At Least a Better Tone – On Sino-US Relations

Xi-Obama at Sunnylands

A noticeable difference in tenor.  That is the first thing that struck me about this Dialogue meeting just recently concluded in Beijing.  The tenor of this Harvard-CASS Think Tank Dialogue on “Towards a New Model of Major-Country Relations between China and the United States” differed significantly from the Harvard-Beida Conference of January 2013.  The earlier Harvard-Beida Conference was filled with defensiveness and harsh questioning by our Chinese colleagues over the ‘American pivot’.  Chinese experts made repeated references to US efforts to contain China.  The suspicions over US policy and its intentions in Asia – especially US efforts to contain China – were largely absent from this meeting – apparently the 9th in the series.  Instead, in this meeting there were numerous references to the 35th anniversary of US-China relations.

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Debating Continuing American Global Leadership

As a descant to the US-China relations melody, there is a rising debate at least among the cognoscenti over US global leadership.  A recent addition to that debate is a piece from International Security brought to you by Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth of Dartmouth and John Ikenberry of Princeton.  The piece, “Don’t Come Home America: The Case Against Retrenchment” appears in the most recent winter edition of the Journal.  The examination in the Journal is one of assessing America’s grand strategies – will it be retrenchment or the continuation of US global engagement.  The authors somewhat curiously refer to an article that examines US policy in Asia by Harvard’s Joseph Nye when he was away from Harvard and at the time the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (it is curious if only because it is approaching twenty years ago that the piece was written and refers to a largely forgotten Clintonian – Bill not Hillary – report – “United States Security Strategy for the East Asia Pacific Region”).  Events and the evolution of countries – especially China – has in my opinion significantly altered the context of the article, though its conclusions may still be valid.

In any case the authors examine US grand strategy first declaring US overlapping core strategy objectives are:

  • managing the external environment to reduce near- and long-term threats to US national security;
  • promoting a liberal economic order to expand the global economy and maximize domestic prosperity; and
  • creating, sustaining, and revising the global institutional order to secure necessary interstate cooperation in terms favorable to US interests.

For good measure though the authors recognize that “security commitments are a necessary condition of US leadership, and that leadership is necessary to pursue the strategy’s three core objectives. Without the security commitments, US leverage for leadership on both security and nonsecurity issues declines.”  There of course is the heart of the matter that US leadership/hegemony/primacy – call it what you will – remains crucial to achieving the objectives – that is US national objectives, a stable world economic and political order.  Here a reference to the 1995 Nye article is indeed helpful:

The United States is committed to lead in the Asia-Pacific region.  Our national interests demand deep engagement.  For most countries in the region, the United States is the critical variable in the East Asia security equation.  The United States is not the world’s policeman, but our forward-deployed forces in Asia ensure broad regional stability, help deter aggression against our allies, and contribute to the tremendous political and economic advances made by the nations of the region.

Now it is evident from the title of their article that three strongly favor “continuation of the globally engaged grand strategy.”  The authors in fact declare early on that such an approach is “a wholly reasonable approach to pursuing narrow US interests in security, prosperity, and the preservation of domestic liberty.”   The article then takes a long examination of the various arguments for retrenchment (I will take a look selectively at their description and evaluation of retrenchment in a follow on piece) and concludes that the cost/benefit  favors continuing US engagement – read that as global leadership. Indeed the authors suggest that critics of deep engagement overstate the costs and understate the security benefits. As the authors conclude:

Advocates of  a clean break with the United States’ sixty-year tradition of deep engagement overstate its costs, underestimate its narrow security benefits, and generally ignore its crucial wider security and nonsecurity benefits.  Many moreover, conflate the core grand strategy of deep engagement with issues such as as forceful democracy promotion and armed humanitarian intervention – important matters, but optional choices rather than defining features of the grand strategy. … In the end, the fundamental choice to retain a grand strategy of deep engagement after the Cold War is just what the preponderance of international relations scholarship would expect a rational, self interested, leading power in the United  States’ position to do.

So that ‘point finale’ of their article may indeed be right, but there are nagging concerns that accompany this favorable nod at continuing deep engagement. As pointed out earlier, the changing context in Asia – the rise of China – and the more recent assertive China posture in the region challenge US leadership.  While the bilateral security  relationships are a vital part of US deep engagement in the region, it is not an answer to how to build a competitive but still non-rivalrous relationship with this rising power.  Certainly in Beijing last month most argued for building a collaborative relationship but with a few exceptions (Stephen Walt and Nicholas Burns were exceptions as pointed out in an earlier blog post here “Looking at the ‘World’ with Two Lens“)  there are few clues as to how  do this.

More broadly there is little in deep engagement that extends beyond the primacy/hegemonic approach.  While there is a expressed desire to build the institutional structures especially of the global economy, but also the regional settings, deep engagement remains locked in primacy.  There is little that describes a more global governance, multilateral  approach. There are various nods to greater multilateralism – but ‘realistically’ for the advocates it remains an exercise about US leadership – or not.  So more collective leadership is barely a topic of discussion in deep engagement.  It is this aspect of deep engagement that is ‘broken’ – or never attended to –  and needs far more intellectual and policy examination.

