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






Still Looking for an Apt Description – G20 and Global Summitry

As I was catching up on my global governance reading – yes, this is what I do at the beach – I came across a study by by two Brookings scholars – Homi Kharas and Domenico Lombardi on the G20 Leaders Summit.  Homi Kharas is a senior fellow and the deputy director for the Global Economy and Development Program at Brookings and Domenico Lombardi is a senior fellow and in the same Brookings program.  The piece “The Group of Twenty: Origins, Prospects Challenges for Global Governance” is worth reading and provides excellent detail on the work of previous G20 ministerials and the the more current G20 leader summits.   The study appears to have emerged in August though it also seems to have been written prior to the Los Cabos G20 Leaders Summit.  No matter.

What remains interesting are the conclusions the two authors draw on this relatively new “high table” of global governance   The fact is experts continue to struggle to comprehend fully the influence of this new global summitry institution and to determine moreover its effectiveness.  It would seem that the two authors see the G20 as more “effective” than the predecessor G8 but they continue to dwell on its shortcomings especially with respect to representation and legitimacy.   I would also suggest that the authors still struggle to understand where the G20 has most effectively moved the yardsticks of global governance.

So how do they see this new global summitry “beast”:

As we look back, however, there is a sense that, although the G-20 was quite effective as a crisis manager, its effectiveness as an enduring facilitating framework for international cooperation has proved mixed at best. … The G-20 does not operate on the basis of setting specific goals, financial commitments or timelines in the same fashion as the G-8. That is because it has organized itself as a process-oriented forum [emphasis added] for first helping to build a consensus and then providing the required political momentum to ensure implementation. … In fact, those decisions are being made through an engagement with other forums and treaty-based institutions where there are established governance procedures for representation and voice.  … For the time being, the G-20 appears to be the “best available option” for global economic governance. It is not designed to achieve institutional legitimacy per se, and thus it has chosen to work with other bodies that have a more inclusive and universal representation. It is not an implementing body, but it encourages others to rise to the challenge of addressing the issues that its agenda advances.  … Leaders who now participate in it are finding ways to demonstrate to their own electorates that they are making a difference in the conduct of global affairs through the stance they take at its summit meetings.  This link between global and domestic dialogues, and the building of popular support to address global challenges, may yet become the greatest value that the G-20 adds.

I see their first point as significant.  Most observers would argue that no matter what else one says about the G20, the early coordinated success of leaders’ efforts to avoid a complete global financial meltdown marks a highpoint in the effectiveness of the organization.

So the G20 is an effective crisis manager.  But it may not be true at all.  While the G20 effectively steered the global economy away from the abyss, thereafter it has proven itself to be a rather feeble crisis manager.  In fact the insistent intrusion of the eurozone crisis has significantly distracted and sapped the Leaders Summit.  Ambiguity surrounding its role in the crisis and the German determination to enforce austerity has motivated the eurozone and then the G20 to “kick the can down the road” as many experts have commented on.  G20 Leaders have found themselves unable to “move the yardsticks”  on this crisis but  – and more importantly – the Leaders have found themselves unable to redirect the agenda firmly toward to big item crisis prevention matters.  Both the French and Mexican agendas have largely been jettisoned.  So the G20 is has foundered between the Scylla of crisis management and the Charybdis of crisis prevention.  And it appears that is where we sit today.

As for the debate over institutionalization.  Well as I have pointed out in the past – I am not attracted to to the formal treaty-based structural forms of global governance. And even if I was – it ain’t going to happen.  But for experts and officials closer in to the reality of the Bretton Woods and UN system of institutions, the allure is just too great.  And that is certainly where the authors are, looking for integration with a reformed IMF, etc., etc.  But even though irresistibly drawn to formal institutions they go part way by pointing to the engagement with these formal treaty bound institutions.  But in fact the tasking by the G20 with the Bretton Woods institutions such as the IMF and the transgovernmental regulatory networks – FSB, IOSCO, BCBS, etc., is not only engagement but creation of a new structural architecture of formal and informal institutions.  It is all of one piece gents as I’ve argued in the “Iceberg Theory” of global governance.

Messy but effective possibly – as long as the G20 shifts from crisis to prevention.  And on that score we are not there yet.  So put your measuring instruments aside.

Image Credit: – Washington G20 Leaders Summit 2008



Measuring Success – The G20 and Food Security

There continues to be a raging debate – all right so in global governance and global summitry there is hardly likely to be a raging anything – but there continues to be a serious difference of opinion among officials and experts over the success of the G20 Leaders Summit.  Some have argued that the G20 proved effective, at least in the immediate context of the financial crisis in 2008 – especially after the turbulence from the Lehman Brothers’s bankruptcy.  Others, while admitting the immediate success have suggested that as this critical crisis receded, so did the effectiveness of the G20.  Thus, the G20 Leaders has become unwilling to accept the economic and financial coordination identified by various international organizations and regulatory bodies.

