USS Denver and the Republic of Korea Navy in the East China Sea. CREDIT: <a href="">U.S. Pacific Command</a> <a href="">(CC)</a>
USS Denver and the Republic of Korea Navy in the East China Sea. CREDIT: U.S. Pacific Command (CC)

The Coming War with China? The Ethics of Confrontation in the Pacific

May 2, 2017

Are the United States and China on the brink of war? Can the two nations avoid miscalculation and instead find common ground? Find out what this expert panel has to say.

DEVIN STEWART: I'm Devin Stewart from Carnegie Council. Welcome to our event. It's called "The Coming War with China?"—question mark; that is a key punctuation mark there—"The Ethics of Confrontation in the Pacific."

We've been joking around here as to how long that question mark will remain a question mark and not turn into an exclamation point, but here we are, and it's still a question mark, so I'm relieved. But it seems like every couple of days or so the Trump administration brings us to the perception of coming to the brink of some kind of major conflict in Northeast Asia. A lot of my friends are losing sleep. It is a very stressful time. It is unlike any other time perhaps in any of our lifetimes.

Looking at this question, actually a friend of mine on Facebook suggested we do a little poll. A lot of times some of the most interesting things you learn from these events are from the audience rather than the speakers, or just equally from both. Raise your hand if you think the answer is "Yes, there will be a war with China within the next year or so or a major armed conflict in East Asia generally." Who says yes?

[Audience votes]

There's only a couple. And yet you're here. That's interesting.

Is it the timeframe? Maybe two years? No? No takers.

We'll do the poll again after you hear from these brilliant minds, and then we'll see if it's any different.

Personally, my major concern is—I wrote a large report interviewing a lot of people close to the Trump administration—my personal fear is one of miscalculation and overconfidence. Eliot Cohen, our professor from Johns Hopkins, made a similar point.

I get the impression from the Trump team and from China that both of these parties regard each other as paper tigers. If two very powerful countries regard the other as weak, then it really invites the risk of miscalculation, overconfidence, and the possibility of conflict.

Trying to make sense of this era of great uncertainty, especially in East Asia, we've launched several projects here at Carnegie Council. One is this panel; another is our Asia Dialogues program with a yearly delegation to Asia. We have one of our delegates coming to IndonesiaTammy Nguyen. Tammy's right here. She will be coming with us to Jakarta to look at the role of Islam in Indonesian politics; and also a podcast series that I host on various topics on East Asia, particularly with the Trump administration.

So this panel is an attempt for us to make sense of what's going on during this time of uncertainty. We selected this great group of people. Each of the three offer different backgrounds.

Jennifer Harris is a former State Department official, now based at the Council on Foreign Relations, and her specialty has been China.

Ian Buruma is a historian at Bard College with deep knowledge of Japan and China. In fact, a little story—and I told Ian this—this panel was partly inspired by an NPR interview I heard with Ian Buruma where he said something that terrified me, which was: "The world seems to have forgotten that war is really horrible and that great powers might just forget and get bored." So I thought, Oh my god, that sounds like some of the things I'm hearing from the Trump people, too, so maybe we need to put a panel together. It's what we can do. It's the small thing that Carnegie Council can do to make the world maybe a little safer. At least, we'll understand the war we're in.

Finally, Joshua Eisenman is a China scholar with Capitol Hill experience as well. He is a professor at the University of Texas, LBJ School and a scholar at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law. The Strauss Center has also helped us with a co-partnership with this event, so we'd like to thank the Strauss Center. Thank you very much for your support and teamwork in making this possible.

So let's turn it over to the speakers. Let's start with Ian Buruma. I'd like to ask him to give us the big historical picture as a historian.

Ian, if you'd like to give us a sense of the mentality of great powers today. Are we in danger of drifting toward great conflict out of a sense of just forgetting how horrible war is in the first place, and is there anything we can do to maintain the peace?

IAN BURUMA: Thank you very much. First of all, I feel a bit of a fraud to be identified as a historian. I'm not a trained historian. I am interested in history. To pretend to have an answer to these big questions would be even more fraudulent, but I will just make a few remarks.

I don't think that there will be war because any great power particularly desires it. I think there is a chance of blundering into a war, and those chances are greater now because we're being ruled by a generation that has no personal experience of war. I do think that makes a difference. Some people have the imagination to be able to know—not know but sort of understand—the horrors of war, and others, sometimes people in positions of great power, do not. I think that does increase the risks.

I think we already saw that in the wars that were unleashed under George W. Bush. I think Donald Rumsfeld is the only one in a top position in his administration who had any personal experience with war. He was in the Korean War. [Editor's note: Rumsfeld joined the Navy in 1954; the fighting on the Korean Peninsula ended in July 1953.] None of the others were.

A lot of the neoconservatives who promoted the war—not out of bloodthirstiness, but some of them out of a certain kind of idealism of spreading democracy and using American force to liberate the world from dictators—I think did not have the imagination to think through what the consequences would be of the policies that they were promoting. They thought, Well, you topple the dictator, and everybody's free, and people will be dancing in the streets, and soon you'll have a nice liberal democracy, and of course it turned out not to be the case.

I wrote a book partly because of that about the year 1945, namely what happened after World War II. One of the reasons I wrote it was to demonstrate how even a war that everybody can agree was a just one—namely against Nazi Germany—still has horrendous consequences of massive displacement of people, civil wars, and revenge. That's one thing that doesn't inspire optimism. [Editor's note: For more, check out Buruma's 2013 Carnegie talk on Year Zero: A History of 1945.]

