Eagle has landed: China better hunker down for next decade

Peter Lee June 10, 2016 10:35 AM (UTC+8)
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Presidential politics, the interests of the dominant US military security sector, and the search for a useful geopolitical narrative to sustain the American exceptionalist role as world leader are converging in a hostile focus on the People’s Republic of China.

eagleHillary Clinton’s primary claim to executive-branch mastery is her tenure as secretary of state. By my lights, it was a disaster of hubris, opportunism, and strategic failure, particularly in the Middle East. The Trump campaign, if it is able to gather its feet underneath itself, will probably attempt to make an issue of the serial disasters of Iraq, Syria, and Libya, the floundering regime-change effort in Ukraine and, if time and interest permit, the dismal situation in Haiti and the coup in Honduras.

On the other hand, Clinton’s pivot to Asia has, by its own standards, succeeded: the US has spun local anxieties about the PRC’s strength and aggressiveness into geopolitical gold, strengthening and expanding a security regime to include enhanced participation by Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and India. A sign of success is the fact that the French are unnecessarily sticking their oar in the South China Sea with the proposal that European warships conduct freedom of navigation (FON) patrols in the South China Sea.

Politically and strategically, therefore, the PRC menace is low-hanging fruit: low risk, high reward, and generating a bandwagon effect.  And that means the PRC menace is going to be kept front and center, both to enhance Hillary Clinton’s political stature in the presidential election, and to make sure that over the long term, in the unlikely event that the Middle East is stabilized, another global challenge is at hand to avert the threat of a budget-sapping “peace dividend.”

China, Russia no match for world order?

I was informed and entertained in my reflections on this matter by a piece by Joshua Walker and Hidetoshi Azuma in the National Interest titled China and Russia are No Match for World Order, On Your Knees, Eurasian Vassals Bwahahahaha! Actual title, China and Russia are No Match for World Order.

Future historians will likely remember the G-7 summit in Ise-shima last week as marking the revenge of internationalism … The latest G-7 solidarity over Asian maritime security underscored the member countries’ commitment to the liberal world order transcending geographical distance.

G-7 leaders went on to craft a solid strategy to counter China’s OBOR (One Belt, One Road) … The significance of this year’s G-7 in Japan in advance of the G-20 in China in September will be judged by which summit ultimately sets the tone for either the enduring nature of the liberal international order or sweeping tide of revisionist authoritarianism.

Judging from his bio, I would hazard a guess that Dr. Walker is a young striver with Democratic leanings angling for influence or employment in the Clinton administration, and this China-hawk opus is his calling card.

I was unaware that the liberal order is locked in a death match with revisionist authoritarianism, but apparently it is.

On June 7, the BBC asked the question, “Should America Continue to Be a World Leader?”

Don’t worry. Answer: Yes.

Stephen Hadley, Dick Cheney’s uberhawk while National Security Adviser, contributed from the GOP neoconservative interventionist side of the aisle:

Stephen Hadley believes the next president will come to power in difficult times.

He argues there was an assumption, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that the liberal international order that was established after World War II had triumphed.

Instead he says it is now being undermined by “the authoritarian state capitalists in Russia and China … from the disorder in the Middle East and from what North Korea is doing in terms of proliferation.”

Hmmm. Let’s start calling this a trend.

Part of a trend to strip the PRC of the international legitimacy it thought it had earned because it 1) forestalled a global depression by its massive domestic stimulus program in the wake of the Great Recession and 2) had signed on for the US global war on terror 3) did that climate change thing.

China as bad guy

America has moved on. What have you done for me lately, PRC? Not much, apparently. And most of it bad.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter scoffed at the PRC’s “good guy” pretensions in his “Great Wall of Isolation” remarks at Annapolis:

In sum, on the seas, in cyberspace, in the global economy, and elsewhere, China has benefited from the principles and systems that others have worked to establish and uphold, including us. But instead of helping sustain those very principles and systems that have served all of us so well, for so long, instead of working toward what … quote, called the “win-win cooperation” that Beijing publicly says it wants, China sometimes plays by its own rules … undercutting those principles.

A model like that is out of step with where the region wants to go, and it’s counterproductive – it’s far from a “win-win.”

