BOOK REVIEW: Has China Won? The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy

By Kishore Mabhubani. New York. Public Affairs, Hachette Book Club. Hardcover, 310 pp. US$19.89

Reviewed by: Todd Crowell

Anybody who is at least marginally informed knows that China and the United States are on a collision course. Various points of contention ranging from tensions in the South China Sea and Taiwan, from tariff wars to talk in Washington of “decoupling” the relationship, are multiplying by the day.

The book’s title Has China Won? however is a little misleading since the author, an internationally well-connected former Singaporean diplomat, does not really dwell on who’s won – or who’s lost for that matter. It discusses at length’s the two countries’ political strengths and weaknesses their strategies and lack of strategies.

The core of the book is an examination of the biggest mistakes China and the United States have made in handling the relationship in the 40 years since the country’s opening to the world. He blames China for neglecting and alienating potential allies among the American business who should be natural allies.

According to Mahbubani, Beijing tarried too long in dealing with the U.S business community’s legitimate grievances over such irritants as not protecting intellectual property, or demanding that Americans provide technology transfers as a price for winning contracts. That doesn’t mean they didn’t stew about them.

For its part, Mahbubani faults America for not developing a comprehensive strategy for dealing with China and the current total lack of any stabilizing figures with profound knowledge of China such as Henry Kissinger and from the Cold War era, George Kennon.

If the U.S. is really losing the game with China, as Mahbubani suggests, that means the US is scoring too many own-goals. One of the biggest own-goals was President

Trump’s decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an invaluable legacy of the previous Obama administration.

Considering that the newspapers are full of articles and headlines suggesting that China is moving too aggressively on asserting Chinese territorial claims these days, Mahbubani is facing a considerable headwind in his making the case that China is not an expansionist nation.

Historically, it is true that China has not been a threat to its near neighbors, not counting the short but bloody war against Vietnam in 1979 plus the recent troubles with India on a disputed valley on their mutual boundary in the Himalayas.

In the larger picture and unlike the old Soviet Union China is not trying to; foist its communist ideology nor Chinese culture on anyone. Chinese-ness is not a transferable quality in the same way “American-ness” is.

Long ago, Washington learned how to deal with nuclear-armed countries like France that are clear-cut friends and allies. It learned the hard way how to deal with nuclear-armed adversaries that were not bosom friends but clear nuclear-armed adversaries, such as the old Soviet Union.

But Washington has never completely figured out how to deal with a nuclear-armed nation state that neither an unambiguous friend nor an unambiguous enemy. Perhaps it is time that it did.

Todd Crowell is author of the forthcoming Asian Values: The Ideals that Link a Continent.

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