The cascade of statements, deployments, agreements and announcements from the United States and its regional associates in the last week has to be one of the most unpleasant shocks for China’s leadership — ever. The US is moving forces to Australia, Australia is selling uranium to India, Japan is stepping up military actions and coordinating more closely with the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea, Myanmar is slipping out of China’s column and seeking to reintegrate itself into the region, Indonesia and the Philippines are deepening military ties with the the US: and all that in just one week. If that wasn’t enough, a critical mass of the region’s countries have agreed to work out a new trade group that does not include China, while the US, to applause, has proposed that China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors be settled at a forum like the East Asia Summit — rather than in the bilateral talks with its smaller, weaker neighbors that China prefers.
Rarely has a great power been so provoked and affronted. Rarely have so many red lines been crossed. Rarely has so much face been lost, so fast. It was a surprise diplomatic attack, aimed at reversing a decade of chit chat about American decline and disinterest in Asia, aimed also at nipping the myth of “China’s inexorable rise” in the bud.
The timing turned out to be brilliant. China is in the midst of a leadership transition, when it is harder for important decisions to be taken quickly. The economy is looking shaky, with house prices falling across much of the country. The diplomatic blitzkrieg moved so fast and on so many fronts, with the strokes falling so hard and in such rapid succession, that China was unable to develop an organized and coherent response. And because Wen Jiabao’s appearance at the East Asia Summit, planned long before China had any inkling of the firestorm about to be unleashed, could not be canceled or changed, premier Wen Jiabao was trapped: he had to respond in public to all this while China was off balance and before the consultation, reflection and discussion that might have created an effective response.
In this position, he acted prudently, which is to say he did as little as possible. His public remarks were mild. He did not pound his fist (or, like former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, his shoe) on the table. He did not rage against and upbraid his neighbors. He did not launch tirades about American arrogance and aggression. He uttered no threats but renounced no claims; he even participated in a quick unscheduled meeting with President Obama.
The effect of this passive and low key response (the only thing really, he could have done) is to reinforce the sense in Asia that the US has reasserted its primacy in a convincing way. The US acted, received strikingly widespread support, and China backed down.
That is in fact what happened, and it was as decisive a diplomatic victory as anyone is likely to see. Congratulations should go to President Obama and his national security team. The State Department, the Department of Defense and the White House have clearly been working effectively together on an intensive and complex strategy. They avoided leaks, they coordinated effectively with half a dozen countries, they deployed a range of instruments of power. In the field of foreign policy, this was a coming of age of the Obama administration and it was conceived and executed about as flawlessly as these things ever can be.
It will not change the fundamental dynamics of a re-election race shaped so far by voter concern about poor economic performance, but the effects of the President’s re-assertion of American primacy in the Pacific will reinforce the public perception that he has grown into the foreign policy side of his job. He looked very presidential in Asia; those things count.
But a successful opening is not the same thing as a final win. The opening American gambit in the new great game was brilliant, but China also gets a move. On the one hand, the sweep, the scope and the success of the American moves make it hard for China to respond in kind; on the other hand, the humiliation and frustration (and, in some quarters, the fear) both inside the government and in society at large over these setbacks will compel some kind of response.
China, mindless conventional “decline” wisdom to the contrary, is much weaker and poorer than the United States, yet it is Chinese power rather than American supremacy that China’s neighbors most fear. China’s diplomacy faces an infuriating paradox: If it accepts the renewal of a US-based order in Asia it looks weak and is forced into an inferior political position; if it openly fights that order it alarms its neighbors into clinging more closely to Uncle Sam.
This reality constrains China’s response in many ways, but China cannot remain passive. China must now think carefully about its choices and to work to use all the factors of its power to inflict some kind of counterblow against the United States. Look for China to reach out much more intensively to Russia to find ways in which the two powers can frustrate the US and hand it some kind of public setback. Pakistan? Iran? Afghanistan? Palestine?
Regionally, China may try to detach one or more countries from the American system by some combination of economic influence and political ties. It will take advantage of the fact that the other Asian powers do not want the United States to be too dominant; they may fear China more than they fear us, but their aim is to maximize their own independence, not to strengthen US power.
Longer term, the conviction in the military and among hard liners in the civilian establishment that the US is China’s enemy and seeks to block China’s natural rise will not only become more entrenched and more powerful; it will have consequences. Very experienced and well informed foreign diplomats and observers already warn that the military is in many respects becoming independent of political authorities and some believe that like the Japanese military in the 1930s, China’s military or factions within it could begin to take steps on critical issues that the political authorities could not reverse. Islands could be occupied, flags raised and shots fired.
Certainly any Chinese arguments against massive military build ups will be difficult to win. The evident weakness of China’s position will make it impossible to resist calls for more military spending and an acceleration of the development of China’s maritime capacity.
Many people in China (and elsewhere for that matter) believe that China’s massive holdings of US debt give China great power in the international system. Via Meadia thinks that those ideas are largely wrong and that any efforts to treat those reserves as a political instrument would be more likely to harm China than the United States. After all, a mass sell-off of China’s reserves would drive down the dollar — meaning in the first instance that China would take a massive hit on the value of the securities it was selling, and then that China’s markets in the US and likely also Europe would collapse in the ensuing global economic firestorm. The US would likely emerge from this faster and in better shape than China.
Nevertheless, the belief that China’s foreign reserves are an asset that can somehow be played to win political points is a strong one in China, and there will be great pressure in Beijing to play this card at the first available opportunity. What that might mean in practice is hard to predict, but US diplomats, bankers and strategists will need to keep in mind that China will be looking to weaponize its dollar hoard.
An intense debate in China will now turn even more pointed. There will be some who counsel patience, saying that China cannot win an open contest with the US and that its only hope is to stick with the concept of “peaceful rise”: eschewing all conflict with the US and its neighbors, behaving as a “responsible stakeholder” in the US-built international system, and growing richer and more powerful until such a time as alternative strategies can be considered. That in my opinion is China’s wisest course.
Others will argue that the international system as it now exists, and American power in it, are weapons in the hands of a country which is deeply hostile to China and its government and that the US will not rest until China, like Russia, has been reduced to impotence. They think (they really do) that our aim is to overthrow the Communist government, replace it with something weak and ineffective — as in Yeltsin’s Russia — and then break up its territory the way the Soviet Union broke up. Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, perhaps more will be split off until China is left as a weak and helpless member of an ever more ruthless American order. To act like a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system would be to tie the knot in the noose intended to hang you; China must resist now, and ally itself with everyone willing to fight this power: Iran, Russia, Syria, Venezuela, Pakistan, perhaps even Al-Qaeda. And rather than trying to prop up the international capitalist system, China should do what it can to deepen crises and aggravate tensions.
I think this course leads to a strategic dead end for China and China’s diplomats are much too experienced and knowledgeable to be taken in by it. The military and nationalist public opinion may be more vulnerable to arguments of this kind. These forces are too strong to be completely excluded from China’s policy making; expect some provocative push back.
The US has won the first round, but the game has just begun. The Obama administration and its successors will now have to deal with a long term contest against the world’s most populous country and the world’s most rapidly developing economy. The Obama administration may not have fully counted the costs of the new Asian hard line; for one thing, it is hard to see significant cuts coming in defense spending after we have challenged China to a contest over the future of Asia. It’s possible that less drama now might have made America’s point as effectively while reducing the chance of Chinese push back, but there is not a lot of point in debating that now.
Given where things now stand, follow through will be as important as the first steps; the US must now try to make it as easy as possible for China to accept a situation that, in the short to medium term at least, it cannot change.