- Can China Expand Without Limits?
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).
Does insight into world affairs benefit from looking at the evidence through the lens of an underlying assumption about the way things work? Or does it conduce to scholarly hubris? If we seek to make sense of the multitude of often contradictory facts about China, do we not need such a framework? Edward Luttwak’s framework approximates that of structural (neo)realism. For him the logic of strategy governs all state behavior, regardless of time, place, culture, or individual personalities. Luttwak concludes that China cannot continue to grow its economy and its military at a rapid rate. Nor can it behave aggressively without alienating other actors. Sooner or later, other actors will respond to what they see as a threat and unite to contain Chinese expansion.
Minqi Li, on the other hand, proceeds from the world-system assumptions of Immanuel Wallerstein and concludes that China’s form of capitalism, like that of global capitalism, has no future and must give way eventually to a nondictatorial form of socialism. Henry A. Kissinger and Odd Arne Westad, unlike Luttwak and Li, do not proceed from any grand theory except an open-ended [End Page 175] realism. Taking a long view, however, Kissinger and Westad expect China gradually to return to its historic role as a great power, but each is attuned to the importance of individuals as well as structures and forces.
Luttwak qualifies his thesis by conceding that the logic of strategy is not “self-executing.” Still, he says, strategic logic compels leaders of other countries to counter the aggrandizing actions that have characterized China’s behavior since 2011. For example, leaders of India and Japan have initiated a strategic dialogue. But while Luttwak expected a tough response by the Philippines to Chinese claims to the Nansha Islands (Kalayaan Island Group or Spratlys), Rodrigo Duterte, elected president in 2016, sidled up to Beijing and then insulted President Obama. Duterte opted to bandwagon with China rather than balance against it. He did so even after the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, responding to arguments entered by a previous Philippine government, ruled against China’s claims in the South China Sea.
Except for Vietnam, nearly every case addressed by Luttwak challenges his deterministic thesis. Thus, he details how circumstances and human behaviors bolstered in 2009 and then deflated the pro-Chinese orientation of Ozawa Ichiro’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). The Senkaku Islands incident in 2010 and the tsunami in 2011 reminded the Japanese of their need for US support. In April 2011, the DPJ leadership reaffirmed the centrality of Japan’s alliance with the United States and spoke of a complementary East Asian alliance that included Australia but not China.
While Luttwak’s argument tends to overstate its deterministic implications, the author’s deep and wide factual knowledge lead him to rich, paradoxical conclusions. Thus, predicting China’s future is made more difficult because threats to stability “deemed probable are more likely to be successfully anticipated and energetically repressed, so that it is the unexpected, improbable threats that are more dangerous for dictatorships” (pp. 252–253) as in the impact on Tunisia of a single fruit seller’s self-immolation. Indeed, dictatorships are more apt to fall because of their few virtues than their man-made defects, as with the shah’s land reforms that antagonized Iran’s landowning clerics. [End Page 176]
Considering Russia’s possible role in containing or joining China, Luttwak allows for free will over determinism. Thus, he argues that Russia’s orientation could be decisive if Moscow joined the United States and other actors in an economic blockade to counter Chinese aggression (for example, toward Taiwan). The Kremlin could join a blockade or align with China.
The coup de grace against Luttwak’s theory...