Friday, September 23, 2022

Review: Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, XI, and the Battle for the Twenty-First Century

Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, XI, and the Battle for the Twenty-First CenturyChaos Under Heaven: Trump, XI, and the Battle for the Twenty-First Century by Josh Rogin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An important and intriguing book. There are several ways in which this book changed my mind on some key issues related to China.

For a long time, I was in the camp of doing what we could to entice and encourage economic and political liberalization in China: using trade and deepening relationships to move China from its repressive and closed system to a freer and more open society. A free China being a part of the world system would be great for everyone. And this looked to be working, if slowly, up through the early 2000s. I was still in that camp well after however. Rogin’s book shows, however, that whatever might have been happening from the 70s through the 90s, the Twenty-First century was shaping up to be something very different. The engagement strategy was no longer working (if it ever really was) and was in many ways backfiring as the CCP (The Chinese Communist Party) abused this engagement to cement its power, enrich itself, further oppress its people, and extend its influence beyond its borders.

Rogin highlights how both the Obama and Trump administrations failed to see or meet these threats. And in many cases made them worse. Rogin shows how the Obama administration continued to push the engagement strategies and ignored China’s bad faith and bad actions (both in China and here at home). He goes into greater detail on the mixed messages of the Trump administration. Often talking tough on China, Trump was successfully wooed by Xi and seemingly caved to many of Xi’s ‘personal favors’ asked of Trump. Inside the administration, there was plenty of chaos as well: with his advisors split between various camps. There were those who wanted to continue engagement. Then there were the “China Hawks” who saw China as both an economic and political enemy. And another camp that just wanted to continue business as usual to keep the money flowing. Each of these had Trump’s ear at various times; leading to shifting policies depending on Trump’s gut or mood. On the plus side, the chaotic and disruptive nature of Trump did keep the CCP and Xi on their toes, never quite knowing what to expect. Rogin discussed how the tariffs and other Trump policies did put pressure on China, though not to the extent that any progress seems to have been made. In any case, I’m still not convinced tariffs were a good idea. But what I am more convinced of now is that policies of engagement are no longer effective and we need to move to different footing to protect ourselves and the rest of free world from the CCP’s aggressiveness and manipulations.

Rogin is even-handed as can be seen by the fact that those will certain ideological convictions will think he’s biased. MAGA-types will hate this book because it shows the incompetent and chaotic way Trump governed. Those suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome will think Rogin goes to easy on him – in particularly when Rogin highlights the few successes of the Trump administration vis-à-vis China.

Rogin’s book convinced me that the CCP-led China is far more a threat than I really appreciated. Not that I thought they were benign, but the depth and extent of the threat that Rogin details has forced me to rethink the ways I think we should be approaching China. This is not Cold War Part 2, it is something different. Still, in the way the USSR and its role in the world colored almost all foreign policy during the Cold War, our relationship to China will be the dominant lens by which we will have to consider foreign policy going forward. And this book is an important piece in making sense of some of that.

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