U.S.-China Relations in an Age of Strategic Reappraisal and Realignment

Remarks to the Foreign Affairs Retirees of New England

There comes a time in every man’s life when he has more to recall than to anticipate. Like everyone else in this room today, I keep striving to reach that point and falling short. I can’t help looking to the future, because that’s where I’m going to spend the rest of my life. Besides, it’s getting so hard to remember things.

I can’t help thinking of the old man who was sitting with his friend in the living room while his wife rustled up dinner for them. He turned to his friend and said: “my wife and I went to this really incredible restaurant downtown last week. Amazing food. Impeccable service.”

“What’s the name of it?” his friend asked.

“Well . . . ”  He scratched his head and stared into the fireplace. After a long pause, he looked at his friend and asked: “What do you call that red flower with the thorns you give to women you love?”

“A rose?” his friend suggested.

The old man turned in the direction of the kitchen and bellowed: “Hey, Rose! What was the name of that restaurant we went to last week?”

As long as we have someone like Rose to consult, hindsight is an exact science. But, even with Rose as an assistant, prediction is not.

We are living in a world no one who toiled through the Cold War ever imagined. There is no Soviet Union. There are once again wars of religion, but there is no global contest of ideas. Five centuries of Western dominance is coming to an end and the world and regional orders created by European ascendancy and American primacy are disintegrating. Our republic is becoming a garrison state in which our civil liberties are contracting rather than expanding.

Except where we are making war on foreigners, they no longer pay as much attention to us as they used to. In most places, anti-Americanism is giving way to creeping indifference about what Washington and New York think. For the first time since about 1880, there will soon be an economy larger than ours. We need to adjust to China’s return to wealth and power as well as to the strikingly unfamiliar context in which this is occurring.

It’s already obvious that the 21st century will be very different from the last. Before I get to the evolving relationship between the United States and China, let me briefly sketch out some of the remarkable changes taking place in the world that the U.S. and China cohabit. These changes add up to the end of the worlds created by World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. Power is devolving to the world’s regions. No one is in overall charge. And that raises a lot of questions.

In the Middle East, the work of Mr. Sykes and M. Picot is being undone. As you’ll recall, they were the British and French bureaucrats who dismembered the Ottoman Empire’s West Asian provinces to create today’s Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria. The ongoing demolition of Syria very likely foreshadows the demolition of some or all of the other states Sykes and Picot agreed to set up. Meanwhile, Turkey is back as a great power in West Asia and North Africa. This, together with the Syrian turmoil and the Arab uprisings in North Africa, is a big bang on the Middle Eastern kaleidoscope. How the pieces will rearrange themselves is unclear, but some sort of rearrangement is in prospect.

So too with America’s military role in the region. The United States has begun to revert to its historic status as a major energy exporter rather than importer. Indeed, U.S. production of oil and gas will double or even triple over the coming decade. It seems certain that some Americans will question the rationale for continuing to provide free U.S. military protection to assure access by other great powers to Middle Eastern energy supplies that they can’t do without but we can. Will we ask the major consumers of this energy — China, India, Japan, Korea — to assume this politico-military burden or to share it?

Having belatedly come together to establish the world’s largest economic collective, Europe seems to be unraveling. The European Union is too big to be ignored but too feckless to be taken seriously. The good news is that, unlike the 20th century, when the fault lines in Europe triggered a series of violent changes in the global order, in the 21st century, Europe now seems more squishy than tectonically brittle.

But Europe’s divisions are sharpening. Britain is seriously contemplating secession from the European Union (EU). Scotland may hive off from England. Germany more and more openly calls the shots in the EU. France chafes at German ascendancy and the triumph of the English language in Europe but has no persuasive answer to either phenomenon. The European South is on the economic ropes.

All in all, Europe remains a puzzle, wrapped in a muddle inside a pretense. It may be becoming something, but no one can be sure or say quite what. In the meantime, its component parts are focused on each other more than on the wider world. That gives them greatly diminished influence internationally.

