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Pivoting toward Asia.

THE U.S.-CHINA relationship is the most important one in international politics. Looking into the 21st century, it seems possible that America could be eclipsed in economic--and possibly military--terms by China. According to The Economist magazine, China is likely to overtake the U.S. in gross domestic product at market exchange rates in 2018. To give a sense of China's staggering relative growth, its GDP was one-eighth America's in 2000 and, by 2010, it was one-half

This growth particularly is relevant considering that Washington participated in an enormously costly and dangerous Cold War with the Soviet Union, which, at the height of its relative power, possessed roughly 44% of U.S. GDP. That conflict helped complete the transformation of the U.S. from a federalist republic into a centralized, Bismarckian nation-state. Given the potential impact of U.S.-China competition on security and domestic politics, getting American-Sino relations right is the most important challenge for U.S. foreign policymakers.

In addition to China, India is undergoing rapid economic development, possesses a favorable demographic profile, and is likely to play an increasingly prominent role in regional and global politics. Japan, despite demographic and fiscal difficulties, remains an important world power. A number of Southeast Asian countries are growing rapidly. In short, no other region on Earth is likely to see its share of global power expand as much as the Asia-Pacific region in the decades ahead. To the extent that the concentration of power in the international system shifts toward East Asia, American strategists should focus on that region.

Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the Beltway foreign policy establishment has been focused primarily on the Islamic world and terrorism. Before 9/11, though, important parts of the establishment were looking at competition with China as the big potential problem. Vice Pres. Dick Cheney had read John Mearsheimer's pessimistic view of the future of U.S.-China relations, disliking only the passages he deemed "softheaded": the parts where Mearsheimer hoped security competition between the two countries could be moderated.

At the beginning of Pres. George W. Bush's Administration, it looked like the two states were headed for rough waters. In April 2001, a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter near Chinese territory, and the American pilot and crew were held by the Chinese until U.S. diplomats negotiated their release, but the incident stirred nationalism in both countries. In Washington, historian Robert Kagan and political analyst William Kristol complained that "the exact circumstances" under which the two planes had collided did not matter. Instead, they howled that Bush had brought on the U.S. a "profound national humiliation" by expressing regret for the death of the Chinese pilot and reiterated their prior calls for a policy of "active containment of China." However, after the terrorist attacks in September 2001, the Bush Administration turned its attention to the Middle East.

Slowly, Washington policy elites have come back around to the position that the most consequential international-political changes are taking place in Asia. On an October 2011 trip to Asia, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta remarked that Washington was at a "turning point" away from the Middle East and toward the Asia-Pacific, and that this shift will entail a "strategic rebalancing." Similarly, a recent article by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked that, "The future of geopolitics will be decided in Asia, not in Afghanistan or Iraq, and the U.S. should be right at the center of the action." Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Kurt Campbell says that "one of the most important challenges for U.S. foreign policy is to effect a transition from the immediate and vexing challenges of the Middle East to the long-term and deeply consequential issues in Asia."

There are two main ways of thinking about the future of U.S.-China relations, and a basic policy orientation follows from each school of thought. One view, mostly optimistic, is influenced by the liberal school of international relations, whose advocates ate known colloquially as "panda huggers." The other view, mostly pessimistic, is influenced by the realist school of international relations, whose adherents sometimes are referred to as "dragon slayers." The general split between the two groups is over whether China's growing military power necessarily threatens U.S. security interests. Given the obvious importance of answering that question correctly, the theories that inform analysts' and policymakers' views on the topic deserve scrutiny.

Two logics underpin the theory of the optimists, both borrowed from the liberal school of international relations. First is "liberal institutionalist" logic, which holds that China's political and military behavior can be constrained in a web of international restitutions. These would "allow it to rise into the existing international order--which was shaped by the institutions created under U.S. leadership alter World War II--and prevent China from transforming the rules that govern the order.

For liberal institutionalists, it is hard to understand why China would have any problems with the status quo. They wonder why, given that China has made huge strides forward in terms of prosperity and even influence under the existing order, it would bother to try changing it. Liberal institutionalists see international politics as tightly constrained by international institutions and laws, and argue, as G. John Ikenberry--professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University--does, that, while "the U.S. cannot thwart China's rise," it can help ensure that China's power is exercised within the rules and institutions that America and its partners have crafted over the last century, roles and institutions that can protect the interests of all states in the more crowded world of the future.

Optimists argue that China can be constrained because the expansive and cross-cutting network of international institutions promotes positive-sum outcomes and renders the American-dominated order "hard to overturn and easy to join." If Washington plays its cards correctly, Ikenberry writes, it can "make the liberal order so expansive and institutionalized that China will have no choice but to join and operate within it."

The second liberal logic holds that the international behavior of states is induced by the domestic political structures within them. In this view, to the extent that China has foreign policy objectives that conflict with American interests, these exist because of China's undemocratic domestic politics. Accordingly, the argument goes, if China democratized, China could continue to rise while resigning itself to U.S. preponderance.

Advocates of this view place less emphasis on international institutions. For them, the question is whether China's domestic political system can be transformed from one-party rule toward democracy. If it can, there is less reason to fear that China's international ambitions will grow dangerously expansive. This theory is popular in Washington, where policy is based, in part, on the belief that continued economic growth will help transform China's political system in a democratic direction.

If all goes according to plan, economic expansion in China will produce a larger middle class, which then should demand greater political rights. These demands are expected to generate more democratic politics. Then, these increasingly democratic politics are supposed to plug into a crude version of democratic peace theory, in which the domestic institutions of democratic countries prevent them from going to war (or presumably, in this case, even engaging in serious security competition) with other democracies.

