History teaches us that the emergence of a new power almost always generates tension and conflict. With the exception of the United States replacing Great Britain, relations between the world’s greatest power and the world’s greatest emerging power have always been difficult, to say the least. No great power cedes its place easily, as is demonstrated by the present reluctance of Britain and France to give up their anachronistic seats on the UN Security Council.
It is remarkable, then, how little tension there is between the United States, the lone superpower, and China, the world’s greatest emerging power. This seemingly unnatural state of affairs could be a result of pure luck. Or it could be the result of extraordinary statesmanship in one or both countries. Certainly both can claim some credit, but any objective study will show that this unnatural state is mostly a result of Beijing’s geopolitical competence outweighing Washington’s tendency toward incompetence. Indeed, Washington could learn a great deal from Beijing’s example.
At first blush, this asymmetry seems odd. After all, there is nothing in China to match the rich array of think tanks and the various processes of policy dialogue that one finds in Washington (and in other intellectual centers like New York and Boston). No country can match America’s conceptual output in volume. The story is different when it comes to quality, however. There is little debate heard in Beijing from op-ed pieces, television talk shows or think-tank forums, but there is nevertheless a remarkable ability to think outside the box, particularly with respect to long-term planning. The typical time horizon in Washington hovers somewhere between the daily spin for the evening talk shows and the next election cycle. In Beijing the clear focus is on where China wants to be in fifty years in order to avoid a repetition of the two centuries of humiliation China experienced before finally emerging as a modern power. The desire to permanently erase all traces of that humiliation is a profound motivating factor in the psyche of the Chinese leadership. It ensures national unity on foreign policy issues—as when Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai were able to pursue normal ties with America despite the ongoing madness of the Cultural Revolution.
China’s deft geopolitical instincts have deep historical roots. For millennia, Chinese empires, kingdoms and warlords have risen and fallen. The pool of historical wisdom that China can turn to is enormous. Indeed, Deng Xiaoping turned to such ancient wisdom to craft his famous 28 characters, which prescribed seven guidelines for China to follow: (1) lengjing guancha, observe and analyze developments calmly; (2) chenzhuo yingfu, deal with changes patiently and confidently; (3) wenzhu zhenjiao, secure our own position; (4) taoguang yanghui, conceal our capabilities and avoid the limelight; (5) shanyu shouzhuo, keep a low profile; (6) juebu dangtou, never become a leader; and (7) yousuo zuowei, strive for achievements.
Point number five is especially significant. It explains much of China’s recent behavior in international fora. It also makes it difficult to describe Chinese successes, because the Chinese themselves say so little about them. There is enormous pressure on Chinese policymakers not to appear boastful or triumphant, as keeping a low profile is a carefully calculated element of China’s geopolitical strategy. Deng passed away in 1997, but his wisdom and advice remain in effect, as a few recent examples show.
A Free Trade Coup
Chinese leaders are astute enough to know that some day, when China’s comprehensive national power becomes even more evident, America may try either to contain or roll back Chinese power. Indeed, America has already demonstrated this impulse by strengthening its military ties with Australia and Japan, as well as by including India in the mix. The Chinese know that America is buying an insurance policy against the rise of China. The Chinese also know that even though America neglected ASEAN after the Cold War, America might one day try to use Southeast Asia to check China, as well.
In a preemptive strike against potential American encirclement, China has decided to share its prosperity with its ASEAN neighbors. As quoted in the February 19, 2007 Financial Times, Joshua Kurlantzick warns that
Chinese ‘soft power’ in Southeast Asia is now so potent that, for the first time since 1945, the United States is ‘facing a situation in which another country’s appeal outstrips its own in an important region.’ China’s aid to the Philippines is now four times that offered by America; twice as many Indonesians now study in China as in the United States.
