How the US Views China’s Rise

An Extract from P.62 of an LSE IDEAS Publication, May 18, 2016


No other power excites debate about emerging powers among American policymakers and academics quite like China. Its incredible economic growth and military modernisation has increasingly defined American foreign policy in the post-Iraq space, promoting an increasing preoccupation with Asian and maritime security. It has raised both day-to-day policy challenges, as well as deeper theoretical challenges on the peaceful rise of powers in history. This debate has often pitted those within the realist tradition against neoliberal institutionalists.

The history of China in American policy has an interesting arc. Following the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, Sino-American ties underwent a deep freeze. Despite this, the George H.W. Bush presidency (1989-1993) encouraged the resumption of high-level political ties and vetoed attempts by Congress to link the political relationship to progress in human rights. There was a belief that economic liberalisation would lead to political liberalisation. Until that time, American policy would hedge against two outcomes: a friendly, liberal China and a strong, challenging China.

This binary reveals itself in the varying articles about China in the early 1990s. Was Asia ripe for rivalry?’ Aaron Friedberg’s pessimistic 1993 International Security article thought so. Others, like David Shambaugh, wondered if the US should enact an engagement policy or containment policy. Some like Patrick Cronin, Kenneth Lieberthal, and James Shinn have argued for various forms of engagement, which deeply coloured Clinton policy on China. Others like Arthur Waldron, Gideon Rachman, and Gerald Seagal recommended ‘constrainment’ or varying forms of containment. This debate spilled over into the policy community, in what became known as the ‘Red Team/Blue Team’ debates. ‘Blue Team’ members included congressional sta ers, journalists, and policy academics who were hawkish on China, while ‘Red Team’ members preferred engagement and accommodation. Blue Teamers painted the 1996 campaign finance controversy (in which the Chinese government attempted to influence US domestic politics through donations to political campaigns) as a sign of growing Chinese influence in Washington. In Congress, they publicised accounts of Chinese defence-related espionage – as described in the 1999 Cox Report – and sought to show how growing Chinese military capabilities would make it a threat one day, requiring from 2000 annual reports from the Defense Department and the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission. The 1995-6 Taiwan Crisis and 1999 Belgrade bombing seemed to raise China’s threat profile, though trade was delinked from security issues.

The incoming G.W. Bush administration in 2001 was deeply sceptical of China, seemingly justifiably after their first crisis; the P-3 Incident off of Hainan Island (in which their was a mid-air collision between a US Navy signals intelligence aircraft and a Chinese Navy fighter jet). The administration’s attitude softened in its second term as Robert Zoellick attempted a charm offensive from the State Department, initiating the ‘responsible stakeholder’ approach.

In the wake of the 2008 Financial Crisis, the Obama administration seemed to follow the Zoellick approach, with James Steinberg emphasizing the management of tensions as China underwent what Chinese President Xi Jinping called ‘the great revival of the Chinese nation.’ However, there was a growing perception in Washington and regional capitals that Chinese ‘assertiveness’ had risen in the face of accommodation, which led to a backlash in the second term.

The Rebalance to Asia, or ‘Pivot’, rolled out in 2011 is intended to invigorate American leadership in the region and while it is not aimed at China, there is no doubt that China’s rise plays a part in its conception. It’s built around the three pillars of economic, security, and political engagement, and have seen a large uptick in activities between the US and its allies, between the US and China, and between the US and ASEAN member-states.

American writing on China has increased immensely, commiserate with its standing as the world’s next largest economy and military power. Writers have tended to come from two groups: China-watchers and IR scholars/security experts. China watchers like Iain Alastair Johnston, Harry Harding, David Lampton, David Shambaugh, Kenneth Lieberthal, and Michael Pillsbury have tended to adopt culturally nuanced approaches to policy, basing their analyses on cultural, linguistic, and network familiarity within China. Their tone varies widelybetweenShambaugh’s,‘TheTangled Titans: the United States and China’, and Pillsbury’s warning, ‘One Hundred Year Marathon’. Others ponder the efficacy of American policymaking, like Harry Harding’s ‘Has US China Policy Failed? Those who have a more general IR background focus on the US-China relationship or rising power debates. This includes a wide range of academics and practitioners, including Henry Kissinger, Henry Paulson, James Steinberg and Evan Medeiros, who advocate a ‘wait-and-see’ approach. Others like Aaron Friedberg, John Mearsheimer, Ashley Tellis, Robert Kaplan and Peter Dutton predict or seek to explain growing tensions and competition.

