The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy

Edward N. Luttwak
Belknap Press, Harvard University Press
A Review by Alistair Burnett

China is going to overtake America as the world’s largest economy within a few years and is already a superpower, right? It’s an assertion many western political and business leaders feel the need to regularly drop into speeches and statements. The belief has also trickled down into public opinion.  In a Pew Global Attitudes Survey, conducted in June, 42 percent said China was already the world’s leading economic power, against 36 percent for the US.  

The only problem is this is not true, at least not yet.

In case there’s any doubt, despite China’s phenomenal economic growth in the past two decades, US GDP is still double that of China. Washington’s military budget is more than four times Beijing’s.  

Part of the reason it’s commonly believed that China is becoming dominant is a series of publications that have followed Martin Jacques’ much referenced 2009 book When China Rules the World. Based on current trajectories, such works argue, or simply assume, Asia will inevitably supersede the West on the global stage.

But this new conventional wisdom is not going unchallenged, usually on the basis that China faces huge economic, social and environmental challenges. Renowned American strategist Edward Luttwak has added a new approach to the China skeptics’ armory. In a thought-provoking book, The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy, Luttwak analyzes the rise of China through a geostrategic lens, viewing the lessons of history and concluding that China cannot achieve both economic and military supremacy and become a true superpower. He bluntly concludes, the nation can be an economic behemoth, but not a military one as well.

China has land borders with 14 countries, including India and Russia, and overlapping maritime claims with several others, including Japan. According to Luttwak, history shows that a country the size of China, bordered by so many countries, small and large, will inevitably invoke concern about its intentions as its economy grows. If that economic heft is then used to build a powerful military, as Beijing has started, its neighbours will, just as inevitably, seek alliances with one another and the US to deter and contain China, therefore preventing Beijing achieving superpower status.  

For good measure, he also argues China is peculiarly susceptible to this iron law of history.

His most compelling insight is that Chinese leaders continue to rely on their ancient strategic texts, the best known of which is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War – also beloved of many a western MBA course. These are, in Luttwak’s opinion, overrated. He makes the valid point that most of these texts are a product of a period when China was divided into rival states at war with one another, rather than foreigners, and goes on to point out these texts have not served the Chinese well over the centuries given Imperial China was conquered several times, often by smaller, less prosperous peoples, including the Jurchen, Mongols and Manchus, which in turn became the Jin, Yuan and Qing dynasties.

He also debunks the traditional concept of Tianxia, the idea that the world is hierarchically ordered with the Emperor, read Beijing, at its center. He says this traditional worldview, revived to an extent under outgoing President Hu Jintao, leads Chinese leaders to appear highhanded in relations with foreign countries, especially independent-minded neighbors like the Vietnamese, and inhibits Beijing’s ability to win friends and allay suspicion of its intentions.    

He is less original in what he calls the “structural insecurity” of the Chinese Communist Party, which he says lacks democratic or ideological legitimacy – having abandoned communism in all but name –  and so overreacts to even minor threats, such as the so-called 2011 “Jasmine Revolution,” inspired by the Arab Spring, when police and foreign journalists seemed to outnumber actual participants. This insecurity leads China’s leaders to appeal to their nationalist credentials to maintain legitimacy, in turn making Beijing more assertive in its maritime disputes and pushing neighbors to turn to the US for protection.

Here, he underplays the role Washington has played in the rising tensions in the South and East China Seas. During the past two years, President Barack Obama’s “rebalancing” or “pivot” to Asia has encouraged countries like the Philippines and Vietnam to become more assertive towards China, provoking pushback from Beijing.

Luttwak does provide some genuinely fresh insights to the debate on the implications of the re-emergence of China as a global power. The book is written in a quasi-sympathetic tone, and Luttwak at times seems to suggest the increasingly common image presented of China as an aggressive power is unfair. Indeed, as he writes, China has settled several of its land border disputes over the years by conceding more than half the territory it claimed – an interesting contrast with the more maximalist position it takes over maritime claims.

Despite the illuminating insights and iconoclastic approach to some of China’s much quoted ancient classics, in the end the argument in The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy does not add up to the sum of its parts. On the one hand, Luttwak argues, any rising economic power will worry neighbors if it starts to build up military capabilities; he points to the example of Imperial Germany and its fateful decision to build a navy to rival Britain’s Royal Navy before World War I. But he also asserts that China, because of its addiction to ancient texts and its Tianxia-inspired worldview, is peculiarly unable to modernize its armed forces without provoking neighbors into building up their armed forces and seeking alliances to contain China.

But how true is this? India’s defense policy is driven as much by its rivalry and obsession with Pakistani intentions as it is by China. Russia’s diminished military power is largely a legacy of the Soviet Union’s Cold War rivalry with the US, not concern about China. And while Vietnam has resisted Chinese domination, its strategic outlook is also partly a legacy of its long war for independence against the French and then the Americans, during which it was generally supported by Beijing.       

From an American perspective, Luttwak’s is also a self-serving argument, given that China is the only country that could challenge Washington’s ability to project military force to all points on the map.

If the “logic of strategy” means China can never be both economic and military superpower, then why is the United States exempt from this historical determinism? Luttwak, seemingly aware of this weakness in his argument, briefly states the US neighborhood is benign, with two neighbors, Canada and Mexico, neither hostile or powerful enough to contain the US. This strikes me as little more than a variation on American Exceptionalism. 

China has a long way to go to match the US, but if the Chinese economy continues its rapid development and the leadership plays its cards right with smart use of soft power, why couldn’t China also buck Luttwak’s iron law of history? And who is to say its neighbors, like Mexico and Canada with the US, won’t have little choice but to accommodate Beijing.

Edward Luttwak argues that China can become an economic power or military power, but cannot achieve both.