Chaos Under Heaven cover

Chaos Under Heaven - Book Summary

America, China, and the Battle for the 21st Century

Duration: 33:27
Release Date: November 27, 2023
Book Author: Josh Rogin
Category: Politics
Duration: 33:27
Release Date: November 27, 2023
Book Author: Josh Rogin
Category: Politics

In this episode of 20 Minute Books, we delve into "Chaos Under Heaven" by Josh Rogin, a riveting account that chronicles the tumultuous approach of the Trump administration towards China. Published in 2021, this book provides an in-depth look at the intense negotiations and internal debates that shaped United States foreign policy during an era of increasing geopolitical tension with China.

Rogin, a veteran journalist with over fifteen years of experience reporting on China, foreign policy, and international politics, shares insights drawn from his work with prominent publications such as Congressional Quarterly, Foreign Policy, the Daily Beast, Bloomberg View, and the Washington Post. His expertise grants readers an unparalleled view into the complexities of America's relationship with the Chinese state and the evolving challenges it presents to US policymakers.

This book is an essential read for policy wonks and news junkies alike, as well as anyone with a keen interest in world affairs and the intricate dance of diplomacy. Join us as we unpack the chaos and contemplation within one of the most critical foreign policy issues of our time.

Navigating the complexities of a rising China

Imagine a geopolitical chessboard, where one player has been quietly advancing its pieces with precision and strategy, capturing the attention of onlookers with each calculated move. This player is China, a nation that has rapidly ascended to become a central power in international affairs. But what do we truly understand about this enigmatic giant whose moves on the global stage are watched with a mix of awe and apprehension?

In "Chaos Under Heaven," we delve deep into the intricate, often concealed machinations of a country that's as fascinating as it is formidable. We'll explore the hurdles the Trump administration faced as they grappled with China's newfound boldness on the world stage. Through this journey, you'll gain insights into the United States' tumultuous policies and the internal discord that frequently marked its strategies.

Discover the internal struggle between hawks and doves

As we unpack the policies and dilemmas that swirled within the corridors of the White House, you'll encounter two distinct camps that shaped America's approach to the Chinese question — the hawks and the doves. These groups held sharply differing views on how to manage the US's complex relationship with a country that often plays by its own rules.

Unraveling the threads of China's social credit system

Venture into the intricate web of China's social credit system, a sweeping, Orwellian construct designed to monitor and rate the behavior of its citizens. This system is more than just Big Brother watching; it's an extension of the state's control into the minutiae of daily life, rewarding compliance and punishing dissent.

The hidden cost of American investments in China

And in a revelation that might surprise many, we examine how millions of Americans have become unintentional financiers of the Chinese military. This eye-opening account sheds light on the opaque channels through which American dollars are funneled, often unbeknownst to investors, into the coffers that bolster China's defense capabilities.

By the end of our exploration, you'll have pieced together a vivid tapestry that vividly portrays the Trump administration’s troubled and intricate dance with one of the world's most powerful players. With each narrative thread, we reveal the intricate complexities of international politics where, it often appears, chaos reigns under heaven.

Trump's unexpected win set the stage for a tumultuous US-China relationship

Welcome to the aftermath of a political earthquake, one that rippled all the way from the United States to the corridors of power in Beijing. While the world braced itself for the status quo, the balloting booths told a different story: Donald Trump had ascended the presidency, and with him came a paradigm shift no one — especially not China — had anticipated.

This is the crux of the matter: The Trump administration faced complex challenges in dealing with China.

For decades, US policy had played a long game with China, dating back to when President George H. W. Bush fostered ties as chief US liaison in the 1970s. The strategy was clear — nurture China's economic growth, believing that prosperity would naturally open the way for democracy. This approach persisted through various presidencies, reaching the tail end of Obama's era, where it became evident the outcome wasn't quite as expected.