With strong economic ties to China, the ASEAN countries are not disposed to join any containment policy. Remarking on China’s ASEAN policy, National University of Singapore scholar Sheng Lijun writes,
China is no longer using the simplistic either black-or-white, either friend-or-enemy attitude, as in the Cold War, to look at the complex world now. This has fundamentally changed its ASEAN policy and added a lot of flexibility to its diplomacy, which accounts heavily for its initiatives in the China-ASEAN FTA.1
The boldest and most effective manifestation of this new strategy was China’s decision to offer a free trade agreement at the ASEAN-China Summit in November 2001. A senior official from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs told me that the Chinese offer struck Japan like a “bolt from the blue.” Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji stunned the ASEAN leaders by offering unilateral concessions to the ASEAN countries, including an “early harvest” provision, giving duty-free access to the Chinese market on 600 agricultural products. Chinese leaders then confirmed their seriousness by completing negotiations for the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area (FTA) in record time. A year after the proposal, the agreement was signed by Chinese and ASEAN leaders at the eighth ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh. By its terms, the two sides will establish an FTA within ten years, first with the six original ASEAN states (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand), then expanding to include the less-developed members (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar) by 2015. China also accorded the three non-WTO ASEAN members, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, most-favored nation status. When fully implemented, the China-ASEAN FTA will constitute a common market of 1.9 billion people with a combined gross domestic product of $3 trillion.2
In theory, an FTA is merely a trade agreement. In practice, it represents a strategic calculation that the two parties have long-term interests in forging a closer partnership, or that one party has an interest in strengthening the other. The U.S. decision to offer Mexico trade access through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was driven by a cold calculation that if America did not help strengthen the Mexican economy (even at the cost of exporting jobs to Mexico), then Mexico would end up sending more illegal immigrants to America. Hence, when Mexico joined NAFTA, it appeared to be the big short-term beneficiary in economic terms. In reality, the United States benefited more by reducing the potential for political and economic instability at its own doorstep.
Similar geopolitical calculations drove China’s offer. By tying ASEAN into the Chinese zone of prosperity, China created a level of economic interdependence that will make it difficult for ASEAN countries to contemplate anti-Chinese orientations in future. Thus, Chinese initiatives toward ASEAN have paid China significant political dividends. By any objective measure, Japan has given more aid and support to ASEAN than China, but when Japan campaigned for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council a few years ago, only one ASEAN country, Singapore, publicly supported its bid. (Another, Vietnam, offered support privately.) The remaining ASEAN countries hedged their bets and remained silent after strong lobbying by China.
What makes the Chinese-ASEAN deal so remarkable is that when ASEAN was created in 1967, its main political purpose was to work with America to check the threat of communist expansion in Southeast Asia. Indeed, China was then supporting several Communist Parties in the region that were attempting to overthrow their governments. Yet when ASEAN held a summit to celebrate its fortieth anniversary in November 2007, it was China that sent its Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, to attend the celebrations. Neither George W. Bush, Dick Cheney nor Condoleezza Rice turned up. Indeed, two months earlier, Bush had suddenly cancelled a U.S.-ASEAN Summit set for September 2007 so that he could make another secret stopover in Baghdad. Similarly, Rice had failed to turn up at the regular ASEAN Ministerial Meetings in 2005 and 2007. (Her predecessor wisely never missed one.)
In each of these instances, American decisions were driven by short-term considerations; ASEAN’s long-term value was ignored, as senior American officials have admitted to me in private. By contrast, all Chinese decisions have been driven by clear long-term goals. Joseph Nye captured the result of these bold Chinese moves in Southeast Asia:
The United States was noticeably absent from the guest list when countries from Australia to India gathered recently in Malaysia for the first East Asian Summit. It was a meeting which some fear marks the first step in China’s long-term ambition to build a new regional power structure, known as the East Asian Community, that excludes Washington. Couple that with a recent BBC poll of 22 countries, which found that nearly half the respondents saw Beijing’s influence as positive compared to 38% who said the same for the U.S., and it is clear that the rise of China’s soft power—at America’s expense—is an issue that needs to be urgently addressed.3
To understand the remarkable turnaround in China-ASEAN relations, try to imagine America making a similar effort in Latin America. Most Latin American leaders, with the exception of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, try to maintain good relations with Washington. Sheer American power dictates this reality. Yet virtually no Latin American leaders would dare repeat today what Argentine Foreign Minister Guido Di Tella said at the end of the Cold War, that Argentina wanted to have “carnal relations” with America. Today, public opinion surveys show strong anti-Americanism in Latin America, even higher than the usual, fashionable variety. The two largest Latin American states, Brazil and Argentina, have swung leftward and now keep a politically useful distance from the United States.
