Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power

The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power
by Thomas J. ChristensenChristensen-china

There’s a quite useful series of books called Physics for Future Presidents. Thomas J. Christensen’s The China Challenge: Shaping the choices of a rising power feels something like a ‘China for future Presidents’.

Christensen is well placed to offer such insight. He is a leading scholar on China and US Cold War policy. He also worked in the Bush Administration as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 2006-08, focused on China, Taiwan and Mongolia. Given this reputation I had been looking forward to this book for a while.

Christensen’s essential thesis is that while everyone knows about the security problem — avoiding a conflict between China and the US and its allies in Asia— there’s also a governance problem. This one ‘is arguably more difficult to solve: how do we persuade a large but still developing country with a nationalist chip on its shoulder to contribute to the international system’ (p.288).

Where we have a proliferation of theories on how to stop conflict, our experience about how to encourage governance and co-leadership is much thinner. The subtitle notwithstanding, the book demonstrates that everyone should stop thinking of China as a ‘rising power’. It has risen, it is here, and every major global issue requires its support, consent or at least acquiescence. This is not just aimed at nervous westerners. According to Christensen, China’s own sense of still developing is a significant handbrake on its contribution to international affairs

This is a strong and engaging theme, but there’s not much beyond the set up. We get a consistently solid but hardly original or persuasive analysis of the current debates about China and global challenges. If you wanted to know what the general trends of opinion were, this is a good start. But this seems somewhat of a waste given the flood of books and material on this subject, and the opportunity Christensen had given his scholarly and policy basis.

The book also suffers from a somewhat chaotic organisation. We get chapters saying “This time should be different”, then “Why Chinese power will not surpass US power anytime soon” and then “Why China still poses strategic challenges”. These are all interesting, but seem odd ways of organising and developing an argument. It’s only with Chapter 5 that we get back to the set up idea of Global Governance.

The second half of the book is even odder, posing as a potted diplomatic history of China on key issues of US concern such as non-proliferation – especially North Korea— climate change, Iran, Taiwan, and so on. But this ends up overlapping and repeating much of what was covered earlier. This led me to put down the book several times, so my reading took place over a month, with some long gaps in between. But on flicking through it again, I still struggle to see the threads that bind it, and the justifications for telling me about these issues and at this level.

Christensen is a great scholar, but this book feels much more like the former Administration official held the pen. It’s not that important whether he worked for Bush or Obama, rather he struggles to separate US interests from the global governance problems he wants to talk about. There are aspects of criticism of the US — he rightly shows the confused nature of Obama’s approach. But ultimately the book ends up falling between the two styles of analysis. Neither an inside beltway tome with new details about big events, nor an outsiders scholarly objectivity.

Notably, while the book begins by saying the problems are so big, the degree of policy changes it urges for the US are actually rather small and uncontroversial. A little more clarity, a little less liberal idealism, a bit more resilience, and she’ll be right it seems. Christensen seems to believe China will come to embed into the global system in a way that doesn’t fundamentally challenge the role or actions of the United States. It might be that is true, but this book doesn’t properly justify that view. It’s just sort of assumed, as so many Americans do.

The other strange thing about this book is that for someone who has spent so much time in China, and knows the country so well, I never got the feeling of real insight into the place. It’s always China as an object, to be pushed, pulled and directed, but never as a mass of humanity with its own views, needs, desires and emotions.

So, if you want a good overview of the current western debates about China, then Christensen offers a handy primer. But for someone who had the potential to break new ground, this public refresher seems a missed opportunity. It’s unlikely any of the 20 or so individuals running for US President will ever read this. What we need more from those like Christensen who have seen so far, is new and better theory and knowledge to help deal with the problem, rather than primers on what we already know.