Asian collision course

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Since the end of the US presidential campaign, Donald Trump and his team of advisers have made statements showing they seek to alter world politics in significant ways. None are quite as important, for world peace and global stability, as the adversarial pronouncements about the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that are now upsetting bilateral relations and generating turbulence in East Asia. While not yet formalised in a coherent policy framework, official and semi-official discourses point to sharpening rivalry, and possibly to an unfolding, and risky, containment effort.


At the economic level, the new administration is considering designating China a ‘currency manipulator’ for the first time since 1994, and is proposing punitive tariffs of up to 45% on Chinese-sourced imports. At the strategic level, prominent figures in or close to the new administration have been sending unusually unambiguous messages that the US will use force if necessary to curb China’s growing power and reach in East Asia and the Pacific. In confirmation hearings on 11 January, secretary of state designate Rex Tillerson warned that the US would interdict Chinese naval forces in the South China Seas: ‘We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to these islands also is not going to be allowed.’ It would be a ‘danger to the global economy’ if China were to ‘dictate access to the waterway’. A few days later, Newt Gingrich, former Republican speaker of the House of Representatives (1995-9) and confidant of Donald Trump, told the German weekly Der Spiegel, ‘Well, frankly, on the South China Sea, I suspect we will try to communicate with the Chinese that they are not going to become the leading naval power in our lifetime’.


Concerns about the ‘China threat’


On 11 December, Trump had threatened to overturn the basic framework of Sino-American relations since the late 1970s by publicly questioning the One China policy: ‘I don’t know why we have to be bound by a One China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade’. He has since reversed on this crucially sensitive issue, which the PRC sees as a core question of sovereignty, telling Chinese president Xi Jinping on 9 February that he would ‘honour our One China policy.’


Even so, this cluster of statements cannot be taken lightly: They reflect widely shared views in nationalist power circles about the ‘China threat’. At best, they can be interpreted as opening moves in a coercive diplomatic effort to extract concessions from China on trade and security; at worst, as the first articulation of an emerging strategic programme to inhibit China’s ascent. In either case, implementation would mark a significant and destabilising policy shift.


Since the late 1970s, when the US recognised the PRC, US behaviour towards China has been fairly consistent. Despite frictions over monetary and trade policy, and one symbolic, potentially serious, test of strength during the 1995-6 ‘Taiwan Strait crisis’, the primary thrust of US policy has been to incorporate China into the systems of the US-led international order, and the institutional and market disciplines of the world capitalist economy. Successive US administrations thought that they could do this from a position of strength, creating the frameworks for China’s economic and political paths.


Conversely, the PRC demonstrated restraint, seen in cautious voting behaviour at the UN Security Council (from 1971 to 2006 the PRC used its veto power only twice) and in the subordination of strategic issues to the paramount aim of state capitalist transformation and global economic integration. More aggressive Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea in recent years suggests this might not last: Rising nationalism, which has gone hand in hand with growing wealth and power, could prevail in China, as in the US. Nonetheless, current Chinese discourse — notably Xi Jinping’s Davos speech to the World Economic Forum on 17 January, which stressed the importance of global economic interdependence — points to continuity, at least for the moment.


The main change has come from the US. The nationalist ideologues and economic neo-mercantilists now in charge in Washington read world politics as a zero-sum game in which states seek relative gains in a competitive struggle for power, prestige and profit. They consider the PRC a major economic threat and a formidable strategic challenge. They aim to ‘aggressively and comprehensively address the China problem,’ according to Peter Navarro, head of the new National Trade Council and author of inflammatory books.


China cannot rise peacefully


International relations theorist John Mearsheimer has offered the clearest argument in favour of containment. Starting from the assumption that interstate anarchy generates inescapable pressures for conflict, he argues that ‘China cannot rise peacefully’ since it would ‘fundamentally alter the architecture of the international system.’ ‘If China continues to grow economically,’ he wrote in 2001, ‘it will attempt to dominate Asia the way the United States dominates the western hemisphere.’ In response, the ‘United States ... will go to enormous lengths to prevent China from achieving regional hegemony,’ leading to an ‘intense security competition ... with considerable potential for war’.


