Is there an ideological basis for the emerging rivalry between the United States and the People's Republic of China? This question is at the heart of an article that I recently published in The National Interest and which I address at greater length in my forthcoming book.
It is sometimes said that because China is no longer a "Communist country" ideology is no longer a factor in U.S.-China relations. Like most truisms about China ("economic growth will lead inevitably to democracy;" "treat China like an enemy and it will become one") this one is, at best, only partly true. China's present leaders may not longer be Marxists, but they are most certainly Leninists; they believe that the one party authoritarian regime they lead should continue in power and they are determined to crush any opposition or dissent. Preserving CCP rule is the ultimate aim of all elements of Chinese policy, foreign as well as domestic.
As seen from Beijing, the United States appears as a crusading liberal democratic hegemon, intent on undermining the authority of regimes of which it disapproves and ultimately of remaking the entire world in its own image. This fear colors the Chinese government's perception of every aspect of U.S. policy and shapes its assessment of America's activities across Asia, which it believes are aimed at encircling it with pro-U.S. democracies.
The American people, meanwhile, are inclined to view with skepticism and distaste a regime that they regard as oppressive, illiberal, and potentially aggressive. While it is usually dressed in diplomatic language, the long-term aim of U.S. policy towards China is, in fact, to encourage "regime change," albeit gradually and by peaceful means.
Differences in ideology thus tend to heighten the mistrust and competitive impulses that are rooted in the dynamics of geopolitics. Since Athens and Sparta, dealings between dominant powers and fast-rising potential challengers have always been fraught with tension and have often resulted in conflict. Relations between the United States and China were never going to be smooth but, for as long as it persists, the ideological gap that now separates them is going to make it much harder to achieve a stable modus vivendi.
Now for the good news: if China does liberalize there is good reason to hope that relations between the two Pacific powers will improve, perhaps markedly. Hardcore "realists" doubt this, arguing that China's interests and policies will remain essentially the same, regardless of the character of its domestic regime. But this is a dubious assertion. A strong, democratic China would certainly seek a leading role in its region. But it would also be less fearful of internal instability, less threatened by the presence of democratic neighbors, more confident of its own legitimacy, and less prone to seek validation at home through the domination and subordination of others. For its part, while it will resist the efforts of an authoritarian regime to displace it from the region, the United States would probably be willing eventually to relinquish its position in Asia to a democratic China.
Consistency of concept: A
Evan Thomas reports that, while attending a Washington Redskins game in the late 1960s,Henry Kissinger objected to a referee's call by yelling out "on vat theory?!" Whatever one thinks of it, the Obama administration clearly has a theory. Virtually everything that it has said and done to date -- from announcing the closure of Guantanamo, to the president's "grip and grin" with Hugo Chavez, to his declared intention to seek the elimination of nuclear weapons -- appears aimed at refilling the reservoir of American "soft power." By apologizing (whether implicitly or explicitly) for what it regards as the mistakes of its predecessor, adopting a new and more humble tone, and expressing a willingness to "hit the reset button" in relations with autocratic regimes from Havana and Caracas to Moscow and Tehran, the administration hopes to gain goodwill, mobilize support, and set the stage for an omni-directional diplomatic offensive.
President Obama's opening moves have been marred by an excessive eagerness that risks being read in some capitals as an indication of weakness. This is not simply a matter of smiling at Chavez or bowing to King Abdullah, though those gestures probably don't help convey a sense of steely resolve. The administration has also dropped preconditions for talks with Iran and hinted broadly to Russia at its lack of enthusiasm for building missile defense installations in Eastern Europe. Assuming that they do open the way for negotiations, these gestures have also probably driven up the price of whatever deals the United States is ultimately able to obtain.
Whether all of this will produce the intended results is far from clear. The early indications are not good. Obama was welcomed with open arms in Europe, but when it came to getting more help in Afghanistan, he came back empty-handed. Tehran has responded to Washington's gestures of friendship by convicting an American journalist of espionage. But these are early days.