Even more tellingly, two Latin American countries, Chile and Mexico, joined others in depriving the United States of the crucial UN Security Council endorsement it needed in March 2003 to legitimize the American invasion of Iraq. Neither then-President Ricardo Lagos of Chile nor the then-President Vicente Fox of Mexico were inherently anti-American or anti-Western. Both were friends of America. But they were so appalled by the American justification for the war that they felt they had no choice but to withhold support. Indeed, both leaders privately tried to caution America against rushing into Iraq and urged the Bush Administration to give Saddam Hussein one last chance. They provided wise advice; the Bush Administration subsequently paid a heavy price for invading Iraq without Security Council sanction.
Listening to Latin America
It is odd: America is one of the most open societies in the world, yet when it comes to listening to the rest of the world or understanding the views of others, America instead resembles a closed society. Indian political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta once compared India and China by saying, “India is an open society with a closed mind; China is a closed society with an open mind.” The same comparison may well be made between America and China.
The Chinese have developed a remarkable capacity to understand the voices of others around the globe, a facility reflected in the contrasting fortunes of the American and Chinese diplomatic services. The American Foreign Service has never been so demoralized. Over the decades, as ever more American ambassadorial posts have gone to political appointees, the Foreign Service has progressively become less attractive and every day draws in ever less of the talent of the caliber of a Lawrence Eagleburger or Thomas Pickering—men who could rise to the very top of the State Department ladder. Today, the top rungs of the Foreign Service ladder have been sawn off. With such a short ladder to climb, there is little incentive for the best and brightest to leave Goldman Sachs to join the State Department. By contrast, China’s rising international stature has enhanced the standing of Chinese diplomats globally. The Chinese Foreign Service attracts the best and brightest, many of whom are appointed to senior ambassadorial posts at a relatively young age.
American diplomacy is being trumped by Chinese diplomacy through the powerful combination of enhanced geopolitical acumen and better professional diplomacy. In several regions I have visited, including the Middle East and Africa, local observers marvel at the linguistic skills of the Chinese diplomats sent to their countries. While Chinese diplomats walk around freely without escort, American diplomats live and work in fortress-like compounds, and venturing outside only rarely and with great care in many countries. Tom Friedman once recounted this story from a Turkish industrialist:
I was just on a tour to Amman and we stopped our tourist van in front of the U.S. Embassy there. We asked the guide why they need all these tanks around it, and the guy told us that within this American Embassy they have everything they need so they can survive without going outside. . . . I felt really sorry for the Americans there.4
The Western media fails to appreciate the nature and depth of Chinese geopolitical acumen. There is a considerable amount of alarmist reporting in the Western media about new Chinese initiatives in Latin America and Africa, the former a zone traditionally well outside of Chinese influence. Most of these reports suggest that China has become yet another rapacious great power out to dispossess the poor, defenseless natives of their precious raw materials. No Western commentary dares to suggest the truth: China’s entry into these regions is driven not by short-term opportunism, but by a careful calculation that in the smaller, interdependent world we are moving toward, China will inevitably have more concentrated dealings with these regions. It’s part of China’s fifty-year plan.
In the Western Hemisphere, China is taking advantage of the failure of half-hearted market reforms and Washington’s unwillingness enthusiastically to pursue genuine “good neighbor” relations in Latin America. China’s flexibility contrasts with more rigid U.S. approaches, as noted by Stephen Johnson of the Heritage Foundation:
Obtaining any kind of assistance from the United States requires compliance on a battery of restrictions, including observing human rights, protecting the environment, promising not to send U.S. military personnel to the International Criminal Court (ICC), not assisting current or former terrorists, and not using U.S.-provided equipment for any other than its stated purpose. American commitments also depend on legislative approval and can be reversed if the mood in the U.S. Congress shifts. China, on the other hand, can bargain on the spot without a lot of caveats.5
In Africa, China is increasingly making its presence felt in many ways, beyond the quest for natural resources, and not all of them are as controversial as the oil business. Under UN auspices, the China-Africa Business Council opened in March 2005. Headquartered in China, it was created to boost trade and development in the region. China has peacekeepers in Liberia and has contributed to construction projects in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Zambia. China is the only country to host a massive conference, the China-Africa Summit 2006, which was attended by a large number of African leaders in November 2006. There are an estimated 900 investment projects on the African continent financed with Chinese money.
As Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s eight-day tour to Africa began in June 2006, the official English-language China Daily highlighted the political tagline of “non-interference.” One editorial argued that
China has been offering no-strings attached financial and technical aid to the most needy in Africa. It has been encouraging the African countries to develop their economy through trade and investment in infrastructure and social institutions, without dictating terms for political and economic reforms.
A Western diplomat based in Beijing commented, “It reads like a direct rebuke of U.S. and Western powers’ foreign policy on the continent. . . . [I]t is meant to present them as a more attractive world power than the U.S.”6 By the end of 2006, China had invested about $6.27 billion in Africa, and two-way trade rocketed from $10 billion in 2000 to about $50 billion in 2007.
Long March to Long View
Again, the point is that the Chinese leadership takes the long view in a way that few Western leaders seem capable of doing these days. Determined to avoid future humiliations, China has pursued the single-minded goal of achieving a level of prosperity that will ensure its global status. This policy was spelled out in a 1991 editorial by Secretary Yang Baibing of the CCP Central Committee Secretariat in the Party’s mass-circulation People’s Daily:
We must make full use of the current favorable conditions both at home and abroad to push our economic construction onto a new stage and lay a foundation for rapid development in the next century. If we say that from mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, the Chinese nation finally stood up through more than 100 years of heroic struggles, in which one stepped into the breach as another fell, then from the mid-1900s to the mid-2000s, through another 100 years of struggle, our country will completely shake off poverty and truly stride along toward becoming a developed and prosperous country as a giant in the East.7
China has also made a major effort to learn from the mistakes of other major powers. In 2006, China Central Television broadcast an engaging, 12-part documentary, Rise of the Great Powers, which analyzed the emergence of nine great powers, including Spain, England and America, and endorsed the idea that China should study the experiences of nations and empires it once condemned as aggressors. Far from promoting an ideological worldview, the series attempted to be as objective as possible. The message conveyed to the Chinese public was subtle: China can become a great power, but must first understand why great powers succeeded and failed in the past. “Our China, the Chinese people, the Chinese race has become revitalized and is again stepping onto the world stage”, said Qian Chengdan, a professor at Beijing University and the intellectual father of the series. “It is extremely important for today’s China to be able to draw some lessons from the experiences of others.”
The most difficult relationship between China and any of its neighbors is clearly the one with Japan. The wounds have not fully healed from the Japanese occupation of China from 1931 to 1945. From time to time, the Chinese perceive the Japanese as behaving insensitively, demonstrating a lack of remorse for Japanese atrocities committed during the occupation. The Chinese were angered by then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s decision each year during his term in office to visit the Yasukuni shrine, which includes 14 convicted war criminals among its honored dead. One of the lowest points in the Sino-Japanese relationship occurred in April 2005, when widespread Chinese demonstrations followed the publication of a Japanese history textbook that downplayed Japan’s military aggression in the First Sino-Japanese War, Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910, the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II.
The Japanese haven’t been the only ones to make mistakes. In November 1998, for example, Chinese President Jiang Zemin made a six-day state visit to Japan that was nearly a disaster. For reasons still unclear, Jiang decided to use his visit to lecture every senior Japanese official he met on Japan’s poor record of atonement for its sins in World War II. In his public speeches, Jiang expressed his unhappiness with Japan’s reluctance to apologize unequivocally for its aggression during its occupation in China.