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“What’s on Second”

So let’s stipulate – I like acting like a US lawyer – that the US grand strategy  of the second term seems fixed on Asian rebalancing or  a ‘Pivot’, and that we have at least some acknowledgement in the halls of Washington that the new grand strategy is as much about economic diplomacy as political and military actions, as I wrote in the last blog post – ‘Determining Who’s On First‘.  Well how does this then line up the US-China relationship in the face of new leadership in Beijing?  That requires us to look at both the domestic and foreign policy stance of the new leadership.

On the domestic front are we likely to see significant economic and even political reform?  On the foreign policy front are we likely to see a more reflective and restrained Chinese strategy in the Asia Pacific in the light of the need to build or rebuild economic alliances and wider collaborative behavior?

Now a quick examination of likely domestic policy moves.  First, let’s dispel the impossible.  There was little likelihood, asymptotically approaching zero I’d say that these new leaders – from this generation of leaders – would on their own adopt democratic political reform.  As China expert Susan Shirk put it recently in the in the run up to the new Standing Committee choices:

This is a question of legitimacy and popular support for the party,” says Susan Shirk, a US expert on Chinese politics put it in “China wrestles with democratic reform (November 7, 2012): “They need to show that they’re moving in the direction of democracy but they are very fearful of losing actual control.

So their might be musings of reform – in fact there were such thoughts expressed by some in the old Standing Committee, but actual reform – not likely.  To seemingly underscore this, the two candidates most likely to favor political reform – Li Yuanchao the head of the Organization Department (and an early attendee to Harvard’s Kennedy School) and Wang Yang the Communist Party Chief of Guangdong Province – were both left off the Standing Committee. As Iain Mills, a freelance writer in China saw it:

Also of note was the public reappearance of ex-President Jiang Zemin alongside one of the instrumental figures in the Tiananmen crackdown, ex-Premier Li Peng. Although Jiang had taken on the state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and secured China’s accession to the World Trade Organization during his presidency, in terms of social and economic policy, the influence of this generation of leaders would seem to be highly retrograde. Jiang loyalists took senior positions in the Central Military Commission, while conservative factions appear to have blocked the promotion of reform-minded officials such as Wang Yang.

Okay so little likelihood of serious political reform.  But what of significant economic reform.  Certainly the previous leadership including Premier Wen Jiabao pointed to the need  to tackle the growing economic power and corruption of China’s State-owned Enterprises.  Now of course The Premier only began to talk about this at the twilight of his career.  And it would appear that the collective message, including from the new Chairman Xi Jinping,  is a broadly anti-corruption message.  Unfortunately this message is conservative and not reformist.  The anti-corruption message is an internal Party message to root out bad guys -if they can be found – and not indicative of major structural reform. Again Iain Mills reflections on economic reform seems apt:

It should also be noted that the renewed pre-eminence of conservative elements on both the Standing Committee and the Central Military Commission comes ahead of potential changes of the heads of key civilian institutions including the People’s Bank of China, the state-run power sector and the National Social Security Fund. How these institutions will be aligned and function under the new administration remains unclear. The broader picture, however, seems one of an economic reform agenda that will continue at a gradual pace, while hopes of major political reform have been pushed out to 2017 at the earliest.

Finally, what then of foreign policy action? Now it was positive that the new Chairman took over the the Central Military Commission.  It is evident that foreign policy has suffered from a number of voices.  China’s behavior in the Asia Pacific has seemingly become more assertive.  The pattern has yet to end.   A new policy to take effect on January 1st provides that border patrol police will have the right to board and expel foreign ships entered disputed waters in the South China Sea.  China has also begun to issue new visas that includes a picture including disputed territory in the South China Sea.  Various South China states including the Philippines and Vietnam have publicly objected to the new visas and refused to validate them.  Officials seem to be continuing policies that reflect the assertive China strategy in the South China Sea, not to mention the East China Sea.  In the face of little moderation, China policy, as described by Mills, appears to continue to be an assertive nationalist approach:

Beijing has often been unable to speak with one voice on major external events and has offered no clear articulation of how it would operate as the largest power in Asia. This vacuum, coupled with still-fervent nationalist sentiment in many quarters, appears to have been filled by those who favor a more forceful approach to enforcing China’s foreign policy objectives.

The assertive China approach has driven a number of ASEAN states to encourage a US return to Asia; it has even enabled Japan to play the military card with a number of Asian players.  There is little to hinder the new leadership if it chose to moderate its stance in the Asia Pacific.  Let’s watch closely for a more collaborative China approach of the new China leadership.

Image Credit:  Reuters

Determining Who’s On First

The last couple weeks have concluded busy leadership contests.  The two contemporary great powers of the international system – The United States and China – both have chosen new leadership.  The methods could not be more different.  Many observers have commented on the dramatic contrast.  And the contrast is stark –  Barack’s democratic national election voted on by millions upon millions of American citizens, as opposed to the backroom horse-trading by unelected Party seniors concluding shortly after the 18th Communist Party Congress, with the traditional march on stage of the seven – all men – Standing Committee Members of the Politburo.

But this yawning gap in the reliance on popular will and accountability is no surprise.  This has been, and sadly continues to be, the CPC modus operandi.  Nor is it a surprise to witness the dramatic electoral slog by sitting Presidents – all to the good – and the US contenders “dukeing” it out – in this instance President Obama and Governor Mitt Romney – and billions spent by both sides in this electoral contest.  Instead let’s look at the expectations and consequences of the choices made.