The other thing is what Graham Allison, professor of international relations at Harvard, has called the "Thucydides Trap,"—you probably all are familiar with it—the idea that Thucydides, in his book about the Peloponnesian War, described as the rise of a new power, it's frustrated in its rise, and the fear of an established power—in this case, Sparta was the established power, and Athens was the newcomer—and that this leads to conflict and has always led to conflicts in history. We're now in another time like that with China as the rising power challenging the United States as a great Pacific power in East and Southeast Asia. He thinks this is very likely to lead to a great conflict. It might do.

I think another aspect of this problem, for which there is no easy solution, is that in the way I see it, the United States is in what I would call the "late imperial dilemma." By that I mean that when empires have existed for a while and things get tired and frayed and it's time for the imperial rulers to start getting out of the way and so on, the argument against the colonial power handing over power to the people they've colonized is almost invariably, "Yes, of course, this is a good idea, we're all for it, but they're not yet ready to rule themselves."

There is a fascinating—you can see it on YouTube—program. William F. Buckley interviewed Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister at the time that many African countries were becoming independent. Buckley asked Macmillan whether it was a good idea for the British Empire to be dissolved in that way, clearly expecting Macmillan to say that this was a terrible idea because the "Fuzzy-Wuzzies"weren't ready for it. Instead of that, to Buckley's dismay, Macmillan said: "Of course they're not ready for it. But the longer the imperial power stays there, the less ready they will be. They will never be ready for it." So [according to Macmillan] the only way for colonial subjects to be able to rule themselves is for the colonial power to withdraw because otherwise they'll never be ready. And yes, that can lead to great chaos and upheaval and bad politics, but you have to bite the bullet. It has to happen at some point.

Even though America doesn't have a formal empire in East Asia or Southeast Asia, in some ways I think it's an analogous situation that the post-World War II Pax Americana, meaning Japan with a pacifist constitution written by the United States, meaning a dependent South Korea, Taiwan, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, the United States is the guarantor of security and has made these countries—as has happened in Europe—completely dependent on the United States. As long as the United States is there to guarantee their security, they never will be independent in that sense.

Ideally, in my view—this is not going to happen; certainly not soon—it's probably fair to say—and I hope you'll disagree because then we can have an argument—that China should, if not dominate the region, be allowed to expand a bit more. It is the major regional power. But it should not threaten Taiwan and Southeast Asia and the sea lanes either.

The only way for this to work out probably in the long run is for there to be an East Asian and Southeast Asian security alliance led by Japan, which is after all the major power, but a Japan that would, after national and democratic debate, revise its constitution and be trusted by other Asian countries to form an alliance, and so none of this is going to happen. The government in Japan does want to revise the constitution, but it's a nationalistic one, and it wants to revise it for all the wrong reasons and argues its case by saying that "We never needed a pacifist constitution in the first place; after all, those war crimes that everybody talks about, that's left-wing propaganda." As long as they argue their case in that way nobody is ever going to trust them, not even the Japanese themselves, or most of them.

So this alliance is not going to happen, and that means that Pax Americana will stumble on with a president in the White House who doesn't have a strategy, as far as I know, surrounded by people ignorant of what they're dealing with. None of the options are ideal. Withdrawal of the United States that is too quick could indeed lead to all kinds of chaotic and dangerous situations; staying there too long and freezing the status quo is not ideal, either; but not having a plan at all is probably the most dangerous thing of all, and I think that's where we are now.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you very much, Ian.

Welcome, Jennifer Harris, Council on Foreign Relations, former State Department official.

Jen, Ian's given us the big picture, the risks of drifting into global war. Given your background at the State Department, can you explain to us: (1) what are the bureaucratic politics involved in constraining, narrowing our options in foreign policy toward Asia; (2) how would you describe, is there an emerging strategy toward East Asia? Maybe that's being generous, given what Ian just said; and (3) what kind of values and interests are we trying to defend in the Pacific?

JENNIFER HARRIS: It's great to be with you all.

First, taking this question of how the policies get made. I served in the Obama administration for roughly the first seven years. I think it is an adversarial system by design. Essentially where you stand on a given issue is a function of where you sit in the bureaucracy, and I think somewhat intentionally we have created an executive branch full of just about every interest you can imagine. That means that any decision of consequence that the United States makes will have some entity that is on the losing side of it so that we can brief both sides, make the best arguments, and staff the people who are making the decisions, equipping them with the best possible information.

The problem is that right now we don't actually have people in the positions that drive these processes. In my experience in the seven or so years I spent at the State Department, the deputy level was far more important to the actual policy inputs and outcomes than the principals, and right now we are still waiting on appointments for most of the deputies of consequence; certainly that's true at the State Department. And that means that we're not even asking any questions at all, let alone the right questions, because policy processes are a string of meetings.

To your question, Devin, "who matters," that changes administration to administration. In the Obama administration I think you saw a White House that was sitting on a lot of the agencies, running a very tight ship, a lot of meetings, in my view, more meetings than I think was necessary or constructive. But those meetings were really a set of questions and a set of tasks that were sent down that meant that most of the career officials were busy writing memos and doing the necessary—"infighting" is a strong term—kicking the tires and having the proper debates to push up a set of options. I think probably that has been true. Whether you want to call it an adversarial system or the "deep state," that's roughly the system that we've had for really the last 50 or so years.

