Four Frameworks and a Contested Space

Remarks to the National War College

It’s a pleasure to speak to this colloquium on “the use of the diplomatic instrument” of statecraft with China. The subject is timely. China, its international environment, and its relations with the United States are undergoing a sea change, and American diplomacy seems a bit adrift. This happens from time to time. In fact, it has happened a lot more than most people realize. Bear with me as I review some of the history of U.S. diplomacy toward China before presenting some thoughts about what course we should now chart.

Today is May 7. On this day in 1945, Germany surrendered, bringing to an end six years of war in Europe. Americans looked forward to victory in Asia. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died just two fortnights before. He bequeathed to his successors a vision of a new world order commanded by four great powers — what he called “the Four Policemen” — America, China, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom. Each of the Four Policemen was to maintain order in its respective sphere: the United States in the Western Hemisphere; China, with American help and advice, in East Asia and the Western Pacific; the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe and the central Eurasian landmass; and Britain in its empire and in Western Europe.

FDR’s proposed “trusteeship of the powerful” soon dissolved. It was replaced by the bipolar contentions of the Cold War. The Soviet Union emerged as an implacable threat to American interests and values. China was its apparently faithful Asian comrade.

Most Americans, including FDR, had imagined that China was or would be united under the staunchly Christian command of Generalissimo and Mme. Chiang Kai-shek and that it was destined to be a great, pro-American democracy and ally in the post-war era. The United States saw such a China as the logical Policeman of Asia. (This is why, incidentally, America helped China to take the surrender of the Japanese garrisons in the Paracel and Spratly Islands and to place Chinese troops there. Ironically, I think we can be sure that, had China also asserted its claim to the Senkaku Archipelago at that moment, the United States would have endorsed it.) But China was undergoing a gory metamorphosis and had other things on its mind.

In the first of many disillusionments for Americans, China turned into something altogether different from what U.S. policy planners and the American public had anticipated. Amidst much domestic recrimination over how this had happened, FDR’s preferred policy framework for U.S.-China relations came unglued. China chose to lean to Moscow. As the Cold War was born and the Korean War broke out, the United States ditched the notion of Sino-American co-dominion in East Asia and adopted a China-specific version of the U.S. grand strategy of containment against Soviet communism.

This second, radically altered post-War framework for China policy embraced political ostracism, financial quarantine, economic embargo, and military blockade — backed by a long-term U.S. commitment to naval dominance of the Western Pacific and a network of anti-communist alliances and bases in China’s key neighbors, as well as proxy wars in Korea and Southeast Asia. Over the course of two decades, Washington successfully obviated the international consequences of Chiang Kai-shek’s defeat by denying Beijing a diplomatic presence in multilateral organizations and in most foreign capitals, while championing Taipei as the seat of the sole legal government of China. The United States prohibited the use of dollars in trade with the China mainland, barred travel between it and the United States, and banned Chinese imports and exports where it could.

As part of this policy, America undertook to protect Taiwan against attack and, to this end, vigorously patrolled China’s periphery, including the Taiwan Strait. It sought to destabilize China through covert action. As some predicted, U.S. policies of non-intercourse, military hostility, and intervention yielded Chinese intransigence and belligerence rather than the reflection or accommodation their authors had hoped for. Still, China’s backwardness, poverty, and isolation meant that its foreign policy was long on strident rhetoric and short on cash or consequences. Beijing’s efforts to deny the United States (and, later, the Soviet Union) the support of post-colonial Asia and Africa as well as Latin America were not much of a threat, though they alarmed John F. Kennedy sufficiently to cause him to restructure foreign assistance, create the Peace Corps, and up the military ante in Vietnam.

The Cold War froze most great power relationships for over forty years. While it lasted, Americans and Russians could be confident that we knew our enemies, our allies, and our friends, as well as the world’s fence-sitters. In this context, in place of the idealized image that had prevailed before and during World War II, we Americans demonized the Chinese. Advocacy of rapprochement with China became political heresy, punishable by persecution.  It is especially ironic, therefore, that the only great power relationship that changed fundamentally for Americans during those four otherwise frozen Cold War decades was that between ourselves and the Chinese.