Certainly, the reelection of Barack Obama keeps fixed in place – at least for now – the signature American foreign policy thrust – the rebalancing of US policy toward Asia – the so-called pivot. And indeed Obama’s first foreign sojourn has been to Asia and to the leaders EAS gathering in Phnom Penh.  And on the way Obama – a son of Asia in part – visited Thailand and more startling – Burma – indeed the first American President to make such a visit.  But it was at the EAS, the Leaders forum, where the United States made its presence known.  One of the agreements signed was with the ASEAN, a key player in Asia, where the US and ASEAN signed the “Expanded Economic Initiative” or E3 -an agreement as the White House Press release declares is:

… a new framework for economic cooperation designed to expand trade and investment ties between the United States and ASEAN, creating new business opportunities and jobs in all eleven countries

ASEAN at this time has a combined GDP of USD$2.2 trillion and is the fourth largest export market for the US and largest trading partner overall.

But this agreement signals a more nuanced and sophisticated foreign policy.  US policy has been so militarized over the last decades and in particular by the initiatives in Iraq and Afghanistan that many officials and observers fail to recognize today the critical nature of economic diplomacy.  But the US rebalancing is not just about – and indeed possibly not primarily about – repositioning of forces, though this is important as well.

It is more than evident that foreign policy officials, especially Secretary of State Clinton see that US grand strategy is about – economic diplomacy.  In fact just before the announcement of the E3 initiative between the US and ASEAN, Secretary Clinton delivered a speech at the Singapore Management University entitled, “Delivering on the Promise of Economic Statecraft.”  This important speech includes the ‘startling’ admission that:

For the first time in modern history, nations are becoming major global powers without also becoming global military powers.  So to maintain our strategic leadership in the region, the United States is also strengthening our economic leadership.  And we know very well that America’s economic strength at home and our leadership around the world are a package deal.  Each reinforces and requires the other.

Now in fact the myopia of the Washington beltway is rather breathtaking when you think about it.  Geez foggy bottom has discovered economic diplomacy.  It is not just about guns boys and girls.  I would gently point to my mentor, and indeed a mentor to many in the international relations field  – Richard Rosecrance – now at the Harvard Belfer Center that wrote way back in 1986  The Rise of the Trading State: Commerce and Conquest in the Modern World. The book focused in part on Germany and Japan that had chosen the path of territorial conquest only to discover post war – and following the enormous destruction brought by territorial conquest – that power and plenty and great power status could be acquired through trade, investment and commerce and without the resort to territorial aggrandizement.

In the context then of current US grand strategy then, as Secretary Clinton states:

In short, we are shaping our foreign policy to account for both the economics of power and the power of economics.  The first and most fundamental task is to update our foreign policy and its priorities for a changing world.  … Responding to threats will, of course, always be central to our foreign policy.  But it cannot be our foreign policy.  America has to seize opportunities that will shore up our strength for years to come.  That means following through on our intensified engagement in the Asia Pacific and elevating the role of economics in our work around the world.

Of course the path of US grand strategy is equal parts domestic and foreign policy.  The so-called ‘fiscal cliff’ and debt accumulation of the US do need to be addressed.  To counter China views of US decline, US domestic policy needs to repair its economy – and not on the backs of others.  But US economic initiatives of the sort that Clinton reviews in the Asia Pacific will be critical in raising US economic growth from the anemic to the robust and ensuring the US a continuing influence in the Asia Pacific.

But what about China and its new leadership?  Stay tuned.

Image Credit:  Daily Telegraph –

‘Take A Deep Breath’ But ….

This past week Asia-Pacific leaders gathered in Russia’s east – at Vladivostok in fact – for the annual meeting of APEC.  Though President Obama was absent – the demands of the election season upon him – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was there representing the United States.  Hillary in fact had been doing the rounds prior to the meeting visiting several ASEAN countries before meeting the Chinese leadership in Beijing.  It is evident from those meetings and other conversations that the US and China reside in quite different places when it comes, for example, to resolving the island disputes in the South and East China Seas.  As noted by various media sources there seemed to be little compromise on the part of the two great powers concerning these disputes.  Indeed China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi asserted once again that there was “plentiful historical and jurisprudential evidence” for China’s claims to sovereignty over much of the South China Seas.

In some respects the island disputes represent the leading edge of current tension between the two and indeed in the region.  So, let me go back to examining the grand strategies of the US-China.  In my previous post I looked at the article by Aaron Friedberg in “Bucking Beijing:  An Alternative US China Policy”.  If I can summarize his position it is:  significant hedging and a serious commitment to balancing.  The strategy entails “push back” relying on a balance against China by the US with key allies and a military buildup accompanied by a firm and continuing US commitment.

So there we are:  a traditional grand strategy of balance.  So let me turn to the other article in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs.  This article “How China Sees America: The Sum of Beijing’s Fears” is by Andrew Nathan of Columbia and Andrew Scobell of Rand. On its face this article – and the grand strategy that accompanies it – appears to tone down US strategy and to rely more on diplomacy.  It recommends this on the basis that China is not a revisionist state.  Implicitly they seem to suggest neither is the United States.  As the authors argue:

But widespread perceptions of China as an aggressive, expansionist power are off base. Although China’s relative power has grown significantly in recent decades, the main tasks of with Chinese foreign policy are defensive and have not changed much since the Cold War era: to blunt destabilizing influences from abroad, to avoid territorial losses, to reduce its neighbors’ suspicions, and to sustain economic growth. What has changed in the past two decades is that China is now so deeply integrated into the world economic system that its internal and regional priorities have become part of a larger quest: to define a global role that serves Chinese interests but also wins acceptance from other powers.