Technology, the double-edged sword of the modern era, reshaped the playing field. China, fiercely ambitious and technologically adept, leveraged cyber avenues to gain access to closely guarded corporate secrets and intellectual property, sidestepping fair play. Joint ventures became a Trojan horse, inviting foreign businesses only to be ensnared and stripped of their assets.

More disturbingly, the veil was lifted on a concerning truth — Chinese enterprises were under the thumb of an omnipotent state. The Communist Party called the shots, pressing companies to surrender their technological innovations without resistance. Such exploits not only fortified China’s military might but also tightened the surveillance web over its citizens.

Confronted with these realities, one could see that China had become bolder, its governance more authoritarian, bearing little resemblance to the open society the US had envisioned.

As Trump's administration settled into the Oval Office, it had to address these blatant challenges, along with the myriad of intricacies lurking behind the facade of US-China relations. Economic interdependence mingled with ideological contention, leading to a divided Washington, a government struggling to present a unified front to its Chinese counterpart.

Trump's team: A tale of two philosophies on China

Picture a boardroom filled with some of the most influential figures in American politics, each with their own blueprints for US-China foreign policy. Gathered around the table in December 2016 were individuals with vastly differing views on how to handle the Asian superpower. This marked the inauguration of what would become a constantly evolving and often contentious battle between hawks and doves in the Trump administration.

Here's where the story unfolds: From the beginning, Trump's administration was a collage of contrasting outlooks towards China.

Take Jared Kushner, for instance, whose familial business ties had already spun a web of informal connections with China. Allied with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger — a diplomat renowned for bridging the US-China gap during the Nixon era — Kushner carried the torch of traditional diplomacy. His conciliatory stance echoed the sentiments of fellow doves like Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, both titans of industry who favored economic engagement over conflict.

But not all shared Kushner's vision. Steve Bannon, the president's strategist, embodied the hawkish faction, viewing China through the lens of confrontation not cooperation. He was not alone in these quarters — there were others in Trump's circle who were prepared to challenge the status quo, spurred on by President Trump's own pre-election rhetoric casting China as "the enemy."

A notable figure among these hardliners was Peter Navarro, an economics professor with a plan to recalibrate US-China trade relations. His aggressive strategy aimed to rectify what he saw as years of one-sided dealing and exploitation by China.

Nevertheless, during that pivotal meeting in December, such hawkish impulses were curbed. Not by the Chinese diplomat but by an ally, K. T. McFarland, who was poised to become deputy national security advisor. At that table, the doves were ascendant, for the moment.

Chaos was indeed brewing within this fledgling administration as it sought its footing on the tightrope of international diplomacy. Navarro and Bannon would see their influence ebb and flow, while Yang Jiechi, China's representative that day, stood firm — signaling that China would brook no compromise on issues of sovereignty and demanded respect as America's equal on the world stage.

This introductory clash set the tone for an administration defined by its push and pull — a microcosm of the larger geopolitical tension between two world powers attempting to navigate their shared future.

Mar-a-Lago's summit laid the first stones on a rocky road of negotiation

Imagine the world's gaze fixed upon a palatial resort in Florida, where the fate of US-China relations teeters on the awkward dance between acknowledgment and apology. The stage is set at Mar-a-Lago, President Trump's seaside haven, where the complexities of international trade negotiations began to unravel.

Here's the crux of the story: Xi Jinping's visit to Mar-a-Lago was the prologue to a series of intense and drawn-out trade talks.

Drama underscored the lead-up to this high-stakes rendezvous. Trump had ruffled feathers in Beijing by taking a phone call from Taiwan's president — a symbol of affirmation to a region viewed by China as a prodigal territory. Was Trump making a bold political statement, or was it simply a diplomatic misstep? Theories varied, but the result necessitated a concentrated effort to mend fences and pave the way for Xi to engage in discussions on American soil.

Finally, the olive branch was extended. Kushner, with help from Ambassador Cui, orchestrated a mea culpa between Trump and Xi, smoothing over the Taiwan incident and setting the stage for a diplomatic ballet at Mar-a-Lago.

