China: The Unknowable Kingdom

Earlier this year I wrote that the Chinese do not want our liberal, rules-based order. How America should respond to this rejection was a question I left open. This week, however, in a long  two-book review essay published over at Strategy Bridge, I have returned to the question. The two books under review are Lyle Goldstein’s Meeting China Halfway: How to Defuse Emerging China-U.S. Rivalry and Robert Haddick’s Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific, which start off with very similar goals and operating assumptions, but end up offering directly opposed policy recommendations. 

My conclusions are not optimistic: 

The fundamental difference between the two analysts is their theory of what makes the Communist Party of China tick. Reading these two books next to each other is a reminder of just how important an analyst’s inner model of Chinese decision making is. Under Goldstein’s schema, fear of American power, not contempt for American weakness, is what has led the Chinese down the path they now tread. Haddick’s case is built on the opposite view. Not all they have to say, but a great deal of it, follows from these opposing opening assumptions. 

It is these assumptions—these unstated models of Chinese decision making—that keep me from endorsing either argument. I have presented a different version of what makes Beijing tick. As I (along with folks like Lee Hisen Loong and Bilahauri Kaukisan) have argued, Xi Jinping’s regime believes that the Western-led liberal order and the demands it makes on those who join it are corrosive to authoritarian control, and will eventually lead to the collapse of the Party. For them the Party comes first. When translated into concrete policy, “putting the Party first” means eliminating Western influence from within and actively reshaping regional rules from without. What China is doing is not an inevitable consequence of great power competition, but the fruits of very specific fears of a specific ruling regime. 

If this explanation for China’s behavior is correct, then neither Haddick’s nor Goldstein’s proposals are tenable. Haddick’s entire strategy is predicated on the idea that you can build a military machine whose might will raise the costs of conflict so high that the Chinese must eventually back down. But if Zhongnanhai serves the Party before it serves the country then none of that matters. The Communist Party of China’s  continued domination of China is justified to the Chinese public on the grounds that hostile Western forces have always sought to contain and cripple China, but under the guardianship of the Party, the Chinese people will never be forced to bow down to foreign powers again. Backing down and accepting Western order threatens their legitimacy. It is an existential threat to their continued rule. The costs of war cannot compete with this. In the worst case war scenario, Party leaders suffer the same fate they would most likely suffer in any existential crisis (violent death); at best, they get lucky and win the war. This is not a recipe for stability.

This model of Chinese decision making also makes Goldstein’s cooperation spirals exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to implement. Beijing does not just fear specific American policies—it fears the entire American-led system. The Chinese can bide and endure this order, but they cannot permanently compromise with it. It is hard to compromise with a system whose existence threatens your survival.

One’s inner model of Chinese decision making thus matters quite a lot. The most disturbing thing about reading these books together, however, is that neither of these analysts, exceedingly intelligent and well respected in their field, pauses to explain where their assumed model of Chinese decision making comes from. These operating assumptions are left unstated and unproven, despite how readily everything else these authors write follow from them.

This is possibly because these analysts did not realize the importance of these assumptions. But it may also reflect just how difficult it is to prove that the model of Chinese decision making one uses is actually correct. Here I am just as guilty as every other China hand; I cannot prove that my own model of Chinese decision making is the right one. The best I can say is that it fits Chinese behavior over the last two decades better than anything else I have seen proposed. 

But in the end neither I, nor any other analyst of Chinese foreign policy, actually knows what is happening behind the walls of Zhongnanhai. There are probably less than a hundred people on this planet who actually know why Beijing does what it does. They are unlikely to share this information with American analysts.

Our analysis is built on a foundation of sand. We offer bold proclamations and precise policy proposals designed to cajole, convince, or coerce a hostile nuclear power whose decision making process is utterly opaque to us. We theorize much, and assume more, but we still do not know why the Chinese do what they do. Most critically, we do not know how to find the knowledge we lack. This is an intellectual challenge we have not begun to meet. Understanding Zhongnanhai is a wonderful methodological puzzle—but a puzzle with nuclear stakes. Until we solve this puzzle, I doubt any number of policy prescriptions will be enough to ensure peace in the West Pacific.

Read the rest of the piece here.  

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Maybe its just me, but it really seems like a lot of their foreign policy is explained by their desire to have access to foreign materials that they will need to keep their huge economy growing. The issue of Taiwan obviously has emotive issues, but its also a cork in the bottle known as the Chinese Sea.