On the interdependence conflict continuum, China is much further along the interdependence/cooperation continuum.  As the authors suggest some international relations specialists in China see at least some compatibility of interests:

A small group of mostly younger Chinese who have closely studied the United States argues that Chinese and American interests are not totally at odds.  In their view, the two countries are sufficiently remote from each other that their core security interests need not clash.  They can gain mutual benefit from trade and other common interests.

But the authors also admit that these scholars are outnumbered by strategists – from the military, from the security services – and I suspect the Party who believe that the US remains committed to hegemony and containment of China and these folk “… believe that China must stand up to the United States militarily and that it can win a conflict, should one occur, buy outpacing US military technology and taking advantage of what they believe to be superior morale within China’s armed forces.”

Well if the view is dominant, then it would appear that rising confrontation is inevitable. Here however the authors return to interdependence and the belief that the mutual interdependence even vulnerability “carries the best medium-term hope for cooperation.  Fear of each other keeps alive the imperative to work together.  In the longer term the authors urge the two to create a new equilibrium of power that maintains stability but does so by admitting China to a larger role in the global system.

How can the United States do this – push and cajole China and the United States to this new place.  Well here are some of the elements:

  • The US has to draw clear policy lines without threatening China – pushing back where necessary to establish these lines of division.  This must be done with professionalism and not rhetorical belligerence;
  • The US should push for a Taiwan resolution that Taiwan’s citizens will accept;
  • The US must insist on freedom of navigation in the seas surrounding China;
  • The US must press for an open world economy and defend human rights;
  • The US must maintain its military predominance in the western Pacific, including the South and East China Seas;
  • The US must upgrade its military capabilities, maintain its regional defense alliances, and respond confidently to challenges; and
  • The US must seek a balance of common interests and avoid threatening China and do so by upgrading the mechanisms of collaborative management.

So sans possibly the rhetoric and the threatening behavior, this looks a lot like Aaron Friedberg’s US grand strategy.  In other words hedging and balance.  Well maybe there is no alternative.  But I think not.

Traditional grand strategy seems to suggest two poles – hegemony by the United States or balancing by the United States.  But there is another strategy – that interestingly enough – some realists and now some liberals and even some neoconservatives – suggest is the grand strategy in Asia – “offshore balancing”.  So let’s turn to that approach in the next post.

Image Credit: Official logo of ASEAN

The Fear of the “Boogey Man” And Other Thoughts – China as a Great Power

I suppose it is partly due to US electoral season but the “China Threat School” has been rather busy in the last while.  Stephen Walt blogger  at and professor of international relations at Harvard has noticed it as well.  In a recent blog post “Inflating the China Threat” he chronicles stories  from several mainstream media where the talk is all about China raising its nuclear deterrent capability.  As Walt argues:

The discussion is all pretty Strangelovian, of course, but nuclear strategists get paid to think about all sorts of elaborate and far-fetched scenarios.  In sum, those fiendish Chinese are doing precisely what any sensible power would do: they are trying to preserve their own second-strike deterrent by modernizing their force, to include the development of multiple-warheads missiles that would be able to overcome any defenses the United States might choose to build.

I won’t dwell in the ‘ghoulish world’ of counterforce, countervalue, first strike and second strike capabilities, but international relations’ experts remain dogged in their efforts to describe the Grand Strategies for the United States and China and to establish a path for both to avoid the rivalry, competition and even conflict that historically has occurred in great power relations with so-called power transitions.

It is that vein that I recommend back-to-back pieces by two American experts writing in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs.  First there is the piece by Aaron Freiberg a professor of the Woodrow Wilson School of Princeton University who previously served in the George W. Bush Administration as the Deputy Assistant of National Security Affairs in the Office of the Vice-President – yes, the Darth Vader of the Bush Administration.  The article is “Bucking Beijing: An Alternative U.S. China Policy”. The other perspective is tackled by well known China expert Andrew J. Nathan of Columbia University and his co-author Andrew Scobell at the Rand Corporation – their article “How China Sees America: The Sum of Beijings Fears”.

It is now common to describe the China-US relationship as the most important relationship of the 21st century.  In this instance this common declaration is in fact – right.  But then how each should engage the other remains opaque. It is particularly difficult when when it comes to China.  The fact is China experts or others are unable to see into the “blackbox” of Chinese decision-making.  Most critically, we  have little idea of how the Chinese military influences China’s Grand Strategy.

But then we don’t really  have a good handle on what China’s Grand Strategy is, anyway.  Think how we’ve been speculating in the last few years on what China’s core interests are? Whether China since 2010 has exhibited a “new assertiveness”? Or what military modernization strategy China is following – and to what end?

Into that opaque environment the China Threat School wades in with relative ease.  For realistically in the face of such uncertainty a “hedging strategy” is not unreasonably a favorable option.