Bannon and his cohort of hawks watched with consternation. Taiwan, in their view, was a strategic pawn, now seemingly squandered in a premature gesture of goodwill. Echoing this sentiment was national security advisor John Bolton, who, alongside a concerned Republican senator, suggested that Trump was willing to forsake long-standing US support for Taiwan and Tibet's autonomy — territories traditionally under American protection.

The message from Trump to his advisors was unambiguous — "I never want to hear from you about Taiwan, Hong Kong, or the Uyghurs." The implication was clear; these sensitive issues were not to obstruct the path to negotiation.

Post summit, the air at Mar-a-Lago hummed with talk of a blossoming friendship; tariffs were off the tempting buffet of reprisals. It appeared, much to the chagrin of the hawks, that the threat of an all-out trade war had been averted. Trump distanced himself from labeling China a "currency manipulator," much to the delight of Beijing and the dismay of hawkish advocates like Navarro.

Instead, the two nations embarked on a 100-day "Comprehensive Economic Dialogue," a framework of cooperation mirroring past endeavors under the Obama administration. Skeptical onlookers from the hawkish camp viewed this as merely a rehashing of ineffective strategies, confident that when talks crumbled, their moment to assert a harder line against China would arise.

The US-China relationship: A pendulum swung by trade talks

In this intricate dance of diplomacy, President Trump regarded Xi Jinping not merely as a head of state but as the chief executive at the helm of China Inc. The camaraderie fostered during their meeting at Mar-a-Lago, in Trump's eyes, was a leap towards a lucrative handshake between giants. But was this friendship more mirage than reality?

Here's what you need to know: The US's approach to China was as changeable as the tides, swinging to the rhythm of ongoing trade negotiations.

Despite the apparent bonhomie post-Mar-a-Lago, warnings from the National Security Council had cast long shadows, cautioning Trump against being lulled by Xi's overtures. Yet, Trump, with his eye on a deal, continued to warm to the idea of Xi as an ally — a "friend" even as late as 2019, inspite of China's persistent aversion to making any real concessions.

The anticipated collaboration had fizzled out, and the hawks seized their chance. Armed with authorization for a 301 investigation, they sought to shine a spotlight on China's transgressions, linking them to national security concerns. Matt Pottinger — whose credentials included military service, expertise in Chinese studies, and proficiency in Mandarin — was entrusted to scrutinize China's trade practices and their potential threat to the United States.

The investigation was a meticulous process, yet it birthed friction within Trump's circle as it trudged on. While all could agree that China's actions — from intellectual property theft to territorial claims in the South China Sea — were egregious, consensus on the appropriate response was elusive. Measures like tariffs on Chinese imports polarized opinions; some officials rallied for them, others, like Tillerson and Mattis, advised caution.

Trump's term was a barometer of these fluctuating dynamics — when negotiations stuttered, the hawks' stern voices resonated in his ears, advocating for hard-lined measures. In contrast, during times of détente, such as Trump's visit to Beijing in November 2017, the rhetoric softened, the doves ascended, and Xi was yet again a "friend."

Astute in his understanding of Trump's vacillations, Xi played his cards with deft subtlety. He knew the power of personal outreach, aware that tokens of friendship could dissipate tensions that could otherwise escalate into economic showdowns. The US-China policy, thus, remained as unpredictable as the outcome of the trade talks themselves, with friendship at one end and tariffs at the other, waiting for the next move in a high-stakes game of geopolitical chess.

Unveiling the harsh realities of China's human rights abuses

As 2018 rolled into 2019, the curtains were slowly being drawn back on a stage that the Chinese Communist Party had kept shrouded from the world's view. Through a meticulously curated facade of censorship and propaganda, details about China's treatment of ethnic minorities were largely kept out of the international spotlight.

This brings us to a vital unfolding chapter: The world was starting to bear witness to the full scope of China's human rights violations.