Over the past decade, much of the debate has been on whether the engagement policy vis-à- vis China has been successful in the long-term. Harry Harding’s Washington Quarterly piece, ‘Has US China Policy Failed?’, traces the reasons for American disappointment in China, looking at Washington’s hopes for political liberalisation inside China as well as the expectation that Beijing would become an active supporter of the international system. The fact that under Xi Jingpin, political control has been tightened over the media, over universities, and NGOs has played into this disappointment. As for a global role, China’s willingness to create regional organisations like Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the AIIB are seen as challenging to American interests, while its maritime disputes with American allies Japan and the Philippines are dramatically increasing regional insecurity.

To read the full report, please follow link.

Should Obama Apologise in Hiroshima?

The National Interest, May 16, 2016


Now that President Obama has announced his intention to visit Hiroshima later this month, many have debated whether he will proffer regret or apologize for the dropping of two nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States in late 1945. Should he apologize? Given his past speeches in Cairo, Obama has been criticized by some conservative media in the US as America’s “apologist-in-chief”, prompting the White House and Ben Rhodes to declare that the visit is to be “forward-looking” and it will “highlight his continued commitment to pursuing the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons”. Despite this, the current debate on Obama’s visit raises all sorts of questions about modern understandings of history, and apology-politics in general. To what extent should state leaders apologize for historic crimes committed before them? Should the United States apologize for its misdeeds? Should it apologize for Hiroshima and Nagasaki in particular?

Certainly, of the two, Japan has a long history of making apologies. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has grappled with the historical legacy of Japan’s conduct during the Second World War and his own vision for Japan. He has been more successful at proffering regret to the United States and Australia, but less successful with South Korea and China. His speech to the Australian Parliament in July 2014 expressed “sincere condolences”. His speech to US Joint Houses of Congress in April 2015 expressed “deep repentance” and “eternal condolences”. In both speeches, Abe seemed to acknowledge Japanese responsibility for instigating the war, though his language was constrained by the domestic political realities of his conservative supporters in Tokyo. Prior to these speeches, his views on the Kono Statement, and affiliation with Japanese historical revisionists like Toshio Tamogami raised the possibility that Abe agreed with such accounts. Chinese observers – for geopolitical rather than academic reasons – attempted to shape an isolating narrative around Japan because of these debates, but were stymied by Abe’s nuanced approach from 2014 onwards.

What of the United States? As the leading hegemon, victor in the Second World War, and victor in the Cold War, should it apologize for actions it has carried out in the past? Many would agree with Walter Benjamin that “History is written by the victors.” However, this is less and less true in the modern world as liberal norms values affect expectations of state behavior in international politics. One only has to consider the whole range of “critical studies” in Western universities to see that in some states, at least, history has become a deeply contested area, continuously open to debate and self-criticism. Though open to abuse, this is ultimately a positive thing, enabling societies to move past historic grievances. Furthermore, is it really true that only winners write history? Turkey after the First World War, (vis a vis Ataturk, and the Armenians). Though North Korea lost the Korean War, it still teaches that it was the South who started the Korean War. Russia after the end of the Cold War continues to teach its own version of history. These are but a small sample of states that maintain and protect – often using legal means – their own historically regressive narratives.

What is the American relationship with its own past? As has been implied by the above examples, the domestic nature of the regime often determines the state’s attitude to history, though sadly some liberal states have flirted with state control of textbooks. The United States is a liberal democratic power with a strong set of ideals and values, which it ascribes to in its foreign policy behavior. It does not always live up to its own standards, but very often civil society, American academics and journalists will swiftly point this out in the public arena. Like Japan, the United States has apologized for its past. Few foreigners will know that the US has apologized to native Americans and Hawaiians a number of times for historical grievances.  While it has not yet dealt with the US-Philippine War, it has attempted to redress the stripping of benefits from Filipino soldiers, who served on the American side in the Second World War. Clearly, Americans increasingly believe that it should face its history head-on apologize for past grievances. What of the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima? Should the United States apologize for those specific acts? Here the answer – like Abe’s speech to Congress – should be more nuanced.

