Shadow Government

China, the United States, and Great Power Diplomacy

China tried its hand at coercive diplomacy recently when it announced the establishment of an "air defense identification zone" around the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The dispute, along with a similar case over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, is a good case that illustrates how to think about U.S. national security interests. It shows both the bad and, ultimately, the good reasons for U.S. engagement abroad.

The United States has no intrinsic interest in who owns a few islands half a world away. Some things -- many things -- simply do not matter to the United States; on first glance, it seems that the territorial disputes over a few islands are among them. Learning how to stay uninvolved is an important virtue of international diplomacy. Two cheers for the old British strategy of "masterly inactivity."

But, some might argue, shouldn¹t the United States get involved to "demonstrate resolve" or "reassure allies" or "protect credibility" or "show leadership?" No, for two reasons. First, resolve, reputation, credibility, and leadership are not ends in themselves. They are tools to employ when some concrete thing is at stake. Organizing foreign policy around U.S. leadership puts the cart before the horse: The United States cultivates leadership to protect its interests, not the other way around. If the islands are irrelevant to U.S. interests it doesn't show very wise leadership to spend time and resources worrying about them. The only reputation this would cultivate is that of a meddlesome bully.

Second, these concerns turn international politics into an elaborate game of psychology. In this view, the U.S. position abroad is perennially under threat from others' opinions. Every move, every policy should be calculated with reference to its impact on perception. Policy isn't so much about accomplishing actual things as manipulating world opinion. America's preeminent interest is, apparently, that the world believes the United States is strong, resolute, indispensable, or some such thing.

That emperor, I have come to believe, is naked. Making world opinion the centerpiece of U.S. grand strategy strains credulity. Perceptions are important, but not more important than the alliances, trade relationships, and deployments of U.S. forces abroad that give the United States the power to objectively change reality. And the "perceptions first" school of thought exaggerates the ability to manipulate others' beliefs. Perceptions are fickle, unpredictable things, and the United States does not have a reliable science of perceptions-management.

If that were the end of the story, the United States should stay neutral towards the disputed islands. Sadly, that is not the case. There are real things at stake in the disputes over the Spratlys and the Senkaku: not the physical territory, which is negligible, nor the perceptions and opinions about U.S. resolve that might be formed by U.S. policy or non-policy towards them, but the balance of power in East Asia.

The inexorable rise of China is the largest shift in the distribution of world power since the fall of the Soviet Union. According to the Correlates of War (COW) National Military Capabilities composite index, China is already more powerful than the United States and has been for some time (the index heavily weights China's large urban population and industrial base that could be harnessed in wartime).

That does not make China an enemy of the United States, but it does make China a competitor, rival, and potential threat. (No, the rise of India is not the same, for the same reason that Europe and Japan are not threats: because they coexist happily with the United States within the zone of the democratic peace.) That means China's efforts to expand its power anywhere in the world, especially by illegitimate means, are of interest to the United States.

These considerations elevate the otherwise unimportant disputes over a few minor islands on the other side of the world into a matter of great power diplomacy. Again, the United States doesn't care about the islands, but it should care about how China throws its weight around, how it relates to its neighbors, and what it thinks it can get away with.

So when China unilaterally attempts to impose an air defense identification zone over a disputed area, the United States should understand that China is attempting to rewrite the rules of international diplomacy in its favor. That really is a threat to the United States and the global order it has underwritten since the second world war.

There is still an argument for passivity: The United States is so powerful it can afford to float above China's relatively small efforts to challenge the status quo. That is often a defensible response to rogue states or other minor discontented actors who enjoy symbolic gestures of opposition to the United States (such as Cuba or Venezuela).

China is different. With every passing day, China's power grows relative to that of the United States. If there is ever a confrontation between the United States and China, it is to U.S. advantage for it to happen earlier rather than later, while the power differential is still very large and in the United States' favor (the COW dataset notwithstanding). China, by contrast, would benefit from delaying a confrontation until it feels confident of its ability to win.

The disputed islands thus provide an excellent opportunity for the United States to force the issue with China now, on its own terms. Such a confrontation need not be belligerent or mean-spirited, but it should be firm. The goal is not to start a war as an excuse to humiliate the People's Republic, but to counter China's coercive diplomacy and forcibly socialize China into responsible great power behavior.

The Obama administration's decision to fly B-52s through the air defense identification zone in defiance of China's announcement is a good start, as is its public criticism and efforts to rally a regional response. These may be insufficient in the absence of a broader regional strategy to engage, balance, and, if necessary, contain China (the last if relations sharply deteriorate or China becomes markedly more aggressive).

The administration has been forced into action by China's misstep, but a more proactive approach to the region would assure greater long-term stability in the relationship.

Mandy Cheng/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

The End of Erdogan?

There's a very big story developing in Turkey that all foreign policy mavens should be watching closely. Exactly how big remains to be seen, but the stakes are huge. At issue: Will the decade-long domination of Turkish politics by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP) continue? Or is the Erdogan era about to come crashing down, fatally weakened by scandal, infighting, and authoritarian overreach?

Early Tuesday morning on Dec. 17, police in Istanbul and Ankara carried out a wave of stunning arrests that included powerful businessmen, the sons of three cabinet ministers, and the head of an important state-owned financial institution, Halkbank. The operation flowed from a series of corruption-related investigations that have apparently been underway for a year or more. All the key targets swept up in the raids are closely linked to Erdogan's government.

Erdogan, characteristically, responded by going on the offensive and hurling accusations at his opponents. He attacked the action as a "dirty operation," the goal of which was to smear his administration and undermine the progress that Turkey had made under his leadership. He alluded to a dark conspiracy launched by terrorist gangs, both foreign and domestic, that were operating a state within the state. While insisting that Turkey was a democracy, not some two-bit banana republic, he proceeded to engineer within a day the sacking of more than 20 high-level police officers in Istanbul and Ankara, including those directly in charge of the units that carried out the raids. More heads seem almost certain to roll. Rumors that the lead prosecutor supervising the investigations had also been removed were vehemently denied -- though two new prosecutors were suddenly (and mysteriously) added to the probe. Howls of political interference in an ongoing judicial matter erupted. The crisis deepened.

These dramatic events were simply the latest escalation in a long-simmering battle royale within the AKP's Islamist coalition. On one side: Erdogan and his followers, whose political roots lie in the transnational Muslim Brotherhood movement founded in Egypt in 1928. On the other: the Gulenists, a secretive society whose religious ideology bears a more distinctly Turkish flavor, led by Fethullah Gulen, a septuagenarian cleric who fled Turkey in the late 1990s and now lives in exile in rural Pennsylvania. Partners for much of the past decade in the AKP's systematic efforts to undermine the foundations of Ataturk's secular republic and bring the Turkish military to heel, Erdogan and the Gulenists have now turned on each other with a vengeance.

Read the complete article here.

Photo: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images