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Optimists (liberal doves) vs. pessimists (conservative hawks) on China.

AMERICAN foreign policy in Asia is plagued by three problems. First, Washington's policy centers on a contradiction: making China more powerful while seeking to make it act as though it is weak. The "containment" and "engagement" aspects of the policy countervail one another. This "congagement." approach is built on contradictory policies. Congagement frequently is defended with puzzling formulations such as "Washington must engage China in order to balance against it, and balance against it in order to engage it," but this is incoherent. The two aspects of congagement do not complement each other--they work at cross purposes.

Washington policy analysts and pundits like to market congagement as a "hedging" strategy, but this analogy is unfounded. Hedging refers to a decision to make a conservative investment with low, but likely, returns in order to help cover potential losses from a risky investment with high, but less likely, returns. In the analogy with China policy, the large, risky bet would be trading with China, which narrows the relative power gap between the two countries, in the hopes that China will be transformed and will not compete with the U.S. militarily. The hedging analogy falls apart because the longer the risky bet goes on, the more Washington will need to pour ever-increasing resources into the conservative bet--the military instruments needed for containment--in order to cover the potential losses should engagement fail to pay off. Congagement is not a hedging strategy.

Second, the policy of "reassuring" our allies forces the U.S. to carry a disproportionate share of the growing burden of containing China. Finally, although Washington agrees with the pessimists (read, conservative hawks) that China's growing military power is a problem, no one has specified precisely how even a very militarily powerful China would directly threaten U.S. national security.

Optimists (read, liberal doves), meanwhile, place too much faith in international institutions, the idea that economic growth in China necessarily will lead to democratization there, and that a democratic China necessarily would be at peace with American military domination of Asia.

As a general proposition, optimists--such as John Ikenberry, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University--tend to elide the zero-sum tradeoffs inherent to military issues, ignoring for the most part the question of U.S. military policy in Asia.

This leaves one of the most important questions about the future of American foreign policy outside their analysis. As Columbia University professor of war and peace studies Richard Betts writes in a stinging critique: "Ikenberry says nothing about what U.S. military policy should be in [East Asia], dismisses the whole dimension of analysis with the facile assumption that mutual nuclear deterrence precludes major war, and asserts with breathtaking confidence that 'war-driven change has been abolished as a historical process.'"

Powerful states tend not to rely on other states or international institutions to provide security for them. Even states with benign motives today may pose threats tomorrow, and international institutions matter only in so far as they can enforce the roles they write. The U.S. regularly defies international institutions when it believes they do not serve U.S. interests, whether the topic is attacking Kosovo or Iraq, avoiding actions to try to prevent climate change, resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict, or any number of other issues. Should China continue to grow more powerful, international institutions are likely to have a similar effect on Beijing as they have had on Washington: not much. States prefer to rely on their own capabilities and to exert control over their security environment. Also, as their power grows, states tend to expand their definition of their interests and use their power to pursue them.

American policymakers ignore or downplay these realities, implying instead that China is a free rider on U.S. promotion of globalization and international trade. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton almost made it sound as though the Chinese should send Washington a thank you note: "Like so many other countries before it, China has prospered as part of the open and rules-based system that the United States helped to build and works to sustain."

However, just as the U.S. today chooses to sustain the open and rules-based system, so, too, can it exclude China from that system or violate its own roles if it so chooses. What American analysts see as Chinese free riding, many Chinese view as dangerous vulnerability to the whims of U.S. policymakers. Recent months have indicated that growing Chinese power has generated hardening Chinese territorial demands, and a greater desire to pursue them.

During that time, China has reiterated its claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, in at least partial contravention of both the status quo and maritime law. It has established a new military garrison on Yongxing, one of the islands there; it has engaged in a naval standoff with the Philippines at Scarborough Shoal; and China's efforts to fend off criticism precluded even a joint statement at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' Regional Forum, the first time in the organization's history it has failed to do so.

The security problems China faces include the safety of its shipping lanes, used for China's imports, including energy supplies, and its exports, which fuel much of its economic growth. Currently, China's sea lanes are subject to interdiction by the U.S. Meanwhile, China's reliance on seaborne oil is growing, and there appears to be little China can do about that fact. Roughly 40% of China's oil comes by sea, and China at present does not control the routes through which that oil passes.

This is the rationale accepted by most China analysts in explaining China's naval buildup: it wishes to gain greater control over its sea fines of communication in order to help secure the transit of its commerce, including energy supplies. Yet, the optimists have a hard time explaining why China and the U.S. are pushing and shoving over control of China's near seas and offer little policy advice on this issue.

The lesson of Japan's experience under the U.S.-led oil embargo of 1941 has not been lost on the Chinese, who do not wish to leave the security of their energy supplies at the whim of a foreign power. Even beyond energy, the value of China's imports and exports constitutes more than hall its gross domestic product, and the vast majority of those enter and leave the country by sea. Americans may think it farfetched that Chinese are anxious about being at the mercy of a potential U.S. blockade, but they would not think it so farfetched if the situation were reversed. Indeed, even Washington, despite its uncontested naval dominance, continually has expressed anxiety about its own energy security. Ensuring access to energy supplies has been an obsession of the world's major powers for decades.

