Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Editor’s Column Spring 1999

Editor’s Column Spring 1999

The countdown to the year 2000 advances apace, prompting all peoples who count time according to the common era (n‚e Anno Domini) to worry about their computers and wonder what the new century has in store. Is it to be a Chinese Century, the first Global Century, or another American Century inasmuch, as Harold Evans recently warned, “The most outrageous prophecy is apt to look absurd in the face of American ingenuity, courage, flexibility, pragmatism, avarice, hubris and just plain chutzpah”? But to those who count the years by their own historic lights, what’s to worry and wonder about? Jews will celebrate the Year 5760 this autumn, and Chinese ushered in the Year 4697 this February: a Year of the Rabbit, I may add, suggesting a certain skittish wariness. Perhaps, indeed, that is apt at the end of a decade characterized mostly by hubris. With markets unprecedentedly skittish, prophets are wise to be wary, as the Foreign Policy Research Institute learned from its recent blue-ribbon conference on China.         

In These Pages

Just three or four years ago we read that trade wars and even shooting wars between the United States and China might be on the horizon, and that even in their absence China’s double-digit economic growth would make that land of a billion souls a global rival within twenty years. Then the Asian flu broke out and even though China seems to have avoided the worst of the fever, its growth rate has slowed, revealing the many drags that still impede Chinese development, including tens of millions of unemployed, a vast gap between the wealthy coastal provinces and impoverished interior, an archipelago of state-owned enterprises, a primitive financial system, a bloated and underpaid army, a legacy of central planning, and layers upon layers of official corruption. Will China’s great capitalist leap forward abort, or merely settle into an era of more modest growth? Would an era of slow growth make Beijing easier for Washington, Tokyo, Taipei, and others to deal with or would economic setbacks render China less stable and more assertive as the Year of the Rabbit gives way to those of the Dragon and Snake? Such were the questions posed to our panel of experts, and their answers appear in these pages.

Nicholas Lardy was charged with examining the current state and the prospects of President Jiang’s economic reforms, and assessing the forces for acceleration and deceleration in China’s economy. Charles Wolf, though bluntly refusing to speak of the mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and overseas Sinic communities as many “Chinas,” nonetheless explains the different characteristics of the various Chinese communities and how (not to say whether) they have adjusted successfully to the financial turmoil in Asia. Next, Avery Goldstein expertly reviews Beijing’s shifting domestic and foreign policies since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and assesses the likely effects that slower economic growth will have on Chinese diplomacy and military strategy. Finally, Murray Weidenbaum brings it all home with an analysis of U.S.-Chinese relations, present and possibly future.

In the back of everyone’s mind, of course, has been the prospect of a Chinese challenge to the status quo in East Asia and the Western Pacific, and uncertainty as to how the United States and its regional allies and friends might respond. Phillip Saunders sets the same stage, but changes the script in a bold argument against containment and engagement alike. Is his concept of a virtual security alliance in the Asia/Pacific the golden mean we’ve been seeking? Richard Sokolsky and Tanya Charlick-Paley of RAND explain why extending collective security to the Caspian region is a bad idea. And Felix Chang, in his second in-depth article on the Russian Far East, describes the almost pitiful collapse of Russian military power on the Pacific, and the vacuum that has resulted. Are the futures of China, the two Koreas, Japan, and even the United States bound to be perturbed by the Russian retreat, as they were between 1918 and 1923, the previous era of Siberian chaos?

History is very much on the minds of our book reviewers this season. President of the FPRI Harvey Sicherman, a veteran of the Bush administration’s Department of State, takes a keen and whimsical look back at those years as recorded in the memoirs of George Bush and Brent Scowcroft. Frank Gavin ponders the paradox in the fact that while Richard Nixon is reviled for deceiving Congress and the public on great matters of statecraft, Dean Acheson is lauded for his blatant deceptions in pursuit of the same Cold War. And David Gress, author of the magisterial new book From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents (New York: The Free Press, 1998), deconstructs the deconstructionists who have targeted the study of history for intellectual and institutional extinction.

Night Thoughts of an I.R. Professor

Item: According to the Kiev Post, the aircraft carrier Varyag is due to leave Ukraine’s Nikolayev shipyard any day for its new home in Macau. . . . Begun in 1985 as a crown jewel of the Soviet fleet, it was never completed because the post-Soviet Russians stopped making payments to the Ukrainian shipyard in 1992. That same year, a delegation from Beijing visited Nikolayev with thoughts of buying the Varyag. . . . So there was relief but also skepticism in the Asian and Western worlds when Kiev announced in March that the winner was a Macau-registered amusement company [planning] to convert the ship into a hotel and casino. The company’s listed address turned out to be a fraud, and the Far Eastern Economic Review later revealed that it was controlled by mainlanders from Shandong, home of the Chinese Navy’s northern fleet.