Given the inhibitions of political correctness, it took a while for Washington to realize that Beijing had split from Moscow. Once this realization sank in, the United States developed an entirely new policy framework for the conduct of Sino-American relations. To everyone’s surprise, China emerged as the most dynamic variable in the global strategic geometry of the Cold War era. From 1971 through 1989 (when the Soviet empire began its collapse), the major objective of U.S. China policy became the consolidation of China’s strategic realignment and its strengthening against the USSR. Meanwhile, where ostracism had failed to do so, engagement with China changed it and its policies to American advantage.

This new policy framework was the third volte-face in Sino-American relations in a quarter-century. It energized a remarkable series of diplomatic shocks, aftershocks, and transpositions, beginning with the dramatic secret visit to Beijing of President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, in July 1971 and the February 1972 visit to China by Nixon himself. In the Shanghai Communiqué of February 28, 1972, the two governments reassured their friends in Asia that they disagreed fundamentally about how to deal with the region’s problems, undertook to finesse their differences over Taiwan’s relationship with the rest of China, set aside their ideological animosity in favor of peaceful coexistence, and announced that they would coordinate policies to mutual strategic advantage. That was quite a diplomatic jolt for the world to absorb! Though the relationship it produced was well short of the sort of politico-military alignment and cooperation that Washington customarily demanded from strategic partners, it was enough to stimulate Moscow to seek its own reduction in tensions with America. Meanwhile, amidst U.S.-Soviet détente, the United States and China entered into an entente — limited cooperation, for limited objectives, for a presumably limited time.

To consolidate its new relationship with the People’s Republic, the United States attenuated ties with Chiang Kai-shek’s rump Chinese state on Taiwan. As 1979 began, Washington formally terminated its defense treaty with Taipei and moved its embassy to Beijing (while retaining most of its previous substantive relationships with Taiwan, including the sale of carefully selected defensive weapons on a restrained basis). China halted its inflammatory rhetoric, pledged to make best efforts to achieve reunification with Taiwan by peaceful means, and began to do so..

Sino-American “normalization” catalyzed a process in China of accelerating reform and opening to the West that marketized the economy, boosted growth to unprecedented rates, and connected the country ever more firmly to the American-dominated, non-communist sphere of influence known as “the free world.” Deng Xiaoping knew what he was doing. Huge numbers of Chinese enrolled in universities in the United States and other Western countries. Deng used this and other interactions with the “free world” to erase the legacy of Mao Zedong’s disastrously erratic leadership and development model. In place of Mao’s idiosyncratic radicalism, he put in place a pragmatic process of adapting foreign best practices to Chinese conditions.

The Christmas 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan directly challenged common Chinese and American interests. It catalyzed a substantial program of military trade and technology transfer between the United States and China. As had been the case in the 1940s, some mistook Chinese willingness to collaborate with the United States against a common enemy as foreshadowing a willingness by China to subordinate itself to American leadership in the manner of U.S. Cold War allies. Americans were also, as ever, predisposed to believe that China was liberalizing, democratizing, and otherwise Americanizing itself. Not a few seemed to imagine that inside every Chinese there was an American struggling to come out.

China’s suppression of the 1989 student uprising in Tiananmen Square was a fatal blow to these delusions. In the same year, the Soviet Union began to fall apart. So did the U.S. policy framework that common Sino-American enmity toward the USSR had facilitated.

The Shanghai Communiqué’s ideological cease-fire gave way to strident American denunciation of China’s human rights practices. Most forms of political and military dialogue and engagement between Washington and Beijing were suspended. To China’s alarm, the United States set aside its agreements and made massive new sales of top-of-the-line offensive weapons to Taiwan. Long subdued tensions in the Taiwan Strait resumed. But bilateral trade between the United States and the China mainland continued to grow apace with China’s rapidly expanding economy.

For eighteen years, the Shanghai Communiqué and the two joint communiqués that supplemented it had provided a successful framework for U.S. China policy. In practice, after 1989, the United States set aside this communiqué-based framework for managing relations with China, while continuing to give it lip service.

From 1989 to 1994, in the fourth game change in forty-five years of Sino-American relations, a muddle of new policies evolved to replace what had gone before. The emerging policy framework was unilateral, conceptually contradictory, and inconstant. It began with a severance of defense ties with China and their strengthening with Taiwan. This was followed by the political ostracism of China and an intense focus on the reform of human rights there to the exclusion of almost all other interactions.

