It is a fact that no objective observer can deny: the rise of China over the past 30 years is an epochal development that has fundamentally altered global economics and politics.
Realism, and pursuit of American national interests, dictates that the aim of U.S. policy should be to take maximum advantage of China’s rise, and adjust other relationships as necessary to this objective.
Yet, what we have saw during the first Obama administration term, and continue to see during the second, is an economic, political, and defense policy toward Asia fundamentally denies, if it does not actually challenge, China’s rise.
If casual followers on U.S. foreign policy will find these statements shocking, if not absurd, it is because they will have been listening to official rhetoric, rather than carefully analyzing concrete U.S. policies and actions.
The rhetoric is reassuring. In the past few days, we have heard Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaking in Beijing and Deputy Secretary of State William Burns speaking to the Asia Society in New York declaim in almost identical words that relations between the United States and China will be the most important factor in world politics in the 21st century
During his trip to Asia in February Vice President Joe Biden effused that the forging a constructive U.S.-China relationship will be the “central organizing principle” in international relations—including, of course, U.S. foreign policy—during the 21st century.
Expect similar rhetoric from President Obama who will make an unusually high-profile and policy-focused visit later this month to South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, and the Philippines. The most sensitive and important stop will be in Japan where he will arrive the night of the 23rd and enjoy a full day of “state visit” protocol-filled ceremonies, including a meeting with the Emperor and Empress.
The trouble –and it is major, serious trouble, indeed a deep contradiction—is that basic Obama administration policy toward Asia, a shorthand for which would be the Asian “pivot,” aims not to accommodate and adjust to the rise of China, but to bolster a fundamentally anti-China security structure and regional geopolitical status quo, of which the hallmark is a hegemonic American alliance system, and particularly the U.S.-Japan alliance.
The contradiction has come clearly into view during Hagel’s just completed 10-day Asian trip–including not just Japan and China, but also Mongolia. Hagel began on April 2 by co-hosting (with Pacific Command Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III) for the first time meeting of ASEAN defense ministers in Hawaii. Robert Gates was the first U.S. defense secretary to attend an ASEAN defense ministers’ meeting, in 2010.
Hagel has taken the opportunity to reiterate many times during his trip that U.S. has defense alliances with South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Australia, and Thailand, and will honor treaty commitments.
The question that is rarely asked is whether this 60 year old alliance structure is justified and net-net, considering the actual and potential costs vs. benefits, it serves U.S. interests. (A larger and more important question, is whether military alliances are not fundamentally dysfunctional and perniciously anachronistic as an ‘organizing model’ of inter-state relations in the 21st century. I believe not.) China’s concept of a “new type of great power relations” eschews alliances on either side of the relationship.
The many times that Secretary Hagel reiterated the U.S. commitment to these alliances, and U.S. determination to strengthen them, was a declaration that the U.S. has not and will not adjust to and seek a new balance with a stronger China.
As long as this historically Cold War/anti-China security structure remains, the rhetoric of U.S. goodwill and a truly equal and harmonious U.S.-China relationship will be empty.
If not “strengthening alliances” and buttressing an unstable status quo, what should be the goal of U.S. policy and diplomacy? The answer is clear: it should be positively working to promote (and, most of all, to avoid obstructing) the evolution of a new Asian strategic equilibrium.
What would a new Asian strategic equilibrium look like? I have previously presented the vision of Australian National University professor of strategic studies, Hugh White, elaborated in his excellent book, The China Choice: Why American Should Share Power. White sees abolition of the U.S.-Japan alliance and Japan’s reemergence as an independent power in a “concert of Asia” security order.
Another structure, for many reasons the most promising and ideal, would be a fully independent and neutral Japan, a non-nuclear and basically pacifist “Asian Switzerland” between China and the United States. This structure clearly fits both within White’s model and China’s “new type of (U.S.-China) great power relationship.”
In either of these cases, the current U.S.-Japan alliance, and to a lesser but still critical extent, the alliances with South Korea and the Philippines, are huge, probably insurmountable, obstacles.
Has Secretary Hagel’s visit adumbrated or otherwise communicated that U.S. policy is being reoriented along the lines I have suggested? Alas, quite the opposite–which is the reason that his lavishly choreographed and above-protocol schedule in Beijing—including a first-ever foreign official inspection of China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier, a speech at the PLA National Defense University, and a meeting with President Xi Jinping—largely fell flat.
Particularly discordant and not a little ironic, in my view, was Hagel’s offer (nonetheless accepted by China) to commence a “new model of military-to-military relations” with army-to-army exchanges. We should all hope that the least relevant branch of either U.S or Chinese service to possible U.S.-China (or even Asian) conflict, and thus the need for confidence building conflict avoidance, would be the either the U.S. or Chinese armies.
It is U.S. air and naval power, deployed from Japan, and Department of Defense strategies like the “Air-Sea Battle” concept, along with aggressive cyber attacks, that are bedeviling relations.
In short, current U.S. policy toward China and Asia is leading nowhere. Despite the rhetoric of a new “central organizing principle,” all we really see is bureaucratic inertia and defense of an unstable status quo.
President Obama will be honored and feted in Asia this month, but he will not be advancing U.S. long term national interests. This is a tragedy.