Now Aaron Freiberg’s analysis provides a sophisticated two-headed US hedging strategy. This strategy is two-headed because it requires the US to both balance China’s growing power and to seek economic engagement as well. As he declares:

Developing and funding a credible strategy for countering China’s [military] buildup and adopting a tougher approach to economic engagement will both be important. So, too, will be continuing to stand firm on issues of principle. … What China’s current leaders ultimately want—regional hegemony—is not something their counterparts in Washington are willing to give.  …  Short of Beijing’s genuine democratic transition, however, Washington will not willingly abandon its policy of balancing and withdraw from the region.

Freiberg then underscores the vital nature of  firm US actions in this region:

The stakes could hardly be higher. Since the mid-1990s, China has been piecing together what Pentagon planners describe as asymmetric “anti-access/area-denial” (A2/AD) capabilities. … Absent a strong U.S. response, Chinese planners might eventually come to believe that their growing A2/AD capabilities are sufficiently impressive to scare the United States off from intervening or provoking a confrontation in the region. Worse still, they might convince themselves that if the United States were to intervene, they could cripple its conventional forces in the western Pacific, leaving it with few options other than the threat of nuclear escalation. Maintaining stability requires reducing the likelihood that China’s leaders could ever see initiating such an attack as being in their interest.  A direct U.S.-Chinese military confrontation is, of course, extremely unlikely. But the aim of the balancing half of U.S. strategy must be to ensure that it remains so, even as China’s power grows.

It is a get tough/stay tough kind of policy – with effective military pushback from the United States and a credible commitment to allies in the region and avoid any incipient appeasement by these allies toward China:

In the absence of strong signals of continuing commitment and resolve from the United States, its friends may grow fearful of abandonment, perhaps eventually losing heart and succumbing to the temptations of appeasement.  …  When it comes to Asia, the United States does not have the option of what The New Yorker first described as the Obama administration’s penchant for “leading from behind.

So a renewed firmness – apparently that has slide in the recent Obama years. But suggests Freiberg there is the need to promote engagement with China as well.  But this economic engagement needs to be “righted”.  Freiberg declares:

Rather than treating engagement as desirable for its own sake, the United States needs to take a more clear-eyed and results-oriented approach. The place to start is trade. The bilateral economic relation- ship still provides benefits to both sides, but it has recently grown increasingly lopsided. Beijing uses its currency policy and subsidies of various kinds to boost its exports.

Here it is then – strong on defense, strong on balancing against the rise of China, and a tough but fair economic policy.

So let’s look across the divide to the piece by Nathan and Scobell.  Shortly.

Image Credit: WWE – the Boogeyman






“Pivots” and Great Powers – Both Sides Now





I could not resist – and a big thanks to Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins for the reference to their famous tune.  I f you recognize the reference – well you know …

In 2009 I think  – the draft of this book chapter was done in 2008 – Zhang Yunling of CASS – “Mr. APEC” in China –  and myself wrote a chapter on the regional dimension in the US-China relationship in an edited volume by Gu Guoliang and Richard Rosecrance called Power and Restraint: A Shared Vision for the US-China Relationship.   Zhang Yunling and I tried to capture the US-China relationship this way at the time:

China’s strategy is based on three principles: first, China recognizes the United States as a superpower; indeed the current sole superpower; second , China will cooperate with the United States in as many areas as possible; and third it would seem China will continue to increase its strength, including military strength, and raise its status both regionally and globally.  From China’s perspective, as long as the United States recognizes and takes into account China’s interests, China is unlikely to challenge the overall US leadership. In the final analysis, the most significant question for China is, how can it balance its support for democracy, domestically and externally, with the defense of sovereignty whether Taiwan, Central Asia or the Asia-Pacific generally?

Well, that was then and this is now!  It would not appear to me that these constitute the bedrock “rules” that define this most important bilateral relationship.  But let’s take a look at the rules and where the relationship is today.

The context has changed a great deal since the full onset of the global financial crisis of 2008.  It appears that the “Chinese foreign policy elite” – I am not sure exactly who these people are – but there is a view from western experts – I know these folks far better – that there is a from Beijing the view that the US is in decline and that it is losing its hegemonic status.  Furthermore, and more ominously, as a result in  part of the US Administration’s “Asian pivot”, these same China experts have a heightened suspicion that the US is unwilling to adjust to its relative decline and China’s rise.  As Brooking’s Kenneth Lieberthal recently described it at

In Chinese eyes, the United States has always been concerned primarily with protecting its own global dominance – which perforce means doing everything it can to retard or disrupt China’s rise.  That America lost its stride in the global financial crisis and the weak recovery since then while China in 2010 became the world’s second-largest economy has only increased Beijing’s concerns about Washington’s determination postpone the day when China inevitably surpasses the United States to become the world’s most powerful country.

So it would seem that China has drawn back from the view that the US is the only superpower. Instead many China experts now suggest that China is a global power as presumably is the United States.  Quite honestly I haven’t s clue what a “global power” is – and I suspect it is simply a way for Chinese experts to assert that China is a superpower – without having to actually proclaim it.  There is little question that both states are great powers – lord knows no one would question each being in the G20 etc., but then including India also makes sense. Clearly India is not yet a “global power”.  It seems to me to be disingenuous to manufacture this new category – especially if you compare the two by military or economic metrics – it ain’t so.  I think too many experts distort time lines.  It more than a decade, possibly two, before China’s economy will match the US so let’s not conflate that future with the present.  And as for the military and strategic partnerships – not even close.