When this ideological push failed to move Beijing, the United States retreated to a focus on completing China’s integration into the global economy. Admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO) entailed painful adjustments in Chinese domestic economic practices. It gave China an irreversible stake in the global economic order crafted by the United States during the Cold War. WTO membership boosted China’s external trade and investment flows. It accelerated globalization and raised worldwide prosperity. But, to American disappointment, China continued to be Chinese rather than Western in its political system as well as its human rights policies and practices.

China shared U.S. concern about north Korea’s nuclear weapons program but disagreed about how best to persuade Pyongyang to abandon it. Nevertheless, Beijing convened multilateral talks aimed at accomplishing this in a manner acceptable to the United States, south Korea, Japan, and Russia. Such diplomatic leadership by China was unprecedented, as was the American diplomatic outsourcing it entailed. Both sides were pleased by their collaboration, if not with its results. Meanwhile, however, Sino-American discord over human rights and the renewed American emphasis on military balance rather than political accommodation in the Taiwan Strait had the unintended effect of empowering and emboldening independence advocates in Taiwan. (Eventually, the George W. Bush administration felt compelled to declare the opposition of the United States to their provocative separatist agenda.)

Chinese uncertainties over U.S. Taiwan policy helped to brew up a naval confrontation in the Taiwan area in 1996. The two armed forces’ lack of mutual familiarity and effective communication repeatedly proved self-reinforcing. Dialogue and exchanges between the U.S. military and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) got nowhere due to mounting mutual suspicion and hostility born of discord over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and incidents like the U.S. Air Force bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and the fatal downing of a Chinese pilot when U.S. and Chinese aircraft collided off Hainan Island in 2001. Mutual incomprehension greatly complicated the handling of these incidents and crises. (One shudders to think what the absence of any kind of exchanges of views, still less anticipatory planning, between the U.S. and the PLA might mean for readily imaginable contingencies in Korea.)

By the time the George W. Bush administration left office in 2008, China was fully integrated into the global economy. It had become a world power in economic terms. Its rise and that of other non-OECD economies had forced an end to the “free world’s” nominal direction of the global economy in the person of the G-7.  Although China lacked political appeal and remained reluctant to take the lead in international affairs, it was becoming a major presence in Africa, Australia, and Latin America as well as on the Eurasian landmass. For the first time in two centuries, China’s military was also visibly acquiring a credible capacity to defend its maritime perimeter against foreign intrusion.

By 2008, most people had come to expect that China would soon displace America as the world’s largest economy, a rank we have held since around 1880. China also began to narrow the gap between it and the United States in a widening range of military capabilities. There was a growing sense in Washington that Asia was underweighted in U.S. strategy, that China policy could not be left on autopilot, and that a new framework for dealing with China and Asia was required. We Americans have now pivoted into a search for such a framework, our fifth in seventy years. The circumstances of this search are uniquely trying.

As the first decade of this century ended, the balance of prestige between China and the United States underwent a remarkable shift. As China became an economic giant and a vital actor in global trade, investment, and monetary affairs, the wizards of Wall Street engineered a worldwide financial crash. This pushed the United States and other industrial democracies into recession and discredited U.S. financial leadership and economic authority. Excessive debt and budgetary bloat, aggravated by political constipation, cramped both America’s ability to lead and its will to do so. The American political system, long admired abroad for the civil liberties it afforded, acquired a reputation for venality and implacable partisanship, combined with sanctimony and fecklessness. The age of inspirational leadership and bold new ideas from American presidents seemed past. Meanwhile, the frustrating lack of political success by the U.S. armed forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Muslim lands showed the world the limits of American military power and demonstrated how it could be effectively countered through asymmetric warfare.

So we Americans are seeking to frame a new policy for China in unfamiliar circumstances. We live in a world in which the economic center of gravity is coming to rest in Asia but political power is devolving to the various regions of the globe. We Americans are well-endowed by nature but ill-equipped by mentality to function in so dynamic a diplomatic environment. The USSR is no more, but our Cold War struggle to contain a single adversary remains the formative experience of our statecraft. The concepts and approaches we developed over that forty-three-year bygone era continue to guide our foreign and defense policies. In the new circumstances, they don’t compute. This is an environment that rewards diplomatic agility rather than constancy.

