By Jason Miks
GPS Digital Producer Jason Miks speaks with Robert Kaplan, author of Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, and Geoff Dyer, author of Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition with China-and How America Can Win, about territorial disputes in Asia, the threat of nationalism, and why the United States should be concerned. Watch both on "Fareed Zakaria GPS," this Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN.
The Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy has in large part rested on its ability to keep its economy delivering double-digit growth. With signs the economy might be slowing, is the government likely to be more tempted to stoke nationalism there?
Dyer: I think you’ve actually been seeing that since Tiananmen Square in 1989. The party lost legitimacy based on the idea of Marxism, and then particularly after Tiananmen it was facing this huge crisis of legitimacy. So really these were the two things that it had based its credibility on – economic competence and a growing economy, and nationalism.
And for a number of years, the Communist Party has been fostering this kind of victim nationalism narrative, this idea of the Century of Humiliation – foreign powers came in and victimized us for a century, and now we’re standing up for ourselves. That’s been really intensified for the past 20 years, and is really coming to a head now in recent years.
One of the problems is that this has really narrowed the space the government has to maneuver in on these kinds of issues. It’s not necessarily that nationalism is dictating the foreign policy. But it gives them much less room to compromise and to make concessions if they ever did get into negotiations.
Kaplan: I think the biggest global question, in my opinion, is not Iran or Ukraine. It’s the direction of the Chinese economy, and whether China is going to have a soft or hard landing. If it’s a hard landing, then the question is how hard, and will this lead to social and political turmoil? And in such a situation, the easiest thing for a regime to do is to dial up nationalism. And if you dial up nationalism, that translates into a more aggressive policy in the South and East China Seas.
So the West has actually had it easy with China the last few decades. Relatively speaking, it has had predictable, enlightened autocrats, who are collegial and non-charismatic. And because there has been steady economic growth, that has legitimized their rule. But if economic growth goes down and can no longer legitimize their rule, they are going to look for other ways to do that, and again we are back to nationalism.
Up until perhaps three or four years ago, China was pursuing what was often dubbed “smile diplomacy,” especially with its Southeast Asian neighbors. But this appears to have been abandoned, and there has been growing tension with countries like Vietnam and the Philippines. Are you surprised that China abandoned its earlier approach?
Kaplan: I’m a bit surprised. Geoff can talk about this in more depth, but given how inexorable China’s military rise is, it would appear that the best strategy for China is to say little, stay friendly and over time it will become dominant without ever having to fire a shot – Chinese domination will happen in everyone’s sleep when they didn’t notice it. But every time they provoke an incident or make a statement, that makes other countries run to Uncle Sam, if you will, and ask to bring in more American warships etc.
Dyer: I think the key moment in this discussion is the global financial crisis. Before then, you had always had this argument in China about what the country would do when it becomes a powerful, important player. And there were Chinese hawks who said that they would need to challenge the U.S. and start throwing the country’s weight around. Chinese doves, meanwhile, said the country should keep its head low, keep on growing the economy and integrating into the American-led global system.
This debate was always happening in China, but what happened in the financial crisis was that it created this sense that America was now in decline, and that this was now China’s moment. And the hawks essentially said “now’s the time to start pushing our claims.”
On that issue of Chinese assertiveness – the media there early on, for example, seemed quite aggressive in criticizing the handling of the missing Malaysia Airlines plane. What do you think the search for MH370 has said about China and the region?
Kaplan: There were a few things that were interesting about this bizarre, real tragedy. One is that there were all these ships coalescing to find the wreckage. And the reason for that was that there were so many warships in the area to begin with because of these very disputes we’ve been talking about.
That has been part of it. The other thing is that Malaysia has had a kind of negotiated tension between its ethnic Chinese and Malaysian Muslims and ethnic Indians. There haven’t really been ethnic riots for a few decades. But the tensions are still there, and we saw that play out with China’s reaction.
Dyer: I think the thing to focus on in China is that although it is a very authoritarian system, there’s still a lot of politics. And the politics of this is that the government has the grieving families of more than a hundred Chinese passengers. These people are incredibly upset and angry, and they are channeling their anger towards the government. And so the government is lashing out against the Malaysian government as a way of responding to that nationalist anger in China.
So there are, beneath the surface, these big political tensions that play out in the way that China reacts to these things, but sometimes we don’t necessarily see them because sometimes we just see the country as a monolithic, controlled system.
Kaplan: Also, remember that China may be an authoritarian system, but public opinion also matters to autocrats. Don’t think it only matters in democracies. In fact, one could argue that it matters even more to autocrats, because they need to constantly legitimize their rule as they can’t do it through elections.
Dyer: The loudest voices win out in authoritarian systems. There aren’t the same mechanisms to moderate opinions or for nuance and subtlety. So it’s the loud voices that get heard.
Some might be tempted to wonder what America’s foreign policy interest is in these regional tensions – why does it matter to the United States. What would you say?
Kaplan: It matters because to the degree that the world economy has a geographic focus, it’s East Asia. And any military conflict in East Asia has the potential to roil financial markets in a way far out of proportion to how markets were affected in Iraq and Afghanistan. You could argue that they weren’t affected at all, or at a very minimum level by those. But the South China Sea, the East China Sea – if shots are fired there and there is some kind of military conflict, then that will matter to the whole world.
Dyer: Absolutely. The thing to always remember is that this is potentially the second biggest economy in the world up against the third biggest economy in the world. And the United States has a treaty obligation with the third biggest economy to defend it.
So this might seem like a very obscure, distant dispute over these islands, islands where no one even lives and which have no immediate strategic value. But if something was to go wrong in a standoff over them, then the consequences would be very, very dramatic.