Playing by Its Rule

Hegemonby By Steven W. MosherEncounter Books. 193p $24.95

What to do about China? Steven Mosher thumps for the containment of China by reinvigorating American alliances with its Asian allies, denying access to technologies that enhance China’s military, making trade dependent on ending human rights abuses and unabashedly seeking the continuation of American predominance in Asia. Along the way, the United States should threaten to support independence for Taiwan and, at the least, should provide the island with a missile defense system to prevent blackmail. Given Mosher’s own descriptions of Chinese foreign policy goals, such provocative actions are likely to lead to confrontation. But all presumably ends well, as the Chinese would avoid at all costs a direct military collision in their position of military inferiority, and, like the Soviet Union, the Communist leadership would either mellow or crack under the pressure.

Why such a high-risk strategy? Drawing on the works of others, Mosher posits that China seeks to become the hegemon it historically has been: to establish absolute dominance over one’s region and, by slow extension, the world. For 2000 years, Chinese leaders have inserted into China’s cultural DNA the belief that the emperor must be all-powerful, and the power of China must be directed outward in order to prevent chaos and disorder. The Communist emperor, Mao Zedong, inherited this DNA, but failed to achieve hegemony as an inefficient Marxist economy denied China effective military power. Mao’s successors, Deng Xiaoping and now Jiang Zemin, discovered the power benefits of a less centrally controlled economy and replaced Marxist ideology with a more potent mobilization device, Great Han Chauvinism, which depicts China as the center of the world, to which others must respond with respect and deference. In so doing, chaos and disorder... [are] avoided by organizing vassal and tributary states around a single, dominant axis of power. This imprint of culture and history, as well as a single party desperate to maintain its hold on power, leads Mosher to suggest the possibility of a worldwide contest with the U.S. to replace the current Pax Americana with a Pax Sinica.

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Becoming the hegmeon would also completely lift the burden of shame imposed on China by Western power, an important emotional issue that Mosher is careful to emphasize. Of course, the would-be hegemon does not trumpet its intentions, especially as Western power is still palpable in the Pacific, and any attempt at hegemony will run into American interests as currently defined. But the Chinese leadership, particularly the military, seeks revenge for the past, and is willing for a relatively long time... [to] quietly nurse our sense of vengeance, as Mosher quotes a Chinese general.

Given this perspective, Mosher spends some time presenting what he calls myths that inhabit the minds of most American policymakers and China experts such as the assertion that market forces and international trade will democratize China or that misplaced American fears of China are what create conflicts with China. He labels the policy beginning with Nixon as one of appeasement, but at least Kissinger had a strategic goal in mind (containment of the Soviet Union), while the Clinton administration had no strategic reason to continue appeasement.

Mosher’s advocacy of containment rests on the assumption that there is an inevitable impulse to establish Chinese hegemony (and on the assumption that its achievement is contrary to American interests, although he never makes this case). Is there reality here? Mosher waffles. The further the area from China, the less certain he seems to be about China’s goals. About securing control over Taiwan and the South China Sea there is no doubt in his mind. But, he writes, after achieving this basic hegemony, the Chinese surge could subside. Or it could flow into a search for regional hegemony over the states on China’s periphery. However, just showing how this might be done by using China’s economic clout, the presence of 60 million overseas Chinese and the patterns of local politics does not establish intention. With the region secured (and its necessary reduction of American power), China could, he writes, alter its relationships with Russia, Japan and India and extend its reach into the Middle East and Africa. Like the Soviet Union at its height, it might even seek satellites in the Americas. Yes, that is possible, but Mosher offers little other than the mantra of historical/cultural inertia to suggest why this would occur. On this frail premise rests his policy prescription of aggressive containment.

Explanation by fiat, a nebulousness of predictions, a serious error in reporting history (he claims that when the Chinese entered the Korean war, they drove the Americans back to the southern port of Pusan, but then were defeated by the American landing at Inchon)all these detract from what might have been a serious contribution to perhaps the most pressing question in traditional world politics today. Mosher compounds the problem by disregarding his own arguments. He asserts that China might not be deterred by American threats because China outpaces the U.S. in two key ways: a willingness to sustain casualties in war and a readiness to annihilate the enemy, military and civilian, indiscriminately. Moreover, he suggests that the Chinese leadership is inherently unpredictable, in that they practice what might be called the politics of historical revenge, responding to what they consider to be slights akin to those imposed on China in the past. Aggressive containment seems a dubious proposition.

What is at work here? Steven Mosher has had firsthand experience with China. He reports that as a young demographer studying village life in the People’s Republic of China, he became aware of the one-child policy of the state, which he took to be an egregious human rights abuse. (Indeed, the Population Research Institute, of which he currently is president, has a clear hostility to family planning in general.) Mosher was arrested and expelled from China. But his account suggests something else. He himself believed the myth that economic reforms would democratize China. One senses that he found it profoundly disturbinga heartfelt betrayal, perhapsthat Chinese students, the vehicle for democratization in the 1980’s, had by the end of the 1990’s become bellicose hegemonists and supporters of an authoritarian regime. This book may reflect that anger. Ironically, the book would also validate the thesis that Mosher says informs China’s current school curriculum: China must assert its hegemonic rights, but is thwarted by the United States who wishes to plunge the region into a new cold war.

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