‘How China Can Defeat America’ by Chinese Professor Yan Xuetong

I happen to think that the most interesting and significant issue of our times is the rise of China. This blog is also dedicated to the idea we should listen to and understand the other side in conflict, without losing sight of our own interests and perspectives. We should be capable of entering what I call Scott Fitzgerald Space, which is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas and continue to function. In this spirit, the comment in today’s New York Times from a leading Chinese Professor of Political Science Yan Xuetong is fascinating, thought provoking, and so far removed from much debate on the rise of China that I post it in full. See what perspectives it generates for you. For me, it suggests a Chinese focus on America, not noticing that China is only 19% of the world’s population, that attempts at uni-polar worlds often generate counter-coalitions, and that India is also rising, has territorial disputes with China and sits astride China’s route to Middle East oil supplies:

WITH China’s growing influence over the global economy, and its increasing ability to project military power, competition between the United States and China is inevitable. Leaders of both countries assert optimistically that the competition can be managed without clashes that threaten the global order.

Most academic analysts are not so sanguine. If history is any guide, China’s rise does indeed pose a challenge to America. Rising powers seek to gain more authority in the global system, and declining powers rarely go down without a fight. And given the differences between the Chinese and American political systems, pessimists might believe that there is an even higher likelihood of war.

I am a political realist. Western analysts have labeled my political views “hawkish,” and the truth is that I have never overvalued the importance of morality in international relations. But realism does not mean that politicians should be concerned only with military and economic might. In fact, morality can play a key role in shaping international competition between political powers — and separating the winners from the losers.

I came to this conclusion from studying ancient Chinese political theorists like Guanzi, Confucius, Xunzi and Mencius. They were writing in the pre-Qin period, before China was unified as an empire more than 2,000 years ago — a world in which small countries were competing ruthlessly for territorial advantage.

It was perhaps the greatest period for Chinese thought, and several schools competed for ideological supremacy and political influence. They converged on one crucial insight: The key to international influence was political power, and the central attribute of political power was morally informed leadership. Rulers who acted in accordance with moral norms whenever possible tended to win the race for leadership over the long term.

China was unified by the ruthless king of Qin in 221 B.C., but his short-lived rule was not nearly as successful as that of Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty, who drew on a mixture of legalistic realism and Confucian “soft power” to rule the country for over 50 years, from 140 B.C. until 86 B.C.

According to the ancient Chinese philosopher Xunzi, there were three types of leadership: humane authority, hegemony and tyranny. Humane authority won the hearts and minds of the people at home and abroad. Tyranny — based on military force — inevitably created enemies. Hegemonic powers lay in between: they did not cheat the people at home or cheat allies abroad. But they were frequently indifferent to moral concerns and often used violence against non-allies. The philosophers generally agreed that humane authority would win in any competition with hegemony or tyranny.

Such theories may seem far removed from our own day, but there are striking parallels. Indeed, Henry Kissinger once told me that he believed that ancient Chinese thought was more likely than any foreign ideology to become the dominant intellectual force behind Chinese foreign policy.

The fragmentation of the pre-Qin era resembles the global divisions of our times, and the prescriptions provided by political theorists from that era are directly relevant today — namely that states relying on military or economic power without concern for morally informed leadership are bound to fail.

Unfortunately, such views are not so influential in this age of economic determinism, even if governments often pay lip service to them. The Chinese government claims that the political leadership of the Communist Party is the basis of China’s economic miracle, but it often acts as though competition with the United States will be played out on the economic field alone. And in America, politicians regularly attribute progress, but never failure, to their own leadership.

Both governments must understand that political leadership, rather than throwing money at problems, will determine who wins the race for global supremacy.

How, then, can China win people’s hearts across the world? According to ancient Chinese philosophers, it must start at home. Humane authority begins by creating a desirable model at home that inspires people abroad.

This means China must shift its priorities away from economic development to establishing a harmonious society free of today’s huge gaps between rich and poor. It needs to replace money worship with traditional morality and weed out political corruption in favor of social justice and fairness.

In other countries, China must display humane authority in order to compete with the United States, which remains the world’s pre-eminent hegemonic power. Military strength underpins hegemony and helps to explain why the United States has so many allies. President Obama has made strategic mistakes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, but his actions also demonstrate that Washington is capable of leading three foreign wars simultaneously. By contrast, China’s army has not been involved in any war since 1984, with Vietnam, and very few of its high-ranking officers, let alone its soldiers, have any battlefield experience.

America enjoys much better relations with the rest of the world than China in terms of both quantity and quality. America has more than 50 formal military allies, while China has none. North Korea and Pakistan are only quasi-allies of China. The former established a formal alliance with China in 1961, but there have been no joint military maneuvers and no arms sales for decades. China and Pakistan have substantial military cooperation, but they have no formal military alliance binding them together.

To shape a friendly international environment for its rise, Beijing needs to develop more high-quality diplomatic and military relationships than Washington. No leading power is able to have friendly relations with every country in the world, thus the core of competition between China and the United States will be to see who has more high-quality friends. And in order to achieve that goal, China has to provide higher-quality moral leadership than the United States.