Well I suspect there is no immediate way to resolve the debate – to determine definitively – the overarching success or failure – the final measure of effectiveness for global governance –   of the G20 Leaders Summit.

But I think there is a possibility of some assessment in the near future.  The possible metric that we may use to gauge the G20 Leaders capability to coordinate action and to avoid, or at least ameliorate a possible crisis comes in the area of food prices.   The assessment available is, or will be, the G20 action(s)/or not, to avoid a recurrence of food price spikes that led in 2008 to riots in a number of developing countries.

Since that time global summitry has been busy addressing – at least rhetorically – the question of food price volatility.  Former President Sarkozy was particularly engaged in food security though he leaned toward the influence of derivatives on commodity prices as much or more of a direct factor on food supply and demand.

First at the Seoul Summit the G20 Leaders identified a food security pillar in the Seoul Consensus.  Then the ministers of Agriculture gathered in June 2011 in Paris and produced an “Action Plan on Food Price Volatility and Agriculture”.  And even more recently at the Los Cabos Summit the agriculture vice-ministers annexed a Report (Report May 18, 2012) to the Los Cabos Declaration (see paragraphs 55 through 62) describing the progress made on previous food security commitments.

Now comes the drought in North America that poses an immediate threat to the supply of commodities and the real prospect of significant prices increases. Apparently it would seem that Mexican, French and US officials are urging their colleagues to hold a conference call in the week of August 27th to discuss the possibility of calling a meeting of the Rapid Response Forum (RRF).  The RRF is a creature of AMIS or the Agricultural Market Information System  (AMIS) that was launched in September 2011.  The main objective of AMIS is to encourage major players on agri-food markets to share data and enhance information systems.  That would seem more than reasonable but a number of nations particularly China have been unwilling to do so and private agri-business – major players in the food distribution chain – are reluctant to play as well.

Now the RRF is a body designed to “promote early discussion among decision-level officials about abnormal international market conditions.”  What could this body discuss?  Well it might well encourage producing states to avoid placing food export bans on key commodities.  It was the Russian embargo that exacerbated prices in the already volatile commodity markets in 2008.  And major producers – the US for instance that uses approximately 40 percent of the corn crop to make biofuels – could consider lifting the mandates on bio-fuel production.

Well you’ll not be surprised that a number of experts have already “pooh poohed” the likelihood of action by G20 countries.  As trade expert Simon Evenett was quoted as saying:

Beyond words, expect little from the G20 on rising food prices. … With a string of broken promises on protectionism, no serious enforcement, monitoring well after the horse has bolted, and a tendency to pull their punches, any G20 promises on food trade won’t be taken seriously – by the G20 themselves or by anyone else.

Well here is a useful test of the G20s capacity to coordinate action in the face of what appears to be a real prospect of price increase in such critical commodities as corn, wheat and soybeans.


Image Credit: OMAFRA report authored by John Chippa July 13, 2012

It Takes Two to Tango

As I mentioned in the previous post, “‘Pivots’ and Great Powers – Both Sides Now” I thought I should dwell a bit on former Australian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd’s speech/article called “The West Isn’t Ready for the Rise of China” (for the article grab it at the  The fact is Rudd – prime minister or not, or foreign minister or not – is one of the smartest foreign policy dudes, especially when it comes to China, in all of the Asia-Pacific.

So what did Rudd say and what did he write?  Now the title comes from a quote in the article “It Takes Two to Tango.” It was Rudd himself who drew attention to the quote.  It was Rudd’s assertion in his recent Munk School of Global Affairs speech – that closely tracked the New Statesman article – that the quote comes from Mae West.  My exploration suggests – “it ain’t so”. Of all the quotes attributed to the famous Mae West no list seems to include that quote.  But the quote itself is a reminder of the impact the powers have on each other.  More on that below.

So what is Rudd’s basic point?  Well it comes from the sub-title.  China’s rise to dominance in the international system is, as Rudd suggests, “imminent”.  In fact what he actually says is, “… the west is completely unprepared for China’s imminent global dominance”.   More pointedly Rudd then poses the key question: we seem unable to determine whether China is prepared to accept the international order the west created over the last 50 years or not.  Will China, as Rudd says, “accept the culture, norms and structure of the postwar order?  Or will China seek to change it?”:

Importantly, some might say disturbingly, the matter remains unresolved among the Chinese political elite themselves.  … At present, there is no centrally agreed grand design.  In other words, on this great question of our age, the jury is still out.