Many had heard whispers of the oppressive measures against Tibetans, but far fewer were aware of the harrowing situation faced by the Uyghurs, a primarily Muslim group hailing from the Xinjiang region. Here, the Chinese government implemented draconian laws to suppress religious and cultural practices, eroding ethnic identities in favor of a party-sanctioned, Han Chinese-dominated society. Neighbors became watchdogs, scrutinizing each other for signs of disobedience—anything from sporting a long beard to skipping pork dishes.

In its most draconian move, the Chinese regime herded those it deemed problematic into what was euphemistically called "internment camps." Here, the Uyghurs were subject to a grueling regimen of forced Mandarin lessons and indoctrination. Such was the tight grip of surveillance that even a step out of line could mean prolonged separation from loved ones.

Chinese officials treated discussions about Xinjiang and Tibet with a staunchly non-negotiable stance. American diplomats visiting China were often met with choreographed testimonials from 'reformed' detainees who sang praises of Xi Jinping.

Despite these realities, President Trump appeared willing to sideline human rights discussions. John Bolton recounts that during the G20 summit in Osaka in 2019, Trump commended Xi, endorsing the establishment of internment camps as the "right thing to do."

However, cracks began to form in this faҫade of silence. Word of the camps' grim conditions started to permeate the world's consciousness, brought to light by individuals like Vera Zhou. This University of Washington student bravely shared her ordeal of nearly two years in one of these so-called reeducation centers — a plight that unfolded simply because she accessed her college's VPN while visiting her parents in Xinjiang.

Zhou's liberation by the U.S. State Department and her subsequent defiance against the Chinese authority's directives propelled her story into the American public eye. Her testimony rattled U.S. society, galvanizing bipartisan repulsion and invigorating the hawks within Trump's administration, who were increasingly dismayed by the leniency being shown towards China's internal repression.

China's web of global clout weaves through organizations and institutions

The dragon's reach is long, with its tendrils enveloping institutions, shaping narratives, and swaying agendas on an international scale. During the Trump administration, revelations began to surface, drawing back the curtain on the breadth of China's influence across the world.

The driving force behind this expansive influence is the Chinese Communist Party's unwavering objective: to bolster China's stature and sway on a global canvas by nearly any means.

Here's the essence of it: China has crafted a sophisticated network designed to amplify its global influence.

Consider China's relationship with pivotal international bodies like the World Bank and the United Nations. The ascendancy of Chinese officials to leadership positions in over fifteen UN agencies is more than a symbolic power play; their tenure has seen key policy shifts aligning with Beijing's vision. After China's took over the helm of the International Civil Aviation Organization, Taiwan — which China claims as its own — found its invitations to the annual assemblies revoked. Even when Chinese cyber activities compromised the organization's data, the breach was cloaked in secrecy until an insider stepped forward.

World Bank president Jim Yong Kim became an unexpected ally in China's ambitions, endorsing ventures like the Belt and Road Initiative — China's grand strategic blueprint to dominate global trade routes, thus expanding its influence.

However, China's reach permeates more insidiously through the United Front Work Department. This bastion of the party's influence, dating back to Mao's era, continues to wield communist propaganda on a worldwide stage. Intriguing research by Alex Joske at the Australian Policy Institute illuminated a troubling campaign: the United Front Work was stoking social and racial strife, all to maneuver Australian political, media, and technological landscapes in favor of Beijing.

On American soil, the United Front’s fingerprints are evident across Chinese-funded think tanks and cultural outfits. But it's their foothold in academia — primarily via Confucius Institutes — that's cause for concern. With over 500 institutes and some 2,000 classrooms globally, they purportedly champion cultural exchange while being ensconced in university campuses.

By 2018, the FBI was sounding alarm bells, labeling the Confucius Institute a conduit for communist espionage and intel-gathering under the facade of academic enrichment. Warnings were issued to protect educational research from China's watchful eye. Despite this, around 60 Confucius Institutes continue their operations across the United States, embedding themselves within the fabric of academia and continuing China's quest for global ascendancy.