The United States now has no central antagonist. There is no cardinal contest of ideas to engage us. There is no “free world” of allies, auxiliaries, or automatic followers of the United States. Washington has no assured command of half, still less all of world affairs. There is no global governance that now derives its effectiveness mainly from U.S. leadership.

In these circumstances, what are Americans to make of China, or to do with it? None of the policy frameworks we have applied in the past seems either appropriate or feasible.

China cannot be deputized to manage Asia to American advantage as FDR once imagined it might. China and the United States do not agree about enough to attempt to form a “G-2″ to direct the world’s affairs. If we did, other countries would unite to block and frustrate our presumption.

Economically, Asia is now Sino-centric and the world depends on its participation in a globalized order. We cannot again isolate China even if we wished to do so. Moreover, Sino-American competition takes place in the context of economic interdependence. If China went into decline, we Americans would have a depression, not a peace dividend.

Unlike the 1970s, China and the United States have no common foreign antagonist against whom to unite. America has chosen militant Islam as its main enemy. For sound reasons of its own, China is not interested in joining our crusade. Formidable as the threats of global warming, environmental degradation, and their consequences are, they are inextricably connected to vested interests with an apparently invincible hold on the domestic politics of both countries. In theory, common problems should invite a common effort to address them. In practice, in what has been called “the tragedy of the commons” or “the prisoners’ dilemma” the very parallelism of Chinese and American interests divides rather than unites us.

The most recent conceptual framework for U.S.-China relations has been overtaken by trends and events. We have succeeded in integrating China into the world order; that task is essentially behind us. Despite some differences of interpretation, China has accepted the existing state of affairs. In many respects, it is now a stronger defender than the United States of the codes of conduct that underpin the status quo. But China will not allow America or the West to dictate how the international order we crafted now evolves. The operative issue at the global level has become how to reach agreement with China and other non-Western powers on changes in the existing system. Such changes are needed to preserve the peace, advance the prosperity, and assure the security of our species in the times to come.

Even if we Americans had not done as much as we have done to hobble and lame our own inherent strengths, China would present an unprecedented challenge. Unlike the world and great regional powers with which we have competed in the past, China has no web of alliances, foreign protectorates, bases, or military presences abroad. It does not appear to aspire to any of these attributes of empire. Like India, it espouses non-alignment and has no committed strategic partners beyond its borders. China shows no interest in adopting our politico-economic model. It is flattered by international attention to its success but offers no competing ideology or prototype for emulation. It seems to shrink from leadership. Though not averse to engineering a bit of pressure to gain its ends, China has a distaste for overtly coercive diplomacy, which it equates with power politics and past foreign efforts to subdue it  It favors policy coordination through dialogue between sovereign states rather than the hierarchical cooperation and deference characteristic of Cold War alliances.

In military terms, China is a leviathan that does not fit our inherited target set. China’s armed forces are structured and deployed to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity as Beijing defines these. Unlike those of previous U.S. adversaries, they are not configured or equipped to project power much beyond the national periphery. Chinese military doctrine developed independently of the Euro-Atlantic tradition. China prefers defense through stratagem., asymmetric responses, and its own version of maneuver warfare to frontal assaults or force-on-force.

The rapid modernization of China’s armed forces endangers the traditional U.S. dominance of China’s periphery but does not pose a threat to other regions or to our homeland. Any armed conflict, if there is one, will begin in China’s, not America’s near seas or borderlands. From there it could become not just trans-Pacific but global. This is not a minor danger. The United States and China are already engaged in mutual provocation by probing each other’s defenses and mapping each other’s vulnerabilities. Aggressive American reconnaissance activities along China’s coasts are paralleled by equally aggressive Chinese trolling through U.S. cyberspace.

The key China-related politico-military issue that U.S. policy must now address in the Asia-Pacific region is no longer how to bolster Taipei’s military defiance of China’s aspirations for national unification or how to defend Taiwan against conquest by the PLA. Taipei knows that the military balance in the Taiwan Strait has shifted against it. It has adjusted to this reality. The PLA is configured to severely punish, not invade Taiwan.