Japan is one of the US’ closest allies. It has played an extremely positive role in international society since the end of the Second World War and is a strong supporter of the liberal international order and its attendance infrastructure. It is also deeply important partner in American security strategy for the region. However, things have not always been thus. President Obama could take a pragmatic line with his Japanese audience in Hiroshima and remind them of the ethical, strategic, and geopolitical reasons for dropping the nuclear weapons. The classical argument – from the American side – is that the US was fighting a ‘just war’ against Japanese aggression. A stronger ethical argument was that the bombings actually saved lives. The idea that Operation Downfall (the planned invasion of Japan) would cost millions of casualties is bolstered by the large numbers of casualties involved in the invasion of Okinawa (150,000 casualties in three months). It is also bolstered by the fact that the bombings were the crucial element in Japan’s Emperor Hirohito’s push for peace. Obama might have argued that both targets were hubs of military industry. He might also have argued that a costly invasion of Japan might have led to Soviet involvement, and ultimately the Cold War partitioning of Japan into two halves. Given Korea’s continued dismemberment, it is impossible to gloss over the human suffering that such an event would have cost Japan in the long run.

However, the most important function of any apology is the implicit promise that one will not repeat the offensive behavior. Without this commitment, apologies are meaningless. Prime Minister Abe’s speeches in both Australia and the United States both held that implied commitment. Japan– he stated – valued “freedom and democracy”. It held “human rights and the rule of law dear” as “a member of the Western world” and would never again “fall back onto force or coercion.” Japan – he said clearly – had changed. President Obama’s decision to speak on nuclear non-proliferation is thus a masterful stroke of symbolism. It expresses regret, without having to face the apology debate head-on. It is, within itself, a form of apology. It is a nuanced, thoughtful approach to the whole historical debate that permeates Asia Pacific narratives of the Second World War and speaks to the sense of pain that Japanese still feel on the bombings, without putting forward the pragmatic arguments above. Though these remain valid on the American side, using them is unlikely to serve a healing function. There is a danger that his visit panders to some elements within Japan who see the bombings as symbols of Japan’s victimization. Such narratives derive from revisionists, who tend to overstate Japanese suffering and underplay American, Chinese and allied suffering. However, if handled correctly, President Obama’s presence in Hiroshima, his message of peace, and nuclear non-proliferation will provide their own balm to the wider nation of Japan and its very real sense of suffering. If one considers the needs of the US-Japan Alliance for what promises to be a rocky regional future, such a conversation – between allies – is vital to the long-term strength and integrity of that commitment. What could be more American than a face-to-face attempt at closure between two old friends?

Book Review: Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China 


RUSI Journal, April 2016

No country feels China’s rise more than Japan. With this simple assertion, Sheila A Smith takes us through a superb and badly needed analysis of the current state of Sino–Japanese relations in Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China. She argues that for the past forty years, the relationship has been built on the premise that economic interdependence is the key to postwar reconciliation between the peoples of both nations. And in many ways, the bilateral economic relationship has produced astounding results. Between 1972 and 2004, Sino– Japanese trade increased 161-fold, from $1.04 billion in 1972 to $167.89 billion in 2004. Between 1994 and 2003, Japan was China’s largest trade partner, and by 2005, China comprised 20 per cent of Japan’s trade. In many ways, China’s rise has rested partly on Japanese investment, trade and official development assistance. So why have relations soured so dramatically over the past decade?

In trying to answer this question, Smith uses foreign-policy analysis to uncover the domestic drivers of Japan’s China policy. She is well equipped to take this approach: using her extensive contacts, her list of interviews in Japan includes no less than four prime ministers, four foreign ministers, and a large number of cabinet secretaries, senior bureaucrats and academics. Furthermore, her seat in the Council on Foreign Relations – a prestigious Washington think tank – means that she understands the policy and research communities. She was able to secure access to many prominent Japan and China experts based in the US; these included the likes of Elizabeth Economy, Kurt Campbell and Jeffrey Bader, among others. With this wealth of inside sources, combined with excellent research skills, she delves deeply into a range of issues from economic interdependence, to territorial disputes, to food-safety concerns; in doing so, the author takes a hard look at the role that history plays in the bilateral relationship.