By Aaron Friedberg
This week's run-in between the U.S. Navy ocean survey ship Impeccable and a small armada of Chinese coastal patrol boats, as well as the subsequent decision reported today to dispatch a U.S. destroyer to protect the Impeccable, are significant on a variety of levels.
Unlike the collision of the U.S. EP-3 surveillance aircraft and the Chinese fighter plane that took place almost exactly 8 years ago, this was no an accident. Instead of a single hotshot pilot, flying beyond the limits of his skill, in this case five small Chinese craft acted in concert to intercept and harass a U.S. vessel. This was a deliberate provocation, almost certainly authorized at the highest levels, intended to probe the reflexes and responses of the new U.S. administration. It was also the latest in a series of attempts by Beijing to assert its claim to restrict what it regards as hostile activity up to 200 miles from its coasts (the extent of its so-called "Exclusive Economic Zone") rather than only out to the edge of its internationally recognized 12-mile territorial waters.
The location of the incident, 70 miles south of Hainan Island (where the downed EP-3 made an emergency landing in 2001) is also important. It was revealed last year that the Chinese navy (the People's Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN) has built a large new submarine base on Hainan near the town of Yulin. From here, the PLAN will be able to conduct operations in the South China Sea, where Beijing has a number of outstanding claims over territory and undersea resources, as well patrolling the sea lanes that carry oil from the Persian Gulf to China, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. The location of the base should also make it easier for China's new nuclear missile launching subs to slip undetected into deep ocean waters. According to press accounts, the Impeccable was conducting surveys off Hainan that are probably intended to assist U.S. Navy in detecting and tracking China's fast-growing submarine fleet.
These events are the latest steps in a quiet drama that has been unfolding now for over a decade. Certainly since the end of the Cold War, if not before, the United States has been the dominant naval power in the Pacific, able to operate freely whenever and wherever it chose up to the shores of the Eurasian landmass. Now China is starting to project power into the air, sea, and space beyond its terrestrial boundaries. And it has begun to challenge U.S. preponderance on, over, and under the Western Pacific. Neither country has any interest in provoking a conflict, but neither is going to simply back down and give way before the other. Military-to-military discussions and the establishment of agreed procedures and operational parameters may help avoid some dangerous incidents, but they will not remove the fundamental sources of the blossoming strategic rivalry between the two Pacific powers.
One final point deserves mention: This week's events coincided with ongoing discussions about how the United States and China can best coordinate their policies so as to limit the damage from the ongoing global economic crisis and restore a favorable climate for investment and trade. This mix of cooperation and competition is likely to characterize Sino-American relations for the next several decades, and perhaps beyond. What we do not know yet is which of the two elements will be more prominent.
By Aaron Friedberg
As President Obama's domestic and foreign policies come increasingly into focus, a sharp distinction between the two is beginning to emerge. On the home front, the new administration has veered sharply to the left and is now proposing an array of measures that will raise spending, redistribute incomes, and increase government's role in large sectors of the economy, including health care, banking and automobile manufacturing. In the sense that the term is used in American politics, this is the most ambitious and "liberal" domestic agenda since Lyndon Johnson.
Obama's foreign policy team, meanwhile, seems to have abandoned the Democratic party's traditional liberal internationalist playbook in favor of hard-headed (some would say hard-hearted) realism. Instead of emphasizing international institutions, international law, and the defense of universal values, the administration has made clear its willingness to downplay human rights and to make whatever deals it can with Iran, Syria, Russia, and China. In keeping with the recommendations of many foreign policy realists, the administration appears to be de-emphasizing the "war on terror," backing away from any commitment to help build a strong, reasonably democratic central government in Afghanistan, and moving with all deliberate speed to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq.
These two sets of policies are not in contradiction. Both have clear goals and, in the early stages, are being executed with determination, efficiency, and an impressive measure of ruthlessness. Both reflect an underlying theory or ideology. Any thought that this would be a pragmatic, ad hoc, ala carte presidency should now be dispelled. (In this sense, at least, President Obama is starting to look more like George Bush than Bill Clinton.) Most important, the foreign and domestic halves of the Obama agenda are clearly intended to fit together into a coherent whole. The new administration appears intent on ameliorating international tensions to the extent that it can, and reducing external costs, in order concentrate on its domestic agenda of recovery and far-reaching "reform."
