As a distillation of Chinese thought, one can scarcely do better than read The 36 Stratagems (also known as The Secret Art of War). Written and recorded for posterity by a generation of anonymous scholars, this short essay survives as an important source of insights on a civilization with turbulent history that is trying very hard to outrun the shadows of its past.
An interesting mental game to play as you are reading China Ascendant: Its Rise and Implications is to classify each of its 49 chapters (divided into 4 thematic parts) under the 36 stratagems. “Kill with a borrowed knife”: think China in South Asia (Part 2). “Befriend a distant state, strike a neighborhood one”: think China and the World (Part 3). “Remove firewood under the pot” succinctly describes China’s approach to P5 countries and the European Union. If the Belt and Road Initiative ever gets its own Twitter handle, “borrow a corpse to resurrect the soul” may well be its bio: A caustic proverb that also explains the reliance of Chinese leaders on cartography and history to proclaim their strategic interests.
Editor Harsh Pant, a renowned scholar of international relations, and his choice of topics for this compendium serves as a reminder that the rise of China has also prompted a reinvestigation of the theoretical foundations of the subject beyond its conventional sub-fields of foreign policy, security studies and international political economy. In the first article itself on China’s grand strategy, Abhijnan Rej references Unrestricted Warfare, a manifesto written by two PLA colonels in 1999 for countries like China to wage war against a technologically and financially superior adversary like the United States. Their core argument was that the wars of future would not be fought only (or even primarily) between armed forces. Instead, they predicted the “civilianization of war” in which the entire society would become a battlefield and the distinction between professional soldier and the “non-professional warrior” would be blurred.
The essays in Parts 1 and 4 of China Ascendant confirm this dystopian hypothesis. In its pursuit of global dominance, China may have unleashed a new arms race on the world in which weather, academia, law, culture, internet and social media, the Arctic, rivers, ocean depths, outer space — every slice of our life on this planet — have been weaponized and therefore merit a chapter in this anthology. Pant has made a deliberate choice to give younger scholars an opportunity to share their research on China alongside senior experts and they are the ones who write most eloquently on the new battlegrounds.
Although the book is ostensibly about China, it is also a shadow critique of India’s performance at the world stage. Together, these two ancient civilizations account for more than one-third of humanity. The resolution of every global issue needs these two countries and commensurate with its stature, China has been a major actor on the global arena in the last two decades. Meanwhile, India in this period was largely preoccupied with its immediate neighborhood and continued to punch below its weight at international fora, until recently. It is in the chapters on engagement with geographically distant regions of the world like Latin America, Africa, Europe and the Arctic that this gap in capabilities and track record between both countries is most striking. Beneath the lament though, is also the hope that India will learn the right lessons from Chinese experience and craft a less acrimonious journey to the top.
The Doklam standoff and India’s leadership in raising awareness about the pitfalls of the Belt and Road receive a lot of attention throughout the book. For good reason, since India’s conduct in these two flashpoints gave a template to the rest of the world on how to stand up to China. Some of the most interesting sections in the book are the case studies of countries like Russia, Indonesia and Myanmar trying to push back against China’s attempts to convert their economic clout into strategic leverage or at least restore some semblance of balance in their relationship.
The tone of chapters ranges from cautious (“China’s New Development Cooperation Agency,” “China as India’s Main Bulk Drugs Supplier”) to alarming (“Sobering Arithmetic of a Two Front War,” “Europe and China”). Several contributors have raised the ideological implication of China’s rise on the current global order that seems to be collapsing under the weight of its own trilemma of capitalism, democracy and globalization. Niranjan Sahoo asserts that the signaling effect of an illiberal China’s rise on authoritarian rulers around the world has forced democracies to come together and the “Quad” is a leading example of this response.
Part IV of the book focuses on the compromises, contradictions and costs that China has forced upon itself in the ambition to reshape international extant order in its image. In his brilliant book on the history of risk titled Against the Gods, Wall Street guru Peter Bernstein gives two important lessons on predicting the future of markets that may be equally helpful in speculating whether China’s rise to a hegemonic power is an inevitable reality of 21st century. First is the Leibniz Hypothesis that nature works in patterns “but only for the most part.” That other, uncertain part is where “things matter most”. The second principle is Pascal’s Wager which asserts that “consequences are more important than probabilities.” Therefore don’t take a decision if you can’t survive its failure, no matter how unlikely the chances of failure are.
The fact that China has a bigger budget for internal security than external defense tells you all that is troubled in Chinese society. Reading about the various social fault lines highlighted in the book — forced urban/rural divide, the anxiety of its middle class with air pollution and a human rights crisis in the “re-education camps” of Xinjiang that has attracted the attention of ISIS and al-Qaeda — one gets the sense of a country stretching itself dangerously thin to cope with its ambitions. The political economy of China is a house of cards that depends on a Faustian bargain with its citizens, which means that any black swan event can quickly escalate into an existential crisis for the ruling dispensation. As Gautam Chikermane eloquently states in his essay, “China’s façade of social stability is wearing thin” at precisely the moment that its economy is under severe pressure due to the trade war with USA and countries around the world are beginning to recalibrate their relationship with China. Therefore, China is forced to constantly look over its shoulder as it tries to lead.
Finally, the book is a refreshing change from other academic works on the rise of China written by Western scholars and practitioners who primarily analyze China through the lens of Washington Consensus. Written (mostly) by Indian thought leaders, the book gives voice to the concerns and anxieties of other developing countries about navigating a China-led international order. It will be an important addition to the documentation of the biggest story of our generation: the rise of China.
Apurv Kumar Mishra is a senior research fellow at the India Foundation.
Editor’s Note: Harsh Pant is a contributor to The Diplomat.