Despite the enormous difficulties and tensions built into the Sino-Japanese relationship, the Chinese leadership has worked hard to ensure that this relationship never went completely off the rails. China even managed to put the relationship back on a positive track during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s three-day official visit to Tokyo in April last year. Wen delivered a speech to the Japanese parliament that was both politically acceptable to Japan’s detractors in China and politically palatable to a skeptical Japanese public. He displayed enormous political skill, taking personal charge of this challenge:
I did a lot of preparation. Every sentence is written by me, and I did all the research work myself. Why? Because I feel our nation’s development has reached a critical moment. We need to have a peaceful and conducive international environment.8
The political difficulties inherent in the Sino-Japanese relationship are probably as intractable as those between Israel and Palestine, Greece and Turkey, India and Pakistan, or even the United States and Iran. Considering that 35 million Chinese were killed in the Japanese occupation, the political wounds of the Sino-Japanese relationship may be greater than any of the others. Nevertheless, since China has a deep national interest in preserving good ties with all its neighbors, it is prepared to accept Deng’s advice to “swallow bitter humiliation” and focus on making China a great nation again.
Having failed in the great power game in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, as well as having wasted the first eight decades of the 20th century in mostly futile efforts to modernize, few serious observers expected China to emerge as the most astute and effective geopolitical player of the 21st century. But it is doing so, and this is no mean feat, for the geopolitical chessboard is far more complex than ever before.
The international politics of the 21st century will for the first time in human history constitute a system that is simultaneously global in scope and less than wholly Western in character. The decisions that affect the world can no longer be made in a few Western capitals whose cultural parameters in analyzing problems and solutions are essentially similar. New cultural and political perspectives are entering the scene. On this more complex chessboard, most Western commentators expected (with good reason) that the Western powers would continue to be the shrewdest and most adept geopolitical actors. Instead, they have floundered; the Europeans because they are introspective to a fault, and the Americans arguably because they are not introspective enough. Western incompetence has provided significant opportunities that China has been able to exploit without paying any serious political price.
The real extent of China’s geopolitical acumen manifests itself best, perhaps, in the way it has managed the Sino-American relationship. China’s record is not perfect. It is hard to understand, for example, why it initially turned the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk away from a port call in Hong Kong, thereby depriving many American sailors and their families of a Thanksgiving reunion in November 2007, only later to reverse course and allow the call after it was too late for the Kitty Hawk to turn around. The American Navy retaliated immediately by sailing the Kitty Hawk through the Taiwan Strait on its way back to Japan. (U.S. aircraft carriers have traditionally avoided this; even during heightened tensions in 1996, President Clinton refrained from sending two carriers into the Taiwan Strait.)
But the Chinese do not make many such mistakes. For example, within two months George W. Bush’s inauguration, a crisis erupted when a U.S. spy plane was downed near Hainan Island following an accident with a Chinese fighter jet. There were a few tense days before the American airmen were released, and the episode could have presaged a difficult Sino-American relationship. Instead, seven years later, it is amazing how solid and stable the Sino-American relationship has become. What happened?
Some of the credit goes to a geopolitical accident: 9/11. After the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked, the Bush Administration shifted its strategic sights to the Islamic world, especially Afghanistan and Iraq. China became an afterthought, something for the State Department to worry about. China could have remained astutely passive in the face of the crisis America was facing, but instead the Chinese acted on the wisdom embedded in the Chinese rendition for the word “crisis”, the combination of the Chinese characters for “danger” and “opportunity.” China realized that 9/11 provided an opportunity to improve ties with America, and it took full advantage.
One story I heard in UN corridors in the aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq demonstrated Chinese astuteness. Soon after America invaded Iraq in March 2003 without a legitimizing UN Security Council resolution, it realized that it would have a problem if the international community decided that a subsequent U.S.-led American military occupation of Iraq was “illegal.” If that became the accepted international understanding of the occupation, a court anywhere could have declared Iraqi oil sales illegal and therefore subject to international seizure. The only way out of this legal quandary was to get an enabling UN Security Council resolution that declared the occupation “legal” under international law. After the bruising battles with France, Germany and Russia in the UN Security Council a few months earlier, there was no guarantee that America would succeed in this. In the end, however, Washington did succeed with UNSC Resolution 1511, adopted on October 16, 2003. I subsequently asked a senior U.S. diplomat which country had been the most helpful in securing this resolution for America. He replied, without hesitation, “China.”