The story she tells in the relationship between Tokyo and Beijing seems to be one of repeated missed opportunities. The leaders of both nations never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity, to borrow Abba Eban’s phrase. In 1992, she writes, Japan’s leaders put their misgivings to one side and agreed to send the country’s emperor and empress to China on a state trip. At a welcoming dinner at the Great Hall of the People, the emperor spoke of ‘the unfortunate era when our country caused immense pain and suffering to the Chinese people’ (p. 42). His unprecedented words could have heralded a new era of Sino– Japanese relations. Instead, President Jiang Zemin used his 1998 visit to Tokyo to berate Japan for its history at a state dinner hosted by Japan’s emperor and empress. Televised nationally in Japan, Jiang’s harsh speech put the relationship back in the freezer. More often than not, relations between the two countries have been characterised by missed opportunities like this one, with leaders on both sides pandering to the worst elements of their domestic base.

The regular visits of Japanese prime ministers to the Yasukuni Shrine – on which the names of Class-A war criminals are inscribed – have become a perennial problem for the two countries and are a case in point. Junichiro Koizumi – perhaps one of Japan’s greatest prime ministers of the past forty years – made annual visits to the shrine, which regrettably have become traditional. Attempting to sidestep Korean and Chinese sensitivities, he insisted the issue was purely domestic. However, since the museum attached to the shrine contains a highly revisionist account of Japan’s imperial history, visiting Yasukuni became more than just honouring Japan’s war dead; it was a place for rejecting foreign criticism of the country’s war history. Koizumi’s win as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party was down – Smith believes – to his campaign promise to visit the shrine. For a man increasingly disenchanted with Japan’s pork-barrelling party-faction system, the trips to Yasukuni were essential to maintaining his hold over the party. However, the visits only seemed to justify those hardliners in Beijing who wished to use anti-Japanese sentiment for domestic purposes. It is odd that two states which have such close economic ties, and which share such close cultural and historical features would so consistently and grievously risk the Golden Goose upon which their mutual prosperity depends.

Smith dedicates a full chapter to maritime territorial disputes, since they have become so important to regional security and American naval policy over the past few years. Her account of the situation in the East China Sea is quite troubling. By her account, the issue was a slow-burning one in which the two sides went from shelving the dispute, to a gradual increase in coast- guard maritime activity, followed by the use of military patrols. Though both sides were initially willing to adopt an accommodating position on the Shirakaba/Chunxiao gas fields in a 2008 agreement, negotiations were stymied by a host of issues: first, there were the open-ended rules in the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) for demarcating exclusive economic zone boundaries, which led to other problems. There were large numbers of domestic actors – state and non-state – in both countries who advocated the most extreme interpretation for which UNCLOS allowed. In China, fishing commercial firms, coast guards, nationalist groups, and military planners all lobbied actively for the largest territory, while in Japan, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs struggled to maintain control of the issue, as Japanese nationalists and fishing firms became increasingly vocal over Japanese territorial rights. For those who follow the region, Beijing’s current focus on the South China Sea and disputes there has reaffirmed in Tokyo the idea that China is a revisionist power, intent on revising the post-war order using the implicit use of force. Frankly, that’s an interpretation that many in the US and the region have come to share, though with various caveats.

Smith’s book comes out at a time when China has risen as a great power in the region and seeks to reorder that region to suit its national security preferences. It also comes at a time when Japan seeks to find a role for itself more in keeping with its economic stature. At no other time in history have the two nations both been strong like this. It says much about the dynamic that both nations see the other’s efforts to integrate the region economically – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or Hatoyama’s East Asian Community – in binary terms. The success of one, seems to rob from the other. Smith’s book should be on the must-read list for anyone attempting to understand East Asia and the future of the global order. The relationship between the world’s second- and third- largest economies is an important case study of how China handles complex relationships and hints at its own vision for the world. On the more narrow issue of the bilateral, one sees a sad trend of missed opportunities for both sides to look forward – China could celebrate the fact that Japan has invested billions of dollars into its economy and build on that. Japan for its part, could resist the domestic pull of imperial-era nationalism and understand that its history is not purely a domestic issue. Given the complexity of these issues, it is good to have Smith on hand, guiding our understanding and shedding light on their domestic drivers. Useful for both policy practitioners and academics, this book is a must-have on one’s shelf.