China's unchecked ascent in 2019 raised concerns with limited response

As 2019 dawned, the alarm bells were ringing louder. China's transgressions, both within its borders and on the international stage, were too glaring to overlook. Even as a trade deal with the US remained elusive, high-ranking officials like Vice President Mike Pence began to voice their concerns about China's intimidatory tactics more openly.

During a 2018 address, Pence leveled criticisms at China's global influence efforts, particularly the nefarious United Work Front operations. The rhetoric escalated further when he highlighted instances of anti-Trump propaganda being seeded into US media outlets by Beijing. These developments fueled speculations that a new kind of Cold War might be on the horizon, this time centered on dominance in the high-tech arena.

Here's the heart of the issue: As China's assertiveness surged in 2019, attempts to curtail its expanding influence were sporadic and floundering.

The surprise arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou by the US Department of Justice at the end of 2018 was a jolt to the system. Accused of breaching sanctions with Iran, she became the centerpiece of a larger narrative: Could companies like Huawei, tethered to the commands of the Chinese Communist Party, be trusted? Rapidly, the consensus was crystallizing around a firm "no," nudging President Trump to temporarily blacklist Huawei and drag the telecom giant onto the trade negotiation table.

But then, in a perplexing volte-face during a dinner with Xi at the G20 summit in Osaka, Trump reversed the ban, leaving the administration's hawks baffled.

Meanwhile, the pro-democracy protests swelling in Hong Kong presented an inescapable predicament. Yet, despite the demonstrators' quest for liberty from an overbearing China, Trump withheld any pronouncements of support. The tantalizing prospect of a trade agreement appeared to mute the American administration's potential criticisms.

In a similar vein, corporations toeing the line on China's volatile sensitivities about Hong Kong and Taiwan's autonomy faced Beijing’s ire. An illustrative case was the backlash faced by Daryl Morey, manager of the NBA's Houston Rockets, whose pro-Hong Kong protest retweet prompted a ferocious response from China. The subsequent ramifications for the NBA could have been financially catastrophic; the tweet was retracted, apologies were issued, and tempests temporarily calmed.

These events painted a vivid picture of China's omnipresence and power, a sovereignty extended well beyond the confines of its geographical frontiers, capable of dictating the actions of entities and corporations worldwide.

China's tight grip on COVID information mirrors its history of obfuscation

As the world welcomed a new decade, President Trump basked in the fresh afterglow of a hard-fought trade triumph with China — the Phase One trade deal. Described as a tentative truce in a long-drawn-out trade skirmish, it was hailed as a landmark moment. But the jubilation was short-lived as whispers of a strange, virulent sickness in China started drifting across the Pacific.

The pivotal message is this: The initial phase of the COVID-19 outbreak spotlighted the Chinese Communist Party's ingrained habit of stifling information.

It was almost theatrical — as the ink dried on the Phase One deal, the US National Security Council found itself wrestling with reports of an enigmatic illness emanating from China, the seriousness of which was yet to surface. The Chinese officials' nonchalant silence on the matter as they departed US soil was the prelude to a pattern of obfuscation that would soon envelop the globe.

Beijing began to spin a narrative of containment, pointing fingers at a Wuhan seafood market as the pandemic's ground zero, yet swiftly sanitized the site before comprehensive probes could commence. This raised eyebrows.

Added to the mix was the proximity of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), a stone's throw away from the market and a hub for coronavirus research. The plot thickened with revelations that one of the coronaviruses studied at the WIV bore a 96-percent genetic match to COVID-19. Had a gain-of-function experiment — a contentious scientific method aimed at comprehending a virus's potential human impact by enhancing its infectiousness — accidentally facilitated a leap to humans?

Speculation abounded, but concrete answers were elusive, shrouded by China's swift gagging of whistleblowing voices within its scientific community. Beijing continued to project an air of nonchalance, underestimating the coronavirus threat, a stance that President Trump echoed in those nascent and uncertain months.

