Who’s Number One?
This week: conversations with Kevin Rudd, Paul Heer, and David Kang about the US-China relationship. Listen today at 2 pm, or anytime at our website.
In late May, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called China “the most serious long-term challenge to the international order.” That challenge, as Blinken described it, is to human rights, democracy, and security. “Under President Xi,” he said, “the ruling Chinese Communist Party has become more repressive at home and more aggressive abroad.”
But on this week’s show, Paul Heer—former National Intelligence Officer for East Asia—tells us that China’s ideological challenge doesn’t need to be viewed as a threat. He says:
A challenge does not necessarily constitute a threat. That’s perhaps my primary critique of the way that the policy community has framed the China challenge. I think it’s not necessarily a threat because it’s not necessarily existential. Yes, there’s an ideological competition between China and the United States, because they have an authoritarian socialist system, which they think is superior to ours or at least is better equipped for their governance than our system is. So I think that does constitute an ideological competition and a challenge.
But it’s not a threat, because I don’t think the Chinese are trying to undermine or destroy our system. I think the Chinese are genuinely interested in peaceful coexistence between the two systems, if we’re willing to live with the coexistence of an authoritarian, communist, socialist state.
David Kang, a fellow with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, points out that, in the region surrounding China, there’s widespread commitment toward coexistence with—rather than alarmed resistance to—China:
Indonesia is not eagerly joining containment coalitions. Japan is increasing some defense spending, but at such a low rate—this is hardly a Cold-War, us-against-them lining up of countries.
If you go through all the countries, you can point out some which are a little more close to the United States, but almost none in which we have clear evidence of a choice with the United States against China and a willingness to risk economic and diplomatic relations with a country they have to live with.
And one of the things we forget is all these countries are around the region. They’re not moving away. They have to interact with and live with China somehow. So, for example . . . the Philippines. They have a new president . . . Almost no one has any idea what his foreign policy will be. But it is pretty clear that he has benefited from Chinese economic relations. His town has. He certainly has not campaigned on: “I’m back to being close to the United States.” So we’ll see what happens with the Philippines.
Vietnam is another example. Vietnam is a country that has to live with China— has some maritime, territorial disputes, but also has made very clear that they are not eagerly going to embrace the United States. Every time a US warship docks in Vietnam, it’s ballyhooed as a flip towards the United States. But right before Vice President Harris’s visit to Vietnam last year, the day before, the Vietnamese prime minister met with the Chinese ambassador and said Vietnam will never take any sides, we’re going to be flexible like Vietnamese bamboo.
To me, I read that as a reassurance signal to China that they weren’t going to choose the US and a warning sign to the United States that they were not going to choose the United States. So I think the reality of the region is very different than the way we think it should be in the United States.
Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd joins us, too, and shares insight into the leader at the center of it all: Xi Jinping. Rudd lists some of what he understands to be Xi’s goals:
One: He wishes to leave a mark on history as the person who completed the Chinese Revolution, and that means the reabsorption of Taiwan within Chinese sovereignty. Mao was not able to achieve that in ‘49 or in subsequent attempts. Xi Jinping sees himself, in my judgment, as the man of history who is best able to do that.
The second thing, looking at what he seeks to achieve domestically, is to reintroduce ideological rigor back into the Chinese Communist Party. He has identified the party as having become ideologically soft under Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao over the last 35 years, and therefore he has sought to rebirth Marxism-Leninism within the Chinese Communist Party, and therefore he would want to be seen in history as the person like Mao, who adhered to ideological rigor within the party system.
But on the matter of Taiwan David Kang reiterates that he sees no indication that China will invade:
China has made very clear under what conditions it will invade and use force against Taiwan, and that’s if Taiwan declares formal independence. And the Taiwanese show no evidence that they plan to try and declare independence.
Listen: Rumble Strip
Our Hub-&-Spoke compatriot Erica Heilman just won a Peabody for her extremely good podcast Rumble Strip—specifically for the episode “Finn and the Bell.” And here’s how they put it:
Finn and the Bell assembles a quiet portrait of a small Vermont community grappling with a young man’s suicide, and the beauty of its method lies in how the piece universalizes the feeling of a wake. Using a drifting, non-narrated format that emphasizes the voices of those left behind, host Erica Heilman, working under the banner of the Rumble Strip podcast series, gently guides the emotion through the overwhelming pang of loss toward celebration of a life. It’s subtle, thoughtful, and gorgeous. As an independent producer who’s spent years using her microphone to capture different facets of her home state, Heilman’s important work serves as a reminder of what we stand to lose with the ongoing crisis in local news. Local media institutions aren’t just responsible for holding the powerful accountable and shedding light on injustice; they’re also there to simply document life around them, to act as the institutional memory for the people they serve. They reflect communities back to themselves, forging the shared bond felt with each other through joys as much as tragedies.
This show is another installment of In Search of Monsters, our limited-series collaboration with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Visit their site at QuincyInst.org.
This week’s ephemeral library
“A Radical Collective Takes Over One of the World’s Biggest Art Shows.” Is Biden’s Foreign Policy Team the Best of the Blob? The Wire: Too Often Imitated, Never Duplicated — Because it’s Impossible. Pankaj Mishra: A Catastrophic Loss of Faith in America (I’ve never been more hopeful than at this moment of despair). Why a Town in Maine You’ve Never Heard of May be the Future of Politics and Policy.