When it comes to China, many foreigners - and Hong Kong people - can't seem to resist doing a lot of hand-wringing. People have no difficulty rushing to moral judgments. And what psychologists call confirmation bias takes care of the rest in selecting the facts needed to bolster one's case against China, Asia's bogeyman.
That is why it's refreshing to read Robert Kaplan's latest book, Asia's Cauldron. Unlike many a foreign critic, this hard-nosed realist and geo-political strategist recognises the inevitability and legitimacy of China's rise, especially its military modernisation. But precisely because he doesn't get on his moral high horse as he analyses the power relations between the key players, the scenarios he paints here are far more disturbing. In the process, he kills some sacred cows.
Being less autocratic doesn't mean becoming less nationalistic. China's potential democratisation and weakened central power in Beijing, far from being peaceful factors, may actually bring nationalism to the fore and worsen conflicts with neighbours. "The current crop of dull, technocratic party leaders in Beijing," Kaplan writes, "may constitute the most reasonable regime in foreign policy that China may have for some time to come."
Moreover, domestic upheaval and economic trouble at home don't necessarily mean a weaker posture abroad; it's likely to have the opposite effect. The fight over a few barren rocks in the South and East China seas may seem silly and inconsequential. "Their underlying causes are anything but inconsequential," Kaplan writes. "The fact that China's military rise is wholly legitimate makes little difference, given that China's air and naval acquisitions are altering the regional balance of power, something which in and of itself is destabilising."
There seem to be two possible "peaceful" outcomes. Kaplan charts one here. Hugh White, a former Australian defence official, argues for the other in his new but influential book, The China Choice. Either "contain" China under US leadership to preserve the independence of Asia's less powerful states à la Kaplan; or accord equal co-leadership with the US to China in the region, as White argues.
Failing both, it means war.