Who Will Stand up to China this Year?

The US-Japan Alliance and the coming Chinese ADIZ in the South China Sea

Japan navy

The National Interest, March 12, 2016

The growth of the South China Sea as a primary area of concern of the US-Japan Alliance, second perhaps, only to the Korean nuclear threat, is one of the main trends of the past four years. The East China Sea, once a serious concern, has receded in the background as China – under Xi Jinping’s direction – has turned its attention and focus on securing Chinese pre-eminence inside the Nine Dashed line. This coming Spring, the Philippines court case on the legality of this line will be decided by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. By many accounts, and by the weaknesses inherent in China’s claims, the finding is likely to be in Manila’s favor.

American and Japanese alliance managers must now think through what the consequences of such a finding will be. Clearly, such a finding will not change or reverse the China’s grand strategy within the sea. Xi Jinping is said to strongly favor the strategy, as do various domestic constituents in the military, energy state owned enterprises, and fishing-related industries. Atop all of that is strong public support for China’s claims among the public. Furthermore, China has already intimated it will not be bound by any ruling.

Whatever the case, the ruling presents a landmark situation in which the legitimacy of China’s regional strategy will be challenged at the global level. How will Beijing react to such a finding? How will it react to having its strategy cast as ‘illegal’? Many in Washington predict that China will react by proclaiming another Air-Defense Identification Zone – to match the one established in the East China Sea. Harry Kazianis has argued that a Chinese ADIZ in the South China Sea is just a matter of time. Some like Chinese thinker, Feng Zhang, have attempted to argue that China only establishes ADIZs in reaction to provocation, firmly pushing responsibility for its actions on others. Some like Prashanth Parameswaran have argued that the ADIZ is being established in practice by the building of these airstrips in the Spratleys, and the posting of missile systems in the Paracels.

Whatever the outcome, it is vital that the US-Japan Alliance begin formulating a common policy on such a move, using the still-new Alliance Coordination Mechanism (ACM). Any reaction should be strategic, political and economic. In the first instance, the obvious strategic reaction is for the United States Navy or Air Force to ignore the declaration and immediately fly through the ADIZ. While it may be too much of a push, it would be an incredibly forward-leaning move for Japan to consider doing the same. Washington and Tokyo may even prevail upon Canberra to do the same. Both Japan and Australia have maritime surveillance aircraft. Contingent on the full support of the Philippines, they might fly their AP-3C Orion aircraft and Kawasaki P-1 out of the Philippines, therefore making it a four-nation effort. For too long, there has been a fear of pushing China into a corner by multilateral action. Such fear has stymied all reasonable efforts to shape Chinese behavior.

The legal case, and any accompanying Chinese escalation present the US-Japan Alliance with an incredible diplomatic opportunity, both in region and in Europe – among China’s trade partners. China’s ever-increasing encroachment on the rights and territories of other states goes against regional norms, its implicit threat of using force, flies against regional attitudes toward problem-solving. Showing them in contradiction of international law undermines Chinese credibility in a number of ways. Regionally, US, Japanese, Philippines, and Australian diplomats should brief ASEAN member states before the ruling comes out on the complexities of the case and encourage a common view of legality. US-Japanese alliance managers should not fool themselves. This will not be easy, as many states share some aspects of the Chinese approach toward UNCLOS. However, in negating the Nine-dashed line, the ruling has the power to unite the various claimants over what is NOT acceptable.

If gaining a diplomatic consensus will be difficult, it stands to reason that developing common policies may be a bridge too far, however, getting a regional consensus will put China on a back foot for the first time in a long time. For too long, the Philippines has borne the brunt of this diplomatic and legal battle. Japanese and American leaders should put the issue on the agenda of any meetings that occur with ASEAN states, and certainly, Defense Secretary Aston Carter should promote a common understanding of it in October at the Hawaii ASEAN-US defense bilateral.

