KWR Book Reviews

Susan L. Shirk, China: Fragile Superpower, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 320 pps., $27.00

By Dale Smith

There was a young lady from Niger
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger.
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside,
And a smile on the face of the tiger.

To outsiders, China's government long appeared to be monolithic, strong, and unassailable. This impression, fostered by the Chinese government itself, was mostly true in the Mao and Deng eras. An international observer would be making a significant mistake to assume this today. Especially after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, China's Communist Party (which controls government at all levels) suffers from a lack of legitimacy and fears its own people. This weakness and insecurity at the highest levels of the Party translates in pressure to act belligerently to "foreign provocations" related to Japan, Taiwan, and the United States, and feeds back upon itself, as Japan and the U.S. officials and citizens react negatively to bellicose actions and statements.

Susan Shirk's book is an interesting counterpoint to Richard Bush and Michael O'Hanlon's recent book A War like No Other: the Truth about China's Challenge to America. Shirk, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State during the Clinton administration, has written a book that covers much wider territory than the Bush and O'Hanlon book's focus on the political unification of Taiwan with the mainland government and potential military conflict between China and the U.S. One of the most interesting points Shirk makes is that Mao and Deng, due to the "street cred" they garnered while fighting the Japanese and Kuomintang, took a relaxed attitude towards relations with Japan and Taiwanese reunification, in contrast to the post 1989 period. Both leaders assumed that Taiwan would rejoin the mainland at some future, unspecified time, and were willing to let the situation seek its own level.

Shirk goes beyond the Bush and O'Hanlon analysis of the Taiwan situation by incorporating interviews with experts in China who admit that the Party has effectively lost control of parts of its foreign policy. Some officials and experts in the think tanks that advise the Party are aware that public opinion, driven by the most extreme and opinionated segments of Chinese society, coupled with looser control of the new media which has risen in China, has reduced the Party's freedom of action on Taiwan, Japan, and U.S. issues. Shirk questions the assumption that the Party will fall unless it attacks Taiwan if the latter attempts to move away from the current status quo. She asserts that the silent masses of Chinese people simply want an amicable solution to the Taiwan problem.

Her sources for this and other information are analysts who work for government-sponsored think tanks and Party officials, some of whom are not quoted by name for obvious reasons. These interviews give the reader a unique window into what seems to outsiders as the monolithic thinking at the middle and high levels of the Party. These analysts and officials are far more candid when not quoted by name, and readily admit that a less emotional, more pragmatic handling of foreign crises would be better for China.

As Shirk writes, many of China's problems with foreign policy are due to the Party's decision to emphasize nationalism in education and the media in the post-Tiananmen era, in an effort to shore up their legitimacy. Having invoked the tiger, the party now finds that its responses to international events are constrained. Officials who are perceived as "soft" on Japan, Taiwan reunification, and the United States are regularly vilified as traitors, not only in university and other online forums but in the more or less tightly controlled Chinese media. Spurred by the military and media attention, which takes a harder line than the Party prefers, Chinese officials feel forced to make statements in public for domestic reasons which sometimes exacerbate foreign crises and situations. It is noteworthy that attitudes toward Taiwan have hardened considerably in the past 10 years. After an attempt at persuading the Taiwanese government to negotiate in the 1990's was rebuffed, no Chinese leader, expert, or college professor can be seen as anything but adamant that Taiwan accept its status as a province under control of the mainland. Jiang, in particular, contributed to the problems with Taiwan, with his over-reactions to Taiwanese statements.

But Taiwan is far from the only problem where China's leaders face credibility problems. Shirk writes that Jiang Zemin reacted emotionally to then-Japanese Prime Minister Jin Koizumi's visits to the Yasasuke shrine, where Japanese war criminals are buried with other soldiers from World War II, and revisions to textbooks that are optional and used in very few Japanese schools (Jiang was adopted by his uncle's family to give the family a male relative after the uncle died during the occupation.) Relations with Japan are thus a flash point of confrontation, including military confrontation over resources in the Yellow Sea and off Okinawa. Spurred by the yearly commemorations of every seemingly insignificant historical event from the Japanese occupation as well as government propaganda in the schools and the media, which selectively presents facts (such as the textbook controversy), there is now no nation the Chinese hates more than Japan. According to polls in Japan cited by Shirk, these feelings are reciprocated. This hatred severely constrains the Party's efforts to mediate problems and disagreements, and has backfired by pushing Japan closer to the U.S. and led Japan to believe that it must scrap its post-war constitutional restrictions on its military. In contrast to Bush and O'Hanlon, Shirk also believes that Japan has moved significantly closer to the U.S., and believes Japan is more likely now to support its closest ally in any confrontation over Taiwan.

