Earlier this week I was in Washington, teaching a class and attending some events connected to the visit of China’s vice president. It was an instructive time; in meetings with U.S. officials, with experts who follow China closely, and at the “state lunch” when Vice President Xi was the guest of honor at a State Department luncheon hosted by Secretary Clinton and Vice President Biden, I was able to get a close up view of some of the factors at work in shaping what just about everybody on the planet considers—in a hackneyed phrase — the most important bilateral relationship on planet Earth.
Via Meadia readers know that we try to organize our coverage here around the big stories that we think are shaping the world, and that the “game of thrones” in Asia is one of those. Obviously, an official visit to the United States by the man widely expected to become the president of China is an important move in that game; watching this event from a ringside seat helped me understand just what is and is not going on.
There was a lot to digest; the world is still processing the U.S. initiatives in Asia last fall, and partly because press coverage of the policy “pivot” was so weak and poorly thought through, the debate about our new Asia policy still hasn’t fully engaged the public. Watching Xi, Biden and Clinton, and listening to some of the experts and officials who shaped and executed last fall’s dramatic U.S. shift, I came back north with a few new thoughts about where we stand and where we are headed.
First, I come away thinking that far too many people in Washington (and, as I’ve seen in the past) also in Beijing and in Europe, look at this relationship through the wrong lens. They think and write and act as if the U.S. and China were the only significant players in the game, and that everything that happens in Asia boils down to U.S. and China relations.
This is wrong. The United States and China are not two gunmen staring each other down in main street at high noon while the timorous townsfolk cower in the saloon. The bilateral U.S.-China relationship has to be seen and evaluated in the context of the evolving geopolitical and economic structure of the Asia-Pacific world.
This matters a lot: failing to grasp the context is the root cause of some very consequential and widespread errors about U.S.-China relations. To look only at the bilateral relationship leads people to overstate both the likelihood of conflict between the two powers and to overestimate China’s strength. In China, those who think of the relationship out of context often push for a more aggressive Chinese foreign policy than the facts justify or China’s real interests warrant. In the United States, it leads people to divide into two camps: the declinists, who think the U.S. must try to appease a rising China, and the containers, who think we must work to contain China before it’s too late.
The Via Meadia view is a bit different. China isn’t rising in a vacuum; the rise of China, while significant, is less threatening to U.S. interests than either the appeasers or the containers think. If you think about the question regionally, the option of a middle course emerges with greater plausibility: we can promote a regional environment that makes a Chinese bid for regional hegemony impossible without embracing a policy of containment. Especially given India’s rise, but also taking account of the growing power and capabilities of countries like Vietnam, Asia is just too big and too complicated for China to hope to dominate its hood the way that other powers have tried to dominate strategic geopolitical theaters.
From that perspective, America’s job is less to thwart China in a head-to-head confrontation than to promote the rise of an Asian system that provides for the prosperity and security of all the states in the region, including China. And ideologically, while the U.S. has no love for China’s one-party system, we do not perceive China as an aggressive ideological competitor like the Soviet Union; Chinese Communism isn’t trying to impose its tyranny on the whole world—and has little ideological appeal inside China, much less beyond its frontiers. While the U.S. can and should stand up for its own values, and while China’s embrace of state capitalism creates some disturbing economic dissonances that need to be dealt with, we are not in a cage match with an aggressive, expansionist communist ideology that is out to conquer and revolutionize the world.
The Washington tendency to focus on the bilateral relationship rather than the broader regional context was a little disturbing, and it has produced a more polarized debate than we need. I think this “bipolar bias” is partly due to the American practice of training and promoting China specialists rather than Asianists; there is a kind of instinctive bilateral fixation among people who know every twist and turn of U.S. and China policies and politics, but often know and think much less about the context.
It’s also about the relative marginalization of India in the American foreign policy world. South Asia has been walled off from East Asia in the minds of foreign policy types for a long time; that is a problem when the integration of the two regions has become a central goal of American foreign policy. The reality, as Via Meadia readers know, is that commercial and security ties between countries like Japan and India are growing rapidly, and as India’s horizons expand it is asserting its interests in Southeast and even East Asia much more forcefully than before.
The second big takeaway I brought home from Washington to New York is that although the plot line of American foreign policy in Asia looks pretty good, the soundtrack is too loud and too sharp. America is shooting from the lip. Vice President Biden’s “toast” (really, it was more of a roast) at the Xi luncheon was a classic example. Biden strung together a laundry list of complaints and criticisms as Xi stood there, smiling.
It is an election year, and China policy will be an issue, but the Vice President sounded tinny rather than strong, whiny rather than confident, and rude rather than frank. Constantly yapping at the leaders of foreign countries about policies that we know they will not change and that we have no power to get them to change is low rent, and it projects weakness just when we would want to be strong.
Beyond the occasional infelicities of tone, the U.S. hasn’t in my view done enough to emphasize the differences between a policy of supporting the rise of all Asia and a policy of containing China. The Chinese have always been suspicious that the U.S. was embarked on a project of containment (often translated as “throttling” in Chinese, I’ve been told) and encirclement; the events associated with last fall’s “pivot to Asia” plus some of the rhetoric this time around will strengthen the hands of those Chinese leaders who see us this way. Already, there are some signs of China pushing back against what many there perceive as a hostile and aggressive U.S. policy.
It’s time for people like the President, the Secretary of State and the Vice President to talk positively and publicly about a vision for Asia that looks to the security, independence, dignity and prosperity of everyone in the region and that suggests new and deeper forms of cooperation between the two biggest Pacific powers. Deepening American relations with China even as we deepen our relations with its neighbors is the best way to promote the kind of peace and prosperity we want in the Pacific. Right now, we aren’t doing that quite as effectively as we should.
A third takeaway: the administration’s military budget doesn’t seem to track well with its foreign policy. This is partly about Asia and partly about the Middle East. In Asia, the administration proposes a robust policy on issues like the South China Sea that presuppose a high degree of military readiness. And in the Middle East, it cannot have escaped the administration’s notice that we remain quite deeply engaged and will need to preserve the capacity to act decisively and effectively as far ahead as the eye can see. Overall, the administration’s plans for significant defense cutbacks will be hostage to China’s plans for military modernization. Allies in Asia are wondering nervously whether the U.S. pivot is real or just talk. Making this policy work is going to involve a willingness to spend money. Perhaps the President is waiting until after the election to look this particular problem in the eye; perhaps the Office of Wishful Thinking has taken charge of the Pentagon budget process. But the administration has committed itself to ambitious and far reaching goals in Asia, and the world will be watching to see if it has enough money in the bank to cover the checks it has written.
A mix of forward deployment, aggressive anti-China rhetoric and declining military spending is close to the worst possible Asia policy. A mix of forward deployment, deep engagement with both China and its neighbors and steady as you go spending is close to the best. My impression after my time in Washington is that a lot of people inside the government understand this; it remains to be seen whether the politicians can orchestrate the policy to keep us on the right track.