The question of how a ship almost as hefty as America’s largest carrier will get into Macau’s shallow harbor remains a puzzle. . . .

The editors of the Journal are no doubt correct when they predict that the Varyag, like its namesake in the tsarist navy in 1905, will someday meet an unhappy end in Asian waters. But ever since the Naval War College’s notorious (still secret) simulation of a future Sino-American clash, American strategists have wondered how many of their own ships might be lost in a serious dust-up with China. For however far they may be from realizing their goal, the Chinese seem to understand, as never before over 3,000 years, the influence of sea power on history.

At some early point in the research for my book  Let the Sea Make a Noise: A History of the North Pacific From Magellan to MacArthur, I realized that four hundred years of conflict among Spaniards, Britons, Russians, Americans, Japanese, Chinese, and indigenous Pacific peoples was rather a large chunk of the past to digest. Imagine my surprise, then, when I read in the afterword to the Japanese translation that my book dwelt on but one of five eras of oceanic history. Professor Kato Yuzo of Yokohama University periodized the history of the oceans by reference not only to colonization, commerce, and war, but also to geology, ecology, and anthropology.

In Kato’s scheme, the first stage is defined as that primitive time before any humans ventured forth on the ocean. During that era, which lasted from the dawn of time until the fifteenth century A.D., the seas (needless to say) belonged to no one. Stage Two began with the European voyages of discovery, but such were the limitations of sailing ships that even the mightiest maritime powers could not claim to own the high seas, or enforce such a claim if they did. (One need only think of the ease with which freebooters bearing letters of marque, or out-and-out pirates, defied the regulations of bureaucratic landlubbers, or of the futility of Tsar Alexander’s 1821 ukase declaring much of the North Pacific a mare clausum.) In Kato’s Stage Three presumptuous industrial states boasting modern navies did struggle for supremacy over sea lanes and coastal waters in pursuit of markets and colonies. But by World War II, according to Kato, a fourth stage had already begun during which new technologies exposed continental shelves and even the deep sea bed to human activity and muddied the very concepts of national boundaries and claims. Finally, in the fifth stage now dawning, a new (and Kato hopes permanent) regime will mature in which all nations embrace the notion of a global commons and work together through U.N. Law of the Sea treaties to protect the oceans from pollution, exploitation, and conflict.

Indeed, Kato began by observing that because water covers 71 percent of the Earth’s surface (97 percent of which is saltwater), it would make more sense to speak of our planet as the “water globe” rather than the earth, and to put oceans, not continents, at the center of natural history inasmuch as all life, terrestrial as well as marine, depends on the health and temper of the oceans. (We are receiving an object lesson in that from El Nino, but any astronaut will attest to the fact that ours is a blue planet.)

Finally, Kato admits that while the livelihood of the Japanese has always been intimately tied to the sea, they never concerned themselves with the ocean at large until forced to do so by European and American intruders. To Japanese the Pacific Ocean was merely the Eastern Sea, and only storm-tossed boats ventured beyond sight of land. The same was true, I might add, of the Chinese, the Arabs, and the Ancients. Only the Polynesians and Vikings, and then only on desperate (often one-way) missions, seem to have braved the open sea before da Gama and Columbus. That is why the Iberian saltation the evolutionary leap in mankind’s aspirations and reach in the fifteenth century marked the true onset of oceanic history so far as human beings are concerned.

The ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, or Romans would hardly have been startled by the notion that collective human behavior might be viewed from the perspective of the waters between lands rather than that of the shore lands themselves. The Mediterranean could be a dangerous passage, as the tales of Odysseus and St. Paul poignantly described. But it was also an omnidirectional conduit that facilitated transit of people and goods and armies and cultural traits far more than it inhibited such interchange. An Athenian or Roman would thus have taken for granted the existence of a Mediterranean world. When that world disappeared was a matter of much historical debate two generations ago. Henri Pirenne, for one, hypothesized that the Arab conquest of the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa split the old sea-centric world, which is what encouraged medieval Christians to imagine something called Europe and to redirect their energies to Christendom’s landward frontiers. For a time in the High Middle Ages, to be sure, Venetians and Crusaders tried to reopen the Mediterranean, but by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the tide of Ottoman Turkish power closed off that option for good. So it was that the vital, expansive, but claustrophobic Europe of the Renaissance had an unprecedented incentive to turn its back on the ancient routes east and instead sail west and south, beyond sight of land, in search of new trade routes, gold, and souls.

That they were able to do so was a function of technologies imported from the Muslims or via the Muslims from Asia, including the compass, gunpowder, astronomy, and mathematics, and of indigenous advances, especially in shipbuilding. But above all, they were able to do so because of Europe’s separation of church and state (redoubled during the Reformation) and competition among many states for wealth and dominion. That disunity prevented any hegemon, not to say god-emperor, from forbidding voyages of discovery, and at the same time positively obliged princes to match the advantages gained by their competitors.