There is a thin, porous line between analysis and prescription in Mearsheimer’s work. He expressed astonishment not long ago about ‘Americans and people in allied states who profess wanting to see China grow economically.’ At a small gathering in Washington DC in 2014, he said he hoped the Chinese economy would ‘falter or collapse,’ thus removing ‘a potentially enormous threat to the US and its allies.’ Were China to ‘reach a GDP per capita that is comparable to Taiwan or Hong Kong today, it would be a greater potential threat to the United States than anything America has previously dealt with’.


Most recently, he has urged the Trump administration ‘to go to great lengths to prevent China from becoming a regional hegemon’ by actively leading a containment effort. ‘Ideally, Washington would rely on countries in Asia to contain China, but that strategy will not work. Not only is China likely to be far more powerful than its neighbours, but also they are located far from each other, making it difficult for them to coordinate those efforts to form an effective balancing coalition. The United States will have to coordinate these efforts and throw its considerable weight behind them ... The fact that no country threatens to dominate Europe or the Gulf is a blessing, as it not only allows Washington to concentrate its military forces in Asia, but also allows American policy makers to concentrate their strategic thinking on how to prevent China from becoming a peer competitor. That mission should be of paramount importance for the United States in the years ahead’.


Short of war, however, that mission seems unattainable. The regional and global conditions for containment are not in place. First, it would not be acceptable to most East Asian states. Many countries in the region do fear an overbearing China and have expressed serious concerns in recent years over the PRC’s suzerainty claims in the South China Sea. However, being fated to live forever in the PRC’s neighbourhood, they do not want to be enmeshed in a great power rivalry that would threaten regional stability. All regional states have enormous stakes in China’s ‘peaceful rise’. The PRC has become the gravitational centre of regional economic integration and currently accounts for nearly 40% of Taiwanese trade, 21% of South Korean trade (more than Korean trade with the US and Japan combined), 14% of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) trade, and even 20% of Japanese trade.


In private, ASEAN diplomats now express greater concern about US intentions than about China’s. Some have been working behind the scenes to get the PRC to sign a ‘code of conduct’ over the South China Sea. They include states that have their own territorial claims, such as Vietnam, which retains close if sometimes tense relations with the Chinese party-state, and the Philippines.


If China does not severely overreach in Southeast Asia in the near future, a regional anti-PRC coalition will not come into being. A Chinese official noted in 2012 that some Asian countries ‘share the same bed [as the US] but have different dreams.’ A pro-Chinese coalition is not very likely either. Few East Asian states that now share China’s bed also share Xi Jinping’s China dream: The PRC’s appeals to ‘Asianness’, based on cultural proximities and shared historical experiences of European empire, have limited purchase in the region — despite a common allergy to universalising western discourses. Most East Asian states are seeking balance — as weaker states in the uncomfortable proximity of great powers are wont to do — to preserve some autonomy in the face of both Asian-Pacific giants. The last thing they want is to be forced to choose sides.


Also, containment would run counter to the interests of a constellation of transnational economic actors, including parts of US capital; these are deeply invested in China, and dependent on its role as a platform of production and assembly in the global production and value chains that make the world economy work. Until Trump, the geopolitical logic of state power had not come into contradiction with transnational economic interests, which now weigh heavily in overall strategic calculations.


The hot cold war


That has now changed, at least for the moment. Containment of the Soviet Union worked during the cold war (which was often hot in East Asia and other colonial and postcolonial peripheries), insofar as the US built tight alliances and interdependencies — belts of security and prosperity that surrounded the USSR and were characterised by the convergence of public and private actors around a relatively unified agenda.


After the second world war the US aimed to restore the world capitalist economy, to contain the USSR and inhibit revolution in colonial and postcolonial world regions, as well as in Europe where communist parties claimed mass support. These aims were shared overall by dominant European and East Asian anti-communist social forces, which developed deep and lasting economic and security links with the US.


In Europe, this led to institutionalised cooperation based on converging general interests. NATO was underpinned by an expanding and increasingly interdependent transatlantic economy. In East Asia, bilateral security alliances went along with US support for strong (read authoritarian), successful capitalist developing states, which were initially given unrestricted US market access and became subordinate but willing partners in the global containment effort.


