Two Suns Rising in the East China’s stunning growth has bolstered the belief that autocracy beats democracy. More likely than democracy, the author says, is revolution. 

Mark Moyar
May 15, 2016

Since the dawn of the 21st century, India has watched with mounting alarm as China encircles it with deep-water ports and arms sales to nearby countries. New roads and tunnels cut through mountains from China into Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh: Manufactured goods can travel on them, of course—but tanks could too. Like nearly everyone else in Asia, the Indians are convinced that surging Chinese spending on army modernization and naval expansion is intended not only to protect China but also to intimidate its neighbors. China’s military rise has led India to boost its own defense budget, setting the two rising powers on course for a prolonged arms race.

The United States is still trying to figure out how to cope with this intensifying competition. In 2012 President Barack Obama vowed to offset rising Chinese power with a “pivot” of U.S. air and naval assets to Asia, but he never followed through. Declining American power and prestige are causing smaller nations to kowtow to China.

In “This Brave New World,” Anja Manuel offers up a thoughtful analysis of this Asian contest and a strategy for keeping it from turning violent. As a co-founder of a consultancy formed by Condoleezza Rice, Stephen Hadley and Robert Gates, she enjoys access to top policy figures, and much of what is new in the book comes from her conversations with senior officials in China and India. 

Ms. Manuel highlights the mounting dissatisfaction with corruption among the upper and middle classes of both countries. The Chinese government, whose autocratic ways permit it to combat corruption more vigorously than India’s constitutionally limited government, has imprisoned high-profile officials and generals. But, Ms. Manuel notes, it is hard to know whether this campaign “will move beyond the pursuit of trophy targets and bring about institutional reform.”

Corruption is but one of many causes of discontent. As Ms. Manuel relates, the huge numbers of Chinese men deprived of spouses by selective female abortion has generated such worries of unrest that the government has initiated a publicity campaign promoting the raising of daughters. Poor working conditions and cramped living quarters foster hostility toward the status quo among the lower classes. The government’s repression of protests—a reported 180,000 of them per year —is a further source of alienation. In Ms. Manuel’s view, tensions between the citizenry and the government “will likely have reached a breaking point” by 2030. 

Ms. Manuel is skeptical of the claim that dissatisfaction will lead to democratization. For the educated classes, China’s stunning economic growth has encouraged the belief that autocracy beats democracy, and a vast internal security apparatus, of course, serves to squelch democratic impulses. More likely than democracy, Ms. Manuel says, is revolution, which could lead to even greater tyranny. Another possible result, of which she makes brief mention, is a governmental effort to deflect domestic hatreds by stirring up the hatred of foreign countries. The government has already taken steps in that direction with its anti-Japanese propaganda.

China’s mix of rising xenophobia and increasing military power bears similarities to Nazi Germany and imperial Japan in the 1930s, suggesting that the United States would be well advised to adopt a strategy of containment and unequivocally ally with India and other Asian countries against China. Ms. Manuel invokes a different analogy, however, likening today’s China to pre-World War I Germany. In her view, Britain’s decision to side with a rising United States against a rising Germany was a strategic disaster, since it caused Germany “to feel insecure and friendless and to act like an opponent.” If the U.S. were to side with India against China, she believes, “China could develop like the autocratic, insecure, and bravado-filled Germany of the early twentieth-century.”

According to Ms. Manuel, the United States and India should maintain military strength in the Far East, but they should also make “a real effort to avoid alienating China.” Americans “must stop our hand-wringing about China.” Rather than adopting an adversarial tone on disputed matters, we should talk like a “coach.”

Ms. Manuel proposes increasing Western commerce with China by including the Chinese in free-trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. She calls for greater dialogue with China on security matters to prevent a minor incident from turning into a war. America should also refrain, she says, from responding to Chinese provocations with stiff punishments—like the indictment of five Chinese hackers in 2014.

Some of these prescriptions make sense. Public harangues have seldom caused the Chinese to do much more than dig in their heels. And better communication between the American and Chinese militaries could forestall an incendiary clash. Still, it is risky to assume that the China of 2016 is closer to the Germany of 1910 than to the Germany of 1935 or that the violent revolution foreseen by Ms. Manuel will not turn it into the Germany of 1935. If the Chinese leadership aspires to regional or global domination, then bringing China into new trade deals will not reduce the risk of conflict any more than burgeoning trade in the early 20th century averted two world wars. The safest American strategy is one in which the United States and its allies increase their military power to offset China’s rising power while showing the Chinese that violations of international norms will not be tolerated. 

Senior U.S. military leaders have been recommending such a flexing of muscle, to no avail. When it comes to China, America continues to aim at the restraint and conciliation that Ms. Manuel commends so urgently. This policy may allow America to muddle through to the end of Mr. Obama’s term, but it may well allow China to seize further advantages that his successor will find hard to reverse.