Both halves of the Obama program promise near-term results but carry long-term risks. The administration's domestic policies should be widely popular, at least initially, and assuming that things start to get better reasonably soon, they will be widely credited with bringing the country out of its economic crisis.
Whether the cure turns out to be worse than the disease will not be evident for some time. Higher taxes, more regulation, and a bigger government share of GDP, perhaps mixed with immigration restrictions and some protectionism, are not a formula for efficiency and economic dynamism. Some critics claim that the Obama administration wants to make the United States more like Europe. Whether or not this is the intent, if its policies reduce the long-term trajectory of American growth and American power, they may have a similar end result.
In foreign policy, President Obama has already won praise, both at home and abroad, for his willingness to take a fresh, flexible approach. At a minimum, the administration's multi-axis diplomatic offensive will be credited with producing a relaxation of international tensions, and it may also yield some more tangible results.
The danger here is that agreements reached with the various regimes the administration now seeks so eagerly to engage are likely to paper over real problems (or worse, conceal them) without actually achieving lasting solutions. Syria may be willing to talk with us about its role in Lebanon and its support for terrorists groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Its leaders may even offer to alter their behavior in return for various diplomatic and economic rewards. As it has done many times before, however, Damascus will probably find ways to subvert, undermine, and bypass whatever agreements it makes.
Similarly, Moscow may agree to apply more pressure to Iran in return for an American commitment not to deploy parts of a missile defense system in central Europe. But it will no doubt try to pocket its gains regardless of how hard it actually tries or what results are ultimately achieved. (Given how much credit the Chinese have earned with us for their ineffectual efforts to discourage North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons, the Russians would be foolish not to give this gambit a try.)
The new administration seems to believe that its predecessor just didn't try hard enough or that for moral or ideological reasons it was unduly squeamish about doing deals with non-democratic governments. But the real obstacle to reaching agreements with such regimes that actually serve American interests has much more to do with them than it does with us. Unchecked by a free press, an independent judiciary, or a powerful legislative branch, authoritarian rulers have far greater leeway to misrepresent their intentions, conceal their actions, and break their promises.
Most important of all, while there may be some temporary coincidence of goals, the fundamental interests of authoritarian regimes will ultimately diverge from those of their democratic counterparts. Bashar al-Assad has no desire to see a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians that would deprive Syria of its regional leverage and could weaken his grip on domestic political power. Vladimir Putin and his associates aim to reestablish a Russian sphere of influence that will shield them from the further eastward spread of an alliance of democracies. Iran's mullahs benefit from standing up to the West and may well regard nuclear weapons as vital to the survival of their faltering revolution and to their dreams of dominating the Persian Gulf.
Leaders like these may be happy to talk and may even pledge to change their ways. Unfortunately, if past history is any guide, their promises are likely to prove empty, and any agreements they sign will turn out to be worth less than the paper on which they are written.
By Aaron Friedberg
During her recent visit to China, Secretary Clinton told her hosts that the Obama administration will not allow human rights issues to "interfere" with Sino-American cooperation on "the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis."
The kindest thing one can say about these remarks is that they do not really express a fundamental shift in the substance of U.S. policy. Neither George Bush nor Bill Clinton before him placed human rights at the top of the U.S.-China agenda, and neither was willing to press the issue hard enough to disrupt other aspects of the relationship. Clinton's blunt declaration was presumably intended to reassure Beijing that the new administration does not intend to change course and, if anything, is even less inclined to make a fuss about human rights than its predecessors.
