Earlier this year I wrote that the Chinese do not want our liberal, rules-based order. How America should respond to this rejection was a question I left open. This week, however, in a long two-book review essay published over at Strategy Bridge, I have returned to the question. The two books under review are Lyle Goldstein's Meeting China Halfway: How to Defuse Emerging China-U.S. Rivalry and Robert Haddick's Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific, which start off with very similar goals and operating assumptions, but end up offering directly opposed policy recommendations.
My conclusions are not optimistic:
My conclusions are not optimistic:
The fundamental difference between the two analysts is their theory of what makes the Communist Party of China tick. Reading these two books next to each other is a reminder of just how important an analyst’s inner model of Chinese decision making is. Under Goldstein's schema, fear of American power, not contempt for American weakness, is what has led the Chinese down the path they now tread. Haddick's case is built on the opposite view. Not all they have to say, but a great deal of it, follows from these opposing opening assumptions.
It is these assumptions—these unstated models of Chinese decision making—that keep me from endorsing either argument. I have presented a different version of what makes Beijing tick. As I (along with folks like Lee Hisen Loong and Bilahauri Kaukisan) have argued, Xi Jinping’s regime believes that the Western-led liberal order and the demands it makes on those who join it are corrosive to authoritarian control, and will eventually lead to the collapse of the Party. For them the Party comes first. When translated into concrete policy, “putting the Party first” means eliminating Western influence from within and actively reshaping regional rules from without. What China is doing is not an inevitable consequence of great power competition, but the fruits of very specific fears of a specific ruling regime.
If this explanation for China’s behavior is correct, then neither Haddick’s nor Goldstein’s proposals are tenable. Haddick's entire strategy is predicated on the idea that you can build a military machine whose might will raise the costs of conflict so high that the Chinese must eventually back down. But if Zhongnanhai serves the Party before it serves the country then none of that matters. The Communist Party of China’s continued domination of China is justified to the Chinese public on the grounds that hostile Western forces have always sought to contain and cripple China, but under the guardianship of the Party, the Chinese people will never be forced to bow down to foreign powers again. Backing down and accepting Western order threatens their legitimacy. It is an existential threat to their continued rule. The costs of war cannot compete with this. In the worst case war scenario, Party leaders suffer the same fate they would most likely suffer in any existential crisis (violent death); at best, they get lucky and win the war. This is not a recipe for stability.
This model of Chinese decision making also makes Goldstein's cooperation spirals exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to implement. Beijing does not just fear specific American policies—it fears the entire American-led system. The Chinese can bide and endure this order, but they cannot permanently compromise with it. It is hard to compromise with a system whose existence threatens your survival.
One’s inner model of Chinese decision making thus matters quite a lot. The most disturbing thing about reading these books together, however, is that neither of these analysts, exceedingly intelligent and well respected in their field, pauses to explain where their assumed model of Chinese decision making comes from. These operating assumptions are left unstated and unproven, despite how readily everything else these authors write follow from them.
This is possibly because these analysts did not realize the importance of these assumptions. But it may also reflect just how difficult it is to prove that the model of Chinese decision making one uses is actually correct. Here I am just as guilty as every other China hand; I cannot prove that my own model of Chinese decision making is the right one. The best I can say is that it fits Chinese behavior over the last two decades better than anything else I have seen proposed.
But in the end neither I, nor any other analyst of Chinese foreign policy, actually knows what is happening behind the walls of Zhongnanhai. There are probably less than a hundred people on this planet who actually know why Beijing does what it does. They are unlikely to share this information with American analysts.
Our analysis is built on a foundation of sand. We offer bold proclamations and precise policy proposals designed to cajole, convince, or coerce a hostile nuclear power whose decision making process is utterly opaque to us. We theorize much, and assume more, but we still do not know why the Chinese do what they do. Most critically, we do not know how to find the knowledge we lack. This is an intellectual challenge we have not begun to meet. Understanding Zhongnanhai is a wonderful methodological puzzle—but a puzzle with nuclear stakes. Until we solve this puzzle, I doubt any number of policy prescriptions will be enough to ensure peace in the West Pacific.
Read the rest of the piece here.