Japanese, American, Philippine, and Australian diplomats should carry the message to the European corridors of power. For too long, there has been a drift in European policymakers from global and Asian affairs, encouraged by the long Middle East Crisis and recent Russian revanchism. The fact that the case is being seen at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague is a major diplomatic opportunity. The finding is literally happening in the EU’s backyard and its attendant organizaitons and institutions. Furthermore, the Court, its legality, its legitimacy, and its place in the current rules-based system represent all that is best of European peaceful dispute settlement bodies. They should be encouraged that the finding is not “an Asian issue”, nor a “US-China” issue, but an argument about the future of the global order. It is a conversation that they must be represented.

Naturally, being chided by their European partners will not dissuade Chinese encroachment, but it will shape perceptions of European elites, particularly in the security and policy field. China has thus far had a fairly benign reputation in Europe. The past year’s steel dumping, combined with the flaunting of a decision by a major legal institution based in Europe will play badly in the year that the EU decides if it will grant China market economy status – as stipulated in the WTO accession requirements. It may also dilute the enthusiasm of some of those European politicians who see China in an all-too-rosy light. George Osborne, the British chancellor and a strong possible for Prime Minister, has promoted a strong trade relationship with Beijing that is more in keeping with the optimistic China policies of the 1990s.

All of this, is by way of saying that, short of war – there is nothing the US-Japan Alliance can do to stop China from continuing its current strategy in the South China Sea. However, the alliance can whittle down Chinese soft power, prestige, and legitimacy both regionally and globally. It is difficult to say how much this will affect Chinese calculations, but it at least gives opportunity to exact a cost. Furthermore, it puts a diplomatic multilateral solution one step closer to reality by giving the various parties – minus China – a common operating picture. That may not seem like much, but cohesion would mean a world of difference going forward.

The Rise of the New Authoritarians?

National Interest, February 7th, 2016


The news this week that the US defence budget will increase dramatically to face challenges in Asia and Europe, is unsurprising. In many ways, one could argue that it marks the beginning of a new deterrence strategy by the United States, reacting to the rise of Chinese and Russian military assertiveness: force will be matched by force. Moscow or Beijing will be warned off from picking off the smaller and less-capable members and allies of the West. Latvia will not become a new Ukraine; Chinese bullying in the South China Sea will remain just that, bullying. However, it is clear that there is much more than simply the “rise of the rest” as was previously thought. The Litvinenko Inquiry findings, released by the British government in late January reveal the more sinister side of the Putin regime to the general public.

There seems to be a new age of silent competition and geopolitics taking place. It is riddled with grand ambitions and has grand stakes. In one corner is a fractured West, one-time victor of the Cold War, now exhausted by 15 years of inconclusive wars with Islamic fundamentalism; in the other, a confident array of new authoritarians, enriched and empowered by their gradual acceptance of Western economics over inefficient state-control. For many, the stakes of the new geopolitics are long-term and vague, though there is growing awareness that the future of global governance and architecture is at stake. Will such architecture be truly pluralistic or merely carry the trappings of democracy in the style favored by new authoritarian regimes?

For some, the stakes are immediate and real. Ukrainians who desired European style pluralism know this. Voters in Taiwan’s vibrant democracy – on display this month in historic elections – know this. Their fate under Chinese control might be glimpsed in the quiet death of Hong Kong-style democracy over the past two years. The new age is a competition of ideas with neo-authoritarian states, but it is unlikely to resemble the Cold War. It is not even likely to be openly-acknowledged. However, it is a real competition and its weapons are disinformation, dodgy referendums, and de-legitimization campaigns against the members of the West and its values. Its new soldiers are “little gray men”, legions of 50-Cent Bloggists, (many of whom, no doubt, will comment on this article, below) and the organs of state propaganda – Russia Today and CCTV – pretending to be media. The new battle fields are the periphery of the West, inside the Western left, in cyberspace, and in the minds of Western populations. So, how did it come to this?

Both new authoritarian states lost the battle of ideas in the Cold War – to the chagrin of their hardliners. China lost it in Tiananmen Square in 1989, while Moscow lost it in front of the Russian Parliament in 1991. Unlike the type of global re-ordering that takes place after actual wars (when victorious states can occupy and re-order the domestic systems of the losing side) the end of proxy wars is far more uncertain. Certainly, the West sought to influence domestic battles from afar, through aid packages and legions of development consultants, and inviting greater people-to-people links with the West – especially through higher education. But ultimately, they failed to persuade key constituents in both states to adapt political liberalism alongside economic reforms.