As to your question about policy, you're right; we don't seem to have a policy. But in some ways I think that's not all that abnormal. In my view, policies are really a byproduct of a set of decisions, and there is an attempt to string together a set of decisions looking retrospectively and really drawing a best-fit line through a set of decisions to try to rationalize them. It's still an important function because that best-fit line gives you some predictive insight about what the next decision can look like, but it's really not as if many cases are driven by some lucid, incisive policy that is concrete enough to be predictive for whatever the next big question or crisis is because most of these things are different enough that they are, by and large, cases of first impression.

All of which is to say policy is made largely looking backward, not forward, and it is pretty early days in this administration, so I'm not really sure that we would have had much new or different to say about Asia policy 100 days into the Obama administration. Most of it—yes, there were some words there, in my view they were more rhetorical than real, and I'm not sure it was actually helpful in retrospect.

A lot of the initial responses and reflexes out of the gate in the Obama administration were rejecting zero-sum, old-style politics with China, and I think that proved to be overly optimistic, and you really had to see the Obama administration walk that back. But this is not to excuse the fact that I don't hold out a lot of promise for any great policy coherence coming from this administration, in part because we don't actually have the people to provide it.

DEVIN STEWART: I want to give you the main event here, which is about war. I don't want you to go away with this peaceful feeling, like everything is fine. We did a poll, and I asked did anyone think war is going to break out in Asia, and I think there was one hand that went up in the entire about 100 people in this audience. If you're up at night thinking about a possible conflict in East Asia, specifically what is that conflict? What does it look like precisely?

JENNIFER HARRIS: Many of you have taken time out of your Thursday evening to come to an event on war with China. Probably you are somewhat versed in a lot of the different schools of thought within international relations (IR) and possibly commercial peace theory which was all the rage right up until it was disproved on the eve of World War I, essentially, that the more economic ties we have to bind us together, the lower the risk that parties that trade heavily will go to war.

I actually think that that gets the causality wrong, that in fact with trade comes a lot of room for friction. You see trading partners that became trading partners because they were first allies, and that is roughly the story of Japan, at least in the modern age of U.S. foreign policy. It is only because of those geopolitical and military relationships that provide the ballast to these relationships to weather the economic frictions that can come. So my concern is that we see a trade spat of some kind spiral out of control and instigate larger, potentially military frictions, probably with China directly.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you, Jen.

Let's turn it over to Josh Eisenman from the University of Texas. He also has news today. He just got a book deal from Columbia University Press, so he's celebrating.

JOSHUA EISENMAN: Long-awaited.

DEVIN STEWART: So he'll be a very famous scholar next week. Ian Buruma is also putting out a New Yorker article very soon on this topic, so look out for that as well.

Josh, your specialty has a lot to do with Chinese politics, and that's the other actor in this case. So we have the State Department in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood in Washington. Tell us about your research in Beijing. What's driving the Chinese Communist Party? What are the interests and values that are shaping their decisions? What do they want in the short term and long term? What's at stake for them? Nothing too hard.

JOSHUA EISENMAN: It's great to be here. Devin is a bit modest. In fact, Carnegie has been doing ethical dialogues on China for over a decade now. I know that because Devin and I put together some of those dialogues. So this is one of a series of events that has been taking place. But the idea of looking at this through an ethical lens is really Carnegie's niche. I think that it's even more relevant today than it was when we began, so I want to commend Carnegie on that.

What does China want? And when we talk about China, I want to be very specific. We're talking about the Communist Party of China, because that's who controls China. We're not talking about the people of China because they're not a part of this decision in any meaningful way. And what the Chinese Communist Party wants is to control China.

That might not sound surprising, but it's shocking how much of the analysis seems to neglect that. You hear people like Christine Lagarde at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) saying, "Well, you know, the Chinese just need to be more transparent." That's like saying, "Josh, you know, you just need to be able to grow a little bit and slam that basketball. Just do it. Just go ahead. I know you can do it."

It's not in their capability to do it any more than it's in Tony Soprano's capability to become a priest. It is beyond them. And I don't say that in a condescending way. I say that in the sense that we need to be far more modest in our approach to China. We need to walk away from any type of missionary mentality. The Chinese Communist Party will not become a Christian party any more than it will become a liberal democratic party. Any policy the United States pursues that is based on the assumption that the Communist Party of China will become a liberal democratic party is going to fail as it has failed for the last 20 years, 30 years, whatever. Or hundreds of years if you go back to the Christian missionaries who tried to Christianize China.

I would start off by saying that the Communist Party of China wants to control China, and our best strategy to deal with them is to accept that fact and move from that position, not from any position that starts with "what do we want China to become and let's change China," in part because they are wise to this game and therefore lead us down the primrose path. How many delegations have I been on where the Chinese say, "We're changing, we're changing, just give us a few years, don't worry," because that's what we want to hear. And they're experts at telling us that. And we're experts at hearing it and going home satisfied.

So this takes place every year. And anytime you turn on PBS you'll see some senior U.S. government official explaining to you why we need the Communist Party of China to remain in power. And frankly, we don't. They need to remain in power, but we don't. But the greatest trick they've played is to make us buy into that, to make us believe that somehow their position is somehow tied into our interests. So I think that's the first place we have to start with, a bit of a reality check.

I think we also need another reality check with regard to the Thucydides Trap. I think IR theory has done great damage to the U.S.-China relationship because it has allowed us to deal autocracy out of the equation. This isn't because of the nature of their system; it's because rising powers and status quo powers fight, don't you know? And if it were the Easter Bunny and Father Christmas, they'd fight, too.