So, the PRC is basically an enemy of the “principled” world order (to use Secretary Carter’s current buzzword) championed by the US in pretty much every dimension, including the economic area that is its geopolitical trump card.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter speaks during the graduation and commissioning ceremony at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland U.S. May 27, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter speaks during the graduation and commissioning ceremony at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland U.S. May 27, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Shambaugh’s take

Scholarly legitimacy for the thesis that the PRC is a failed, illiberal state is provided by David Shambaugh, who cites as the PRC’s greatest failing its unwillingness to listen to David Shambaugh.

Recently, Dr. Shambaugh was interviewed by the New York Times while promoting his current book, China’s Future? And this exchange took place:

  1. Does this mean foreign countries needn’t worry too much about China’s rise? Perhaps all they need is a bit of military and foreign policy vigilance to prevent adventurism and the Chinese Communist Party system will do itself in in the long run?
  2. That’s correct.

Not much point in engaging with the current regime, in other words. Just engage in watchful waiting until it falls on its behind of its own accord.

Which begs the question, why not help the process along, and accelerate the departure of this illegitimate, doomed adversary from the world stage before it can do further damage?

There are plenty of ways to stress the PRC, not limited to the hyperventilating over the South China Sea that preoccupies the foreign policy commentariat.

Perhaps the key “tell” for US PRC strategy, as opposed to rhetoric, will be its treatment of the enhanced PRC presence in Pakistan symbolized by the China Pakistan Economic Corridor or CPEC.

Recall that Dr. Walsh treated OBOR as unacceptable economic and strategic aggrandizement by the PRC in the guise of massive regional infrastructure investments that promote the economic integration and prosperity of Eurasia.

What are we going to do about that? Are we going to crater the PRC project in Central/South Asia in the name of stopping the Chicom, excuse me, the “revisionist authoritarian” menace in its tracks?

Certainly, the geopolitical ducks are in a row.

US-India waltz

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) delivers remarks to reporters after meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama (R) in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. June 7, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Modi and Obama at White House on June 7, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The US tilt toward India, coupled with virtually undisguised hostility toward Pakistan (which has now irrevocably blotted its copybook by throwing in with the PRC and the CPEC), was confirmed by Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Washington.

Both nations apparently agreed to pursue their South Asian geopolitical interests (countering the PRC and marginalizing Pakistan) in the guise of clubbing together in support of the dubious US project in Afghanistan and condemning terrorist coddling by unnamed actors (not just Pakistan, but also the PRC, which has shielded some Pakistan-based terrorists from UN Security Council designation).

The clear drift is Pakistan is the nexus of the South Asian crisis due to its destabilizing role in Afghanistan and its terrorist-driven India policy. Pakistan is also on its way to being defined as the PRC’s sole responsibility/burden/shame/quagmire. It will be interesting to see if, post-Modi, Washington couples its excoriation of Pakistan with demands that the PRC discipline its odious ally.

If the US and India go a step further and declare open season on the CPEC as an unacceptable Pakistan misbehavior-enabling zero-sum geostrategic challenge by the PRC, it would be a clear sign that economic and security stabilization of Pakistan and the PRC’s legitimate interests in Afghanistan (where it is, I would argue, a considerably more significant stakeholder than India or the US) take second place to a policy of China containment and “regime collapse if we can get it.”

As I’ve written elsewhere, there’s a good chance that setting fire to the Pakistan tar baby while it’s stuck in China’s grasp could also burn down the rest of Asia, and I’m hoping that considerations of global stability will prevail over the temptation to stick it to the PRC but good in an area of geostrategic vulnerability.

We’ll see.

I am no longer an optimistic about the trajectory of US-China relations (I changed my twitter profile to “Pessimist” a few months back).

Thanks to political expediency (Clinton’s need to focus on the China boogeyperson), institutional interest (the PRC is a chance for a fresh start and a nice, clean, crusade for the Department of Defense after the horrors of the failed fifteen-year war on terror) and geopolitical advantage (hyping the PRC threat is good diplomatic business justifying active US global leadership), escalating confrontation with the PRC is now a self-sustaining, built-in feature of American policy.

The US will do its best to make the next decade an extremely difficult one for the PRC; and the key question for the rest of the world is how the PRC is able to respond.

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

Peter Lee
Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.
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