Instead, key constituences inside Russia and China have spent the past 15 years balancing economic reform with internal reorganization and repression. Ultimately, this domestic re-ordering was won by co-opting the security services and military, and by appealing to the wider population through neo-nationalist propaganda and the promise of economic goods. As with their pre-1991 predecessors, the new authoritarians view western liberal democracy and free-market capitalism with a mixture of skepticism and hostility. Demanding political multilateralism from “American hegemony” abroad, Beijing and Moscow have at the same time undermined and destroyed political opposition at home. At no time since the end of the Cold War has political power in either capital been so centralized around by a single leader.

How is the West to deal with this new era of silent competition? The West cannot resort to Cold War-style containment strategies to keep Russian and Chinese assertiveness at bay. Their economies are simply far too integrated and it would be impossible to de-link without serious damage to the global economy. There are also strong arguments about how continued engagement may help with fostering political liberalism and rights discourse within those societies. In addition, the world’s problems are simply too great for the West to attempt to resolve without the new authoritarians. A viable political resolution to the Syrian Civil War – and the large numbers of refugees destabilizing Western Europe – is ultimately to be found in Moscow not in London. Putin knows this. Iran, climate change, and North Korea are all areas where the West must cooperate with Russia and China. So what can the West do?

First, the West must begin to realize that the new authoritarians are in fact authoritarian. Knowing that shifts how policymakers treat them at the social and media level. Second, we must begin a wider discussion on how to counter the ambitions of the new authoritarians: what can be done to maintain coherence and cohesion in the face of their geopolitical ambitions? The new game is from afar and yet takes place in our living rooms, it’s about undermining rather than directly attacking, and it goes after the weak and dispossessed. It floods Youtube with conspiracy theories, whenever Russian interests are at stake – as with the downing of MH17 over the Ukraine. Its greatest conduit seems to be through de-legitimization campaigns – as run through Snowden – and through the  so-called ‘new media’. Why do Western states continue to allow the tools of state propaganda – Russia Today, Press TV, and the CCTV – to operate freely in the West? Why do they accept that their own media will be repressed in those states? Certainly, a free press is important to the values of the West, but those familiar with those agencies would be hard pressed to argue that they are “free”. Their political control is too strong. They are merely government agencies in the trappings of Western media.

While the new competition is in the realm of ideas, it is clear that the hard power of the West still acts as a deterrent to mis-adventurism. The new budget is a step in the right direction, and will reassure states on the front line – such as Poland, the Baltics, Japan, and states in the South China Sea. However, Europe and American allies in Asia must match that determination. The fact that liberal democracy did not arise in Russia and China over the past 15 years is perhaps one of the great tragedies of the 21st century. It indicates that in fact, history is not yet over. Somehow, one senses that the future of the liberal order rests on how we frame this coming era and what counter-strategies we employ to defend core Western values. As the supposed Chinese curse has it, “May you live in interesting times.”  We certainly do.

What US Policy Gets Wrong about China


National Interest, January 6, 2016

As they look over the Asia Pacific region, US policy-makers have much to be proud of and much to worry about. On the one hand, the US-centered ‘San Francisco’ system put into place in the wake of the Second World War has been a great success, fostering economic and institutional growth across the region, dispelling the last legacies of European colonialism in the region, and encouraging a neoliberal approach to institution-building. While enlightened elites and cultural attitudes certainly played their part, US trade and security guarantees allowed many states to focus exclusively on economic growth with superb results. However, there are serious weaknesses in the values-based approach taken by American policy-makers that should be considered. And though this piece does not argue against values-based policy – which is, after all a source of ‘soft power’ – it does argue for the hardheaded examination of the consequences of US values-based decision. It also argues for more cultural awareness in the analysis stage.