China must also recognize that it is a rising power and assume the responsibilities that come with that status. For example, when it comes to providing protection for weaker powers, as the United States has done in Europe and the Persian Gulf, China needs to create additional regional security arrangements with surrounding countries according to the model of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization — a regional forum that includes China, Russia and several central Asian countries.

And politically, China should draw on its tradition of meritocracy. Top government officials should be chosen according to their virtue and wisdom, and not simply technical and administrative ability. China should also open up and choose officials from across the world who meet its standards, so as to improve its governance.

The Tang dynasty — which lasted from the 7th century to the 10th and was perhaps China’s most glorious period — employed a great number of foreigners as high-ranking officials. China should do the same today and compete with America to attract talented immigrants.

OVER the next decade, China’s new leaders will be drawn from a generation that experienced the hardships of the Cultural Revolution. They are resolute and will most likely value political principles more than material benefits. These leaders must play a larger role on the world stage and offer more security protection and economic support to less powerful countries.

This will mean competing with the United States politically, economically and technologically. Such competition may cause diplomatic tensions, but there is little danger of military clashes.

That’s because future Chinese-American competition will differ from that between the United States and the Soviet Union during the cold war. Neither China nor America needs proxy wars to protect its strategic interests or to gain access to natural resources and technology.

China’s quest to enhance its world leadership status and America’s effort to maintain its present position is a zero-sum game. It is the battle for people’s hearts and minds that will determine who eventually prevails. And, as China’s ancient philosophers predicted, the country that displays more humane authority will win.

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About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict History, Conflict Processes, Economic Conflict, Rise of China, The Rise of India and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to ‘How China Can Defeat America’ by Chinese Professor Yan Xuetong

  1. Victor says:

    China is rushing to a demographic cliff face plus a huge divide between the rich and poor and an excess of 80 million males because of selective abortion and the one child policy.

    China is approaching a ” China Winter” event and it will not be pretty.

    The elites will order the army to slaughter all protesters–and they will.

    China is in the same state as Japan was in the 1920s and 30s–lacking enough food, energy and strategic minerals. Like Japan they are trying to create a ” Greater Asian Prosperity Sphere”—an dominant empire in the South China Sea and stretching out through the first, second and third island chains.
    Understandably Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Australia, NZ etc are not sleeping well.
    The US have moved the majority of its naval assets into the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific region and made a new commitment to Australia.

    China cannot win a war with the US, but China can adjust its currency and trading practices to level the playing field-its only choice- which will cause internal disruption–China will get to old before it gets rich–unless it adopts the slaughter policies of Mao.

    Rich Chinese are already bailing out, buying up real estate in Europe and the US

    Tick-Tock

    • @Victor. As always good to hear from you and your trenchant analysis. I too worry about the Japan in the 20s and 30s parallels and the current leadership are probably not as wise as Uncle Deng. Neither is there much sign of wisdom on the US side of the divide. A mix of weakness and bluster seems to be the order of the day. I wonder if anyone in foreign policy circles is working intelligently in this field on either side of the Pacific? I am not so sure there isn’t a level the foreign trade and re-balance the internal regional inequality option, but it would have to be done very cleverly and there are probably no grown ups around.

      What do you think of Obama these days? And the Republican alternatives?

  2. Victor says:

    What do you think of Obama these days?

    In a WSJ article on Monday two leading Democratic party strategists called for Obama to step aside for the good of the country and not run for a second term.

    They recommend Hilary Clinton as his replacement.
    Obama is in way over his head and was never properly vetted for some reason.

    Romney will be the Republican candidate, I hope he appoints Huntsman as Sec State–because he knows how to negotiate with China.

    • Victor, I am about where you are. I think Obama had an impossible task left him by Bush. We needed a truly great President to get us out of the mess, and that Obama isn’t. He is a low average, not a catastrophe, or a communist, but about equivalent to the first Bush or Gerald Ford and better than the Lesser Bush. I think he should probably step aside, and I think Hilary would have, and would now make a better President, but she isn’t a potential great one, I suspect, which is what we need. It all makes Bill Clinton look like a not bad President, morals aside. And I suspect the original McCain pre-extremist face lift would have been better, but for the lunacy of his supporters and his choice of Palin.

      One part of me wonders if the job of President is even doable these days. In business if a series of CEOs couldn’t run a business, one begins to doubt the business. We haven’t had a President who was really up to the mark since FDR, Truman and Eisenhower. Kennedy was a mixed bag, and his Presidency cut short, and it has been downhill all the way since. This makes me think the job is maybe structurally un-doable with the famous balance of powers and media fanning extreme positions making the country ungovernable, because one side can veto so much. And we have a wacky Supreme Court that overturned one of the best pieces of bi-partisan legislation in a generation: McCain-Feingold.

      I suspect it will be Romney as Republican candidate, though it is unfashionable to make comments on religion, I do have some doubts on his. He will make another very average President if he gets in. I think undeserved as it may be, Obama will beat Romney. The shame will be that it will leave the Republican Party even more dominated by the extremists, who don’t understand anything about the real world. I grew up in a world where the conservatives were the realists and now I am in one where they are their base are the crazies. Huntsman would probably make a good Secretary of State. China needs some intelligent attention.

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