As cross-Strait integration has proceeded, the role military deterrence plays in keeping the peace has steadily diminished while the political, monetary, and opportunity costs of deterrence have continued to rise apace with PLA modernization. The main interactions across the Strait are now political and economic, not military. These interactions are aimed at peaceful change through mutual accommodation. They draw the two sides together, not toward a renewal of the civil war that originally divided them.

U.S. policy must now focus on helping the rising powers of Asia accommodate each other through the adjustment of relationships in the Indo-Pacific region. Part of that task requires us to work out a less hostile pattern of military interaction with China. This means recognizing the emergence of a strong, engaged, and militarily formidable China on a basis that avoids injuring the pride or core interests of its neighbors and that preserves the credibility of the United States as the stabilizer of the Indo-Pacific and the lubricator of relations between its states and peoples. This will not be easy, but it is not impossible.

Achieving strategic stability in Asia and in Sino-American relations will entail some significant changes in U.S. policy and the assumptions on which it rests.

America must now accept that China has built a plausible nuclear second-strike capability that will enable it to inflict severe damage on any attacker. A nuclear first strike on China or a preemptive conventional strike on its strategic arsenal is no longer possible without Chinese retaliation. Explicit acknowledgment of this reality and of the parity of deterrence that it creates is a prerequisite for adding agreed elements of stability to the strategic balance between the United States and China. As long as China fears an American first strike, it will regard American offers of dialogue about strategic escalation as a deceptive effort to gather intelligence on its nuclear arsenal.

Despite the strong desire of both sides to avoid escalation, conventional warfare between the United States and China could easily lead to nuclear war. Operational planning by either side that pays inadequate attention to this fact is more than irresponsible. It is delusional. Air-sea battle concepts envisaging deep strikes inside Chinese territory are a case in point. China may not have the capacity to destroy our country as many times over as we can destroy it, but it has the capacity to shatter the United States as we have known it.

China’s cyber capabilities are at least as relevant in this regard as its nuclear arsenal. We can and, I believe, will be able to work out rules of the road with the Chinese to deal with the protection of intellectual property from cyber theft. Mitigating the threat of cyber attack and counterattack must await the evolution of a cyber warfare version of “mutually assured destruction.”

China knows that the use of force against the homeland of a nuclear great power with global reach would invite national disaster. America also needs to reflect on this reality. It is very hard to imagine circumstances in which our national command authority would approve an option to strike either the Russian or Chinese homeland. It follows that the United States and China need to develop politico-military institutions and diplomatic processes that will avoid our having to consider such a catastrophic course of action. That means finding ways to increase the chances that our two countries can resolve differences through measures short of war.

Despite China’s lack of entangling alliances, both Chinese and Americans are very aware that decisions and events in third countries have the potential to embroil us in conflict. Our two countries have nonetheless failed to build politico-military consultative mechanisms to anticipate and manage such risks. This is true even on the Korean Peninsula, where the danger of war remains ever-present and the United States and China are respectively the de jure and de facto great power guarantors of the two Korean states.

The United States has looked to China to moderate north Korean behavior. China has found this task terminally exasperating. Its deference to Pyongyang has accomplished nothing but its own embarrassment. Beijing has learned the hard way that Pyongyang is obdurate, ungrateful, uncouth, and cursed with exceedingly bad judgment. The six-party talks have run their course. It is unlikely they can be restarted. A new diplomatic mechanism for dialogue with Pyongyang must be found. In the meantime, we must deal with the danger of war that north Korea’s hysterical rhetoric has created.

Now that north Korea has walked out of the Korean Armistice Agreement and the commission it created, perhaps it is time for Washington and Beijing to revive the commission as a bilateral forum in which to coordinate policies aimed at achieving its still-unfulfilled purpose: “the complete cessation of hostilities and all acts of armed forces in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.”  Such a forum could help to contain the spillover effects of the sometimes violent events on the peninsula. After sixty years of awkward, tension-filled diplomatic inertia, it could also enable Chinese and Americans to begin at last to explore how we might work together to transform the truce in Korea into peace.

