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Is China Top Dog in The Great Game?

Aaron Friedberg – formerly of the Bush administration, now Asia-Pacific adviser for Romney – wants Americans to get their heads back into the Asian Great Game. From his WaPo interview:

I have been concerned for over a decade that the United States government, and the country as a whole, have not been sufficiently focused on the challenge to our interests and security posed by China’s increasing wealth and power. […]

Although they are careful not to say so, I believe that China’s present leaders seek eventually to displace the United States as the preponderant power in East Asia. […]

Via Meadia is a bit more optimistic about the prospects for a stable order in East Asia.  The rise of India and other Asian countries makes it easier for an offshore balancing power like the US to promote stability without getting into a huge tussle with China.  When China asserts itself in the region, it drives its neighbors together and towards the US, and if China commits to a full scale drive for military supremacy, the US doesn’t have to match it ship for ship.  Japan, India, Australia, Vietnam and others are going to share US concerns.

But there are no guarantees. Events could unfold differently, so Friedberg’s line of thought deserves consideration on both sides of the Pacific. Here are some more highlights:

Aside from being slow to recognize the potential implications for our security of China’s growing military power, I think American policymakers have tended to overestimate the extent to which Beijing’s interests and policies converge with our own on a variety of important issues…. China dangles the prospect of cooperation as a way of exerting influence over U.S. policy toward it, strengthening the hand of those in our system who argue that we need to be careful not to do anything that might offend or provoke Beijing. […]

In addition to public diplomacy, the U.S. government should continue to support the development of software that may make it easier for citizens of countries with repressive regimes to access the Internet without fear of surveillance. American companies that actively assist the Chinese government in violating the human rights of its citizens should be subject to public shaming and shareholder pressure if not legal sanctions. The efforts of nongovernmental organizations, universities and other private institutions to promote the emergence of a stronger civil society in China should also be encouraged.

The defense cuts already announced are substantial and those that could be coming could be twice as large. These reductions come at a moment when China’s twenty-year military buildup is beginning to bear some very dangerous fruit. China has been putting together the pieces of what Pentagon planners call an “anti-access” strategy, using large numbers of conventionally armed ballistic and cruise missiles, plus submarines and aircraft to target the relative handful of ports and airfields on which the U.S. military depends to sustain its presence in the Western Pacific, as well as the aircraft carriers that are a major instrument of American power projection.

The rise of a great power like China is always a fraught era in international politics.  China, the Americans and China’s neighbors are all likely to miscalculate and make an already complicated situation even more difficult.  China’s economic path is anything but smooth; that may slow the maturation of Chinese military power but make Chinese foreign policy more confrontational.

I’ve been giving talks this week at universities across China and have another week plus to go.  In addition I’m having encounters with experts and officials to get a better sense of how the Chinese see things today.  When I get back to the US, I’ll share my impressions with readers here.

For now, let me just say that I think Aaron Friedberg’s take is an important one which should not be ignored.  Friedberg gives a very clear and convincing description of one of the scenarios for US-China relations in the next twenty years.  It is not the only way things could break though, and American policy must aim at avoiding the kind of tough competition Friedberg sees coming.  The way to do that is not through groveling and appeasement.  Keep our heads clear, our powder dry, the lines of communication with China and its neighbors open; put our faith in the Lord and look for win-win approaches — but be ready to make other choices if choose we must.

Meanwhile, we must set our own house in order.  The health and dynamism of American society is the foundation of our economic success.  Our economic success is the key to our power.  Get that right and sooner or later the rest will work out.  Fail at home, and nothing will go our way overseas.

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  • Anthony

    WRM, H.L. Mencken said: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins….” No more Soviet threat (cold war) so now we must dread growing China and focus attention/resources on her probable threat while perhaps diverting attention from our systemic failures. Contemporary China and U.S may be global rivals (whatever that means) but exaggerating future power politics disagreements can both divert resources and mislead an engaged citizenry.

    WRM, you are right “the health and dynamism of American society is the foundation of our economic success” (our political and economic social order). We don’t need to focus on an endless series of international hobgoblins (Iraq, North Korea, China, etc.) while still remaining able to make our “choices” if we must.

  • Jim.

    India isn’t rising very fast, and Japan is falling. The rest of the players in the region are bit players, plain and simple — like the small countries of Europe between the two World Wars. Tasty treats for a determined expansionist.

    The encirclement strategy we’re using today meant that Germany lost that war way back when, it’s true. But had they avoided closing the trap by tangling with Russia, it might well have gone the other way. China might find a way to keep that trap from being sprung, even now.

    If the Lefties have their way and boost our Butter spending while they gut our Guns budget — or even if they resist significant reductions and reforms in our Entitlement state — things will get worse.

    At that point, our only hope is that China gets old before we get weak. Bad strategy, that.

  • Walter Sobchak

    If China wants central Asia, let them have it. The US needs to drop the obsession with the Middle East as a foreign policy issue. The only possible interests we have are Saudi oil and suppressing Jihadism. As for the former, fracking is about to render it irrelevant. As for the other, we have done enough.

    We have much more important interests in our own neighborhood. If we want to do nation building we need to work on Mexico and Cuba.

  • Owen J

    A blog comment cannot even begin to address this topic. Suffice it to say, here, that for over 10 years (ending in 2002) China was my particular province and I studied in detail every facet of China that impacting Aaron Friedberg’s views. There is both more and less — considerably less — to the question than his comments indicate.

    China has been misunderstood throughout our history and I see no signs this is improving.

    I will be happy to share my professional opinions with you privately.

  • Marty

    Of course, what you describe (the US as a balancing power) only works if the US is a credible long-term partner, which we were from 1945 until about 1972, then again 1981 until Obama. But at this point, not only has the current ADministration trashed that but they have done so to a degree that even a new Administration in 2013, committed to restoring those ties and that credibility, may not be able to.

    In which case, the peripheral states will eventually cut their deals with China and the US will be frozen out.

    No comment on whether the game is worth the cost—but I note that once we’re out there is no reversing it if we find we don’t like the outcome.

  • bob sykes

    China’s great weakness is demographic. It is about to experience a sharp decline in its population (thanks to the one baby policy still in force) combined with a rapidly aging, unproductive residual population. China is right now near its peak of power and influence, and it will soon begin a decline similar to that of Japan, and Taiwan and South Korea.

  • Jim.

    @bob sykes:

    China’s vaunted “one-child policy” isn’t as effective at limiting births as secular Eurosocialism. China’s fertility rate is about 1.7, and Europe’s is about 1.3. So add “Europe” to that list of declining powers.

    A recent xkcd online comic pointed out that violent self-destruction isn’t necessarily the inevitable end of an intelligent species. The comic’s author asserts that all we have to do is find an activity that’s more fun that surviving.

    I’d assert that we already have. That activity is non-reproductive sex, freely practiced without social stigma, by Europeans and Leftists in America.

    Of course, there’s too much diversity in this world for everyone to be having that kind of fun, so the species won’t die off. But Eurosocialists will.

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