Why did the Chinese do this? Several possibilities come to mind. Beijing could have subscribed to the general sentiment in the Council that since America has already decided to defy the wishes of the UN Security Council on Iraq, little would be gained by further battles over a fait accompli. Or the Chinese may have shrewdly calculated that their interests would be best served by a longer rather than a shorter American stay in Iraq.
It is worth recalling that around that time, the Bush Administration was still ebullient about its successful invasion of Iraq. American televisions replayed scenes of the giant statue of Saddam being toppled in Firdos Square, with Iraqis smashing bits of the toppled statue with their shoes. Vice President Cheney had said that the invading soldiers would be “greeted as liberators”, and so for a while it appeared they were. When President Bush landed on the aircraft carrier on May 1, 2003 under the banner, “Mission Accomplished”, the Chinese might have calculated that by supporting UNSC Resolution 1511 they were only confirming and supporting an American victory.
Not likely, however; Chinese policymakers are better students of history than their American counterparts, and they probably suspected that Bush’s proclamation of victory would soon prove false, or at least premature. If so, they would have calculated that America had walked into a quagmire that might in due course prove useful to China. And it soon did. In 2003, while America was busy with Iraq, the President of Taiwan, Chen Shui-bian, unwisely decided to push his pro-independence agenda. Given the ideological orientation of the Bush Administration, it would have been natural for Chen to count on support from Washington. Instead, he received the opposite. No recent U.S. president has been as tough on Taiwan as Bush 43. What appears to be an informal quid pro quo must go down as one of the biggest coups Chinese diplomacy has secured in Washington.
Against this backdrop, it was natural for China to be helpful to the Bush Administration on the North Korean issue, as well. There is no doubt that the Chinese government was enormously upset when Kim Jong-il decided to explode his (mini) nuclear bomb on October 9, 2006. This could have triggered a crisis as severe as the one developing between the United States and Iran. Instead, barely a year later, the Bush Administration was thanking China for helping defuse the crisis, proving once again that when China applied itself to a geopolitical issue, it would inevitably achieve success. By contrast, the American handling of the Iran issue has so far proven unsuccessful by any measure, and embarrassing by several others.
There is a very simple explanation for why China has become geopolitically more competent than America: China is aware that the world has changed. China does careful global geopolitical calculations in which it tries to objectively analyze its geopolitical assets and liabilities. It then works out a long-term plan to enhance its assets and minimize its liabilities. Each time a new problem surfaces, China looks for advantage in it, assuming that it must adapt to the world, not shape the world as it wishes.
America believes the opposite. One deep-seated assumption among many U.S. strategic thinkers is that the United States is so powerful that it can dictate the terms of world order without having to adapt American policies. This arrogance also explains why the United States has twice failed to take advantage of major historical opportunities to shape world order to its advantage. The first opportunity came when the Cold War ended. The Clinton Administration reacted with a combination of hubris and complacency. It tried to spread the gospel of democracy, abandoned old useful allies (like Pakistan and Indonesia) and became completely indifferent to mounting global challenges that did not fit old categories. The mood of triumphalism prevented any kind of clear strategic thinking. The Bush Administration blew an equally valuable opportunity after 9/11. Instead of riding the global wave of good will and sympathy toward America, the Bush Administration progressively alienated virtually every major global constituency with its actions in Iraq and elsewhere. It could be said (to paraphrase Abba Eban) that America never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
It is never too late to attempt a comprehensive and global analysis of the geopolitical assets and liabilities that America has in the world. Undoubtedly, America has many assets, not least the many reservoirs of good will America has accumulated over decades. Not all has been lost, but the liabilities have grown by leaps and bounds. The Iraq war is one of them, but so is America’s unbalanced pro-Israel policy on the Palestine issue, and without doubt the inability of American strategic discourse to discuss objectively the Israel-Palestine issue has become a Chinese geopolitical asset. The rise of China is warmly welcomed throughout the Islamic world. China is increasingly seen as the only card that the Islamic world can play to temper America’s unwise geopolitical policies. Nothing demonstrates this better than China’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia has been one of America’s most loyal allies for more than fifty years. Yet when one visits Saudi Arabia today, one senses the Saudis’ exasperation with America. Instead of dealing with a smart and sophisticated ally of the kind they were used to in the Cold War, the Saudis have to cope with a geopolitically incompetent Administration driven by short-term expediency and unable to consider the long-term impact of its own behavior. This has provided China an opportunity.