But guess what? Sparta was not China. The Hapsburgs were not China. Sparta—anybody seen 300? Sparta: "You come back on your shield." That's what your mother tells you when you go off to war.

The Chinese are not of that ilk. No Chinese mother says to her son, "Come back on your shield or don't come back at all." So there are fundamental domestic elements of the system that using the Thucydides Trap and IR theory don't take into the equation. For me, from my optic, those are the most important things. When I want to understand what China does, I don't read "The Thucydides Trap." I read Chinese texts if I want to know what the Chinese are thinking. And they actually write quite a bit of helpful stuff.

So to me, the Thucydides Trap is a shorthand people use when they don't want to learn about the country they're studying. "Oh, they're just like Sparta. Case closed." I think that's intellectual laziness, and I would urge all of us to learn more about the country before we predict its behavior.

I agree with the audience. In the short term, I'm quite confident there will not be a war with China. And I'm quite confident because if you've been following Chinese politics, China is about to have a large Party Congress; Xi Jinping does not want a war just before that party congress.

I think this is again a very domestic issue. He's not doing this because of some rising power/status quo power. He's looking at home at his domestic—politics are local everywhere, here as well as China, and he's looking locally and he's saying "I don't want a war now." In the medium term, that calculation may change. It's actually in the longer term that I'm more concerned, and let me explain why.

Xi Jinping has another set of five years; he's got another five-year term. And then he's got to make a decision: is he going to try to stay or is he not? Frankly, I think that we've known from the beginning he's probably going to stay. Now that is becoming more and more clear. But in order to stay he needs to have a reason to do so, and war is one of the many reasons. But it's possible.

So my concerns rise as time goes by and as we get closer to the end of that five-year period. Not now. He doesn't want it now; now would be disastrous for him. In the medium term, while he's very secure, I think that would also be pretty bad for him. But give me five years, six years, seven years, I'm more concerned because I don't know what the future of China looks like if he decides to stick around.

This is again where domestic politics plays this critical role in trying to predict the behavior of a particular nation where I don't think that that is visible at all through the application of IR theory. The application of IR theory will not tell you the role of the Party Congress in the decision-making of the Chinese Communist Party. To me, that is the most essential question they're thinking about right now, and the United States is second to that.

Let me break it down very clearly: If you are sitting in an office in Beijing right now, your primary concern is probably the guy next to you, maybe your deputy, who wants your job. Not the United States. These are very local issues that they are very concerned about. I think to understand China best we should actually understand China better, which would mean staffing the positions, and it would mean not reflexively falling back on what I consider theories rather than actual knowledge.

The final nail in the coffin, if I might, of this theory is that I haven't seen anybody demonstrate that in the age of nuclear weapons it's still valid at all. Because now you've got a country like North Korea who can have the bomb and obliterate other countries in ways that just simply weren't possible during the Thucydides Trap argument's development, and not possible really up until the creation of this weapon. This weapon changes the calculations of countries in ways we all know. Therefore, even if it were relevant, it therefore becomes irrelevant by the very nature of this weapon.

So I would urge us to look a little deeper into China to understand.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you want to respond, Ian?

IAN BURUMA: If I may respond to one thing. I wasn't defending the Thucydides Trap at all. I totally agree with you. I also agree that domestic politics are going to dictate a lot of what's going to happen.

What we haven't mentioned so far is the other danger. One danger is indeed a trade conflict spiraling out of control and leading to unintended consequences that could be violent, but the other one is that what has happened in China, I think, certainly since Tiananmen if not before—really after the death of Mao—is that the legitimacy of the Communist Party has been deeply undermined by the fact that nobody is really a communist any longer, including most Communist Party members. Marx and Lenin and Lei Feng are occasionally referred to as lip service, but nobody really believes that stuff anymore.

So instead of that, you now have Chinese nationalism as a kind of ideology that is supposed to legitimize one-party rule, namely, "We've been humiliated for a century and a half by foreign powers, particularly Japan, and this is never going to happen again, and it won't happen again if we become a great power under the leadership of the Communist Party."

The problem with that is that in case of great domestic pressure on the government which could come from a severe slowdown of the economy, for example, when the middle class no longer feels that they are getting their end of the deal—which is "don't interfere with politics, accept the status quo, and you'll have the established order so you can get rich and go on foreign holidays" and that kind of thing—if that collapses, nationalism could turn belligerent, and that could, if sufficiently provoked, lead to an attempt, say, to go for Taiwan.

They're not going to do that as long as they know that Washington would definitely intervene. With an erratic president who one day says, "Well, why shouldn't they have Taiwan," or perhaps, "One-China policy, why should we stick to it?" and then the next day says the opposite, it's thinkable that under sufficient domestic pressure nationalism could turn belligerent, and again, without wanting a world war could lead to great power conflict.

JOSHUA EISENMAN: Aren't you assuming the Chinese people have a role to play in this decision?

IAN BURUMA: No. Well, they do have a role to play in this decision in the sense that even the Chinese Communist Party, which is a dictatorship, is very conscious of the need for the tacit support at least of the urban elite. If the urban elite rebels for whatever reason, they have a problem. They could rebel because they think the government isn't being nationalistic enough, which is why anti-Japanese demonstrations are often such a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the government occasionally encourages it for their own reasons—to bolster their own legitimacy, they want to get cheaper loans out of Japan, or whatever it is—but if they're seen as being too weak you could get demonstrations demanding a harder line on Japan and Taiwan and so on.

