Will the Chinese Be Supreme?

For the New York Review of Books, Ian Johnson reviews three recent books, Eclipse: Living in the Shadow of China’s Economic Dominance, by Arvind Subramanian; The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy, by Edward N. Luttwak and Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750, by Odd Arne Westad, as a jumping off point to discuss prospects for China’s rise from a global and historical perspective. He begins by discussing recent tensions with neighbors over :

The most serious conflict involves Japan. While China’s actions in Southeast Asia cause many angry statements, most countries there lack the capacity to prevent Chinese ships from patrolling waters they claim as their own. But in Japan, China faces one of the world’s most capable maritime powers. Unlike the Philippines, which hasn’t been able to stop Chinese ships from encroaching on its territorial waters and even dropping markers onto disputed reefs, Japan has actively defended claims to several disputed islands known as the Senkaku in Japanese, Diaoyu in Chinese, and Tiaoyutai by nearby Taiwan (which also claims them, largely based on the same historical arguments used by China).

While other disputes have ended after a few days or weeks, this one has continued now for months. In February, Japan claimed that a Chinese frigate had locked weapons-targeting radar on a Japanese destroyer and helicopter. Almost every few days, Japanese media report on Chinese ships—especially China Marine Surveillance survey ships—sailing without permission inside Japan’s territorial waters around the islands. (At least twenty-eight such violations have been reported since the issue heated up last autumn.) Last year, these tensions helped prepare the way for the election of a nationalistic Japanese prime minister.

It would be easy to blame China’s current leaders for all these problems, but their origins predate the People’s Republic of China and unite many ethnic Chinese from around the world. Although historical records are sketchy, many Chinese are convinced that old maps and mentions of the islands in imperial records imply historical Chinese control. In 1895, China and Japan fought a war and Japan annexed the islands, having declared them uninhabited and belonging to no one. Part of the Ryukyu chain, the islands were administered by the United States after World War II. In 1972, Washington returned the Ryukyus to Tokyo, including the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands.

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How all this has come to pass is drawn out in several important new books. They come at the Chinese puzzle from very different perspectives and at times are in sharp disagreement. But at heart they share a common idea: China is burdened with historical baggage that makes its rise less linear than many imagine. By extension the authors imply that the current troubles aren’t inevitable and may be more manageable than some would believe.