By Chet Yarbrough
The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power
By: Thomas Christensen
Narrated by: Alan Sklar
Thomas J. Christensen (Author, American political scientist, professor of international relations at Columbia University, advisor to U.S. Presidents.)
Thomas Christensen addresses “The China Challenge” with a capsulized history of communist party’ leadership from Mao to Xi. Christensen offers perspective to China’s support of North Korea, Syria, Iran, and Russia in the 21st century.
North Korea is losing the war when Mao commits the Chinese Army that pushes American troops back to the 38th parallel. That demarcation became part of a peace agreement that created two nation-states, North and South Korea. Despite the obvious domestic mistakes of the Great Famine and Cultural Revolution, Mao’s entry to the Korean war made him a revered hero to China and the communist party. Mao’s nearly divine adoration is evident to anyone who visits Beijing’s Memorial Hall Mausoleum in Tiananmen Square.
Nationalism and history are at the heart of China’s support of non-western countries. Though “The China Challenge” is published in 2015, before Ukraine’s invasion, it offers insight to China’s response to international events that seem irrational to many western citizens. Christensen’s history disabuses reader/listeners of Xi’s irrationality. Mao’s resolve in the Korean war reinforces President Xi’s belief in the utility and strength of the Chinese Communist Party.
North Korea—The brutality of the Korean war killed an estimated 1,500,000 North Koreans, and 716,000 Chinese
Development difference between South and North Korea exemplified by light projection at night.
Christensen notes the importance of China’s tempering influence on North Korean provocation while refusing to treat North Korean leadership as either rogue or irrational.
Contrary to George Bush’s monumental mistakes in Iraq, Christensen shows the American administration’s concerted effort to stop North Korea’s nuclear bomb ambitions. Along with Bush’s successful diplomatic effort to reduce tension with China over Taiwan by speaking of a “one China policy”, the Bush administration puts an economic initiative together for American economic support of North Korea in return for denuclearization. China supports the effort, but North Korea turns it down.
Christensen is unable to disclose the details of an economic package for North Korea in return for denuclearization but George Bush’s success in getting China’s support is remarkable and largely unrealized by the public.
Syria—Despite the brutality of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, China maintains close ties with Syria because of Xi’s belief in defending Syria’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. This is a consistent posture of China regarding other nations hostile to democracy.
Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria
Xi consistently supports authoritarian rulers’ right to rule without interference from outside interests.
Iran—Xi criticizes President Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear non-proliferation agreement. Christensen notes China, like other nuclear powers in the world, believes in non-proliferation of nuclear bomb capability. Xi consistently supports Iran’s independence for the same reason noted for Syria.
Ali Khamenei (Iran Supreme Leader)
Xi believes every nation has a right to rule without interference from outside interests. An added economic reason is Iran’s supply of oil and petrochemicals to China.
Russia— Russia’s invasion of Ukraine Xi is not considered. The invasion is not addressed by Christensen because it had not happened at the time of this book. Russia’s invasion seems a violation of the sovereignty principal Xi endorses. Ukraine’s history as once being a part of the U.S.S.R. gives political spin to Xi. Of course, this relates to China’s interest in repatriating Taiwan. An interesting point noted by Christensen about Taiwan is America’s choice to provide F-16s for their defense during George Bush ‘s administration, contrasting with President Biden’s statement that any supply of arms by China to Russia will have consequences. Biden reminds Xi of the many corporations that left Russia when they invaded Ukraine. One wonders about America’s threat to Xi if China chooses to provide arms to Russia. In light of America’s supply of F-16s to Taiwan, Xi might not care about the economic consequence of American companies leaving China.
Christensen implies there is a love/hate relationship between Russia and China. The love is Xi’s policy of non-intervention in a countries sovereignty. The hate is the history of Chinese leaders who chose the path of communism and found Russia abandoned Stalinist beliefs that Mao supported. Xi is an authoritarian. He believes in the importance of the communist party and uses it to achieve nationalist objectives.
Christensen goes on to write about global warming and the world’s inadequate response.
Over 60% of the world’s pollution is caused by four government jurisdictions, i.e., America, China, the E.U., and India. China and America alone cause 40% of the pollution. On a per-capita basis, America is the worst, but China shows the most visible impact, measured by air quality and water. In a trip to China, one can see the main rivers in China are loaded with refuse.
At times, air pollution is so thick in Beijing that one cannot safely drive a car because drivers are unable to see the road or other vehicles.
Christensen does not believe either China or America or any nation-state will be singular hegemons of the world. Christensen implies “balance of power” will always be the guiding principle of international relations. China is faced with problems greater than America because of demographics (high population and aging statistics) and its early stage of economic development. China’s present economy and environmental conditions create a longer road for China’s rise to broad citizen prosperity.
The fundamental theme of Christensen’s book is American leadership needs to understand China better. Only with understanding will respect be engendered and comity restored. Both China’s and America’s leaders realize humanity lives on spaceship earth. Without nation-state respect and comity, all nations (not to mention humans) are destined for the grave.