So yes, I do think public opinion has a certain role to play. I don't think it's just a couple of guys in a smoke-filled room doing anything they like without any regard for what people think.

JENNIFER HARRIS: Just on this issue of the domestic input that China has into decisions of its leaders on whether or not to go to war, I think it is absolutely right. But it also calls to mind how that same accountability in the United States has become more and more attenuated, really since Vietnam.

I have been on record, I remain on record with the somewhat heretical proposition that I think we should bring back the draft. I think it should be mandatory for women as well as men for a few reasons: It gave rise to a certain social mixing that put people from walks of life that had no other reason to be shoulder-to-shoulder next to one another to learn about different parts of our country and create a certain social fabric that really benefited the United States in so many ways and laid the foundation for some of our most successful social welfare programs, that gave rise to the lowest levels of inequality this country has known.

But I think more to the point it actually prevents us from outsourcing our wars to a socioeconomic underclass that quite literally can't afford not to sign up. When we all have a life-or-death stake in the decisions that our presidents and our leaders, commanders, make about whether to go to war. I think we look at elections differently. I think we look at questions of competence to lead differently. And it will probably make us think good, long, and hard about some of these decisions. I don't think we've really encountered a moment of a rising great power and a mature power at a point when we haven't had a draft.

IAN BURUMA: I totally agree. But the professional army doesn't want it.

JENNIFER HARRIS: Exactly. There are good arguments on both sides, and you're going to get the foremost resistance from our military professionals.

DEVIN STEWART: Josh has a concluding remark.

JOSHUA EISENMAN: Jennifer, you started out by saying, "You sit where you stand." As the father of two boys, I adamantly oppose any reinstatement of the draft. I want to just say that.

JENNIFER HARRIS: I said that it should be open to both genders. It should be male as well as female. I come from a military base in southwest Oklahoma. I've seen firsthand what we ask of our men and women in uniform when we go to war.

JOSHUA EISENMAN: I should probably qualify that. If I had two daughters, I'd probably still oppose it.

But getting to the point that Ian made—and I think this is worth considering—I think we may be in a fundamentally different time. Just like I said to you a moment ago, the bomb has changed the Thucydides Trap.

I think our calculation of the importance of the street in autocracy in China in particular is fundamentally different, because we are living—and those of you who have spent time in China know—in an Orwell triple-plus environment where there are cameras on every corner, cameras so small we can't see them, and everything is being recorded. If you step out onto the street in China, the response time to you is going to be as if you're committing a crime, and you will be on video, and it will be known, as are the first of kin and everything else.

Living in this new environment with tools and toys the Stasi could only have dreamed of, I wonder if our same views still hold about the role of the people within an autocracy. I have no doubt that the Chinese government finds it valuable to gin up nationalism to serve its own interests. However, I think the lesson of Tiananmen Square is that "that is what you get if you take to the streets." And I think that lesson is not lost. I think it's exceedingly clear.

The Chinese people I know tend to be very pragmatic and very local in terms of the complaints that they're willing to raise: "The stream is dirty; we need to clean it." But I could never imagine the Chinese people coming out onto the streets full-throated and actually risking their lives and their futures to fight for abstract nationalist causes. To me, it seems doubtful, especially when you know that you're on video at that time. The consequences are high; the benefits are almost nonexistent. So you come to the street in China because you have no clean air and no clear water. It's very pragmatic. That's where I would maybe, not disagree, but push you a little bit to explain how this is not different than what we've seen in the past.

IAN BURUMA: First of all, "the Chinese people are pragmatic" seems a great generalization. If we look at Chinese history, if they were so pragmatic, how do you explain the Taiping Rebellion, which cost the lives of millions following a messianic leader who thought he was the brother of Jesus Christ? This is not a pragmatic—

JOSHUA EISENMAN: Well, I follow onto your comment a moment ago, where you said that they've given up this ideology. So I would say China now, not China 200 years ago.

IAN BURUMA: Which is why I don't. I think you're being a bit too categorical when you say that there is no chance of any kind of rebellion. It may not be the same as in Tiananmen. It may not be students going out into the streets, but I think that the present Communist Party—the word "communist" is a little bit of a misnomer. It's a little bit like—not the same—the People's Action Party in Singapore. That's what they want to be in a way, without an opposition party. And they want to be a party that is supported by the urban educated elite, where people can get rich, where you have a sort of more-or-less capitalist economy, but which is run by an autocratic one-party state. That's what they want.

But essential to that working is that the deal with the middle class holds. And if that deal does not hold and people in the middle class feel that they're not only not getting richer but they're getting poorer and their students and children are not getting educated as well as they were before—in other words, in case of a real economic crisis—you could get real disorder. If the Communist Party regime is no longer backed by the urban middle class that they need, it becomes very unpredictable, and it could go in all kinds of directions, probably none of them very desirable. I agree with you that it's unlikely to lead to a great transformation into liberal democracy, but even that you can't completely rule out, but it's not likely.

But to assume that the status quo will always hold because either the Chinese are pragmatic or there's no chance of them ever rebelling, I don't know. We've seen too many revolutions in history. They were all unpredicted. Nobody could have predicted Gorbachev and perestroika and so on. I don't think you can know quite as categorically as you seem to think that you know.