While there are some elites in China that favor the continuation of the liberal economic order – obviously those in particular that have benefited from reform and opening – there are political forces in China – conservative political forces and the military – that do not.  It is not that they haven’t benefitted from the dramatic sustained economic growth but they certainly are resistant to greater domestic political reform.  Moreover, the military – like militaries everywhere adopts hedging and worst case scenario strategies – which raise countermeasures and mistrust in the region and heightens rivalry and competition. The most evident arena of tension recently is the South China Sea but there is tension between China and Japan in the East China Sea.  Nevertheless, it remains possible for the west (this is the term Rudd uses but the inclusion of Korea and Japan etc., make this an odd reference) and others, according to Rudd, to have an impact on China’s views and to help China’s leaders to accept a continuation of the current international political order:

Moreover, the rest of the world’s ability to shape the contours of China’s future global role constructively represents a limited window of opportunity, while China’s international debate is still fluid, while Chinese influence continues to be contested, and well before final strategic settings become entrenched.

So Rudd carries a relatively positive message – though clearly not a starry-eyed one.  And as he argues, effective engagement with China that retains the liberal order will only come with concerted and collective effort:

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.

Rudd has outlined a number of steps for the strategic engagement of China and its elites.  But before we get there let me comment on a number of aspects of this analysis that seem to me to raise questions over Rudd’s policy roadmap.  First, Rudd’s approach suffers from what I call, “Time Travel”.  Though it may be a helpful rhetorical device, I think the notion of China’s imminent global dominance is just wholly exaggerated.  Here I am focused on the “imminent”.   While China’s dominance in the international political order may come – it is no time soon.  There well may be a long period of rivalry and competition but given strategic-military deployments the China “dominance” will for the immediate future remain regional.  Which doesn’t mean that engagement of China is not required but it leaves global leadership and influences more fluid and less likely to be dominated by China.

The same “Time Travel” dilemma seems to me to be evident when he examines the emergence of China as the largest economy.  Now Rudd admits that it is likely to occur sometime over the next two decades – though he believes that it likely to come sooner rather than later. Fine, but we are still talking some significant time in the future – let’s be optimistic – ten to 12 years. That impacts then on the framing and immediacy of change to the political order and the character of the engagement called for in the global setting.  More critically is the reality that real economic power derives from GDP per capita and not just the absolute size of an economy.  And China is somewhere in the neighborhood of 100th in GDP per capita.  And beyond the low per capita GDP, we should be hesitant to predict China’s economic trajectory from past growth.  So while China’s growth has been phenomenal and sustained over thirty years there is still a significant distance to go.  And again that impacts on China’s position in the global political order.

On the policy roadmap Rudd believes that the fashioning of China’s engagement necessarily occurs in the Asia-Pacific and where Rudd suggests, “ … the new regional institution underpinned by shared international values will be needed to craft principles and practices of common security and common property for the future.”  Now Rudd, to his credit, has consistently over the years urged the need for a broad Asia-Pacific security community.  While Prime Minister Rudd promoted the Asia Pacific Community, now he believes that the East Asia Summit (EAS)  – from his perspective the successor to the APc – is the appropriate critical setting arraying together all the major powers of the region, including now India, Russia, the US and China, around a single table with, as he describes it, “an open mandate on political, economic and security issues.”

The security dimensions of the EAS and other multilateral settings, however, are contested by China.  In the recent ASEAN Ministerials and the ARF meetings China strongly resisted the discussion of the South China Sea territorial disputes, which China has insisted should only be handled bilaterally.  The EAS – the summit leaders forum – is just as likely to find China arguing that these disputes should not be included on the leaders’ agenda.  Rudd’s comments in Q&A at the Munk School argued that these territorial matters were taken up in any case.  Well, they were but at the cost of no communiqué and the discussions at the ministerials say little about the likelihood of placing it on the leaders agenda.  It is not the smooth path implied by Rudd.

Multilateral discussions are critical.  Engaging China is necessary.  But several conclusions can be drawn from contemporary events and behaviors.  First, the asymmetry of power with many ASEAN members make the inclusion of most of these states open to division, especially in the context of consensus.   Collective effort is important but the critical relationship is the bilateral US-China one.  The Australias, Indonesias, Japans and Koreas are significant and can assist in supporting the liberalizing elements within the Chinese system, but it is the engagement of the US that remains critical.  If the US-China relationship cannot maintain engagement and a collaborative spirit, I am doubtful the rest can ensure success

Image Credit: Wikipedia – Kevin Rudd