Once across the sea Europeans awoke to the awful size and diversity of the earth’s waters, lands, and peoples, and thus were empowered to do something no other civilization had done: that is, invent an oceanic, global weltanschauung. Now Egyptian, Roman, Chinese, and presumably Mesoamerican civilizations had claimed at their height to be universal, but they did so only by conceiving of their empires as the world (civilized world or known world). Early Modern Europeans, by contrast, circumnavigated the globe, visited every continent, and began to think about strategy, markets, navigation, and history in truly universal terms. Textbooks and teachers habitually mock the arrogance of the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, in which the pope divided the overseas world between Spain and Portugal along a longitudinal line. But that was in fact a palimpsest of what would become Professor Kato’s Stage Three: the competition among states to conquer or divide the oceans by way of controlling their shores. From Newtonian physics and the search for a means to measure longitude, brilliantly fictionalized by Umberto Eco in The Island of the Day Before, to the grand strategies of the Portuguese, Dutch, and English in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, and those of Spaniards, French, and English in the Atlantic and Caribbean, Europeans succeeded in doubling the world (to borrow a phrase from Daniel J. Boorstin’s The Discoverers) and laying the intellectual foundations for what would become in time the first universal civilization.

One might object that these first European overseas empires were far from global in scope and were in fact thalassocracies of the sort achieved by ancient Athens and Phoenicia: trading monopolies anchored in a series of ports and fortified chokepoints. But they were thalassocracies on an oceanic, not Mediterranean, scale, and the fact that they were maritime empires rather than continental ones along the lines of the Ming, Mogul, or Tsarist reflected the new oceanic weltanschauung. Finally, who competed for the new sort of empire? Not the city-states and principalities of northern Italy, Austria, and the Rhineland the former leaders in European politics, art, science, and economics but Iberia, France, the Netherlands, and England, states of the Atlantic littoral. New technologies and techniques of government and finance helped to make this European irruption possible, after which global enterprise in turn stimulated yet newer technologies and techniques, from marine insurance and the joint-stock company to chartered companies and colonies to the floating national debt.

Looking at the sweep of history from an oceanic perspective, as opposed to a continental, civilizational, or merely national one, reveals some fascinating new themes. A cultural historian, for instance, might trace the role that the Pacific Ocean has played in the European imagination, from seventeenth-century legends of the Island of California, lost Lands of Silver and Gold, and the mysterious Antipodes, to eighteenth-century notions of the Pacific as paradise and its denizens noble savages, to nineteenth-century representations of Hawaii, Fiji, and Samoa (from Gauguin to Margaret Mead), to our late-twentieth-century belief in a Pacific Rim and Pacific Century.

But to the diplomatic historian the Pacific basin above all is a laboratory for the study of imperialism and wars both as stimuli and inhibitors of cross-basin exchange. Take, for example, the very different assumptions we Yankees made about our relationship to the Pacific as opposed to the Atlantic Ocean. From the first European settlements on the North American coast to 1776 to Washington’s Farewell Address and throughout the nineteenth century, America was in every sense an Atlantic nation. Far from being isolated from the Old World, Americans imported from it the immigrants, capital, manufactures, technology, and high culture that made the rapid growth of the United States possible. But at the same time the Atlantic was the only avenue along which the United States might be attacked or otherwise drawn into conflicts that would endanger the young republic. Hence its diplomatic traditions of neutrality and the Monroe Doctrine were designed to prevent the importation across the ocean of the European-style balance of power system. When, in the late nineteenth century, the European powers embarked on their new global imperialism and built modern steel navies, A.T. Mahan responded with his classic treatise on sea power in history and argued for a national security strategy anchored in a two-ocean navy. The United States subsequently entered both world wars in response to attacks on its maritime, not continental, defense zones, and did so to prevent the emergence of Eurasian empires capable of mobilizing the resources to challenge America on the seas. According to Churchill, the Battle of the Atlantic was what assured Britain’s survival and therefore Hitler’s defeat, while the U.S.-Japanese conflict was simply called the Pacific War.

But in one way the origins of the Pacific War differed markedly from those of the wars against Germany. For whereas U.S. contacts across the Atlantic had always been great, and so, too, the potential for danger, the opposite was true of the Pacific. Throughout the nineteenth century, Americans had comparatively little commerce across the Pacific, accepted few immigrants from Asia (banning Chinese in 1882 and restricting Japanese), and perceived no threats at all from that quarter until Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905. Accordingly, the American System of States, in the minds of Americans, did not necessarily stop at the Pacific shores of North America. Rather, the Monroe Doctrine, so sharply defined in the Atlantic, extended into the Pacific to some undetermined and steadily receding pointto Hawaii in 1841, Alaska and Midway in 1867, Samoa in 1884, and finally to Guam and the Philippines in 1898. By the time Teddy Roosevelt sent the Great White Fleet to Japan in 1908, the Monroe Doctrine’s umbrella implicitly shaded the entire North Pacific Basin. To Americans the Pacific was another frontier, an open and promising path to new opportunity for merchants, missionaries, and the military.

