By Jude Blanchette
Jude Blanchette holds the Freeman chair in China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In 2003, Josh Rogin was working on a project as a paralegal when he came across State Department documents that showed China was supporting the Sudanese government’s genocide in Darfur. According to the documents, Beijing undertook a variety of measures to help prop up the regime in Khartoum to maintain access to Sudan’s oil supplies, needed to power China’s rapidly expanding economy.
In his new book, “Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the Twenty-First Century,” Rogin describes his discovery of the trove as his “awakening” on China. He adds that almost everyone he interviewed for his book had a similar awakening, “a moment in their personal or professional lives when they realized that the grand strategic competition between the United States and China was the most important foreign policy issue in the world. . . . Many also said this was an awakening to the aggressive and malign character, behavior, and strategy of China’s leadership: the Chinese Communist Party.”
Ever since Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949, Americans inside and outside of government have been awakened over and over to the challenge of China and the illiberal nature of the Chinese Communist Party. With “Chaos Under Heaven,” Rogin identifies a need for yet another awakening — and he wants his wake-up call to extend beyond himself. As he notes in the prologue, “If you haven’t yet had your awakening, this book aims to spark it.”
Cold War anxieties over the spread of communism in Asia have never been far from the American consciousness. These fears have produced conspiratorial warnings, as expressed in W. Cleon Skousen’s “The Naked Communist” (1958) and in novels like Richard Condon’s “The Manchurian Candidate” (1959), which described pro-Beijing “sleeper agents” infiltrating the highest echelons of American politics.
A brief interlude came in the 1980s when it seemed that Deng Xiaoping might push the country in a more pragmatic, perhaps even liberal, direction. But the violent suppression of peaceful demonstrations across China in early June 1989, combined with Deng’s bolstering of state capitalism in the early 1990s, revived fears of China’s growing challenge to America’s global dominance. Books of scholarly reserve and of pitched paranoia raised an alarm. “The Coming Conflict With China” (1997), by Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro, warned of Chinese aggression and its danger to U.S.-China relations. “Death by China: Confronting the Dragon — a Global Call to Action” (2011), by Peter Navarro and Greg Autry, charged that China was rapidly becoming “the planet’s most efficient assassin” by producing lethal products that were exported around the world. Michael Pillsbury’s “The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower” (2015) described a multigenerational effort by Beijing to overtake the United States.
For “Chaos Under Heaven,” Rogin, a columnist for The Washington Post’s Global Opinions section, had exceptional access to the key players in the previous administration. His book provides a fascinating window into the dysfunction and shortsightedness that typified the Trump administration’s approach to China and brings to light important details that will undoubtedly make their way into future histories of the bilateral relationship. Rogin, for example, puts us in the room in December 2016 when Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi lectured a Trump team for at least two hours on “a litany of Chinese government edicts, grievances, and demands.” Steve Bannon, who had declared himself an enemy of the Chinese Communist Party, “was defiant,” Rogin writes, “telling Yang that Trump was a disrupter, that ‘everything is on the table,’ and that the Trump administration would not make any commitments before doing a full examination of U.S. policy regarding China.”
Rogin also reveals the origins of the recently declassified “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific,” which was supposed to be the guide to Trump policy in Asia. We learn that Matthew Pottinger, who eventually became deputy national security adviser, led the development of the framework, which was intended to “ramp up U.S. engagement in what he thought of as the front-line states — those closest to China geographically and therefore the most affected by China’s rise.” The book also recounts the battles among factions within the administration, all vying for the president’s blessing. These competing interests help explain the seesaw nature of President Donald Trump’s dealings with China. There were, in Rogin’s words, the “superhawks” (Bannon, Peter Navarro and Stephen Miller), the “hardliners” (Pottinger), the “Wall Street clique” (Steve Mnuchin and Larry Kudlow) and the “Axis of Adults” (John Kelly, H.R. McMaster and Jim Mattis). Given Trump’s limited and wandering attention span, it was the interplay among these individuals that defined the administration’s strategy on China and left the Biden administration with a “complex inheritance,” as Scott Kennedy of the Center for Strategic and International Studies put it. Because of Rogin’s reporting, we now understand this soap opera in greater detail.
However, Rogin’s compelling blow-by-blow account of the backbiting within the Trump administration would have been strengthened by a more complete analysis of the bilateral relationship prior to Trump. The intense focus on the former president produces a rather ahistoric portrait of Sino-U.S. relations. Rogin signals his narrow approach when he declares early in the book that the Trump administration “played the first round” of a “new game” in bilateral tensions. But the complicated U.S.-Sino relationship is far from its first round of that game. The two countries have been butting heads ever since Mao took power and engaged in direct military conflict in the Korean War and by proxy in the Vietnam War. Nor is this game of great-power competition new. Beijing has been eyeing the United States as its chief geopolitical rival since the 1950s. If anything is new, it’s the tactics that have evolved along with China’s growing economic and military might and the escalating anxieties in Washington over how the United States can maintain global leadership. Even during China’s period of reform and market opening, the possibility of open conflict was always present. The two countries stared each other down as incidents flared. In the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, President Bill Clinton sent two carrier battle groups into international waters near Taiwan in response to Beijing’s saber-rattling toward the island. In another tense incident, a U.S. Navy intelligence aircraft collided with a People’s Liberation Army Navy fighter jet off China’s Hainan Island in 2001. Beijing’s brutal Tiananmen Square crackdown on June 4, 1989, only aggravated relations by widening the gap between U.S. advocacy of human rights and China’s escalating suppression of its own people.
In Rogin’s book, the complexities of the bilateral relationship under the Obama administration receive relatively shallow treatment, with Rogin claiming that the White House displayed “willful blindness” to an increasingly assertive China. While there is certainly a legitimate argument to be made that Obama should have been tougher, a more nuanced take would have wrestled with the fact that there were open concerns of a Sino-U.S. cold war during the first Obama term. Indeed, writing in The Post in 2011, Henry Kissinger warned of a growing elite consensus in both the United States and China that “emphasiz[ed] conflict rather than cooperation.”
The long, messy and complicated history of the relationship between Beijing and Washington is essential for understanding its future. While some readers may come away from this book awakened to the perils presented by Xi Jinping’s China, they will be left without a deep historical perspective on what might lie ahead.