If Richard Nixon could have read Peter Navarro’s new book, Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World, during his landmark visit to China in 1972, he probably would have been shocked by the work or dismissed it as fantastical. After all, China’s economy was still based largely on agriculture when Nixon was there and its military was in need of modernization. Navarro describes the China of today as a rising, increasingly aggressive state that is trying to challenge the United States for both economic and military supremacy. How could Nixon have guessed that, just over four decades after his trip, China would produce more national economic output than the United States, wield highly-sophisticated military capabilities, and pose the greatest strategic challenge to the U.S. in the twenty-first century?
Nixon, of course, could not have guessed that such developments would take place, but the United States and the rest of the world now have to grapple with China’s great power status and growing belligerence toward other Asian countries. Crouching Tiger serves as a complete guide on how to think about the rise of China and its increasing aggression, and what both mean for the United States and world order.
The central question that Navarro, a professor at the University of California-Irvine, seeks to answer in his book is whether China will soon go to war. This question stems from the apparent contradiction that the country is quickly and earnestly developing offensive military capabilities and strategic doctrine while claiming that it “seeks only a peaceful rise.” In essence, Crouching Tiger is really asking if China and the United States specifically will go to war, although the book also examines the possibility of conflict with other countries in the Far East and Southeast Asia (which, in most cases, would inevitably involve the United States anyway).
To answer this question and analyze the full consequences of China’s expansionism, Navarro structures his book as a “geopolitical detective story” to solve the mystery of the country’s intentions. Each chapter begins with an important question followed by different possible answers that cover a range of opinions in the field. This process resembles a trail of clues that contribute to a full picture of whether conflict is likely to take place.
One necessary distinction that must be made, what Navarro calls a “deep perceptual divide” between Washington and Beijing, is whether “China’s expansionism constitutes the offensive behavior of an aspiring regional hegemon [what the U.S. and many Asian countries think] or simply the legitimate defensive actions of a country seeking to defend its trade routes and guard its homeland [what China claims].”
To solve this puzzle, the book is divided into six broad sections about China’s intentions, its capabilities, the hot-button issues that could lead to escalation, a survey of what potential conflict would look like, possible pathways to peace that would likely fail, and a pathway to peace through strength that could succeed.
Navarro never definitively predicts whether war will occur or not, but he indicates that conflict is becoming more likely because of the number of trip-wires that could lead to a major escalation. Also troubling is his discussion of China’s growing military capabilities. The chapter on Chinese efforts to challenge U.S. assets in space is striking: the People’s Liberation Army is developing anti-satellite weapons that are meant to drain “the lifeblood of America’s increasingly informationalized economy” and blind the U.S. military, which relies heavily on satellites. The moment China disables a U.S. military satellite, according to Navarro, the U.S. could, in a worst case scenario, think China is blinding it to launch a nuclear first strike. In a worst-case scenario, this development could result in a nuclear exchange.
What should we do to minimize the risk of major military conflict? Ultimately, Navarro proposes a doctrine to push back against Chinese expansionism similar to the pressure that President Ronald Reagan applied to another nuclear-armed great power, the Soviet Union. He recommends the U.S. stand firmly by its regional alliances and take steps to ensure that it maintains its military edge relative to China. He also treats with considerable skepticism the major alternatives to an assertive strategy, namely isolationism, economic interdependence, nuclear deterrence, and grand diplomatic bargains to defuse conflicts. However, he makes clear that strength does not necessarily deter aggression by itself and that decision-makers must be smart in utilizing American power. For example, he cautions that the Pentagon’s Air-Sea Battle doctrine could lead to undesired escalation.
What makes Navarro’s work different than most of the existing literature on China’s rise is that it is digestible and appealing to a general audience, not just defense policy wonks. The writing is clear and notably concise (hence the short chapters), which makes the reading manageable. Moreover, despite covering a frightening subject, the book manages to be enjoyable and somewhat lighthearted, at least compared to other publications on the topic.
Often such a concise work has to sacrifice in-depth scholarship for readability, and this is true to some degree here, but Crouching Tiger still gives an adequate survey of U.S.-China relations, covering not just military issues but economic, political, and cultural relations, along with historical background. Another welcome aspect of this book is its balance. Navarro takes a more hawkish stance toward Chinese aggression, but he gives different perspectives not only from within the U.S. but also from other Asian countries and China itself.
Navarro makes an important point at the end of the book: there must be political consensus within the United States and among its allies in Asia about how to address China’s rise. This means that policymakers must spend time thinking strategically about China. If you follow congressional hearings on defense policy in Washington with any regularity, you know that lawmakers spend a great deal of time asking witnesses about Russia and the Middle East—for good reason—with far less attention devoted to the Asia-Pacific region, much less China. Yet China is the greatest long-term strategic challenge for the United States. Tackling such a challenge requires serious thinking about how to promote peace and avoid a disastrous clash between nuclear-armed superpowers in the Far East.