Europe was the birthplace of the Enlightenment values that gave America its libertarian soul. In some ways, after the battering we Americans have administered to our civil liberties since 9/11, Europeans are now more faithful to the rule of law than we are. If the two sides of the Atlantic no longer agree on the norms of constitutional democracy and international law, what future do these concepts have? Now that Asia has become the world’s economic center of gravity and seems to be outperforming the West in delivering an ever-better life to its citizens, this question can no longer be evaded.

The major challenge to the once-universal sway of Western values now comes from the Dar al Islam, the 1.6-billion and 57-nation-strong global community of Muslims. This is the last remaining ideological bloc on the planet. Islam spans four continents and is expanding on all of them. The human-guided cruise missiles of 9/11 were acts of reprisal by a small and deviant minority of this vast community. They sought revenge for the deaths at our hands or those of Israel of hundreds of thousands of Muslims. And they wanted to drive home their opposition to our perceived imperial ambitions in the Islamic heartland.

Our immediate response to 9/11 had the support of the world, including overwhelming majorities of Muslims. We squandered that support with our subsequent invasion of Iraq, our mindless transformation of our punitive raid in Afghanistan into a bloody campaign of pacification there, and our inauguration of a drone-borne reign of terror in an expanding number of Muslim countries in West Asia and North Africa. The perceived injustice and inhumanity of American policies in the Muslim world have now gone a long way toward transforming an anti-American minority into a very large majority. This is most evident in Pakistan. It is happening elsewhere as well.

The hatred that our policies engender was the proximate cause of the April 15 terrorist bombing of the Boston Marathon. The insecurity we have imposed on Muslim peoples abroad is now blowing back on our own domestic tranquility. The president’s speech last week at the National Defense University was characteristically eloquent in its analysis of this vicious cycle of causation, but typically cursory in terms of prescriptions for how to break it.

Among other unintended consequences, the so-called “war on terror” is now connecting us to Africa in new and troubling ways. Well over 40 percent of Africans are Muslim. American military action against Islamic militants now extends to West as well as East and North Africa. We are beginning to see anti-American terrorism from Africans.

Africa is no longer either the colonial playground or the humanitarian theme park the West has traditionally fancied. Africans have begun to challenge the arbitrary state borders created by European powers at the Berlin conference of 1884-1885. They are in the midst of a violent process of creating their own, indigenously crafted polities. New states have emerged in Eritrea, South Sudan, and possibly Mali, as the sea of human entropy once known as Zaire continues its bloody disintegration. But this chaos obscures the fact that Africa now has many of the world’s fastest growing economies.

Africa’s economic progress reflects and is reflected in the decisions by China, India, and Brazil to treat Africans as trading and business partners rather than as recipients of charity with strings. To the distress of foreign assistance officials in international organizations and Western capitals, this has empowered Africans to make their own decisions about how to develop their countries. The result is a lot more growth as well as more opportunities for corruption.

Africa is finally beginning to emerge as an economic force in the world. In coming decades, as wages rise in China, it is expected to give up 85 million manufacturing jobs, Africa’s abundant cheap labor assures that it is where many of these jobs will end up. China is already Africa’s largest trading partner and investor. Major projects there tend to be contracted to Chinese, Indian, and Brazilian companies.   

Brazil’s rise as a great regional power is another significant part of the realignment of global affairs. Before the Spanish Empire connected North and South America, these continents were ecologically, culturally, economically, and politically isolated from each other. This pre-Colombian geopolitical division now seems to be reasserting itself. The Monroe Doctrine posited a single strategic zone in the Western Hemisphere, dominated by the United States and denied to European and — by implication — Asian influence. That notion is dead.

Canada, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean remain in the U.S. sphere of influence but South America has left it. Brazil now has the sixth-largest economy in the world. China overtook the U.S. as Brazil’s largest export market five years ago. Brazil’s main trading partners are now its Spanish-speaking neighbors, Europe and Asia, not North America. As Brazil becomes the center of the South American political economy and develops relationships to its east and west, it is emerging as a diplomatic actor of consequence in Africa and international organizations.

