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The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order review: A contest for global leadership

In 494 BC, the rising powers of Yue and Wu, in what’s today Zhejiang and Jiangsu, struggled for influence. Yue’s King Goujian’s attack on Wu ended in a disaster. To save his country from extinction, King Goujian made himself a servant at the court of Wu’s King Fuchai. He lived as a commoner, cleaned the stables and displayed utmost loyalty to King Fuchai, which eventually earned him a pardon. Back in his kingdom, King Goujian slept on brushwood and licked a slaughtered animal’s gallbladder daily so that he wouldn’t forget the humiliation he suffered in Wu. He also quietly rebuilt his state’s capabilities and waited for a chance for his revenge. Roughly a decade later, a stronger Yue invaded and conquered a declining Wu. This story, more a parable than history, has enduring cultural impact on modern China, and was frequently cited by Chinese nationalists during the ‘century of humiliation’.

The parable, writes Rush Doshi in his book,  The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order, formed part of “the cultural knowledge” from which Deng Xiaoping’s post-Cold War guideline — “hide its capabilities and bide its time (Tao Guang Yang Hui)” — emerged.

What makes Rush’s book, a result of meticulous study of Chinese Communist Party documents and leaders’ statements, different from contemporary literature on China is not only its scholastic depth but also because it places China in the context of a continuing historical and cultural process.

World’s largest navy

Xi Jinping’s aggressive foreign policy is not fundamentally different from Deng’s opening up or engagement. Rather, it’s part of a long game which China has been playing with a clear grand strategy. For a country that suffered ‘a century of humiliation’ at the hands of invading forces and a poor, backward looking agrarian society at the time of the communist revolution, China has come a long way. It is now the world’s second largest economy, a manufacturing and technological powerhouse and has the world’s largest navy. What does it want next? Will China be ready to play second fiddle to the United States in an American-controlled global order or will it try to displace the U.S. as the world’s leader and build a new China-centric order? Rush emphatically argues that the contest between the U.S. and China is about who should lead the global order.

During the Cold War, China had entered into a “quasi alliance” with the U.S. against their common rival — the former Soviet Union. But a set of historical developments, what Rush calls the “traumatic trifecta” — the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, the Gulf War of 1990-91, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 — altered the strategic thinking in Beijing. While the Tiananmen Square protests underscored the challenges the revolution faced at home, the Gulf War reinforced America’s growing global military supremacy. The demise of the Soviet Union was not only seen as a setback to communist regimes globally but also brought an end to the bipolar order, freeing the U.S. of its Cold War calculus and commitments. China started looking at the U.S. as a new adversary and adopted a long-term strategy, aimed at “blunting” the U.S.-led order and building a new one with Chinese characteristics.

During this period, a weaker China adopted asymmetric strategies to blunt American leadership — it built its own economic capacities, invested in submarines, mine-laying and anti-ship missiles as part of its ‘sea denial’ approach and joined U.S.-international institutions to limit America’s ability to use them. And Deng’s axiom of hiding and biding continued to guide China. But the 2008 financial crisis that started in the U.S. and crippled western economies prompted China to believe that the U.S. was entering into a period of relative decline.

Aggressive steps

It was during this period that China adopted a more active role internationally. In 2009, Hu Jintao declared that there was “a major change in the balance of international forces” and it’s time for China “to actively accomplish something”. The 2016 election of Donald Trump as the U.S. President accelerated this shift and, under Xi Jinping, China would take more aggressive steps to displace the U.S. as the global leader and build a new order.

The Long Game is not a non-partisan, theoretical work on the evolution of the international system. Rush, a former Brookings scholar who is currently part of the Biden administration, is being honest when he writes what the U.S. should do to counter China and keep its primacy on the global order.

He also makes a forthright assessment of America’s decline, which he argues started in 2008. But his key argument is that there’s nothing fatalistic about the decline of American power.

The U.S. has seen several “waves of declinism” in the last century and has bounced back. He argues that the U.S. should adopt the same blunt and build strategy as China did against the new challenge. America, he contends, should subvert the order China is trying to build employing asymmetric strategies and rebuild the American order with liberal values to ensure that it stays the global leader.

The question that’s not answered is whether the U.S. has the economic and institutional capacity to play a long game against China like China has been doing for decades. While the U.S. has faced waves of declines and rivals in the past, no rival, as Rush himself points out, has come this close to America in terms of hard economic and military power like China. This reality makes the employability of his theoretical formulations harder.

The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order; Rush Doshi, OUP, ₹1,395.

stanly.johny@thehindu.co.in


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Printable version | May 13, 2022 3:19:37 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/the-long-game-chinas-grand-strategy-to-displace-american-order-review-a-contest-for-global-leadership/article65400832.ece