Mr. Greer, I have an honest question in the form of what exactly is the "liberal rule-based order"? I am asking because the rules of this rule-based order seem so vague that it is impossible to pinpoint. For example, what exactly were the rules being followed when the US decided to invade Iraq? What exactly were the rules that were followed when Hillary decided to overthrow Gaddaffi? China and Russia allowed a no fly zone over Libya to pass on the Security Council. The resulting overthrow of Gaddaffi caused a lot of bad blood. Who exactly was following the rules and not following the rules then? In your post "China Does Not Want Your Rules Based Order" you gave the example of Ozawa and how Beijing saw the hypocrisy of Tokyo and Washington and how Japanese spokesmen effectively committed treason against their own government. Isn't calling it hypocrisy simply a way of stating the rules don't really exist? Or lets take the example of the Middle East. Leftists have done to death the arguments over Saudi Arabia and how the US's alliance with Saudi Arabia shows that the US is simply evil empire seeking world domination (I'm not a hard leftist so I don't really agree with them, but I can kind of see where they are coming from). But Saudi Arabia could be an anomaly, and the US is by and large hostile to non-liberal governments. Except Obama seems sympathetic to the Iranian position despite the Iranian government being obviously non-liberal. So it appears to me hostility towards nonliberal governments is really up to the fancies of whoever is in power. Hillary seems to like Mubarak while Obama does not, despite both Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood being nonliberal. Hillary does not like Iran while Obama does. Obama wants Assad to stay while Hillary does not. And obviously, if Assad gets replaced, the replacement is not going to be a rule following liberal. Erdogan is taking Europe hostage and becoming a dictator and no one knows what to do with him. So where exactly are the boundaries for the rules? Where are the red lines? What can you do and what can't you do? I frankly have no idea.

On another note, right now it is quite obvious there is an US led order, "liberal rule-based" or otherwise. While there is a lot of nervousness over China, I think the order is being challenged from multiple directions for all sorts of reasons, not just by China. After all, Russia and China, two of the most important countries geopolitically, already have serious grievances against it. But on the other hand, even countries like Turkey(!) and the Philippines is quite obviously rejecting the order like the Chinese and Russians do.

I agree Chinese political elite's top priority is regime survival.

I even agree that it's highly likely that

"Xi Jinping’s regime believes that the Western-led liberal order and the demands it makes on those who join it are corrosive to authoritarian control, and will eventually lead to the collapse of the Party."

However, I take serious issue with Mr Greer's extrapolation that

"The Chinese can bide and endure this order, but they cannot permanently compromise with it"

What Chinese do NOT want is US exported/imposed American "global order" or what Mr Greer termed "liberal rule-based order".

What Chinese have no problem with is for US to keep this "liberal rule-based order" to itself, But NOT to ram it down the Chinese throat.

I am really surprised that Mr Greer with all his knowledge about China and Chinese history don't seem to be able to grasp this.

Xi himself has famously said in Mexico:



There are some bored foreigners, with full stomachs, who have nothing better to do than point fingers at us … First, China doesn't export Revolution; second, China doesn't export hunger and poverty; third, China doesn't come and cause you headaches, what more is there to be said?

Yet for some American with missionary zeal, that's not enough, if you do not want to be like us, then you must be confronted and destroyed!

Perhaps More importantly as John Mearsheimer pointed out: "it's about jobs!"

If we don't manufacture tension between United States and China, all the National Sec "experts" and "China Hands" will be out of jobs!

to this class of people, To war-war is always better than jaw-jaw

so damn those torpedoes, full speed ahead! War on!

Like I said, I've always been a fan of Mr. Greer's insightful analysis on Chinese history.

I just think it might be more accurate to replace "liberal rule-based order" in the article with "Full Spectrum Dominance"

Then yes, I agree that

"The Chinese can bide and endure this order, but they cannot permanently compromise with it."

China can easily co-exist with America, but not so with American Empire at Chinese doorsteps.

You said China's top priority is regime survival… I mean, with all due respect, how is this motivation different than any other nation on earth? Democratic or authoritarian?

To go beyond that, when Chinese government is sure of its own survival, what is their next goal? I would say to regain their place in Asia like they had doe in the past.

After that, what is their next goal? I would argue to outlast/compete with Western democratic system with their own style of government, which is to combine the concentration of power at top base on meritocracy, and democracy with more local root level, to enjoy the benefit of both.

Contrary to popular belief, democratic liberal order is not the best type of government or the end of history, just take 2 examples
1. The birth place of democracy, ancient Greek cities eventually all because undemocratic, and so did Rome.
2. When one think of democratic nations, one would automatically think of US, Germany, France etc.. aka the successful ones. But why does no one associate with democratic style of government with nations like Philippines, Sudan, Mexico, Uganda etc… Why does when one think of problems in China, everything is pretty much associated with its type of government, but when one think of problem in Mexico, the type of Mexican government is never in question? Perhaps a problem with cognitive dissonance within the "Liberal based order"

I see democracy and authoritarian government is like Yin Yang of each other, when one type exist for too long, it gives the rise to the other type of government with conditions like extreme income inequality, power infighting, loss of civil duty etc…. and vise versa, this is going to be more so in the future where automation take over all of our jobs, where capital and technology will be more and more concentrated into the hand of fewer and fewer.

The rise of Trump is no accident, he is only the beginning of the shape to come.