On China, Henry Kissinger and Fareed Zakaria see Domestic Tension and Risk of Geopolitical Conflict

February 2, 2012



Henry Kissinger participated in a Munk debate entitled ‘Will China dominate the 21st Century.’ He and Fareed Zakaria stood on the nay side of the debate, while David Daokui Li and Niall Fergusson ya side. 

It’s among the first public debates where an open discussion on the probability of international conflict is debated. Kissinger and Zakaria believe China will be preoccupied with domestic problems and contained somewhat by its neighbors, who when unified, possess the strength to balance China’s increasing power. On the other hand, Kissinger’s pointedly notes the unfavorable history of emerging superpowers; they generally lead to war. 

HK: "China will be preoccupied with enormous problems domestically, and preoccupied with its immediate environment. China has achieved great things economically, but it has to produce 24 million jobs every year; it has to absorb six million people moving into the cities every year; it has to deal with a floating population of 150 to 200 million. It has to accommodate a society in which the coastal regions are at the level of advanced countries while the interior regions are at the level of underdevelopment.”

HK:  China has “14 countries on its borders some of which are small but can project their nationality into China; some of which are large and historically significant, so that any attempt by China to dominate the world would evoke a counter-reaction that would be disastrous for the peace of the world.”

HK: China will grow in strength, but not dominate. To Kissinger, the real question is whether this assimilation can be peaceful. Can the West work with China and will China adopt international standards of cooperation. “I say in my book that based on experience the prospects are not optimistic.” In short Kissinger, sees a distinct possibility of War.

Fareed Zakaria, CNN editor-at-large, pointed to China’s misallocation of capital, demands from the Chinese people for more freedom, the western trained Mandarin elite that are detached from its people, and neighbors increasingly resistant to bullying.

FZ: "I simply point out that China — with the economic, demographic, political and geopolitical problems it faces — might find that that last period will be somewhat rocky and complex. As Henry pointed out, it may require that China stay internally focused and absorbed in a way that will not allow it to project enormous hegemonic power."

FZ: Internationally, it’s policies are alienating the world. Amid a good crises, “China came out of it feeling confident. And look at the manner in which it behaved. In Copenhagen it humiliated the United States and humiliated the President of the United States and refused to sign up for a deal. On the Senkaku Islands it angered Japan enormously. When the North Koreans sunk a South Korean boat and the South Koreans asked the Chinese to condemn it, they refused, enraging the South Koreans. The Vietnamese and Filipinos were enraged because China asserted sovereignty over the South China Sea. That’s just in one year, right? And that’s when China hasn’t even yet gotten to the point where it is, in fact, the dominant economic power in the world.”

FZ: “Do you think all these countries are going to roll back and accept Chinese domination? Or are you likely to see a spirited response from the India’s, and Vietnam’s, the South Korea’s and Japans and Indonesia’s of the world, in which case all of a sudden this proposition doesn’t look as rosy as it did?”

FZ: China has solved the small problems, the roads, but they have not appeased the people. “The Communist Party of China is today the most elite political organization in the world. Everybody looks like David, they all have Ph.Ds and they’re engineers, but that’s not China. The people they rule are this vast mass of peasantry and those people are not reflected in the political system. Their views, to a large extent, are filtered through these many mechanisms. That strikes me as a huge political challenge for China going forward.”

Nail Ferguson loses credibility with this statement: “China engaged in the biggest and most successful stimulus in the world.” No, history will judge it differently.

NK: However, he noted “it is precisely when nations are struggling with internal political problems and challenges from below that they are most likely to pursue a more assertive and aggressive foreign policy.” I’ve mentioned this “rally around the flag” political maneuver as a threat to global peace in the past.  Chinese politicians could look to deflect attention from their own inept handling of the domestic economy, by appealing to nationalistic tendencies of its people, blame the west, and instigate conflict.

David Li’s comments are notable for its tone than its context: defiant, nationalistic, and hostile. This sentiment towards the West is both common among the Chinese people, and alarming.

Entire Debate is available for free as a transcript, or can be seen for a nominal cost.

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