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August 22, 2012

China Is Rising, So Get Over It

By Stan Abrams 

I spent a summer at a think tank in Washington, D.C. a number of years ago as a grad school intern, and one of the things I learned about those places, and their brethren in academic institutions, is the “scoring” system when it comes to fundraising. If you get money from a donor, you have to explain at the end of the year where that money was spent and what was accomplished. Trying to secure additional funding? Same deal.

How to keep score? Lots of ways, but most of them involve public exposure, like conference presentations, papers published, interviews on television and, last but certainly not least, Op/Ed articles in major publications. Got something in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal or the like, that’s a big fat gold star.

Of course we run into a quantity versus quality issue. Always a problem. Consider for example how many crappy posts I write (most of them?), which I believe to some extent is a function of the frequency. If I wrote a monthly column instead, I would probably take great pains to make sure it was well written and substantive. Such is life for the blogger.

Back to the “PR or die” problem. What’s the result? A great number of Op/Eds written by think tankers and academics whose sole purpose is to get their name out there. Nothing wrong with that, of course, unless you just phone in the effort instead of write something worthwhile. The ultimate blame for all of this, of course, rests with the lazy editors who don’t bother to notice that what they’re publishing leaves a lot to be desired.
All of this popped into my head after I read an Op/Ed in the Financial Times by a noted academic (I assume) at Harvard, Graham Allison. The article, “Thucydides’s trap has been sprung in the Pacific,” is well written by someone who clearly knows his history.

I was first put off by the headline, although I’m sure that isn’t Allison’s fault. Some editor somewhere at the FT apparently thought that something dramatic was called for. After reading that headline, “Thucydides’ Trap” sounds like one country lying in wait for another or something. While the U.S. is concerned with, and distracted by, the South China Sea equivalent of Scylla or Charybdis, China is patiently waiting nearby, ready to leap out at the unsuspecting Americans. Lovely image.

But that’s a minor irritant. More important is Allison’s thesis, which I think can be summed up with this quote:
The defining question about global order in the decades ahead will be: can China and the US escape Thucydides’s trap? The historian’s metaphor reminds us of the dangers two parties face when a rising power rivals a ruling power – as Athens did in 5th century BC and Germany did at the end of the 19th century. Most such challenges have ended in war. Peaceful cases required huge adjustments in the attitudes and actions of the governments and the societies of both countries involved.
I don’t think anyone can disagree with any of that. Everyone knows that the US-China bilateral relationship is key to global stability. Moreover, as even the average ignorant American knows that China’s economy that made great leaps and bounds over the past few decades, the issue of China as a rising power is well known.

This is all so obvious that I really wonder why this Op/Ed was written at all. Certainly there’s nothing timely about it, aside from a throwaway line in the first paragraph about the South China Sea conflict. But seriously, it’s not that difficult to find a current dispute on which to hang this sort of Op/Ed. Over the past few years alone, one could have used the Beijing Olympics, the RMB debate, environmental policy, any number of trade fights — need I go on?

At first glance, this Op/Ed looks pretty cool and caters to history groupies like myself who have fond memories of studying Ancient Greece or the rise of Bismarck’s Germany. Throw in enough of those references, and everyone assumes you’re making a deep, intellectual argument.

But I can’t find one here. This is the whole thing, folks:

1. China is rising.
2. The U.S. is debating how to respond.
3. In the past, this sort of thing has led to war.
4. The U.S. and China (in particular the former) should learn from history and avoid war.

Again, all extremely valid points based on excellent scholarship, but honestly, someone writes the exact same thing every 2.7 days, on average (well, it seems like it anyway).

I wouldn’t be so cranky about all this if Allison at least included some policy suggestions in his conclusions. While there are hundreds of similar pieces out there on “China Rising,” almost none of them actually provide specific advice on the preferred U.S. response. Unfortunately, after talking about the potential catastrophe that could result if attitudes do not change, Allison wraps it up with this:
In light of the risks of such an outcome, leaders in both China and the US must begin talking to each other much more candidly about likely confrontations and flash points. Even more difficult and painful, both must begin making substantial adjustments to accommodate the irreducible requirements of the other.
Really, that’s it? All we’re left with is: 1) The two countries should communicate better; and 2) Adjustments need to be made.

OK, yes, hard to disagree. I’m on board with both of those prescriptions, as I suspect is every other person on the planet. Hell, if you asked the residents of Hoboken, New Jersey if the U.S. and China should work on communication, I think most of them would say yes.

And about those “adjustments.” Even a tiny little hint about what those should be, aside from the reference to China “demanding more say” would have been useful. Everyone and their grandmother has already made the greater point about the U.S. and a rising China. The hard part is formulating actual policy. Sadly, Allison leaves us hanging at the end.

[Note: Just for the record, I am not trying to cast any aspersions on Allison, whose Op/Ed is fine, if not exactly new. On the other hand, I'm not at all sure how the Financial Times thought such an article would educate its readers. I guess if you put the word "Thucydides" in the title, that's sufficient these days for most editors in terms of intellectualism.]

About The Author - Stan Abrams is a Beijing-based IP/IT lawyer and law professor with an M.A. from Johns Hopkins in International Relations, a J.D. from Boston College Law School, a B.A. from Pomona College, and writes at China Hearsay.  (EconMatters author archive here)

The views and opinions expressed herein are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of EconMatters.

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