Though it is true that the US and China have sought to cooperate in a number of critical areas – especially in the global economy, notably China’s leaders urging collective effort to resolve the eurozone crisis and to avoid grater turbulence – in other areas there is no collaborative spirit.  Most puzzling is China’s determination to support Russia to the bitter end on Syria.  It is unnecessary and with little that would suggest that there is a Chinese interest in playing “poodle to Putin”.

More contentious are the growing demands and “police” encounters in the South China Sea between China a number of Asian countries.  China has asserted a broad territorial claim that encompasses much of the South China Sea.  In addition there are territorial clashes between China and the Japan in the East China Sea. Many in Washington have declared a new China assertiveness threatening regional stability.  The US has meanwhile – without declaring sides on the territorial claims, has insisted on freedom of navigation and a multilateral approach to resolving the territorial demands.  China has in turn rejected this approach – and at least for now has insisted that these territorial claims should be settled by the contending parties only – bilaterally in other words.

The new assertiveness has enabled many in Washington to focus on the growing military modernization in China’s armed services and calls to meet such military challenges.  The point here is that the so-called new assertiveness has drawn close attention to China’s military threats and the consequences of the growing military modernization.

Where then do the two great powers need to go? Here are some actions that the two can adopt that are likely to lower the temperature on the competition, lead to a new set of rules and can be accomplished largely without the other:

  • Both take a deep breath and limit the degree of hedging each proposes for the other.  Hedging focuses on worst case and frequently results in outcomes  each is concerned to hedge against;
  • The US de-emphasize rhetorically the Asian pivot; work more quietly with ASEAN allies to generate a Code of Conduct acceptable to both sides;
  • China turn down the volume on the South and East China Seas and at least in the case of the South China Seas propose concretely joint development agreements with the parties – Vietnam, Philippines, and others.  These agreements enable the parties to side step the territorial claims for the present; and
  • China needs to rethink its Syria position in the UN and consider abstention as opposed to veto.

I was fortunate enough early in the week to hear former Australian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister speak on the Rise of China.  If you take a look at the the article entitled “The West Isn’t Ready for the Rise of China”, the piece fairly reflects his remarks at the Munk School of Global Affairs.  I thought I’d just provide a quick sense of the approach that Rudd brings to this critical relationship:

So, what then is to be done?  Is it possible for the west (and, for that matter, the rest) to embrace a central organizing principle as we engage China over the future of the international order?  I believe it is.  But it will require collective intellectual effort, diplomatic co-ordination, sustained political will and most critically, continued, open and candid engagement with the Chinese political elite.  So, what might the core elements of such an engagement look lie?

I will turn to Rudd’s perspective.  This should allow me to describe the new rules of collaboration required for the US-China relationship.

For this particular “thought exercise”, I will try and describe what are the rules of behavior that can ensure that the competitiveness and rivalry can be contained – that rivalry and competition do not escalate to heightened and sustained rivalry – and then even to conflict.


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The Current Heart of China “Assertiveness” and the United States “Pivot”



This past week ASEAN ministerial meetings popped up repeatedly in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh.  These meetings served as diplomatic and political backdrop to the growing clash of interests in the seas east, west and south of China.

ASEAN has been a central player in Asian diplomatic and economic affairs since its formation in the late 1960s.  But on its face this is not necessarily more than a important regional organization.  Now, however, at least since 2008, one of the key ASEAN players, Indonesia, has also become a member of the G20 Leaders Summit.  The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) a security dialogue forum has reached out to include key players in Asia – most notably China and the United States.  And the growing territorial claims especially, but not only, in the South China Sea have drawn in these key players to the security dialogue.  Given that there is no larger security organizational setting where not just regional powers but also the great powers engage here, the ASEAN meetings do appear to fit into the global summitry galaxy of institutions.

Much attention has been paid to the continuing tension that has hung over this region now for several years with contending territorial claims to the South China Sea by China, and various ASEAN and members including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei and for good measure Taiwan.  There have also been clashes between Japan and China over the East China Sea.  The maritime area is a key for the global transport of goods and vital energy resources.  Over half the world’s total trade transit through the area.  And  there have been increasing signs of resource riches – especially oil and gas – in the area as well.

The clash of interests was very much in evidence at, or surrounding the 45th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Phnom Penh early in the week followed by the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting.  The ARF is one of the few diplomatic settings for security dialogue in Asia.  This year’s ARF meeting – the 19th –  includes not only ASEAN Foreign Ministers but dialogue countries including – Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, the People’s Republic of China, the European Union , India, Japan, North Korea, Republic of Korea, Mongolia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Russia, East Timor, United States and Sri Lanka – 26 countries plus the EU in all.

Both meetings have highlighted the tensions between ASEAN and its allies and China. The United States has used these meetings to display rhetorical support for ASEAN countries without necessarily supporting any of the specific claims of these ASEAN countries.  The US efforts would appear to be an effort since at least 2010 to insinuate itself in East and Southeast Asia – and draw closer to various ASEAN states especially Vietnam and the Philippines.

In the South China Sea the ASEAN FM have been pushing to engage China in a long standing effort to resolve conflicts between the various states.  On Monday the FM sought to complete wording for a document to set out a Code of Conduct.  The Philippines have pressed for wording that would include measures to resolve territorial disputes and to raise the conflict in the Scarborough Shoal between the Philippines and China.