JOSHUA EISENMAN: This to me is the problem, that the history is so binding of us to this notion that revolution is going to happen if we simply wait long enough. The probability in my opinion is that it gets worse before it gets better, that it gets tighter before it gets looser.


QUESTION: Michael Kaufman.

If we do believe a war with China is possible in the next, say, five to eight years as you were suggesting, what recommendations would you make on trade policy today with China given that we're importing, what, $1 trillion or so in goods from them today?

JENNIFER HARRIS: I think we've gotten a little bit too drunk on neoliberal economics and this idea that states don't matter. I think we've sort of—Dani Rodrik, a great trade economist at Harvard, once put it this way: "Imagine that Mozambique had designed the WTO (World Trade Organization) rather than the United States and the United Kingdom. How different do you think it would look?" Pretty different. We've designed these things self-consciously in our image, and as it should be. I think that's part of a democratic accountability that is good and proper.

But I think that holds true on a bilateral level as well. For all of the trade frictions that we had with Germany in the 1970s and Japan in the 1980s, as fierce as those spats were, they played out within the umbrella of U.S. military security. That is not a set of guarantees that we have with China, and I think that holds true for our own bilateral relations with China. But I think we should take a more concerted policy toward U.S. allies in Asia as asking them to embark upon a more concerted diversification strategy, in particular coming up with forms of insurance that can help steel and reinforce them from the economic coercion that they have already been on the front lines of from China.

QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.

Would you say a bit more about Korea? There are many people from the Obama administration and now the Trump administration saying that America's greatest foreign policy challenge is North Korea, When you say that, it's like the division of Korea, that this is the leftovers from the Korean War.

In any case, as you know better than I, there could be the possibility of cooperation now between the United States and China rather than a war in order to contain North Korea. But China has its interests, and the United States keeps saying "China, do something about North Korea. Don't accept their coal and all that. Could you deal with this because it's a rather serious potential conflagration?"

IAN BURUMA: I think that the Chinese interests are very much at odds with American interests if the American interest would be absolutist in the sense that they will only talk to the North Koreans if they give up their nuclear program, which the North Koreans are not going to do because it's the only thing they've got. Without the bomb, the Kim dynasty is over. So they're not going to give it up.

China is not going to put sufficient pressure on the North Koreans to force them to give it up, and so I think the only option is to accept that the North Koreans have a nuclear bomb, and work with China to make sure that they won't use it. But I think demanding that they give up their nuclear bomb entirely is a nonstarter. It's just not going to work. Of course, it would be desirable, but it's not going to happen.

To be too absolutist in our policy toward North Korea and provoke a war would be much more dangerous, I think, than living with it and then working with the Chinese to limit the damage.

QUESTIONER [Susan Gitelson]: And how would you suggest that we should work with the Chinese?

JENNIFER HARRIS: I think China's policy on North Korea is stability and status quo, and I think it's the job of Washington to make clear to China that there is no such thing as stability. This really began on George W. Bush's watch. It was exacerbated under Obama, that we have allowed this to go on to the point where we really, I think, have very few options, and I don't see a much better way out than the one that Ian described.

For all of China's stated efforts to close off coal exports to North Korea, it's still quite porous. There are literally trucks being driven through these embargoes through Dandong. Until that changes, I think we need to get a whole lot tougher on China, and that, to my mind, should include sanctions on China.

JOSHUA EISENMAN: I would take a very different position. There is zero hope that the Chinese will do anything at any point to do anything to assist us in North Korea, and anyone who tells you different I believe is wrong.

The Chinese see this in terms of—they see it very clearly. There's no explanation that we can provide that's going to help them to understand it any better than they already do. So to me, the question is not "how do we work with the Chinese," it's "how do we get the Chinese to stay out while we handle our business?" So the best we can do is get the Chinese to stand down; the best we can do is to be able to deal with our allies.

I've actually lost a bit of patience. Why don't we deal with our allies on this? Why do we always have to have the Chinese assisting us? Frankly, the Chinese in large part caused this problem. They fed the dog; they probably gave it rabies; they certainly gave it a lot of weapons which were transferred to Pakistan, which were then transferred to a whole bunch of nasty people. And this is simply what we know.

So the fact that the Chinese, after giving this technology, after supporting this regime, are going to somehow be the ones to put it down, to me is a fool's errand. So then we have to begin to ask a different question, which is, "How do we get the Chinese to step back?" or "How do we look at this the other way and how do we work with the North Koreans to do something different vis-à-vis China?" We're always talking about "How do we work with China vis-à-vis North Korea?" but maybe it would be more helpful if we said, "Well, what can we do with North Korea vis-à-vis China?" It depends on where you think the problems really lie, both in the long and short term.

So to me, I think we're constantly saying the same thing: "If the Chinese could just come around, if we could just get them to believe," and that again is the rub. They don't believe; they won't believe; nothing you can say can make them believe because they probably understand this better than you.

And in terms of the border, I agree it would be good if the Chinese could do more on the border. However, as I said, one problem is getting them to do it; but the other problem is the fact that this is a long, porous border, and even if they doubled and tripled down, stuff would still get through this border. It gets through the U.S.-Mexico border, and we're trying to build a wall and we're vigilant.

So this idea that somehow China can be brought onboard—to me, I think we need to question this entire theory, and we need to ask ourselves, "How can we work to solve this problem without China?" I think that China actually recently in the last week has given us a hint because there have been some of these military analysts in Beijing—people who test things; they're not their government, but they're military analysts—and they've said things like the 1961 treaty with North Korea may or may not be valid because the North Koreans are in violation of the United Nations. What does that mean? I don't think we can necessarily take it on its face, but it's an interesting development that I haven't heard before.

