Why China Frets Over America’s Retreat By Daniel Blumenthal

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DeM Banter: once again… proof we live in interesting times. It would be most interesting if we were privy to the strategy behind this–is there a plan that comprehensively thinks through these choices over the next 5-10 years? Or are we (as a nation) only focused on the five meter target?

Wall Street Journal
June 6, 2013
Pg. 17

Usually Chinese leaders decry Washington’s foreign-policy aggression. That won’t be an issue at this week’s summit.

When Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with President Obama in California at week’s end, Mr. Xi will confront a new strategic reality: America in retreat. Chinese leaders normally complain that Washington is too aggressive. But what should really worry Beijing is the opposite—a bipartisan U.S. consensus for a foreign policy of retrenchment. As much as China aspires to global leadership, Beijing has neither the wherewithal nor the desire to take on the responsibilities that come with that role.

Since the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, Sino-American summitry has followed a pattern to which both countries have grown accustomed. Beijing complains of U.S. heavy-handedness. Washington complains that it shoulders all the burdens of global leadership and asks China to play a more responsible and prominent role in world affairs.

Neither country is serious while doing this minuet. At best Washington is conflicted about a greater leadership role for an authoritarian China. For its part, China has become accustomed to the benefits of a post-World War II American-led (and paid-for) global compact that includes freer markets, more peaceful international relations and more liberal governments.

The temptation to repeat this dance will be great this week. Presidents Xi and Obama will be meeting during a period of deep mutual suspicion. The downward spiral of distrust began in 2009 over escalating tensions about territory between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors, and it reached a new low when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a “pivot” toward Asia in 2011.

The pivot strategy has two pillars. The first is a positive desire to deeply embed the U.S. in all of Asia’s increasingly vibrant political and economic life. The second is a reaction to growing Chinese dominance in the region, and the resulting clamor—from America’s regional allies and in the U.S.—for Washington to counterbalance predatory Chinese military power.

China chose to hear only the second part of the pivot strategy, reacting to it as Cold War-style containment with Asian characteristics. Relations between the two powers have been frosty since then.

Yet if Mr. Xi examines U.S. foreign policy more closely, he will see that Beijing is worried about the wrong things. The problem is not too much American power. It is too little.

Consider recent events in Washington: Mr. Obama announced the end of the war on terror without evidence that the conflict had ended and denied leaks suggesting the imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria. He ignored a new International Atomic Energy Agency report suggesting that Iran is making huge progress in developing nuclear weapons, and refused efforts to restore draconian cuts to the U.S. military budget.

In response—a few outliers notwithstanding—Congress, including Republicans, remained silent. This marked a significant shift. Once the tribune of American global leadership, much of the right now marches in foreign-policy lock step with a left that has little interest in the exercise of U.S. power. This left-right neo-isolationist alliance is a recipe for global chaos—an outcome more harmful to China than the big-footed America that China is used to complaining about.

Why? Because despite China’s politically correct paeans to international institutions and multilateralism, Chinese leaders well know that international politics needs a prime actor willing to provide global public goods such as secure maritime trade, peace between great powers, nonproliferation, counterterrorism and leadership on international trade and investment.

If the U.S. abdicates its role, China is the only other nation in line for the post of prime power. Is China ready to assume primacy in the international community? The answer is no.

Granted, China is active on the world stage. Recently President Xi announced proposals for Arab-Israeli peace and a Syrian cease-fire. Once again, Beijing prodded North Korea to open up and reform its economy. But peace proposals, state visits and commercial diplomacy cannot maintain world order.

Taking the global leadership reins from the U.S. would require incurring real costs, taking big risks, using political capital and, if necessary, expending blood and treasure. If China wanted to lead the world, it would build a navy capable of protecting—rather than disrupting—sea lanes. It would contribute to the fight against terror and help to keep cyberspace an open commons for commercial transactions and the sharing of ideas. It is doing none of these things.

Think of it this way: Does China wish to anger anyone in the Middle East by taking sides in Syria or pressuring Iran? Manage the collapse of North Korea? Steward a new era of free trade? Push back al Qaeda?

