotal consideration that is in play: China will rise peacefully if and only if it accepts certain restrictions on its rise consistent with the preferences and concerns of other powers and pre-eminently those of the United States. It seems reluctant to accept this, especially with the recent rapid shift in the economic relationship between the two great powers. We should remind ourselves, moreover, that, as Thucydides pointed out almost two and a half millennia ago, major wars do not start because a rising power becomes expansive. They start because status quo powers choose to resist such expansion. If they do not resist, if they appease and give way, the expansive power can, indeed, rise peacefully. It is not clear that China will, therefore, rise peacefully. Nor—and this is crucial to Australian policy debates—is it at all clear that we should wish it to do so, if this entails appeasement and the end of American primacy in the Western Pacific.

To think clearly in this matter necessarily means to be able to hold complex and even apparently contradictory ideas in our heads without losing our coherence. Let me draw an analogy, which I think throws into sharp perspective the kind of challenge we may well face in the decade or two ahead of us. In the 1920s, there was a great debate in Japan between those who argued that Japan should avoid confrontation with the British empire or the United States and rise peacefully through co-operation with them, gradually inheriting a secure and powerful place in Asia and the Western Pacific; and those, chiefly in the military, who argued that Japan could not rise peacefully, but would have to confront and defeat the Anglo-Saxon powers sooner or later. We all know how that debate ended. We also know that the strategists in Beijing know how it ended. But what is less well known is that Japan went to war despite there being explicit and detailed warnings that it could not win. In 1927 a brilliant naval analyst called Hector Bywater, who worked for Frederick Jane of Jane’s Fighting Ships and at times for British Naval Intelligence, wrote a book called The Great Pacific War. He laid out a scenario in which Japan went to war, starting with a surprise attack on the American Pacific fleet and a blitzkrieg offensive against the Philippines and Guam, but was overwhelmed by the United States in a great amphibious island-hopping counter-offensive. His was not eccentric thinking; it was mainstream and professional thinking.

The Japanese naval attaché in Washington between 1926 and 1928 was one Isoroku Yamamoto. He was fluent in English, had studied at Harvard between 1919 and 1921, and had met Bywater at the great Washington naval power conference of 1921. He took a keen interest in The Great Pacific War, not least because he had learned, by 1928, that the United States was expending colossal sums to develop a huge naval facility at Pearl Harbor and was planning to move its Pacific Fleet from southern California to the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Shortly after his return to Japan, in March 1928, he gave a lecture at the Imperial Navy Torpedo School, in Yokosuka, in which he declared that, in the event of a war with the United States, something Japanese strategists had been contemplating for almost two decades, Japan’s only chance of victory would be to begin with an attack on Pearl Harbor. In short, he was suggesting that Japan adopt precisely the strategy outlined by Bywater in his book and that Japan actually adopted in December 1941—despite the fact that Bywater’s conclusion had been that Japan would lose such a war. Shortly thereafter, Yamamoto was commissioned as commander of Japan’s brand new aircraft carrier, the 34,000-ton Akagi, which Bywater himself had described as “more powerful in every way than the largest British and American carriers”. Yamamoto represented Japan at the 1934 and 1935–36 London naval power conferences and in 1939 became Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet. In this capacity, although he expressed grave misgivings to his political masters about the wisdom of going to war with the United States, he orchestrated the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and the attempt to bring the war to a decisive outcome at the 1942 battle of Midway.

Why do I tell this story? Because few military professionals in Japan knew better than Yamamoto the asymmetries in productive potential and latent military power between Japan and the United States and few had studied more closely the thinking of the best naval strategists in the United States. Yet he became the architect and commander of the assault on the United States. He was shot down over the Solomon Islands in an ambush by American fighters on April 18, 1943, based on signals intercepts. Yamamoto was a brilliant, civilised and patriotic citizen of his country and yet he took this course of action. We need to ponder the fact that there are Chinese counterparts to the young Yamamoto right now, serving as attaches and diplomats and military strategy instructors and fleet commanders. It is with their minds, careers, visions and capabilities that we should be concerned, as much as with any other single aspect of the complex emerging strategic environment in which we find ourselves.

Now, all that I have said pertains to the world at large and might have been said to an American or Japanese audience. But we are Australians. And we need to think specifically about the implications for this country of the rise in Chinese power and the possibility of a precipitous decline in American power or willingness to use it. For the moment I shall confine myself to three key observations.

First, Australia’s geography and natural endowment are such that we may consider it improbable that even a much more powerful China would undertake a conventional invasion of this country. The danger is less one of a large-scale military threat than of the gradual constriction of our freedom to operate in the manner to which Anglo-American naval primacy has long accustomed us.

Second, because our economic relationship with China has become so great and China has become increasingly dependent on supplies of minerals and energy from this country, we will find ourselves faced with potentially excruciating policy dilemmas in the event that naval and diplomatic rivalries in the region increase.