For many years, Saudi Arabia, an anti-communist country, kept Communist China at arms length and, indeed, maintained diplomatic relations with Taiwan until 1990. Yet on April 22, 2006, when Hu Jintao left America after a rather unpleasant state visit (he was subject to a tirade by a Falun Gong supporter at a White House press conference, the accidental playing of the Taiwanese national anthem, a television scene of President Bush pulling him by the collar, and so on), he paid a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia during which he signed agreements on defense, security and trade. He also signed a deal for a $2 billion oil refinery and petrochemical project in northeastern China to be financed by the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC). Earlier that year in January, King Abdallah had made a full-scale state visit to Beijing.
The Islamic world is not the only place where China has benefited from America’s geopolitical fumbles. Russia is another country that should be a natural geopolitical ally of the United States. Any objective assessment of Russia’s long-term circumstances shows that Russia has far more to fear from the rise of China than it does from America. If America seeks a natural partner to work with in managing the rise of China, Russia should have been it. Russia’s longest border is with China. It has vast, unpopulated steppes right next to populous China. Despite all this, America’s many geopolitical missteps have driven Russia and China closer together. Russia and China have used the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to squeeze American influence out of Central Asia, as illustrated by the fact that when the Bush Administration attempted to obtain “observer status” at the SCO in 2005 it was rebuffed.
None of this means that all is lost for America. A dynamic and rapidly changing world provides daily opportunities for America to redress the situation. However, for America to take advantage of its opportunities, it has to match China by engaging in similarly comprehensive analyses of both its global assets and liabilities. Essentially, Washington needs two parallel tracks when it comes to strategic thinking, one to manage the daily challenge of media spin concerning issues like Darfur and Kosovo, and another to manage the long-term challenges America faces geopolitically. For now, America attempts only the former.
All this might appear too cynical or Machiavellian to many American minds, but I doubt it. In all my encounters with individual American thinkers, I have found them as sophisticated and aware of global realities as any Chinese. The many politically correct constraints on American strategic discourse, however, seem to prevent them from expressing publicly what they readily admit to me privately. That need not be the case, as I am also confident that the American population is equally sophisticated, and wise enough to understand Max Weber’s advice: “It is not true that good can only follow from good, and evil only from evil; but that often the opposite is true. Anyone who says this is, indeed, a political infant.” If China can heed this advice, so can America.
Sheng, “China-ASEAN Free Trade Area: Origins, Developments and Strategic Motivations”, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies Working Paper, International Politics & Security Issues Series No. 1 (2003).
Bruce Vaughn and Wayne M. Morrison, “CRS Report for the Congress: China-Southeast Asia Relations—Trends, Issues and Implications for the United States”, April 4, 2006.
Nye, “The Rise of China’s Soft Power”, Wall Street Journal Asia, December 29, 2005.
Friedman, “Where Birds Don’t Fly”, New York Times, December 21, 2003.
“Balancing China’s Growing Influence in Latin America”, Heritage Foundation No. 1888, October 24, 2005.
Quoted in Antoaneta Bezlova, “China’s Soft-Power Diplomacy in Africa”, Asia Times, June 23, 2006.
Quoted in Michael E. Marti, China and the Legacy of Deng Xiaoping: From Communist Revolution to Capitalist Evolution (Brassey’s, 2002).
Quoted in Lee Kuan Yew, “Post–9/11 Balance of Influence in Asia-Pacific”, Forbes, June 18, 2007.