The rebirth of Chinese power this century is one event that American policy-making played a primary and direct result. Americans may look to the policy as both their greatest success and – paradoxically – their greatest failure. The normalization of relations, negotiated by Nixon and Kissinger in 1971-2, led to a liberalization of trade relations, and emboldened economic reformers like Deng Xiaoping, who wished to revitalize China’s feeble economy. The 1979 Carter-Deng Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations put China at the top table of the United Nations, replacing with a stroke, Taipei’s control of that seat. Preferential US treatment towards Beijing continued, in 1980, with the return of China’s to Most Favored Nation status, made permanent in 2000, and ultimately led to China’s accession to the WTO in December 2000. Since then, Chinese growth has averaged 9% a year and taken it from the 4th largest to the 2nd largest trading nation.

America’s China policy has been a remarkable success in raising China: and yet, it has been marked by a complete failure to truly understand China or the indirect consequences of empowering China. Emboldened and strengthened by its capital gains, its technological prowess and its burgeoning defense capabilities, Beijing has begun to project its military power into the region, threatening regional stability and prosperity in the East China and South China Seas. Rather than respond in kind to a 25-year-old American policy of inclusion, China appears to want to dispel US power from the region, excluding Washington from the nascent regional order. Utilizing a band of technologies, collectively called Anti-Access, Area Denial, Beijing openly targets US defense capabilities, and threatens sea lines of communication dear to regional allies. Furthermore, sensing the potential for global hegemony, China seems to pursue various strategies to depose the dollar as the reserve global currency, possibly with the RMB.

So what can American policy-makers learn from this? What are the lessons-learned from a 30-year-old policy? And how did we come to be here? The most obvious answer is the use by American policy-makers of ideologically-driven assumptions in the analysis process. Take for example the working assumption that the growth of middle classes leads to political liberalization. This is a seemingly tried and tested theory of international political economy, bolstered by various case studies. However, tested against the variable of a strong political elite, determined to resist it, the assumption is meaningless. This is how generations of American politicians and policy-makers came to believe that they should empower China economically. Did it work? Well, naturally there are arguments on both sides of the ledger. China is a freer place than it was in 1972, Chinese citizens can travel outside freely, and there is more of an exchange of ideas and capital between China and the rest of the world. However, the unintended consequences remain just as significant, with China rising as perhaps the key challenger to American regional and global interests. Knowing what we know now, this begs the question: could we have approached China more cautiously?

This “assumption fault” reveals a disturbing trend in how policymakers learn their trade in the United States and in the West in general. Rather than testing potential policies through the prism of unintended consequences, liberal societies insist on certain truths, which then guide the overall framework of policy-making. Because of the universal aspirations of liberalism, these assumptions often guide policy-making in ways that are harmful to the overall strategic mission. One example of this, was the way that European donor nations contributed to reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, often prioritizing culturally-Western projects like the expansion of women’s rights and the development of a free press, and other liberal projects, over the more culturally-neutral areas of state-building, irrigation, and other institutions. Still yet another well known example of an ideologically-driven mistake in US foreign policy-making was the neoliberal assumption that when liberated from authoritarianism, people will choose democracy. Such an assumption flies in the face of the preference for security, which usually trumps democracy. This assumption guided the US policy in Iraq to disband the Ba’athist regime and military as a precursor to building democracy in Iraq. As we now know, the absence of institutions and sudden influx of unemployed, military-trained men fed the growing insurgency in Iraq, and unintentionally doomed the state-building exercise from the very start.

It is not to say that these assumptions are always wrong. Sometimes they are right for a given moment, but in learning their art, American policy-makers should not assume that principles are infallible. When working assumptions are not tested rigorously, and become accepted by foreign policy bureaucracies and business communities, they can lead to the type of blind policy processes described above. That is not to say that the United States should have enacted a policy of containment of China until now, or that the Ba’athist regime should have been maintained. However, since we know in both situations, culture and context trumped the assumptions, we know how best to avoid future mistakes.

The United States now faces the dawn of a multipolar age, riddled with complexity and potential dangers. Though China’s hegemonic ambitions are likely to be halted by its demographic challenges, it will remain a predominant power in tomorrow’s world. American policy-makers must up their game and learn to understand the ideological and values-based assumptions that drive policy, and learn to adjust accordingly when empirical conditions fail to match expectations. If the age of American unipolarity is behind us, then what lies before us is likely to be more difficult and to raise the stakes for national interests. American foreign policy-makers must sharpen their game and learn to develop a consequences-based approach to the world. The future of American power depends on it. Something we can ill-afford to give up in tomorrow’s world.


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