To round out this brief account of the huge geopolitical changes taking place that set the strategic context outside the Indo-Pacific region, let me say a few words about our former Soviet enemy. Moscow now lacks a messianic ideology or the means to attempt global conquest but it retains the ability to destroy any country that attempts to subjugate the Russian Federation. Although most Russians are nostalgic about the USSR’s past global power, its collapse is turning out in many ways to be a good thing for Russia. Putin’s regime may in some ways resemble a protection racket more than a government but it is afloat on an apparently inexhaustible sea of oil and natural resources of great importance to the global economy. Despite its inscrutability, Putanism seems for now to have a firm grip on Russia and the Russian imagination.

Some Russians have become very, very rich. Many others have become world travelers. The Russian middle class clogs the beaches from Goa to Hainan. Every Russian may be dissatisfied in his or her own way, but all are proud to be Russian and — Western sympathy with noisy Russian dissenters notwithstanding — a clear majority supports strongman nationalism.

That is not to say it’s at all clear where Russia is going. Still, as Cyprus and Syria illustrate, Russia’s participation is indispensable in dealing with more and more events well beyond its borders. Meanwhile, the hounds of Russian intellect are once again in joyous pursuit of the elusive fox of their country’s identity. Americans have no dog in that chase. Yet we need to decide how Russia fits into our world view. We have yet to do so.

Situated between East and West, Russia is proving able to exploit both the confusions of Europe and the dynamism of China. A geographic position long thought to be a weakness is turning out to be a strength. Russia’s neighbors are courting relations with it as a great regional rather than world power. Moscow now has the best relations in its history with Germany, Turkey, and China. It is conducting experiments in strategic coordination with all of them. It is also on good terms with Iran. And in Central Asia, Russian soft power has become a welcome alternative to past imperial and Soviet might as Russia pursues accommodation with China in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Russia has also retained a cooperative relationship with India, which is slowly shucking off the Fabian socialism with Soviet characteristics that long kept it from realizing its potential as a great power. India dominates South Asia except for Pakistan, which China supports to keep India off balance. India is now reaching out to Vietnam and Japan to pay China a similar favor in East Asia. It is competing with China and the United States for influence in Indonesia, which is itself emerging as a great regional actor. India’s perception of itself as the natural rival to China for leadership in Asia is becoming more plausible than it once was.

This process is accelerating under the impact of Japan’s right-wing government’s determination to make Japan a “normal country” and to abandon the pacificism imposed on it by the American occupation after World War II. Japan is taking a much more active role in its own defense. It is loudly contesting territorial disputes with China, Korea, and Russia. Prime Minister Abe openly aspires to exploit widespread apprehensions about China’s rising power to build an anti-China coalition in Asia.

This coalition would embrace other countries with territorial disputes with China like India, the Philippines, and Vietnam and those interested in rolling back Chinese influence, like Myanmar. But Japan’s prospects for leading such a coalition are impaired by the transparent lack of remorse that underlies its politicians’ formal apologies for wartime atrocities. Indeed, by marked contrast with Germany, many Japanese seem to view a “normal” Japan as one that takes pride in its imperial and militarist past. They see Japan’s principal mistake in World War II as having been to allow itself to be defeated and occupied. They are indifferent to or deny Japan’s gross mistreatment of captive populations and its violations of the laws of war in the 1930s and ‘40s.

So the rise of China, itself deeply unsettling to longstanding dispositions of power in Asia, is far from the only strategic shift in progress there. The strengthening of India and Indonesia, the maturation of south Korea as a global industrial and technological force, the failure of north Korea as a society, and the emergence of a less risk-averse and more nationalistic Japan add to the complexities of the new order in Asia. In my view, we are not dealing well with those complexities.

It is said that generals invariably prepare to fight the last war. Similarly, politicians always seem to want to reenact past approaches as new problems arise in foreign affairs. The United States clung to isolationism in the 1930s long after it was dangerously inappropriate to do so. After World War II, we went to the other extreme, promiscuously extending protection to almost half the world’s countries. Ironically, having entangled ourselves in these alliances to prevent world domination by others, we now justify them in terms of preserving the credibility of our own military supremacy and omnipotence, including especially our postwar control of the Western Pacific. Most remarkably, thirty-five years after China’s defection to cadre capitalism and twenty-five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we are clinging to alliance structures designed to contain the long-vanished Sino-Soviet bloc.

