Steven Mosher has written important books about the everyday lives of the rural Chinese and China’s coercive population policies. In his new book, Bully of Asia, he ventures into the realm of geopolitics and perceives a global, zero-sum conflict between China and the United States.
The book is intended as a wake-up call to Americans who, he believes, do not appreciate the nature and extent of the current Chinese threat to the US-led liberal world order. It reads like early Cold War books in the United States that warned about Soviet plans for world domination. Mosher sees the current Chinese regime much as early anti-communist Cold War strategists viewed Stalin’s Soviet Union.
Mosher traces China’s current approach to the world, however, not to Marxist ideology but to historical and cultural factors. China’s current leaders, he writes, favorably invoke the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC) whose rulers viewed China as the center of the world and who sought to “bring All Under Heaven (tianxia) under its sway.” China, Mosher writes, had culturally, economically, and militarily dominated its known world for more than two thousand years, but “within the span of a few decades, it was cast down from this pinnacle of greatness by the Western powers and Japan” in the late 19th century. Since then, China’s rulers, including the communists after 1949, have sought to resume China’s “rightful place as the natural center of the world.” This worldview, he claims, has become part of China’s cultural DNA and forms the basis of President Xi’s “China Dream”.
Like many early Cold War strategists’ characterization of Soviet foreign policy, Mosher claims that the PRC’s leaders, including current President Xi Jinping, believe that either China must
continuously expand its power to achieve hegemony or … it will face ultimate defeat and eventual annihilation.
And the only power standing in China’s way is the United States.
Mosher sees recent Chinese moves in the East and South China Seas, the One Belt One Road initiative, its military buildup and threats to Taiwan, it’s cyber-espionage, and its support for North Korea as evidence of a plan for world domination. Invoking but altering the geopolitical theories of Sir Halford Mackinder, Mosher places China on the global map as the “Heartland” of Eurasia that is positioning itself to command Mackinder’s Eurasian-African “World-Island”.
One can view recent Chinese moves with alarm without concluding that Chinese leaders have a master plan for world domination. China is, indeed, acting as other great powers have acted on the world stage. It is using its economic power and growing military power to expand its interests and influence throughout the world. It is, as Mosher claims, challenging the US-led liberal world order. But that does not mean its leaders view the world as a zero-sum struggle between China and the United States and that conflict is inevitable, or that it seeks, in Mosher’s words, “to remake the world in its own image.”
Mosher’s geopolitical analysis fails to account for the other powers in Asia—Russia, India, Japan—who will not willingly subordinate their interests to China’s. It also fails to appreciate just how far China has to go to achieve military parity with the United States nor does it acknowledge China’s record of cautious realism in foreign policy even under communist rulers.
The author recommends increasing the number of well-educated and trained “China hands” within the US foreign policy establishment, establishing closer US military and political ties to Taiwan, punishing China economically for its continued support of North Korea, and holding China directly responsible for any military attacks by North Korea against the US or its allies in the region.
Except for the first one, those recommendations are debatable. More useful and less provocative, however, would be for the United States to strengthen its existing alliances in East Asia and the Pacific Rim, build-up its permanent naval presence in the region, move closer strategically to India, and play the “Russia card” against China in Nixonian fashion.