What both schools of liberalism agree on is that there is no iron law that growing Chinese power will create a zero-sum security tradeoff between China and the U.S. and its allies. This represents the central disagreement between the optimists and pessimists.

The pessimists' theory is informed by the realist school of international relations, which contends that countries tend to push the international system toward a balance of power, regardless of their domestic politics or international institutions. This pushing can be done by "internal balancing," meaning the translation of a nation's own wealth and population into military power, or via "external balancing," meaning the creation of alliances that pool military power against the most powerful state in the system.

Pessimists see security competition and zero-sum conflict between Washington and China as more likely. They tend to answer the question whether China's rise inherently threatens U.S. security with an emphatic yes. They reject liberals' belief that a more economically or politically liberal China would lessen the chances of dangerous security competition with the U.S.

Mearsheimer, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, is the most prominent and eloquent of the pessimists. According to Mearsheimer, were China's economic growth to continue, "for sound strategic reasons, [China] would surely pursue regional hegemony, just as the U.S. did in the Western Hemisphere during the 19th century. So we would expect China to attempt to dominate Japan and Korea, as well as other regional actors, by building military forces that are so powerful that those other states would not dare challenge it. We would also expect China to develop its own version of the Monroe Doctrine, directed at the U.S.

"A wealthy China would not be a status quo power but an aggressive state determined to achieve regional hegemony. This is not because a rich China would have wicked motives, but because the best way for any state to maximize its prospects for survival is to be the hegemon in its region of the world. Although it is certainly in China's interest to be the hegemon in Northeast Asia, it is clearly not in America's interest to have that happen."

Mearsheimer writes that China's appetite for increased control over its security environment and Washington's desire to deny it the same makes it likely that the future will bring "intense security competition between China and the U.S., with considerable potential for war." For this reason, Mearsheimer suggests Washington should--and will--end the policy of economic engagement and begin working to slow China's economic growth.

Thinking about the Far East

We have presented the two main schools of thought about China in stark terms in order to clarify the debate. Most China analysts in Washington have more complicated takes on the rise of China and what it means for the U.S., and Washington's policy in Asia lacks the elegance and coherence of the academic theories described here. Instead, the left and right halves of the foreign policy establishment agree that U.S. policy toward China should combine elements of both theories.

Drawing on liberal thinking, few political elites in Washington support ending the policy of economic engagement. While many Democratic leaders support sanctioning China for currency manipulation, leveling antidumping charges against its trade policies, or doing unspecified things to level the U.S.-China balance of trade, there are precious few voices in the foreign policy establishment calling for reversing the longstanding policy of economic engagement with China.

Beltway foreign policy elites tend to argue that making China richer will make it more amenable to U.S. foreign policy goals--or at least will not make it less so.

Moving to the element of U.S.-China policy drawn from realism, U.S. policymakers tend to doubt that the mechanism by which trade produces comity is foolproof. Accordingly, they suggest that the U.S. hedge against the prospect that China either may grow very powerful without transitioning to democracy or the prospect that China may become very powerful and democratic, but fail to resign itself to American military predominance in Asia. The Washington foreign policy community supports a policy of "congagement"--that is, military containment combined with economic engagement. Congagement, for all intents and purposes, has been America's China policy since at least the end of the Cold War.

The other component of Washington's bipartisan China policy is reassuring U.S. allies--the states on the other side of the spokes in Washington's "hub and spokes" system of alliances in the region--about Washington's commitment to provide their security. Instead of forcing states like Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and India to carry the bulk of the burden of balancing against China while adopting a wait-and-see approach toward China's rise, the Beltway establishment favors reassuring these allies that Washington's commitment is unshakable. In a recent address to the Australian Parliament, Pres. Barack Obama referred respectively to an "unbreakable alliance" with Australia, a "commitment to the security of the Republic of Korea" that will "never waver," and a "larger and long-term role in the region" for the U.S., which he described as "a Pacific power, and we are here to stay."

During the skirmish between the Philippines and China over Scarborough Shoal, Secretary Clinton reiterated the U.S. commitment to defend the Philippines, which the foreign secretary of the Philippines swiftly interpreted as a promise to defend the disputed waters in question.

Beyond the treaties with Australia, South Korea, and the Philippines, Washington has formal treaty commitments to Japan, Thailand, and New Zealand, and a murky and ambiguous commitment to Taiwan. By positioning itself as the hub of this hub-and-spokes system of bilateral alliances throughout Asia, Washington has taken the burden of containing China onto its own shoulders and ignored the prospect that countries in the region would do more if Washington did less. Victor Cha, director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University, who worked on Asia in the National Security Council of George W. Bush, points out that the hub-and-spokes system of alliances in Asia was designed on the basis of what he calls a "powerplay" rationale, in which the U.S. created a number of asymmetric, bilateral alliances in order, in each case, to "exert maximum control over [its] smaller ally's actions." Further, Cha writes, Washington sought to "amplify U.S. control and minimize any collusion among its alliance partners."

The majority of the Beltway foreign policy establishment favors a China policy with three major components: economic engagement; military containment; and using U.S. deployments, diplomatic reassurance about American security guarantees, and Washington's own military spending to prevent U.S. allies from taking more control over their defense policies.


Jusan Logan is director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, Washington, D.C.
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Title Annotation:Worldview; on United States-China relations
Author:Logan, Justin
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2013
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