The so-called U.S. “pivot to Asia,” though justified by reference to regional concerns about rising Chinese power, seems less a response to demands from allies, partners, and friends than a move to retard the loss of our nearly seven decades of dominance in the Western Pacific. Threat analysis is, of course, the highest form of budget justification. China’s erosion of the traditional American military supremacy in its near seas is a timely justification for military Keynesianism — continuing high levels of defense spending to head off job losses in our military-industrial complex. By ironic contrast, the economic aspects of the “pivot” seem mostly intended to undercut China’s role as the center of the Asian economy rather than to create American jobs.

The Soviet collapse deprived our foreign policy of focus. The “pivot” takes China as the cure for this enemy deprivation syndrome. But it’s far from clear that we have the fiscal resources or freedom of maneuver away from the Middle East that the “pivot” presupposes. So far, the “pivot” — or, to give it its kinder, gentler name, the “rebalancing” — is mostly rhetoric, not action. But this has been enough to embolden some of China’s neighbors to risk provoking it, while inducing a pronounced chill in Sino-American relations. There is a risk that Americans are about to satisfy the nostalgia some evidently have for the Cold War by producing a new version of it. Last time, the game was called when the Soviet Union defaulted. It’s very unlikely that this would be the result of a similar contest with China.

The introduction of capitalism was necessary to save China, but capitalism cannot now do without China. China is integral to the global economy; it cannot be isolated or “contained.” Its system, unlike that of the Soviet Union, has a history of adapting to meet the challenges before it. It is unlikely to fail. Indeed, China’s economy seems poised to match and then dwarf ours in size. Historically, there is nothing new about this. Until recently, when it had a couple of bad centuries, China accounted for one-third or more of global GDP. China’s neighbors may be apprehensive about the application of its coercive power to the minor territorial disputes they have with it, but they do not fear occupation or subjugation by it. With the possible exception of Japan, they seek to accommodate China at minimal cost to their interests, not to take sides against it. None wishes to go to war with China.

This is not America’s finest hour. Our political system is broken, our constitutional balances undone. Our bill of rights is compromised or suspended. We are disinvesting in our human and physical infrastructure. Our economic competitiveness is visibly declining. We are unable to pass a budget, still less set priorities for our languishing economy. In short, we are afflicted by budgetary bloat, political constipation, diplomatic enervation, and strategic myopia. This doesn’t seem a particularly propitious time to pick a fight with a rising power.

That’s why next week’s two-day private meeting between President Obama and President Xi Jinping is vitally important. Mr. Xi has proposed that China and the United States try to develop “a new type of great power relationship” to avoid the conflict that has so often occurred between established and rising powers and to foster cooperation instead. His concept makes sense but has little, if any content as yet. Diplomats, of course, take a professional delight in the inchoate, inane, vapid, and unspecific. So I’m sure that you, like me, will see the present lack of substance to Mr. Xi’s idea as a good thing. It’s an invitation to Mr. Obama to work with him to define a new and positive framework for Sino-American relations. And that is exactly what we need to do in the radically changing global and regional circumstances in which our two countries now find ourselves.

China and the United States are dependent on each other for our prosperity. Without cooperation between us, effective global governance is impossible. Challenges like global warming, environmental degradation, pandemic disease, the maintenance of global order and the rule of law, non proliferation, space and cyberspace as new human domains, and the achievement of security from intercontinental war will not be met. If the United States and China choose a path of confrontation, we will both lose. China has been fond of saying that it needs a peaceful international environment in which to restore itself to wealth and power. The United States now needs such an environment no less than China if we are to return to realizing the enormous potential inherent in our geography, human diversity, openness to ideas, propensity for innovation, and traditions of liberty. Next week’s meeting promises to be a turning point for both countries, for Asia, and for the world.

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

Bretton Woods, New Hampshire

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