The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy

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The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy, by Edward N. Luttwak. Harvard University Press, 2012, 310 pp.

In a few short decades, China has risen from poverty to the world’s second-largest economy and is likely to overtake the United States for the top spot by 2016. This economic growth has funded significant investments in new weapons and capabilities for the People’s Liberation Army that threaten the ability of the United States to deploy forces to intervene in conflicts in the Western Pacific. The future seems bright for China to retake its traditional role as East Asian hegemon and a leading global power.

In The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy, Edward Luttwak, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, offers a more measured view of China’s future. Approaching the problem “as a strategist and not as a sinologist,” Luttwak applies what he calls the “universal logic of strategy” to the rise of China.

While taking pains to deny that he is a realist, Luttwak makes essentially a realist argument. The growth of the Chinese economy, its military, and its global influence will inevitably produce balancing behavior from other states. The rise of Chinese power, as Luttwak and many realists predict, would provoke this reaction even if China were a democracy or a state that maintained amicable relations with its neighbors. Recent Chinese foreign policy behavior, however, has only served to exacerbate the threat felt by other states in the Asia-Pacific region. While for decades Chinese leaders sought a “peaceful rise” and settled most of their outstanding territorial disputes with their continental neighbors, over the last decade China has taken a more aggressive approach, particularly regarding its maritime claims in the East and South China Seas. Luttwak offers a comprehensive catalog of instances of China’s “premature assertiveness” and the backlash it has produced among its neighbors.

Luttwak attributes this assertiveness to pathologies in Chinese strategic culture, the exploration of which is the most valuable portion of the book. The main driver is “great power autism,” Luttwak’s term for a tendency of national leaders to focus their attention on domestic problems and give short shrift to foreign policy and the sensitivities of other nations. While such “autism” is also a feature of US and Russian foreign policy, the scale of the domestic demands placed on China’s leaders and the influence of Chinese imperial history make China a far more difficult case. In its traditional role as regional hegemon, Luttwak suggests, China was isolated from peer states, and its foreign policy limited the receipt of tribute from smaller states and the management of barbarians, leaving current Chinese leaders less capable of navigating the modern Westphalian international system.

History has misshaped Chinese strategic culture in other ways. Ancient military thinkers such as Sun Tzu have had a lasting influence on how Chinese leaders conduct foreign policy. The insights of these classical strategists, while successful in the context of China’s distant past, translate poorly into the contemporary international environment. Classical Chinese strategy recommends the betrayal of allies and the frequent changing of sides in a conflict to prevent another state from becoming too powerful, provokes crises to force other states to the negotiating table to resolve disputes, and relies heavily on deception and surprise. While these methods were perhaps more viable in China’s Warring States period, this behavior is likely to breed suspicion and distrust among neighbors in the contemporary context. Despite the often inappropriate lessons of China’s classical strategists, these ideas are embedded deeply in the minds of the Chinese elite, which Luttwak contends prevents China from developing a strategic culture that would be less threatening to its neighbors.

Luttwak’s treatment of Chinese strategic culture is, if somewhat cursory, delightfully provocative. One wishes that he had further developed his insights about the “strategic unwisdom of the ancients” with a greater exploration of Chinese history and strategic thought along the lines of his Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire.

In response to China’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy, other states in the Asia-Pacific have begun to rebuild old security ties, develop new alliances, and invest more heavily in their militaries. Luttwak rightly suggests that a purely military effort would prove to be both an inadequate and unwise strategy in the long term given China’s unfettered economic growth. He suggests a geo-economic strategy that would contain Chinese growth, and in turn its military potential and global influence, by restricting its access to resources and foreign markets. While Luttwak detects the stirrings of such a reaction in the form of restrictions on Chinese land purchases in Latin America and on government purchases of Chinese goods in the United States, he does not provide a clear picture of what form a deliberate geo-economic strategy would take. A more expansive treatment of this subject would provide a useful guide for policymakers grappling with the rise of China.

The Rise of China is a worthwhile read for anyone concerned with the challenge of China’s rise. Luttwak offers a provocative take on Chinese strategic culture and the weaknesses of China’s classical military thinkers as well as a thorough assessment of recent Chinese foreign policy. The weaknesses in the book derive from its brevity. While Luttwak offers a number of interesting ideas about the nature of Chinese decision making and strategies for coping with China’s rise, the breadth of the topic he addresses in a relatively short book does not allow the space to develop them as fully as needed. One hopes, and expects, Luttwak will return to the problem of China and continue to explore these ideas in the future.

Matthew Hallex

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."