I think we need to change our perspective on the North Korea question, and if we continue to just simply go at this in the same way, we're going to get the same results.

IAN BURUMA: Yes, but China is the only country that has any influence in North Korea. Working with our allies is all very well. The South Koreans and the Japanese have absolutely no influence in North Korea. There is nothing they can do. The only country that can do anything is China.

I totally agree with Jennifer that China basically wants to freeze the status quo. They don't want disorder; they certainly don't want a war. So China is the only country you can work with if you want to limit the damage. If you want to get rid of the regime, that wouldn't be difficult. You could bomb the hell out of North Korea, and the United States is perfectly capable of doing it. And then what?

I really see no alternative. And I think working with our allies, yes, we already do that. And working with the North Koreans against China? We don't even have an ambassador. I say the royal "we" here, but I don't quite see how you see that.

QUESTION: My question was for the South China Sea issue. China has taken a passive-aggressive approach with something called the "cabbage strategy," where they basically build military bases around Vietnamese and Malaysian bases to box them out. I was wondering, do you think that is an effective strategy in deterring future escalation, future war? Do you think that sets a precedent for future land disputes between countries?

QUESTION: Robert Adler.

I have two related questions, one is fairly short term and the other is longer term. The shorter-term question is—you've hinted at this a little bit—the degree to which the leadership of both of those two countries, the personality, the character, the knowledge or ignorance, affects policy. We know pretty clearly that Xi Jinping has changed the direction of policy in many respects domestically and become more rigid and repressive. We hardly know exactly what's going to happen in Washington, but clearly the personalities and the ideas affect how those things work.

The second related question is longer term. It rests on my own fairly long experience with China. You all touched on 1989, the Tiananmen Square incident. It's a hypothesis of mine, and you can tell me whether I'm way off base, that the people who demonstrated—there were a lot of people; it was not just Beijing; it was just about every city of any consequence that had a university—and who honored the Statue of Liberty, even though they didn't know what democracy really was, it's hard for me to believe that the people who were that eager for what they considered democracy suddenly, because of the tanks, gave up and changed their mind and they've suddenly become ardent communists and ardent believers.

So my hypothesis is that by the time those people—who were, let's say, in their twenties—reached the stage of being, say, 55, 60, which is when people in all walks of life, not just politically but academically, industrially, just about every area, those people in that age are the ones who begin to control things, lead things in China. Aren't they likely to have a more tolerant view of different opinion, of dissent, and therefore have more of the kind of opening toward—I hate to use the word "democracy"— the opening that was in process starting with Deng Xiaoping and going on until Xi Jinping took office?

QUESTION: Mine are two short questions. One is for Jennifer. You were talking of the coming war with America. What about the coming war with India? If that's the war coming up, would the United States intervene on—

JENNIFER HARRIS: We're in really bad shape now.

QUESTIONER: And the second question is for Joshua. You're bang-on on the China perspective, I would like you to throw some light on the strategic implications of the "One Belt, One Road."

QUESTION: I'm Chris. I'm participating in the Carnegie New Leaders program here.

I'm very interested to hear any thoughts you guys can share. At the beginning of this decade the narrative was that China had overestimated the degree of American decline and invited the response that came in the form of the rebalancing. I think it's important to acknowledge that regardless of how it ends up turning out, Trump's election, his rhetoric, and the vacuum he's created feeds into that narrative of decline.

A lot of discussions during that period of the initial rebalancing with Chinese friends often jumped off from this idea that there's a period of strategic opportunity for China through the year 2020. I know there are some people within the U.S. military who are pretty convinced that it is sometime between 2020 and 2025 when China would decide to make a move against Taiwan if it had not happened organically.

I am curious if anyone can offer any thoughts as to what signs we should look for to see how the vacuum of Trump's leadership has affected China's thinking about this idea of a period of strategic opportunity.

JENNIFER HARRIS: I'll start first with the South/East China Sea question. Great question.

I think it has been effective, precisely because the Chinese are pretty great at working the U.S. system in, not only telling us what we want to hear, but figuring out where our allergies really are and gliding right beneath that trigger point. A lot of the work that they've done on the land reclamation that were, of course, not for anything but peaceful civilian activities right up until they put military-grade landing strips on these fake islands and outfitted them with a lot of military hardware.

Unfortunately, I think the U.S. calculation is still that—much of this has gone on in the Spratly Island chain or thereabouts, and we kind of have a red line that we've communicated at the proper levels to the Chinese, largely through Admiral Harry Harris, who is respected on both sides of the aisle and fortunately still in his job, and made clear that the Scarborough Shoal is our red line, in part because if the Chinese start the same kinds of shenanigans in that area as they have undertaken with the Spratlys that that could put our bases in the Philippines at risk.

Thus far, the kind of clear signaling and clear communication, mil-to-mil cooperation, has worked. To answer also the question of "what would I look for for worrying signs," precisely because I think the United States has successfully signaled now under two administrations that red line, if we did nonetheless see Chinese military activities near Scarborough Shoal, that would be a big warning sign to me that they are looking for a war.

On the question about India, I hope that was a question about conflict between China and India, not the United States. I've been on a train that had bad Internet for the last three hours, so I have no idea what might have come out of Washington today. I think we have largely overlooked a lot of the tensions between China and India, in part because I think U.S. foreign policy has been over-militarized in really the last 15 years since 9/11, and a lot of this conflict is taking the form of what I call "geo-economics" or using economic tools of all kinds to work your will in the world and achieve a specific geopolitical aim.

