The Future of China on the Global Stage: Kissinger vs. Ferguson

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Niccolo and Donkey
Ferguson vs. Kissinger on the future of China, and what it means for the rest of us

Foreign Policy

Thomas E. Ricks

May 17, 2011


Historian Niall Ferguson likes to think big. If most Washingtonians are satisfied with shaping a discrete national policy issue, Niall Ferguson isn't satisfied unless he can challenge the global conventional wisdom of a generation.

Ferguson's most recent strategic expository centered on the geopolitical implications of China possibly eclipsing American and Western power, reflections he recently shared at Chatham House in London [published as, " The West and the Rest: the Changing Global Balance of Power in Historic Perspective," May 9, 2011.

His compelling if provocative analysis built not only on his latest tome, Civilization: the West and the Rest , but also the much-anticipated sweeping history, On China, written by the Henry Kissinger , and published today .

Kissinger's narrative sees Confucian roots in contemporary Chinese decision-making and upheavals. This is a consequential conclusion, because for Kissinger it means that as China's power ascends the temptation to wield power the way Europe or even America has done so will be tempered by tradition. Rather than seeking imperial rule, for instance, China will be content with finding its place under heaven, essentially as the regional Middle Kingdom. It is also likely to employ a classical Chinese strategy of playing external barbarians off one another, only occasionally clinching a few of the barbarians into its ambit.

Thus, Kissinger emphasizes civilizational and cultural continuity as the common thread throughout Chinese history. In contrast, Ferguson emphasizes the simple but dominant theme of power, in a sense that Hans Morgenthau and John Mearsheimer would readily recognize (and indeed which Kissinger would have felt more comfortable with during his more youthful days as a statesman). At the heart of Ferguson's analytical question is this: what if China has not only figured out how to catch up with the West, but has also adopted an imperial Western conception of power?

Ferguson puts the breadth of historical events into the vernacular of the digerati, describing six important institutions and ideas that led to Western ascendency as 'killer applications.' As had become obvious in the 19th and 20th centuries, the West dominated the international relations; it did so, according to Ferguson, because it exploited competition, Newtonian scientific advancement, the rule of law and property rights, modern medicine, a consumer society, and a serious work ethic. The problem, he adds, is that the rest of the world has now downloaded these applications. And no country is now more poised to exploit them than is China.

The speed with which China has incorporated Western institutions and ideas is breathtaking. Six hundred years ago, a visitor from Mars would have chosen Ming China over fragmented Western Eurasia as most likely to gain power. Yet in the ensuing centuries, by the time the First World War, Western powers (by which Ferguson defines as the 12 empires to emerge from this area) owned 60 percent of the world's real estate and produced 80 percent of its Gross Domestic Product.

China's rise has happened within our lifetime. When Deng opened China, the average Chinese possessed one-seventieth of the wealth of an American; today it's one-fifth and the differential is closing. Within the coming decade or so, Ferguson believes that a 150-year period in which the United States held the mantle of the world's largest economy (a position we have enjoyed since 1872) will draw to an end forever. And unlike prior to 1872, it will not be one of the other 12 European-born empires that established the West, but rather Asian power as a result of the 'great reconvergence' in which China, India and others have caught up by downloading the six killer applications.

As Ferguson puts it, "the status quo is an illusion." Far from agreeing with the notion that interdependence between China and America will ensure China's peaceful rise, Ferguson declares that, "Chimerica is dead and we are entering a new world in which I think after the change of leadership next year, China will be altogether more assertive and altogether less quiet about its rise...."

This reference to the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party around the time of the U.S. 2012 general election, suggests that Ferguson would probably agree that China's perceived assertiveness in Asia in 2010 was more of a harbinger than an aberration. Disputes over core sovereign interests are likely to grow more contested; Taiwan arms sales are likely to come at a far steeper price if they are to continue at all; and the modernization of the People's Liberation Army is likely to continue to mount. As he suggests, with vast investments in cutting-edge technologies, as well as cyber space and outer space, many believe the PLA is already poised to prevail on tomorrow's battlefields.

In U.S. policy circles, what passes for strategy often amounts to how to hedge our bets, between the hope of greater convergence and cooperation, and the fear of greater competition and potential conflict. If Niall Ferguson is right, however, hedging is not a serious strategic choice, because it does not face up to the likelihood that China's use of power offers only stark choices: a serious coalition to balance preponderant Chinese power or appeasement. Most countries in the Asia-Pacific sense the possibility of this emerging dilemma, but believe it would be politically incorrect and potentially premature to jump to that conclusion. Not surprisingly, officials in most countries want to know whether it will be possible to have their cake and eat it too.

Even so, predictions about the future are often mistaken. Ferguson could well be wrong about China, and Kissinger could well prove to be right. The reason why a policy of hedging remains the most compelling policy influence is that there are just far too many uncertainties about the world writ large but especially about China. For instance: Doesn't China's growing mercantilist extraction of global resources also create vulnerabilities in the form of tenuous and protracted lines of communication? While the Internet may feed Chinese nationalism, might not social media also sow the seeds of the Communist Party's own destruction? And just because China rises does not necessarily mean that the United States, Europe, ASEAN, India and other major power centers have to revert to tribute in modern manifestations.

But hope is not a strategy, and Niall Ferguson has challenged all of us to move beyond hedging and debate serious strategic issues that will affect the 21st century.