Needless to say, the Japanese noticed this after they were forced to open up by Commodore Perry in 1853 and began to study American ways. By 1914, when the Japanese annexed the German colonies in the Marshall and Caroline Islands, they, too, began to adopt an oceanic weltanschauung and to spy their own manifest destiny in the South Seas (Nan-yo). They even described their immigrants to Hawaii and California as dohothe Japanese equivalent of Volksdeutschand expected them to plant new Japans around the Pacific basin. To be sure, the abiding and obsessive targets of Japanese imperialism were always Korea, Manchuria, and China. But one purpose of those conquests was to provide the Japanese empire with the autarkic economic base necessary to build its sea power and expel the white imperialists from Asian waters. So the Japanese explicitly declared a Monroe Doctrine of their own, covering the Western Pacific, their purpose being to warn off the Americans just as Monroe had warned off the Europeans in the Atlantic.

Today, we are probably observing the emergence of a Chinese Monroe Doctrine as Beijing seeks to project its power into the ocean and challenge U.S. assumptions that the Pacific remains an American lake. What is at stake in the controversy over the status of Taiwan is more, therefore, than Chinese amour propre or even national unity. Indeed, the Chinese empires only exercised control over that island for a few centuries all told over the millennia, and the People’s Republic not at all. But if China is to assert its interests in the trans-Pacific economic community, not to mention aspire to global power, it must first eliminate the Taiwanese barrier that stands between it and the ocean. An oceanic Chinese weltanschauung would be a momentous novelty in modern history, since China’s rulers have not even aspired to sea power since the fifteenth century. Nor would such a pursuit necessarily be wise, whatever China’s ambitions. That is not to say that China is another Russia or Wilhelmine Germany, whose pursuit of naval power was rendered unnatural by their constricted coastlines and hugely more dangerous landward frontiers. Rather, a maritime China would resemble France, which throughout the centuries was torn by the temptation to seek empire on the high seas and the temptation (or necessity) to expand its land power. Always the French divided their resources and attention, and always the French were defeated. Chinese strategists, take note of French history!

Mark Twain quipped, “If [Balboa] had named the ocean the Four Months Pacific he would have come nearer the mark.”  He was in fact grousing about an especially rough passage from San Francisco to Honolulu, but the North Pacific’s politics have been no more serene than its weather. In the 220 years since Captain Cook first opened the ocean, it has witnessed battles and wars pitting the United States vs. Britain (1812), Britain vs. China (1839), Britain and France vs. Russia (1854), Britain and France vs. China (1860), China vs. Japan (1894), Japan vs. Russia (1904), then Germany (1914), then China again (1937), then Japan vs. Britain and the United States (1941), and finally the United States against North Korea and China (1950), North Vietnam (1965), and a long cold war against Russia.

Yet out of this spiral of conflict, whose patterns are so maddeningly predictable by the balance of power, let alone ideology and culture, a Pacific community has emerged that is linked together more closely now than are the coasts of the Atlantic. But unlike the Atlantic community, the Pacific Rim embraces peoples of many races, religions, and cultures, and instead of a few major powers locked in a friendly alliance (NATO), it contains four Great Powers (the United States, Russia, Japan, China) locked in suspicion plus five others that are dangerous flashpoints (North and South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia).

In the hopeful scenario popular just a few years ago, the flow of people, goods, and capital across the Pacific would promote understanding and perhaps the world’s first multicultural civilization. But that will be so only if the immense flows of capital, goods, and people are valued for their own sake and not merely as the sinews of competitive national power. Thus, American missile components and high-powered computers cross the ocean, potentially feeding a new arms race even as American popular culture and notions of human rights cross the ocean, potentially fertilizing the seeds of democracy and market economies. The danger today is that the flow of immigration is almost all eastward while the flow of capital is mostly westward (especially if Japan is included in the West). How long will domestic politics in the United States, Australia, and Canada, China, Japan, and Korea tolerate the waxing foreign influence that accompanies immigration or investment?

That demographic and material forces are the engines of history goes without saying. But human beings are still at the steering wheels. Hence, the question to ask of the twenty-first century or the next sixty-year cycle of the Chinese calendar is what weltanschauung will prevail in Beijing. Should it prove to be an oceanic one, as present evidence hints, then we shall witness something truly new under the sun.