Manila appears to be leading the ASEAN push to persuade China to accept a Code of Conduct (COC) that would go some way to resolve the territorial disputes themselves. There has been a ten-year effort to complete a code of conduct which most ASEAN leaders have see as a legally binding document that would govern the behavior in the various seas and “establish protocols for resolving future disputes peacefully”. (see the WSJ “Beijing Defends Sea Claims as Clinton Visits Region” by Patrick Barta July 11, 2012)

China has been unwilling to discuss such a document signalling instead that it would be prepared only to discuss a more limited code aimed at “building trust and deepening cooperation” but not one that settles the territorial disputes, which it insist would be better negotiated with each country separately.  In the current diplomatic settings China has urged that officials leave discussions off the agenda.

For China, the collective ASEAN effort to promote a binding  COC has posed unwelcome interference in what Beijing has described not as territorial disputes between China and ASEAN but only disputes with some ASEAN states.  China has insisted that resolution of these conflicts be undertaken bilaterally.

Since the 2010 ARF meeting the United States Secretary of State has made it clear that the United States supports a multilateral solution and insists on the freedom of the seas:

Issues such as freedom of navigation and lawful exploitation of maritime resources often involve a wide region, and approaching them strictly bilaterally could be a recipe for confusion and even confrontation.

The Chinese position has remained adamant in the run-up to the ARF that US and various ASEAN positions were “deliberate hype” and intended to interfere with relations between China and ASEAN.   The Foreign Ministry continued to insist that the issue be left off the ARF agenda.

Meanwhile in the East China Sea tension rose significantly after two Chinese patrol vessels entered waters claimed by Japan. This incident followed an announcement that the Japanese government was considering buying the Senkaku Islands (referred to by the Chinese as the Diaoyu Islands).  Though the announcement was part of a complicated negotiation by the current Noda government caused by strong domestic political interests, the announcement and tensions quickly engaged both Japan and China.

A full blown diplomatic row at the ARF was only avoided when the ASEAN countries failed to reach agreement on the language of the COC.  But the tensions and potential conflict remain.

China has certainly not backed away from the its diplomatic positions.  And as the most recent East China Sea incident with Japan suggest is prepared to exert measured “military” action to underpin its assertion of interests.  Meanwhile has expressed a view that inserts itself into the regional conflict – and likely garners ASEAN country support – but at a low immediate cost while not directly challenging China – yet.

For the moment US-China engagement retains the “upper hand”.  But the position could well sour were military action – even though likely of a rather limited sort and unlikely to be between the US and China – were to occur.

Miscalculations and mistakes happen.

Image Credit: Stratfor 2009

Steve Clemons and the Revisionist Liberal American Foreign Policy Voice


So returning to Steve Clemons’s and his review of grand strategy approaches in the Atlantic with his “Rebuilding America’s Stock of Power” which itself is a lead in for Steve to lead an  Atlantic Live session that will be streamed live on January 11th.  Well, I hope to get there but meanwhile let me attempt a partial review of Steve and his review of various ‘in the beltway’ types in the most recent issue (Issue 23, Winter 2012) of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

Steve has an outsized personality that is a Washington and New York presence.  Now Steve is a realist – a ‘happy realist’ – but a realist nevertheless.  The ‘bug-a-boo’ for Steve is the rise of China.  As Steve points to:

China is driving realities in the global economic sphere today; not the United States – and America, to revive its economy, needs to figure out how to drive Chinese-held dollars (along with German and Arab state held reserves) into productive capacity inside the United States while not giving away everything.

America must knock back Chinese predatory behaviors by becoming more shrewdly predatory and defensive of America’s core economic capacities.  Without a shift in America’s economic stewardship – which also means a shift in the macro-focused, neoliberal oriented, market fundamentalist staff of the current Obama team – the US economy will flounder and on a relative basis, sink compared to the rise of the rest.

For these experts, and for Steve I suspect, it is all about finding restraint in a new US grand strategy.   With the end of the Iraq War for the US and a growing intensity to end their military involvement in Afghanistan, there is a loud and growing chorus of voices in Washington to husband US resources.  Turn down the urge to go abroad to slay dragons.  The attack is on against unrestrained US interventionism which Steve argues is, as he calls it, “the dominant personality” of both US political parties.  So for the Democrats you have the humanitarian interventionists – read that as Libya – and for the Republicans you have the neoconservatives’ regime change – read that as Iraq.  The critique from Steve:

Neoconservatives and liberal interventionists put a premium on morality, on reacting and moving in the world along lines determined by an emotional and sentimental commitment to the basic human rights of other citizens – with little regard to the stock of means and resources the US has to achieve the great moral ends they seek.

So restraint and husbanding resources – economic and military – is the new objective.  And each of the experts, in their own way, urge it.  Thus Charlie Kupchan declares that in order to rebuild American leadership the US must:

  • restore the American consensus  on foreign policy and the rebuilding of its economy;
  • work with the newly emerging market powers to create a new global order and protect a liberal international order;
  • revitalize the transatlantic relationship; and then
  • judiciously retrench and deal with the overextension of US global commitments.

In a similar vein  a quick look at this recent press release at the CFR website for Richard Betts’s  new book entitled,  American Force: Dangers, Delusions, and Dilemmas in National Security, Betts too recommends, “the United States exercise greater caution and restraint, using force less frequently (“stay out”) but more decisively (“all-in”)”.