As the virus crept across borders and oceans, transforming into a pandemic of unimaginable scale, the world was left to grapple with a health crisis compounded by China's penchant for secrecy — an echo of its long-standing tradition of information suppression.

Entangled economies: The quandary of US-China financial relations

As the sands of the 2020 election sifted through the political hourglass, President Trump unveiled his bare-knuckle stance toward Xi Jinping, casting off any flickers of diplomatic rapport. The pandemic's relentless grip squeezed economies worldwide, and yet, amidst such turmoil, China was wielding its aid like a geopolitical cudgel, seeking compliance on contentious issues like Taiwan and Hong Kong in exchange for aid, such as medical supplies.

Amidst the election fervor, Trump's rhetoric grew incendiary, with the phrase "China virus" becoming a charged refrain in his speeches. Unleashing his band of hawks, he ratcheted up sanctions, decried human rights abuses, and played the tough line he had long flirted with. However, robust economic ties between the US and China remained a reality, resilient to the tides of political bluster.

Herein lies the central theme: For the United States, dealing with China is a layered, intricate challenge, not least because of profound financial interdependencies.

American dollars, in vast sums, have streamed into Chinese ventures. Such capital flows persist unfazed, sidestepping the rigorous probes US listings demand and that many Chinese firms elude. Entities like MSCI, the major index provider, are conduits in this financial exchange, guiding investments from the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board — overseeing funds of five million US federal employees — into the Chinese market.

Thus, an array of American investors, veterans among them, find themselves financially tethered to Chinese firms — some of which, like Hikvision, are complicit in human rights violations, including the surveillance and oppression of Uyghurs. Further, companies like the Aviation Industry Corporation of China craft missiles for China's military, raising the bizarre possibility of Americans indirectly financing weaponry potentially aimed at themselves.

The irony of such investments did not escape lawmakers' notice in 2019. Senator Marco Rubio led an effort to demand better accountability from MSCI and the federal retirement board, though his calls for reform hit a wall. The issue escalated to Trump himself, only to be subdued by Secretary Mnuchin's cautions against market disruptions and reputational damage to MSCI.

China's State Administration of Foreign Exchange, boasting a war chest of three trillion dollars in US investments, underscores the complexity of disentangling the two nations' economies. As long as such funds buoy the CCP, America's bargaining power remains constrained.

Any attempts to alter the status quo — whether through tariffs, sanctions, or hardline policies — must reckon with the dense, often invisible web of connections binding the US and China, a paradigm that future administrations will grapple with as they navigate the turbulent waters of international finance and diplomacy.

Final summary: The intricate US-China relationship and the struggle for coherence

In the ever-evolving theater of global politics, the United States' policy towards China has embodied the very nature of chaos. A tumultuous era marked by fierce internal divisions and contrasting ideologies has underscored the Trump administration's tenure, particularly regarding China — a nation seen as both an economic partner and a strategic rival.

The story is this: Wall Street advocates and businesspeople within the US government have consistently lobbied for a diplomatic, market-friendly approach to China, emphasizing stability and financial gains. In stark opposition, policymakers and advisors concerned with national security and human rights have taken a hard stance against China's bold and unscrupulous maneuvers, from rampant intellectual property theft to egregious human rights abuses.

During President Trump's time in office, these conflicting viewpoints clashed dramatically. Trump himself wavered between seeking amity with Chinese President Xi Jinping — often in pursuit of an elusive, comprehensive trade deal — and capitulating to the hawks' pressure for a more aggressive posture.

As Trump's term came to a close, the substantive changes to the US-China dynamic were minimal at best. China's global grip tightened, unfettered by the discord and flip-flops emanating from Washington. Whether through diplomatic overtures, economic strategies, or blatant propaganda, the country's influence has steadily expanded, challenging the next administration to chart a course through this complex and constantly changing geopolitical landscape.

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