Third, as we have begun to realise, Chinese influence and efforts to exert influence in our domestic affairs are increasing. They can be expected to increase appreciably and perhaps exponentially over the coming decade or two. We are ill-prepared to deal with this. The Fitzgibbon affair just over a year ago was a foretaste of what we can expect. The enormous size and talent of the worldwide Chinese diaspora, the immense commercial and industrial interests generated by China’s rise and the particularly opaque nature of the Chinese Communist Party and its intelligence agencies, will confront countries around the world—our own not least—with formidable diplomatic, counter-intelligence and public relations challenges.

In short, we stand on the threshold of a profoundly uncertain new era in our security affairs. To the extent that China builds what it calls its “string of pearls” from Hainan to Zanzibar, in emulation of the fabled exploits of Admiral Cheng Ho in the early fifteenth century, and seeks to assert sovereignty over the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea and Taiwan itself, Australia will find itself in a more complicated world of trade, diplomacy and security concerns than it has faced in its history. To the extent that Japan, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Singapore seek to bandwagon with the United States to hedge against such Chinese power, our world will become fraught with possibilities for tension and confrontation at multiple points. This is what has started to come about already and we are only at the beginning of the shift.

The challenges we faced from Japan in the early 1940s and the Soviet Union during the Cold War were simple by comparison. Japan was unambiguously an enemy and the Anglo-American powers vastly stronger. Soviet intelligence was able to penetrate Western intelligence to an astonishing extent between the 1920s and the 1980s and so-called united front groups sought to exert influence within Western countries during the Cold War. China, by comparison, is unlikely to emulate Japan in launching a frontal assault on American power and it will have considerably more scope for expanding soft power, espionage and influence than did the Soviet Union. On both counts, it presents us with a more complex challenge than those earlier ones. We would be very naive to assume, for example, that the Chinese intelligence services, which are gigantic, have not carefully been placing sleepers and cultivating agents of influence here and elsewhere for quite a few years already. Despite the rudimentary development of new capacities in ASIO in the past few years, we are not equipped to handle this challenge. This should be a matter of grave, if thoughtful and reticent concern to all of us.

The central thesis with which I began was to take issue with the contention of John Mearsheimer that China cannot rise peacefully. I did so on a basis he seems not to have considered closely. I argued that the problem is not that states are rational actors and that they seek to maximise their chances in an anarchic world. Rather, it is that states are not rational actors. Let me conclude by drawing attention to those characteristics of the Chinese state which could most contribute to things going awry and putting us out of our reckoning in the years ahead.

The Chinese state was ruled by a maniac of ferocious genius in Mao Zedong until 1976. He was succeeded by a remarkable and tough-minded statesman in Deng Xiaoping, who might reasonably be compared to Bismarck in nineteenth-century Germany. Like Bismarck, he sought to make his country economically strong, in the belief that from such strength would come the wherewithal for an increase in military power. Like Bismarck, he also sought to suppress effective political opposition to the established order. Indeed, he did so more relentlessly and thoroughly than Bismarck did.

In Bismarck’s case, these policies led to a rapid increase in Germany’s power, but under a leadership that was monarchical and militaristic, and this may reasonably be described as the single most important cause of the catastrophe of August 1914. In China’s case, in place of a monarchy and a militaristic order, there is the Communist Party and its dependence for legitimacy on both rapid economic growth and increasingly assertive nationalism. But the economic model on which it depends for continuing rapid economic growth has almost certainly run its course and the development of an alternative model would appear to require the opening up of domestic capital markets and private consumption on a scale which is highly likely to lead to sustained and serious challenges to its monopoly of political power. Its nationalism, at the same time, runs the risk of leading it into confrontations with its neighbours or the United States from which it may find it very difficult to back down.

In all these circumstances, there is no coherent rational, utility-maximising actor who can calculate the odds and guide China wisely. Deng Xiaoping came close, but he is long dead and no one in the Party or the PLA now has his stature or authority. So it was in Germany after the young Kaiser dismissed the ageing Bismarck. There are many ways in which the Communist Party could falter in the years ahead, and even a transition to multi-party democracy, should it occur, would not of necessity provide stability. Moreover, the difficulties faced by the United States, which will not quickly be resolved and may not be resolved well at all, add greatly to the uncertainties in the geopolitical equation. There is a growing appearance of gridlock and rancour in the American political system which bodes ill for the American role in world affairs in the near future.

The problem we face, in short, is not one of a clear and present danger, but of a gathering uncertainty and the potential for the comparative stability we have enjoyed for many years coming unglued in unpredictable and cascading ways. Those who believe they can safely predict how the future will play out are sadly ignorant alike of serious history and of cognitive science. We cannot predict the future with any certainty and we would be unwise to blithely venture into it merely hoping for the best. Rather, we need to take what measures we can to better equip ourselves to be able to deal flexibly, intelligently and resourcefully with a highly uncertain future and to appreciate that our great and energetic neighbours in China are, in their own way, endeavouring to do the same. How they do so is rapidly becoming acutely important to us and we must, therefore, galvanise our own efforts to understand what they are doing, thinking and imagining.

This is an edited version of Paul Monk’s contribution to the Conversazione on the Rise of China which was held at the Melbourne Club in September.

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