Recently, a debate has begun among China watchers in the U.S. about whether China's military modernization program is fueled by plausible military objectives or rather by "naval nationalism"--that is, the desire to wield a powerful navy for domestic and international prestige. Robert Ross, professor in the Department of Political Science at Boston College, argues that, as a continental power, China should be focused on its ground forces, and its effort to develop a blue-water navy is a strategically irrational product of nationalism. In this debate, though, even those arguing that nationalism is fueling Beijing's naval modernization program seem only to apply the prestige argument to a prospective power-projection navy centered on an aircraft carrier, not to other naval advances.

Given the substantial top line growth in Chinese military outlays, though, China can afford substantial naval modernization without leaving dangerous vulnerabilities by land. Also, if China wishes to prepare itself for a blue-water navy-even decades down the road--it must start somewhere. China's enormous reliance on the global economy--and its expectations that this reliance will continue--likely have played the most important role in pushing China out to sea.

Liberals also hope that economic growth will produce a more politically liberal China, which would make its peace with U.S. naval dominance in East Asia, but many countries undergoing rapid political liberalization become virulently nationalistic during that transition--and increasingly war prone as a consequence. There is considerable evidence that nationalism is affecting both mass and elite politics in China, including among otherwise liberal intellectuals. The U.S. is a liberal country, yet American nationalism powerfully has influenced its foreign policy. There is little reason to believe that even a strong, liberal China would be free from similar influence.

Containing China

The past decade of diplomacy between Beijing and Washington has highlighted the fact that the pessimists are onto something when it comes to China. Although Washington regularly declares that it is not containing China and that it favors Chinese economic growth, its actions make clear that it does not welcome China's growing military power. The chief of staff of the Air Force and the chief of naval operations justified the highly touted new U.S. "operational concept." Air-Sea Battle by stating that some rising powers that appear to be seeking regional hegemony hope to employ access denial strategies to isolate other regional actors from American military intervention, enabling them to intimidate and coerce neighboring states more effectively.

The least implausible candidate for mounting this sort of access denial strategy is China. For their part, the Chinese, until recently, have been soft-pedaling their growing power. China's leaders, who are given to using slogans to describe policy orientations, rolled out the term "peaceful rise" in the early 2000s to refer to China's aims, only to quickly reverse course and replace it with "peaceful development," in part because even the use of the word "rise" was deemed too provocative to the U.S. Anecdotal evidence also indicates that China pessimists are growing in political influence and speaking out frequently.

In short, there is little indication that China is willing to put its trust in either the U.S. or prevailing international institutions. It is unclear whether a liberal China would prevent security competition and, as Chinese power has grown, so have its ambitions and capabilities with which it can pursue those ambitions.

The main problem with pessimism is that pessimists rail to discuss how, exactly, the U.S. could go about smothering China's economic growth They do not ten a persuasive story that explains how the political obstacles to doing so could be surmounted, nor do they convince that the extraordinary economic damage to the U.S. would be worth the potential benefits. While it theoretically is sound--indeed, logically necessary--for pessimists to support trying to throttle China economically, it is strikingly difficult to envision how Washington would do this in practice. Neither John J. Mearsheimer, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, nor anyone else---at least to our knowledge---has described in detail what sorts of policies the U.S. would pursue to this end at a reasonable cost In 2001, Mearsheimer left it at proposing that Washington "do what it can to slow the rise of China" and, by 2010, this became a proposal/prediction that Washington should, and would, "act toward China similar to the way it behaved toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War."

However, Washington and Moscow did not move abruptly from tight economic interdependence to efforts at mutual strangulation. For a variety of reasons, Moscow sought Soviet autarky and Washington indulged it. Moreover, even if the U.S. somehow ceased the policy of economic engagement, it seems unlikely that the test of the world would follow suit, resulting in significant economic dislocation in the U.S. and, to a lesser extent, in China, but ultimately producing trade diversion rather than trade cessation.

Beyond the question how America could--and would--move toward a straightforward containment policy, there is a larger question: what sort of danger would even a powerful China pose that would make it worthwhile to forego such a substantial amount of economic benefit? Even if China became, say, twice as wealthy as the U.S. and militarily more powerful than America, it remains separated from the U.S. by thousands of miles of water.

There is a "free to roam" logic embedded in the pessimists' case, but rarely is it spelled out to make the case for containment. The U.S. has been free to roam for decades, and rarely during that lime has it started a war that profited it politically or economically. Research evaluating in detail the prospects for Chinese territorial expansion concludes that Chinese expansionism is unlikely because the expected benefits are limited; the costs are high; and the prospect of success is uncertain. If the pessimists disagree with this argument, they should spell out in detail precisely what they fear and how to stop it at an acceptable cost. As yet, no detailed case has been offered to this effect.


Justin Logan is director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, Washington, D.C.
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Title Annotation:Worldview; foreign policy
Author:Logan, Justin
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2013
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