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Chaos, Continuity and Purpose

Sulmaan Wasif Khan’s Haunted by Chaos provides an expansive view of the ideas, interests and concerns of three generations of Chinese leaders.

Encapsulating almost eight decades of grand strategy of a nation as diverse as the People’s Republic of China into a slim 245-page volume that is an academically robust and yet easy-to-read narrative, is a daunting proposition. Sulmaan Wasif Khan, Assistant Professor of Modern Chinese History at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy does this with eloquence, clarity and empathy that only comes with a deep understanding of the country, its people and (most importantly) its leadership. Haunted by Chaos: China’s Grand Strategy from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping’ offers an expansive view of the ideas, interests and concerns of three generations of contemporary Chinese leaders as seen through the lens of Mao the founder, Deng the transformative conformist, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, the status quoists and Xi Jinping the muscle-flexing consolidator.

Despite recent attempts to suggest that Mao did more harm than good for modern China, Khan clearly displays a soft-corner without eulogising Mao, highlighting the herculean task he executed in creating the necessary framework for the accumulation of state power. Arguing that the rapid corrosion of a proud civilisation at the hands of imperial powers and an expansive Japan for a century has haunted Chinese leaders to being obsessed with security even when possessing strength. Mao, emerges in the narrative as an ‘insecure’ but pragmatic leader with clear national security perspectives.

Hard-nosed diplomacy with regular use of force were trademarks of Mao to deal with internal fissures as well as perceived external threats. One of the interesting facets of the India-China relationship that Khan throws light on, is the early 1950s when India’s articulate and scholarly ambassador to Beijing was an interlocutor between the Mao’s China and the US during the early days of the Korean crisis. Khan briefly dwells on ‘the beginning of a beautiful, if short-lived friendship,’ and an assessment of Nehru as a ‘man of vision if not wisdom,’ which I found prescient, and a subdued narration of the Tibetan crisis and the 1962 India-China war. But barring these few paragraphs, India figures only modestly in the narrative.

This is understandable given Mao’s preoccupation with Korea, Soviet Union and the US as major external threats and his failed attempts to spur economic growth and usher-in social cohesion through the ‘Great Leap Forward’ and the Cultural Revolution. In the final analysis, Khan argues that for Mao, grand strategy was about the right balance of power. When he felt that India was attempting to alter that in the region, he chose to use force to restore that balance and buy adequate insurance by leveraging Pakistan’s animosity towards India as a counter-balance, however insignificant it may have been at the time.

Deng Xiaoping emerges in the book as the PRC’s knight in shining armour (albeit with chinks) as he ploughs through adversity to emerge as Mao’s successor and put his stamp on the evolution of contemporary Chinese grand strategy. Encapsulating Deng’s years in power with dexterity, there are three major takeaways that Khan leaves you with:

First is Deng’s sagacity in not allowing his personal differences with Mao disrupt the trajectory of the PRC’s grand strategy.The second is that within that basic framework of state supremacy, he orchestrated something akin to a revolution in economic affairs by selectively infusing a free-market environment for creation of wealth. This he considered essential to support his third major contribution and that is to give momentum to his Four Modernizations – modern agriculture, modern industry, modern defense and modern science and technology. As Khan writes, ‘It was time for the PRC to join the modern world.’ Khan, however, has not spared Deng for his mistakes and misjudgements – Tianamen and the sub-optimal use of military might to teach Vietnam a lesson being the main ones.

Khan describes the era of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao as a period of consolidation, reaffirmation of ideology, minimal disruption and continued success. They sought to selectively use development as a tool to deal with separatism in areas like Tibet and Xinjiang with mixed results, and failed to create a ‘moral center’ to prevent the emerging hubris of crony capitalism. Khan is fair when he commends the duo for ‘braving the post Cold War-period’ with ‘minimum need to alter grand strategy,’ and putting forth new ideas for a multi-polar world like BRICS and SCO. Their scorecard was steady!

Khan devotes the least space to the PRC’s current leader, Xi Jinping, probably because so much has been written about him over the last few years and the fact that it may be a better proposition to assess him from a historian’s lens when his term is done. What comes out clearly though is that Xi is a leader in a hurry, and is prepared to take risks and face the consequences of an economic slowdown and heightened security challenges in the pursuit of balancing the US and challenging its notions of a unipolar world order. The most interesting proposition that Khan offers is,

The risk that there will come a point of imperial overstretch at which the burden security concerns place on the economy becomes too great to bear. As Xi approaches a time when he should by the norms Deng set, be contemplating a successor, the future of Chinese grand strategy is remarkably tenous.

While it is unfair to nit-pick on minor omissions considering the vast landscape Khan has covered, there are a few major ones that may have merited inclusion. Khan writes little about the influence of ancient Chinese strategic thought on Mao and his successors and surely, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Han Fei and the omnipresent Sun Tzu have influenced contemporary Chinese strategic culture. Lee Kuan Yew, the maker of modern Singapore was a key interlocutor between the PRC and the West for many years and almost every Chinese leader till Hu Jintao would seek inputs and advice on how best to deal with the US and other western democracies. It would have been fascinating to read what Mao and Deng felt about him.

From an Indian perspective, the last area where Khan treads gingerly is the blow back of the Belt Road Initiative and the PRC’s deepening relationship with Pakistan and its impact on its relationship with another power of consequence in the region, India. That Xi Jinping is genuinely concerned about India is reflected by the number of meetings he has had with PM Modi.

Notwithstanding these minor misses, Haunted by Chaos is applied history at its best. Policy makers across the world will devour this book because it offers key pointers on the key ingredients of contemporary Chinese strategic culture and what is non-negotiable – primacy of the state and balance of power in an inherently multi-polar world. Fear of internal chaos and insecurity around a fragile periphery are factors that no leader will abandon. Khan’s eloquence is evident in his last paragraph as he writes,

Mao Zedong took a broken colossus, made it whole. Deng dragged it to reason and strength; Jiang and Hu nurtured the still-wounded giant and ensured that it continued to grow. Now, as Xi Jinping emerged to take mastery of it, great China strode the world. But though the colossus was whole, it felt fragile and terrified that it would fall apart again.

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About the author

Arjun Subramaniam

Arjun Subramaniam is a retired Air Vice Marshal from the IAF and is currently a Visiting Professor at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.