Korea’s future is ultimately for Koreans to decide but it is high time for the United States and China to find a way to explore our respective views of the desirable strategic evolution of Korea. Most Koreans hope that the peninsula will again be unified. China fears that this might lead to the establishment of a menacing American military presence north of the 38th parallel. If the United States has no such intention, it might usefully say so. That could clear the way for interim steps to break the Korean impasse. Perhaps China could guarantee the peaceful independence of south as well as north Korea while the United States did the same for north Korea in return for its nuclear disarmament and agreement to peaceful interaction with the south. Peace, stability, and the prospects for nonviolent evolution on the peninsula might be buttressed by supplemental commitments from the United Nations, Japan, and Russia.

It’s also time to recognize that some sort of mutually agreed reassociation between Taiwan and the China mainland would benefit both the region and the United States. Despite recent positive trends in cross-Strait relations, the question of Taiwan’s relationship with the rest of China remains both a potential casus belli and a significant irritant in Sino-American relations. Taiwan, China, and the United States would all be better off with the danger of war behind us. Thanks in no small measure to past U.S. policies, China has come to acknowledge Taiwan’s need for de facto political, economic, cultural, and military autonomy.  A cross-Strait deal that reaffirms the “principle of one China” while guaranteeing Taiwan’s democracy, capitalist economy, and foreign connections seems there to be had if politicians on the two Chinese sides have the will and courage to go for it.

In this context, it no longer serves the interests of the United States to deal with the Taiwan issue mainly as a matter of military deterrence. That stance once helped prevent war. It now perpetuates the danger of war while inhibiting peaceful change. The right of Taipei to make its own choices deserves American support. Still, it is in the U.S. interest to foster circumstances that encourage Taipei as well as Beijing to choose negotiation over an impasse that can lead to war.  Americans should not intervene in such negotiations. The details of a peaceful settlement are properly the concern of the parties to the dispute, not the United States.

The world must adjust to a reinvigorated Asia, in which many previously poor and vulnerable societies are gaining wealth and power. There is much more to Asia than China, but China is at the center of Asia’s renaissance. Chinese and other Asians need to reconcile the ways that this is changing their interactions with each other and the world. If they are to coexist peacefully, China and its neighbors must belatedly find new balances for their relations. This will require them to resolve territorial disputes, to exorcize their anguish over past experiences with each other, and to accommodate each other’s present interests rather than endlessly relitigating old disputes. The alternative is a divided Asia in which both prosperity and political vigor are squandered in costly military and paramilitary contests over innately inconsequential places. Such contests will reopen old wounds and foster new resentments. They are also grist for Sino-American military tensions and preparations for war.

The United States has been an Asia-Pacific power for over 150 years. Since it defeated the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1945, the U.S. Navy has dominated the Pacific up to its high tide mark.  America takes justifiable pride in its role in sustaining six decades of security and stability in the region. But, to play this role in the decades to come, the United States must facilitate the accommodation of its allies, partners, and friends to the new Asian realities.

America has vital interests in the political and military stability of the Indo-Pacific region as well as in its continued economic prosperity and progress.  It is entirely natural for China’s neighbors, to some of whom the U.S. government has made formal defense commitments, to look to Washington for support as they adjust to China’s rising power and other new realities in the region. America has the capacity to help these countries make the transition to a new Indo-Pacific equilibrium that includes China, India, Indonesia, and the other members of ASEAN as well as the United States, Japan, Korea, and Australia. The clearest articulation of a strategy for accomplishing this is that of Kevin Rudd, the brilliant former prime minister and foreign minister of Australia. I urge you to read and reflect upon his writings on the subject.

It is in the interest of the United States to work with Asians to accomplish a transition to a new, sustainable order in the Indo-Pacific and to make it as painless and non-disruptive as possible. But the diplomatic expression of this interest is a more subtle task than many seem to imagine. It requires calibrating statements and actions to provide support for allies without unduly provoking China and without stimulating the hardening of disputes. Support for weaker claimants needs to be sufficient to balance China but not so great as to embolden them to pick fights with it in the expectation of U.S. back-up. U.S. diplomacy should promote processes that resolve claims, not just manage tensions over them in ways that fail to eliminate the risk that they will flare up in future.