Shirk notes that Chinese officials have sought to react more calmly to foreign "provocations", although the increasing lack of control over the media makes it difficult to act under the radar screen. Any event reported in China risks inflaming those with the largest megaphones and most extreme opinions, constraining official statements and reactions. Officials and experts are more aware than in the 1990's of the unintended consequences of their actions and statements, and the example of Germany and France, who have settled French wartime grievances. Post-1989 leaders feel significant pressure to deliver economic growth and appease the military with large budgets, to keep the tiger from eating them.

Shirk's book is especially valuable for her insights, contacts, and ability to get officials and analysts to speak candidly in off-the-record interviews, and her emphasis on alternative outcomes which are not obvious to most Westerners. How long the Party can continue to ride the tiger is something neither she nor anyone else can answer.


Richard C. Bush and Michael E. O'Hanlon, A War Like No Other: The Truth About China's Challenge to America (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2007), pps. 232. $29.95.

By Scott B. MacDonald


Richard C. Bush and Michael O'Hanlon, both of the Brookings Institute, have put together a tightly argued and highly topical book about what they regard as one of the most significant strategic threats facing the United States in the 21st century - a possible clash with the People's Republic of China over Taiwan. While much of the literature about Sino-American relations has a tendency to fit either the Panda-hugger or Panda-hater camp, this is a somewhat neutral study about what can happen through miscalculation.

Bush and O'Hanlon are clear that China "is not an evil empire nor is it ruled by menacing tyrants." However, China's leadership "have been more successful than the leaders of any other Communist system in reforming an inefficient and outmoded Stalinist system. They still have many challenges and have not addressed the issue of political reform, but they have engineered sustained economic growth, have reduced poverty significantly, and are beginning to create a middle class." In this, China's advances have followed a certain logic of relying on U.S. technology, markets and investment, not to mention a benign U.S. foreign policy. The trick is for this to continue as both sides benefit from trade and peaceful relations, which cast a long shadow over the rest of Asia. Although frictions exist over copyright infringements, consumer protection issues, and environmental pollution, none of these is likely to put the United States and China into a shooting war.

The most emotional issue from a Chinese standpoint concerns Taiwan, which more than anything else represents a potential flashpoint on the global chessboard. While there is a robust debate over Taiwan's future on that island and it is open for discussion in U.S. policy circles, there is no real debate within mainland China on the matter. The authoritarian nature of China's political system does not encourage debate. Nationalism, with a focus on Taiwan's eventual re-unification with the mainland, is a pillar of regime propaganda. Any deviation from this view is tantamount to sacrilege and would seriously undermine any leader who advocated any change. This leaves no room for compromise with the Taiwanese, many of whom would probably opt for independence if not for the explicit Chinese threat of military action.

Bush and O'Hanlon rightfully point out that this represents a potential major problem if the economy suffers a major slowdown and more hard-line nationalists assume control and wish to focus attention away from domestic issues. China would hardly be the only country to pursue such a policy - Argentina's military regime in 1982 used the attempted takeover of the Falkland Islands to rally public support during a period of economic crisis.

The authors are also concerned that the Taiwanese do not always fully grasp the danger of pursuing "independence" vis--vis China. The independence issue has become a flashpoint within Taiwan's more democratic politics, with each Chinese threat reinforcing those favoring an independent course. This certainly was a factor in the election of President Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party in 2000 and again in his reelection campaign in 2003. Considering that the U.S. ultimately supports Taiwan, this has set mainland Chinese against the Americans as they are the major force that presents the island from being returned to the embrace of the motherland. As Bush and O'Hanlon state: "Regaining the island is the brass ring of Chinese politics; to somehow 'lose' Taiwan can be the kiss of death."

The U.S. foreign policy agenda is dominated by the Middle East, with Asia taking a backseat to issues such as Iraq, Iran's quest of nuclear weaponry, and radical Islam. Yet, one of the earliest crises in the Bush administration's foreign policy agenda came from an incident in April 2001 over international waters between a U.S. EP-3 naval reconnaissance plane and a Chinese naval air force fighter. Any only a few years prior to that there was an equally tense Sino-American stand-off over Taiwan. Bush and O'Hanlon offer no great sweeping solutions, but underscore that a confrontation with China could quietly creep up on all players and set off a conflict involving two nuclear-armed opponents. Unfortunately the nebulous status of Taiwan remains an unsettled issue in a period of fluidity in the structure of international relations in Asia, in which there is a fine line between economic interdependence and geo-political rivalry.


Editor: Dr. Scott B. MacDonald, Sr. Consultant

Deputy Editors: Dr. Jonathan Lemco, Director and Sr. Consultant and Robert Windorf, Senior Consultant

Publisher: Keith W. Rabin, President




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