I think you've seen India's "Act East" policy come out with a decidedly geo-economic tinge under Modi, explicitly in response to China's own flexing of strength in that region. It's something that we need seasoned, veteran diplomats to be watching. This was the great tribute to Ambassador Bill Burns, who was the deputy secretary under Hillary Clinton and for the months of John Kerry's tenure that I was there. Bill was great, because he was a career Foreign Service officer, and he had built up over a tenure of 30, 40 years, the strategic patience to deal with India.

We don't have the system and the timelines within the U.S. foreign policy apparatus to take on India as the strategic partner cultivated over a couple of decades that I think we really need. But if we did, I think that return on investment would be very well worth it.

IAN BURUMA: I'll take the question on the Tiananmen generation.

You're right, they wanted something that they thought was democracy, but I think that after 1989 a very large number of them, the students and their families, were, to use a term which sounds negative but it's not necessarily—I don't mean it negatively—but I think they've been largely "bought off" in the way that the middle class in Singapore has been, and even in Japan after 1960, when there were massive riots and rebellions against the security treaty with the United States. The government made a deal with the middle class—with the students and their parents—and said, "Look. You stay quiet. You keep out of politics. The Liberal Democratic Party of Japan will govern and will double your income every year." That was the promise.

More or less that happened after 1989. A lot of the people who demonstrated and stuck their necks out acquiesced in this and did get rich and almost sometimes out of a sense of guilt, I think, became very nationalistic as well.

The ones who come to the top in their fifties and sixties will probably be more conservative even than we think and will want to keep order and keep the good life going from their perspective, which makes nonsense of the old developmental theories of "if you have a middle class, you automatically have democratic aspirations," which probably won't happen.

Indeed, you can see it now. The generation that lived through the Cultural Revolution are in power now, and they are very conservative precisely because they don't want to see the kind of disorder that they lived through when they were much younger. So I don't have very high expectations of that.

I think as to the other question of the effect of the Trump victory, it can only help to strengthen those in places like China but also in parts of Europe and Russia who take the view that democracy is a mess, you don't get anything done, infrastructure crumbles, you need strong leaders to make decisions that stick. So it discredits the aspirations of those in China who would like a more democratic system. So in that sense the ripple effect of Trump is a disaster outside the United States as much as it is domestically.

JOSHUA EISENMAN: I would agree with all of that.

IAN BURUMA: Well, that's a pity.

JOSHUA EISENMAN: But I would add one piece to it. It's true, most of these people did change their stripes. But the people who were seen as unchangeable, we didn't hear from them again. There was a massive purge, and we don't even know how many people or where they went. So it's not only the carrots; it's also a big stick. The combination of these two, it just works, and they've made it work. I wish I could be more optimistic on that note.

On the One Belt, One Road, which is a topic for its own discussion, but it's essential. Devin and I wrote an article in Foreign Policy a couple of months ago on this. I think the very size of this raises a lot of questions. Anytime you're dealing with something in the trillions, it's hard to imagine that there isn't some measure of systemic risk in it. So there are a lot of countries lining up to take money, and a lot of countries that couldn't get loans anywhere else. So these aren't the darlings of the loan world; these are folks—the Belaruses, the Turkmenistans—who can't get credit other ways. This puts them in a hell of a lot of debt going forward.

Then the question from the Chinese side is: Are they going to pay it back? Probably not. And then the systemic question is: If this debt is held by the Export-Import Bank or another Chinese institution, have they passed it on in a systemic way, or is it held and they basically know it's not coming back? So they've written it off.

Tough to write off a trillion dollars, mind you, but if they've got that in their mind that this is a write-off, that's one thing. But if they've done like we did and pick it up and slice it up and package it up and sell it off to people into the system, then that could be a systemic risk.

I don't know the answer to that question, if this debt sits there or if it goes elsewhere. But I think to understand the implications of One Belt, One Road we have to understand if this is a systemic risk or it's not.

Chris is a friend of mine. So I think, Chris, you're right about this. The timeframe I think makes sense as well, and I think Taiwan is a place where a possible conflict could emerge. But to me I see this as Xi Jinping has broken a lot of rice bowls. He's in a very difficult position if he were to step down, and therefore, to me what makes that different is not that Taiwan is somehow different in five years than it is today, or Chinese capabilities are necessarily fundamentally different, but that there is a driver and a reason to engage in a conflict to serve one's own political objectives.

And it's funny because we talk about this in America all the time. I think there was an article even that I just saw: "Donald Trump May Start a War to Help His Own Political . . ."—we talk about this in the United States, but in China we often talk in IR theory terms. So I would ask us to ask and look very closely at what kinds of pressures are going on in the Chinese leadership when answering the fundamental question we've come to, which is: Is there going to be a war with China?

DEVIN STEWART: On that note, let's ask the audience one more time. We only had one, and the audience goes back for infinity back there.

This is the exit poll: Is war going to happen in East Asia in the next year?

[Show of hands]

We got one. Still one.

JOSHUA EISENMAN: But it's a different one.

DEVIN STEWART: Is it the same one? It's a different one, so one guy changed his mind, and the other guy—okay, two people changed their minds. One percent chance then. A hundred people here—one, 1 percent chance. Let's just say that.

Let's thank our wonderful speakers, and thank you.

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