Above all, the United States must avoid transforming the quarrels of others over isolated and strategically irrelevant humps of basalt and coral into quarrels between ourselves and the Chinese. It is not in the U.S. interest to inhibit or impede accommodation between China and its neighbors. Quite the contrary.  Neither our allies nor our partners want a divided Asia or to have to choose sides between the United States and China.  They want to find a basis for mutually respectful coexistence over the course of this century and beyond it. They seek our help to do this.

The stakes for Americans in managing our relations with Asia are too great to permit us to propose arrangements that meet the requirements of gamesmanship but not statesmanship. Nor can we afford to bluff. In this regard, it must be said, the so-called “pivot” or “rebalancing to Asia” as it has been presented is problematic. The political element of the “pivot” seems to be a version of Woody Allen’s dictum that “eighty percent of success is showing up.” But “showing up” is not a strategy, and it’s hardly certain the United States will continue to do it for long, given the many distractions our country now faces. Meanwhile, the economic and military elements of the “pivot” are suspect.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a proposed free trade area that deliberately excludes China. But China is the meeting place of the world’s supply chains and the largest trading partner of every country in Asia. Before Americans elect our next president, China’s economy may have overtaken ours as the world’s largest. China sees TPP as a U.S. effort to constrain its economic centrality and roll back its influence in Asia. Some Americans have been so injudicious as to justify TPP in precisely those terms.

Some claim that TPP would isolate China and organize opposition to its economic practices, including its reliance on state enterprises, thereby forcing it to become more like us. But China’s economic model is currently both much more successful and highly regarded than America’s both in the region and beyond it. It is not realistic to imagine that America would prevail in a test of economic models. If the U.S. objective is to promote the best practices of the most advanced capitalist economies, the most effective way to do this would be to start with an agreement among like-minded countries like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. With that as a working model, one could seek to sign on the more resistant Asians. Perhaps that’s how it will work out in practice.

In any event, TPP is almost certainly not viable on the terms the U.S. has proposed for it. In terms of U.S.-China relations, it’s a zero-sum game. To many Asians we seek to include in it, it appears to ask for sacrifices on their part that outweigh the advantages they would accrue. More to the point, the main effect to date of our championing of TPP has been to accelerate the negotiation of intra-Asian free trade zones that exclude the United States. In the new circumstances of the 21st century, policies aimed at dividing Asia risk dividing America from Asia.

The military elements of the “pivot” are even more questionable. Where are the force structure and fiscal resources that we propose to release to Asia? What is the prospect for expanded roles and missions in an era of increasingly severe budgetary austerity? If there is no rethinking of inherited strategy, we will theoretically be pivoting to positions at China’s twelve-mile limit, within easy range of land-based systems, where the PLA enjoys very short lines of communication and logistical support and all the other advantages of defense over offense. Is this really necessary to help China’s neighbors balance it? Can we hope forever to outmatch China at its doorstep? What will it cost to do so? Is there no less provocative and expensive way to demonstrate our support for stability and the peaceful resolution of disputes in the Indo-Pacific region?

Despite the fact that the United States military must now learn how to do less with less, worst-case analysis will impel China to prepare to counter the level of American commitment our rhetoric implies, not what we can actually mount or afford. The result is almost certain to be an arms race with a country with an economy as large or larger than ours that has its fiscal act together at a time when we do not. Is this a contest we should initiate or sponsor?

In our global strategy, the United States obviously needs to give more weight to Asia, but we would also be wise to recalibrate the “pivot” to support more realistic objectives with less expansive rhetoric. Our diplomacy needs to emphasize political solutions to Asian disputes at least as much as military deterrence of China and restraint on the part of our allies. Our economic strategy should focus on leveraging Asian prosperity to reinvigorate our own enervated economy and create American jobs. It should not seek to divide and confound the world’s fastest growing region.

Above all, our new strategic framework for dealing with China — the fifth in seven decades — must take account of the successes registered by previous strategies. Principal among these is the fact that Asia beyond China is — like China itself — no longer a power vacuum or zone of poverty and backwardness. Asians now need the United States behind and alongside them, not out in front of them, as they attempt to establish a lasting basis for peaceful coexistence with each other.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)

Washington, DC

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