Is war with China inevitable?

Some Westerners fear China's rise but a strong China usually means less need for war, says David Kang, Professor of International Relations at USC.

David Kang: One of the most interesting patterns in East Asian history—which is quite different from the European pattern—is that when China is strong and big there’s a lot less fighting.
And when China falls apart then there’s some vicious fighting as everybody jockeys for position.

So whether we go back to the transition of the Ming dynasty in the 17th century or we get to the collapse of the Qing dynasty in the 20th century, when China is weak there’s a lot of fighting. When China is strong, in many ways countries get along better.

Well, the rise of China in the last 20 years in many ways has been accompanied with increasing stability around the region.

If you go back 40 years ago to 1978, that’s the beginning of China’s economic reforms and its phenomenal economic growth. Before then, China was a poor country caught in the throes of a cultural revolution where maybe a million Chinese died; they were fomenting revolution and supporting revolutionary groups around the region.

Since that time over the last 40 years China’s economy has exploded. 400 million Chinese have gone out of poverty. It looks nothing like it was before.

So China’s domestic situation is far more stable than before. At the same time, what’s happening to trade in the region? Everybody is now trading with China. Countries may not like what China is doing politically, but they don’t fear invasion. Vietnam isn’t worried about invasion. Korea is not worried about invasion. But what do they do? They are trying to rapidly expand their economic links with China.

So the region now is getting knit together in a way that it used to look like before, and so there’s more interaction among these countries, not less.

One the things that’s not that surprising —but also really important—is how little we in the West, we in the United States know about East Asian history. Almost all of our theories in IR, almost all of the history we learn, whether it’s in high school or college or even graduate school, is about Europe. And that’s fine. Sure. I understand why it is.

But the fact is there’s a lot of East Asian history that doesn’t look anything like European history. And if we want to understand that reason it might help to actually understand East Asian history.

You know, I do think that there is an incredibly important role for area studies knowledge, for scholars who know the region who have spent their lifetime studying.

In many ways this Eurocentric focus really does put us at a disadvantage in making policy towards Asia, because in some ways we are talking ourselves into conflicts that I don’t think necessarily have to exist. And the perfect example is this whole Thucydides trap.

If you go to DC right now or if you read almost any foreign policy magazine—or even scholarly journals—that talk about East Asia it is essentially a conventional wisdom now. Essentially I would say scholars and policymakers from the left and from the right, almost everybody takes for granted in the United States that “China’s rise can be a threat,” that “we better be prepared to contain,” that “there’s going to be some kind of a titanic struggle.”

But most of this is based not on what China is doing but is based on a belief that “it must inevitably happen, so just wait. It may not be happening now, but it’s going to happen in the future.”

So even when, for example, I’ll do a talk and I’ll show evidence over the last 25 years that in many ways East Asia is more stable and defense spending is not a big as people think, I’m met with a wall of skepticism where people are like, “No, no, no, you don’t understand, just wait. It’s going to happen in the future.”

It’s not based on any knowledge, it’s not based on any evidence, it’s based on a belief about the world, but that belief about the world is informed from Europe and not East Asia.

And so having real knowledge about the informal rules and lessons and places to avoid is incredibly important.

And one thing that happens with U.S. businesses—this goes back decades—is that often American businesses will choose advisers—you need a guide. You absolutely need a guide from the inside.

But I’ve seen this happen over and over again where an American business had a French consulting company help them do something in Europe, so they feel comfortable with a French company, and they will choose that company to help them go to China. And it never made any sense to me! They choose that because that’s who they know.

Or an American advisor who says, “Well, I helped you get into Costa Rica; I can help you go to China.”

There’s only one way to do it, which is to put the time in, do your due diligence, and find a guy on the inside.

I did a project once for a foreign company, and they came to me after they had had— this is in Korea, I helped a company go to Korea set up a business there, and they only came to me after they had hired a Singaporean consulting company to help then go to Korea!

And remember when we talked I was like, why would you hire the Singaporeans? They’re not Korean!

And yet companies often skimp on that, they skimp on the most important things, which are these local domestic knowledge that can help you really understand “don’t talk to that guy and that guy, because they both hate each other” kind of issues that is only available when you have the deep local knowledge.

I know these are generic points and they seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many companies just simply barge ahead without actually spending enough time and finding the right local fixers.

You can see this in the ways in which we have advisers to the U.S. government. The actual number of people who have deep knowledge of the region are easily outnumbered by those who have technical knowledge or nuclear weapons knowledge or arms control knowledge or regular, generic knowledge of international relations.

I just don’t think we’re even that aware of, much less supportive of, having people who actually know the region.

They only need one or two, and yet the number of people who expound on “this is what China is doing” who have no idea what China looks like but are IR scholars, IR theorists, or arms control theorists far outnumber those who are actually China experts—or East Asia experts or Vietnam experts.

And so in many ways I actually think this is an important thing that we need to start to rectify, both in scholarship and in effecting policy. We need better area studies knowledge.

Some Westerners fear China's rise but a strong China usually means less fighting, says David Kang, Professor of International Relations at USC. The conventional wisdom about East Asia is often wrong because it's too Eurocentric. Our governments and businesses hire people who think like them and don't really understand the history and the nuances of the region.

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