Despite their apparent lack of substance, Clinton's comments will have real costs. Her words cannot help but be demoralizing to those brave souls (like the signers of the recent Charter 08 document), who continue to risk arrest by calling for fundamental political reforms in China. Her statement will also reinforce Beijing's growing sense of its own power and reduce the U.S. government's admittedly limited leverage over its internal policies. In the past, concern over foreign reaction, or a desire to improve the diplomatic "atmosphere" with Washington, has sometimes caused China to temper its treatment of domestic dissidents. Though this is certainly not what she intended, Clinton's statement is likely to be interpreted by Beijing as a free pass on human rights.
In its eagerness to differentiate itself from the Bush administration, which it faults for having been overly "ideological," the Obama team risks leaning too far in the opposite direction. As Ronald Reagan demonstrated, democracies can do business with authoritarian regimes without appearing to accept the premise of moral equivalency.
Downplaying human rights in hopes of making gains in other areas is usually described as the preferred approach of foreign policy "realists." But as every true realist knows, great powers are cold monsters; they act in accordance with what they perceive to be their national interests, not what others say (or don't say) about them. Beijing will doubtless be pleased if the United States is less outspoken about how it treats political dissidents, religious groups, and ethnic minorities. To believe that, in response, it will change its policies on North Korea and Iran, currency valuation, carbon emissions, Taiwan or the pace of its military buildup is the antithesis of realism.
By Aaron Friedberg
Dan Twining's excellent post lays out the key elements of a U.S. diplomatic strategy for Asia. As he and Chris note, many of these policies were being actively pursued by the previous administration and there is reason to hope that the new one will follow suit.
I am less optimistic about the military aspect of our overall approach to the region, particularly as concerns that last stop on Clinton's trip: China. After nearly two decades of double digit increases in defense spending, China is beginning to acquire capabilities that could pose a serious challenge to our long-standing position as Asia's preponderant military power. Unless we respond in a prudent and timely fashion, we could find that our commitments to defend our friends and interests in the region are no long regarded as credible. Over time this could eat away at the foundations of our alliances and diminish our ability to deter conflict. A couple of examples can help to illustrate the problem:
Because it is thousands of miles away from most of the places that it might have to fight, the U.S. military relies very heavily on satellites and sophisticated computer networks to handle the vast quantities of information that it needs to coordinate its far-flung forces. These systems give the United States tremendous advantages, especially against less sophisticated enemies. But against an adversary that has figured out a way to attack them, they could prove a significant vulnerability.
Since the 1990s Chinese strategists have speculated that an opponent capable of disabling a handful of satellites, and disrupting supposedly secure military computer networks, could render U.S. expeditionary forces blind, deaf, and dumb -- at least for a time. In the last few years, the Chinese government has tested its first anti-satellite weapon and hackers apparently based in China have repeatedly penetrated government and business computer networks in the United States and Europe. It would be extremely unwise to allow any adversary to believe that it could gain a decisive advantage by striking first at our command, control, and communications systems.
Especially in the event of a crisis unfolding in the Western Pacific, the United States would rely heavily on aircraft carriers to signal its resolve and, if necessary, to project power. For example, in 1996, when China tried to influence the outcome of Taiwan's elections by test-firing missiles into the waters off its coasts, the Clinton administration dispatched two carrier battle groups to the region. Over the last 15 years, China has focused a great deal of energy on developing the ability to locate, track and sink U.S. aircraft carriers operating hundreds of miles off its coasts. Toward this end it has acquired ocean-scanning satellites, over-the-horizon radars, super high-speed anti-ship cruise missiles and torpedoes (both from Russia, still the world's leading authority on how to sink American naval vessels), and a new generation of medium range anti-ship ballistic missiles. These are intended to be fired from shore and to deliver their maneuverable, conventionally-armed warheads squarely onto the flight deck of a moving aircraft carrier. A few years from now, in some future crisis over Taiwan or in the South China, the U.S. Navy may have to think long and hard about sending its most precious and powerful assets in harm's way.
None of this means that a Sino-American war is probable or even remotely likely. The balance of power in Asia has not tipped irrevocably in China's favor, but it is beginning to shift in ways that, under the wrong set of circumstances, could increase the risk of miscalculation and conflict.
