"The Dragon and the Eagle"
Updated: Mar 17, 2019
The concern with “rising China” occupies many researchers, political pundits, and government bodies today. It’s hard to believe that the PRC was ever not at the fore of U.S. strategic focus. Yet, as Gregg Brazinsky shows this nearly tunnel vision obsession is a phenomenon following the collapse of the USSR and even more recently as China has exhibited impressive economic rise post-9/11. With Russia and communism supposedly defeated allowing room and air for other giants to take the international stage, the U.S. has in one sense tossed aside the Great Northern Bear in favor of the Dragon. But while typical Cold War narratives simplify the era from 1945 to 1991 as a dipolar ideological battle between the USSR and the U.S., in actuality China was a complex part of this struggle. A fierce Sino-American competition took place which was critical to the way the ideological conflict evolved and at times even overshadowed the popularly-touted Soviet-American rivalry. Using previously unavailable sources, Brazinsky brilliantly argues that this competition between China and America was primarily a fight for status, a battle that continues to this day and telegraphs a potential return to isolation for the massive people’s republic.
There are many positives to Brazinsky’s authorship and few drawbacks for a well-sourced volume of this size, academic depth, and modern-day relevance. His style of writing possesses inherent command which gives confidence to the reader. As Brazinsky stresses, status and ideology are interlinked; China’s struggle to achieve legitimacy while in the shadow of its communist big brother who dominated U.S. attentions was a question of ideology as well as status. The USSR and China engaged in what an earlier expert, O. Edmund Clubb, called in his work published in the 1970s “the great game”. In fact, Brazinsky’s book is very reminiscent of Clubb’s tome as both draw attention to a fallacy on the international stage of the Cold War. While Brazinsky focuses on the downplayed competition between two nations during the Cold War, Clubb focuses on the likewise downsized competition between Russia and China which he says was hardly just a Cold War affair and spanned hundreds of years. But while the focus in Winning the Third World is on Sino-American relations, there is something to be said for this perpetual state of competitiveness that is built into the Chinese spirit—not unlike the “Russian spirit”. However, Washington was, as Brazinsky states, primarily “reactive” and hostile towards China. Inasmuch as George Kennan’s recommendation concerning Russia was just to keep them “contained” and so busy with tedious conflict in their border territories that they wouldn’t have the resources or energy to expand, Washington aimed to suppress China from becoming a global influencer—keeping their status to a minimum because Beijing ideology wasn’t something the White House believed it could change. And rightly so.
Brazinsky chooses to organize his book not quite chronologically but by the main objectives of China’s foreign policy, which seems an effective method. Perhaps, the one thing Brazinsky doesn’t do clearly is define status, a central premise of his book, but this may not be a drawback for through the thematic presentation of the writing and content he keeps reminding readers that everything China did was to climb that ladder of international significance and grab the American Eagle’s tail feathers. And the all-consuming desire to achieve ascendancy compromised the security of many nations in China’s sphere of influence, especially in post-colonial Africa which was in a highly volatile, vulnerable state. Chinese economic competition and attempts to establish diplomatic advantage and regional hegemony in these countries through direct financial investment and visits didn’t yield the desired effects, meaning their status may have been harmed rather than elevated. “Guinea’s failed economic policies were not China’s fault… but neither Guinea nor China’s other closest allies in Africa ever became effective showcases that could persuade the rest of the continent that Sino-African economic cooperation offered the best road to development and growth. This, too, is a reason that the goodwill generated by Chinese aid never extended beyond a few countries.” Interestingly, however, this view of Beijing in African nations has changed now that the Soviet Union is gone and China has achieved star power—rendered in part thanks to the U.S. giving the country such status-raising attention.
While Brazinsky makes a compelling case for how the U.S. grudgingly shifted their stance towards China, it seems that China could not have truly gained the place of priority that it holds in U.S. foreign policy today if Russia hadn’t completely crumbled in 1991. Or would China have risen regardless of the collapse of the USSR? Also, Brazinsky’s point, which he makes in the Conclusion, about U.S. “hysterical response to Chinese globalism accomplish[ing] little during the Cold War” is an important one. What should the current administration’s China policy be then? Giving the PRC attention and overstating influence seems to be a bad idea but ignoring or being purely reactive has negative consequences too. How can America maintain its status and global influence while preventing China from feeling undervalued and yet not aggrandized either? Brazinsky states explicitly that cooperation between Washington and Beijing pressures the rest of the world to fall into line, essentially. This will lead to enhanced effects for both nations. But this rosy picture discounts one factor that was so dissected during the Cold War. Ideology. China is still communist. Why is this not an issue anymore? What makes modern Sino-American rivalry so fundamentally different from former Soviet-American rivalry and how might present tensions devolve into a more drastic scenario?
This author actually had the opportunity to Skype with Professor Brazinsky and ask him a few questions. A very personable man with an attention-hungry dog, Gregg was very open about his research methods and just how long it took him to write this book for the Cold War Series at the University of North Carolina. One thing that bothered me was the title for although Winning the Third World is not inherently terrible it suggests a competition over all under-developed or developing countries. Professor Brazinsky right away laughed at the question in such a manner as to suggest there was a hidden fourth world behind the title. And there was, sort of. He said his original title was "The Dragon and the Eagle", which the publisher rejected as sounding too much like an action thriller in the vein of Tom Clancy or David Baldacci. True enough, perhaps, but this is more accurately descriptive of the book's content. Of course, he added, that the book designer had no idea about the name wars that had gone on and the very first thing that appeared on the cover was... a dragon. And it is under the original title that I highly recommend the book as a sound addition to the Cold War canon.