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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The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

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Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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