The major business actors had powerful vested interests in this global system, which kept the Soviet Union caged in a closed economic area (Comecon) and limited international economic relationships. New York and Washington became the gravitational centre for the constellation of private economic actors that, over time, became the transnational constituency of Pax Americana.


Where China is concerned, there is no such common purpose today among public or private actors, either in East Asia or in Europe, which is now anxiously looking at the authoritarian Far East to moderate the newly bellicose Far West. Transnational capital paradoxically and unexpectedly has become more aligned with China than with the current purposes of the US state. Unlike the Soviet Union, China has become an indispensable hub of the world capitalist economy.


Chinese state is not about to collapse


The last reason why containment cannot work is that China is not in the same political or economic position as the Soviet Union in the late 1970s or 1980s, when industrial decline, overall economic stagnation and a failed overseas war combined to generate a systemic crisis. China has 17% of world GDP today in purchasing power parity (PPP), and while economic and social strains could well generate setbacks, the state is not about to collapse. There are serious questions about the longer-range sustainability of the current sociopolitical order, and of its environmentally damaging, externally driven growth logic. But the state has proved resilient over long periods.


Ironically, by threatening trade sanctions and pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the US administration may ultimately help the PRC gain greater autonomy. While higher tariffs would hurt its economy in the short run, they will spur the turn to endogenous growth that the Chinese leadership has been aiming for since the 2000s, reducing reliance on exports and helping to build more cohesive national and regional markets.


It is too late for the US to contain China, if indeed containment was ever possible. In 1965, when China was in a far weaker economic and strategic position, the scholar Hans Morgenthau argued that containment would fail, leaving US policymakers only two options, accommodation or general war: ‘Even if China were threatening her neighbours primarily by military means, it would be impossible to contain her by erecting a military wall at the periphery of her empire. For China is, even in her present underdeveloped state, the dominant power in Asia. The United States can no more contain Chinese influence in Asia ... than China could contain American influence in the western hemisphere ... If we are convinced that we cannot live with a China predominant in the heartland of Asia, then we must strike at the heart of Chinese power ... To be defeated China has to be conquered ... If we do not want to set ourselves goals which cannot be attained with the means we are willing to employ, we must learn to accommodate ourselves to the predominance of China on the Asian mainland’.


‘Strategic arrogance beyond America’s strength’


International politics is reflexive. US sovereignists read China as a revisionist emerging power, purposefully aiming, beneath a deceptive discourse of interdependence, to alter the regional and global status quo. And many Chinese analysts view the US as an ‘aggressive, ambitious, self-righteous and highly militarised Rome’. The Chinese leadership, which had already manifested concerns over the Obama administration’s announced pivot towards East Asia, has reacted cautiously to Trump administration pronouncements. But publications thought to reflect the power centres in Beijing have been quick to denounce Trump as showing ‘strategic arrogance that is beyond America’s strength.’


On 16 January the Global Times wrote that ‘China (had) to be quick in preparing for sharp provocations from the Trump administration’ by improving its ‘ties with other countries so as to have more leverage in its game with the US,’ and also by ‘preparing for the worst-case scenario’. A few days earlier, China’s aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, sailed through the first island chain in the East China Sea, accompanied for the first time by six H-6 long range bombers, signalling in the words of another Global Times piece, that the ‘PLA’s navy exercises in the West Pacific Ocean are entering into a normalisation state ... The breakthrough, however, is considered as just the beginning stage of the PLA navy’s sea operation in the region as more fleets of battleships led by carriers will sail into waters near and far in the future’.


The US and China seem set to test each other, with the growing risk of a clash between US or PRC naval and air forces in the South China or East China Seas, and the possibility of chain reactions leading to a major historical accident. There are other pathways. The PRC could choose a policy of strategic restraint and use the widespread aversion caused by Trump administration behaviour to make political gains in Asia and beyond. Or the US could back off from its confrontational course. Events and actor choices will inform us soon whether we are experiencing a historic reversal from limited but real transnational interdependence back to 19th century national power politics.



- Philip S Golub is professor of international relations at the American University of Paris (AUP) and the author of East Asia’s Reemergence, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2016.


Copyright ©2017 Le Monde diplomatique — used by permission of Agence Global

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