Chinese leaders appear not to give much consideration to taking on these tasks, nor has Washington thought through what a world with no leader would look like. Does a global system of anti-democratic regional hegemons, spheres of influence, and exclusive trading blocs really appeal?

For all of these reasons, this could be a truly pivotal summit. As counterintuitive as it may seem, for the first time since the Soviet collapse China has an interest in America acting more, not less, assertively in foreign affairs.

Mr. Blumenthal is the director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

3 Replies to “Why China Frets Over America’s Retreat By Daniel Blumenthal”

  1. I don’t really like this article. The author acts as if China should care about the world being created, but doesn’t explain why. China’s foreign policy exists for the sole purpose of national advancement, why should it care about Iran or Syria beyond their influence upon China’s power? The author forces upon China a very western perspective that China is unlikely to possess, or even want to possess.

  2. This article looks to be a treatise on the value of exporting security, its cost, and benefit. China, like the rest of the world benefits when someone like the US exports security to various regions and enable business to succeed. China may not like the solution imposed, but at least they know what the rules are and that those rules likely won’t change for a while. All that benefit for nothing if the US exports that regional security…. If we pack up and go home, who does it then???? Of course, there are consequences to retrenchment, but that is another discussion.

    1. Ben, I think you’re right that the subject really discusses the value and costs of strong international leadership, but I think the title is certainly misleading. The real argument is that by western standards, China should be fretting. But the author doesn’t actually make any argument about what China’s position actually is, or what China actually cares about.

      China has proven to be remarkably apathetic to the values and composition of other national governments. It seems that in their eyes, their sovereignty is to be protected and not interfered with, which is why they are solid trading partners with Iran and North Korea.

      China does support the war on piracy, and specifically locally flagged vessels and their transit through the Gulf of Aden (see http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2009-03/welcome-china-fight-against-pirates) which by definition protects sea lanes.

      Frankly though, many of the foreign policy objectives into which most Western countries put the most effort are not important to China. They have shown little interest in caring about a nuclear Iran, or the Palestinian issue. Why should they? Even if the West wasn’t ‘regulating’ these issues (which we are utterly failing at by our standards), why would China want to step in?

      Leadership to avoid great powers going to war seems to be fairly unnecessary in modern times to avoid conflict in great powers other than the US. Frankly, the US is more involved in starting conflict than mediating/deterring other great power conflict? Maybe India/Pakistan would be the only conflict that the US could mediate better than China, and even that is suspect. China/Japan and US/Russia are the other areas where there is tension between ‘great powers’; the ‘personal’ involvement of China and US in these rivalries sort of dampen their international leadership abilities.

      But… responding to the original author, he doesn’t explain why China wouldn’t already be intimately involved in a North Korean collapse (which they would be) or why they think that they should seek to destabilize North Korea (which they don’t necessarily). Maritime trade needs only to be secured against non-state actors, which China does to some extent in the status quo. There author doesn’t explain how a less aggressive American foreign policy mitigates our ability to prevent war amongst great powers, and how China would necessarily find this in their interest (they might find going to war with Japan to secure the oil rich Senkaku islands, or with a whole host of nations possibly including America to assert sovereignty over the Spratly Islands). China already responds brutally to domestic disturbances, why should they be concerned about Al Qaeda? It’s not like international trade will stop given a periodic terror attack or two, most likely directed at their rivals. China never had problems with anti-democratic hegemons (Democracy is not a core value in China) and free trade is even fairly unfree today, especially compared to trade 100 years ago. So how trade will be less advantageous for China given an American retreat is very unclear. If anything, China can bully it’s immediate neighbors into better trade deals and America will suffer at the expense of China.

      So as stated before… I think we need to remember that these arguments are made with very Western assumptions and a fairly high estimation of the effectiveness of American policy. Certain instability is not perceived as bad by all nations, especially China. So if we want to argue that Western values are in China’s best interest, that’s fine. Let’s not conflate this with China’s own perspective of American hegemony in relation to their ambition, and that their perceived desired ends may be different than what we may think their perceived desired ends should be.

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