Bruce Jentleson performs a reprise of his and Steve Weber’s approach in The End of Arrogance.  In the journal article Bruce narrates a Ptolemaic versus Copernican world, where the central image is the displacement of the US from the center of the universe.  Now contrary to more realist interpretations, this diffusion of power as described by Bruce, anticipates that China too – the new rising power – will be unable to exert hegemonic power in this new 21st century global system.  As Jentleson declares,”Peaceful rise is one thing, assertive dominance quite another.” The Copernican world, according to Jentleson, is a disorderly place, but a global order that, “… means demonstrating the capacity to implement policies that reduce our vulnerabilities, enhance our competitiveness, and cultivate a shared sense of purpose.”

Diffusion of power, the end of hegemony or at least the enlargement of leadership with the inclusion of the rising powers like Brazil, India and China, and a requirement that the United States husband its resources – economic and military.

Steve argues that he holds a line similar to the Kupchan approach though he criticizes Kupchan for holding to such neatly drawn pillars of action for the US.  But it seems to me that constraint has been the mantra of the US before – back to the 1970’s and the end of Vietnam.  It is not a strategy and it is apt to be forgotten, or ignored, by a new political leadership especially across the political divide that exists in the US.  The dilemma that exists today is not a search to enunciate some new grand strategy, but an effort, and here I tend to agree with Bruce Jentleson, to ‘lead’ in initiating collective behavior – the impetus for collective action.  And there needs to be a concerted to avoid the China Threat syndrome that is embedded in Washington.  Restraint will evaporate unless US policy makers find a way to open a political space for China. This is the overwhelming need in US foreign policy.  In the coming years, according to the review of Richard Betts’s book

China is the main potential problem because it poses a choice Americans are reluctant to face. Washington can strive to control the strategic equation in Asia, or it can reduce the odds of conflict with China. But it will be a historically unusual achievement if it manages to do both,” notes Betts. Although conflict with China is not inevitable, “the United States is more likely to go to war with China than with any other major power.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

What’s So Grand About Grand Strategy – Dan Drezner?

So on this auspices July 4th, I want all my American friends to enjoy their Independence Day.  Meanwhile thought I’d focus on US policy.  The impact on global policy and the rising BRICSAM is always significant.  And this is not any policy – but US grand strategy.

Dan Drezner in a recent edition of Foreign Affairs has taken a bead on one of those classic subjects of international relations – grand strategy.  Now I don’t wish to cast any aspirations on the famous blogger, but what is this new-style IR man “slumming”  in the hoary field of grand strategy?

Now like any good classic IR theorist, Dan starts off with a definition.  As he describes it, “grand strategy”:

… consists of a clear articulation of national interests married to a set of operational plans for advancing them. Sometimes, such strategies are set out in advance, with actions following in sequence.  Other times, strategic narratives are offered as coherent explanations connecting past policies with future ones.  Either way, a well-articulated grand strategy can offer an interpretive framework that tells everybody, including foreign policy officials themselves, how to understand the administration’s behavior.

The notion of grand strategy seems pretty critical to foreign policy action and possible foreign policy success but as Dan admits, “…most of the time it is not.” According to Dan grand strategy is only important when it indicates a change in policy.  And even there, according to Drezner, the true reserve currency is “power” – would you expect any difference from an IR type?

If then power is the sine qua non of influence, why so much attention to grand strategy.  The petty reason for such attention, says Dan, is that IR theorists all want to become George Kennan and write the next “Mr. X” article. Hmm.

The substantive reason for paying attention to grand strategy is that every once and awhile grand strategy does matter.  Says Dan: “Ideas matter most when actors are operating in uncharted waters.” Massive global disruptions for one or “power transition” for a second are both times of evident uncertainty in international  relations and paying attention to grand strategy may provide useful information to determine the behavior – and critically the intentions – of key great power actors.  And  – lo and behold – this a period where both conditions exist.  This lowly blogger has commented on both but especially on the power transition question – given the rise of China.

So then what is the Obama grand strategy?  For that Dan quotes Ben Rhodes from the Obama Administration:

If you were to boil it all down to a bumper sticker, it’s ‘Wind down these two wars, reestablish American standing and leadership in the world, and focus on a broader set of priorities, from Asia and the global economy to a nuclear-non-proliferation regime.’

Well it’s the biggest bumper sticker we would have ever seen.  And it doesn’t sell me that this is a grand strategy – or that the Obama Administration actually has one.  Indeed I think Dan inadvertently hits the nail on the head: first the Obama Administration has been moving from one grand strategy to another.  The Administration has reset several times and the latest version seems to be a more assertive counter punching strategy – the US reinsertion in the South China Seas trouble for example – more on that in an upcoming blog post – and a continuing effort to restore American strength at home.  On the latter, the politics of the US and the continuing sour taste in US domestic politics makes Obama efforts seem weak and ineffective.  On the counter punching it is hard to identify such a strategic direction when US efforts in Libya seem so difficult to fit such a grand strategy and where the best explanation for it is “leading from behind.”

Dan’s efforts are heroic but ultimately inapt.  At best the Obama Administration follows a course of pragmatism – and as such pragmatism is incapable of describing any grand strategy at all.  I’m afraid you walk away from Dan’s good efforts shaking one’s head and muttering – ‘he’s trying too hard.’

Not George Kennan yet; but don’t blame Dan; blame the Administration.