There are steps we can take to counter these trends, including some that have already been initiated, but these will take time and money to implement fully. Given all of the other demands on the defense budget, the stringency imposed by the current financial crisis, the seemingly remote risk of conflict, and the desire to avoid antagonizing Beijing, temporizing half-measures seem more likely at this point than decisive action.
None of this will be on the agenda of Secretary Clinton's trip to Asia. But it should be very much on the minds of the Obama administration's defense team as they settle into their new offices.
By Aaron Friedberg
Iran has joined the list of terrorist groups, rogue states and authoritarian regimes that have chosen in recent weeks to shake a metaphorical fist at the United States and, by implication, at President Obama.
I speculated last week that Tehran might adopt a more accommodating posture in the hopes of drawing the new administration into protracted negotiations while it completes work on a nuclear weapon. Apparently the Iranians have decided that the United States is now so committed to talking that polite gestures are unnecessary. On Monday, they launched their first Earth-orbiting satellite. This is not a trivial feat from a technical standpoint; as the Times points out, only eight other countries have done it to date. Although the satellite is small and, in itself, unthreatening, its successful launch suggests that Iran is continuing to perfect the technologies it will need to someday deliver a nuclear warhead against targets in Europe and eventually the United States. (They can already hit Israel.)
The reason for developing such a capability would presumably be to deter other nations from attacking Iran and perhaps to dissuade outside powers from intervening in the Persian Gulf. Secure behind its nuclear shield Tehran might also believe that it could be more open in its support of terrorism and more aggressive in dealing with its neighbors and pursuing its regional ambitions. Such confidence could easily lead to miscalculation and perhaps to war. All the more reason to make one more push to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear programs, but also to begin to think seriously about what we should do if -- or, as seems increasingly likely, when -- we fail.
By Aaron Friedberg
Joe Biden caused a flap during the campaign when he told an audience that, within six months, an adversary of the United States would seek to test a newly elected President Obama. This remark was indiscrete, but it was not ridiculous. Biden referred in passing to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which was triggered by the discovery of a Soviet attempt to sneak nuclear-tipped rockets within range of the United States. Nikita Khrushchev may have decided to try this dangerous gambit because he believed the young, newly elected American president was too weak and inexperienced to respond effectively.
From what direction will the next challenge come? Unfortunately, you don’t have to be on the distribution list for top-secret communication intercepts to pick up some of the possible danger signals: On November 5, one day after the election, Russia warned that it would deploy new missiles aimed at Europe if the United States went ahead with a plan to station part of a new missile defense system in Poland.
Since November, both Osama bin Laden and his right-hand man, Ayman Al-Zawahiri have issued statements threatening new attacks on America and its allies, and making dismissive references to President Obama. One week before the inauguration, the North Korean government let it be known that it had weaponized most of its stockpile of plutonium and might have to “retaliate” for what it termed the “confrontational” policies of the South.
On January 22, China Daily, the official English language newspaper, printed a surprisingly harsh critique of both the incoming and outgoing presidents and blamed the United States, among other things, for the current financial crisis.
How seriously should we take all of this? Russia, North Korea, and China are most likely posturing ahead of expected negotiations with the U.S. (on missile defenses and NATO expansion, nuclear weapons and trade, respectively). Al Qaeda’s latest threats probably don’t tell us anything more than we already know: namely that bin Laden and his minions remain determined to kill Americans in large numbers. Still, it is possible that al Qaeda’s leadership believes that the election of a new president requires some kind of spectacular response. This could be the case if they interpret the administration’s policy changes as a sign of weakness or, alternatively, if they fear that these shifts might actually succeed in undermining their support.
What may be most worrisome here is the dog that hasn’t barked, at least not yet. The Iranian regime probably hopes that it can draw the new administration into protracted negotiations while it presses ahead with the development of a nuclear weapon. If this is Tehran’s game, it would make sense to tone down the usual insults and signal a willingness to talk. Iran may well pose a serious challenge to the new administration, but probably in another year or two, rather than the next six months.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.