While it may be true, as writes Robert Sutter in the introduction to National Bureau of Asian Research’s excellent report “Russia-China Relations”, that “The United States has a long experience in assessing the twists and turns of the relationship between Russia and China and what it means for US interests”, most casual (Western-oriented) observers are probably more likely to see international relations as a hub-and-spoke system with the US at the center, rather that the mesh network it actually is.
When China announced plans to launch an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2015, the United States chose a response reminiscent of its Cold War playbook. It cast doubt on China’s intentions and leaned on other nations not to get involved. The result was no different from the Cold War era too—nations, including close allies of the United States, signed on to the initiative—awarding China a significant symbolic victory before any tangible work had even been accomplished.
A new book places China at the center of an underexplored aspect of the Cold War: the competition for influence in the “third world” between China and United States. Written by Gregg Brazinsky at George Washington University, Winning the Third World relies on previously unpublished archive materials from both countries. Far from last century’s history, the book illuminates the remarkable continuities in both countries’ foreign policies.
The ASEAN Miracle observes that Southeast Asia is the world’s most diverse region. Although obvious once mentioned, it still seems novel. Southeast Asia’s history is a mix of Chinese, Indian and Islamic influences, with sizable populations of several of the world’s major religions. Yet despite this and its complicated colonial and postcolonial history, Southeast Asian countries have fought no major wars between them over the past half-century. The most significant war in Southeast Asia, the Vietnam War, involved an extra regional power: namely, the United States.
There is much to admire in Salvatore Babones’s short book American Tianxia. It is a welcome corrective to the often-unchallenged conventional wisdom that the 21st century belongs to a rising China that is fast overtaking US global predominance.
Nicholas Gordon interviews Kishore Mahbubani, author of The ASEAN Miracle.
The rise of China in the wake of the slow relative decline of the United States has been the overarching narrative of global studies since the beginning of this century. Is this narrative correct? China’s growth is slowing as it reaches middle income status and the United States is still overwhelmingly more wealthy and powerful than China. If China will someday “overtake” the United States, it will not happen for decades or centuries, depending what is meant by overtaking. But even this more guarded account of US decline is colored by an outdated, state-centric view of human society. The twenty-first century world-system is centered on the United States but not contained within it; individuals all over the world participate in hierarchies of distinction that are fundamentally American in ideology and orientation. Whether or not they agree with US policy, support the US president, or are even able to enter the United States, success-oriented individuals choose to live in an American world—or accept global social exclusion. This is just as true in China as anywhere else, and perhaps even more true for Chinese individuals than for anyone else.
It is important for statesmen and policymakers to study and understand history, but the use of historical analogies to inform policy is fraught with dangers. The United States and its allies discovered that the “lessons of Munich” of 1930s Europe, for example, were not easily translatable to wars on the Korean peninsula and later in Southeast Asia in the 1950s and 60s.
History does not repeat itself. Every historical event occurs in its own time and circumstances. That is not to say that policymakers cannot learn important lessons from history, but their precise application to current or future events is at best problematic and at worst a recipe for disaster.