Chuck Hagel and China

How would the former senator approach Beijing?

The media has paid a great deal of attention to the positions of Sen. Chuck Hagel on Iran, Israel and even gays. Much more attention should be paid to his views on China.

The next secretary of defense will face a major strategic decision that will affect the future of the world order, the structure of our military forces and the size of our defense budget for decades to come. The decision concerns whether to treat China as a nation that the U.S. military will have to confront sooner or later—or as a nation with which we can coexist peacefully.

One may say that the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia in 2011 shows that this decision has already been made and that a future conflict is inevitable. But President Obama’s proclamation that the Far East should become the top priority as our presence in the Near East winds down, is open to rather different interpretations. True, some do see it as a clear signal that the time has come to shift military assets to the Far East (Marines, naval vessels, etc.), to form military alliances with China’s neighbors, and to conduct military exercises in the region. Moreover, some in the Pentagon are pushing for expanding the budgets of the Air Force and Navy, service branches that played a supporting role to the Army and Marines in the Middle East, but which some officers and strategists claim ought to take the lead in any Asia-Pacific operation.

These China hawks sometimes openly state that China is “out to eat our lunch” and charge that China’s “peaceful rise” policy is a ruse that masks the real challenge the communist nation poses to the liberal world order. At other times they deny that they have China in their sights and merely speak of “Asia” as the new center stage. Yet few doubt that China is their real target.

In contrast, many others hold that we can work out our differences with China, and that to view it as a global threat is a grave mistake, one likely to produce an enemy where none is looming. As Joe Nye Jr. put it, “If we treated China as an enemy, we were guaranteeing an enemy in the future. If we treated China as a friend, we could not guarantee friendship, but we could at least keep open the possibility of more benign outcomes.”

Where does Hagel stand on this? The clearest answer comes from an extensive recent interview with Robert Nolan on PBS. Hagel does not join those who are alarmed by the fact that the Chinese economy has been growing at a rapid clip. He stated:

China is going to emerge and grow. It should; we should welcome that. They're going to be competitors, they are now, as are India, Brazil and other nations. That's OK. Trade, exchanges, relationships, common interests; all those emerging nations and economic, and strengths are all captive to basically the same kinds of things: stability, security, energy sources, resources, people. Everything that we have to have in our country to prosper, so do the Chinese.

Hagel recognized that China faces major domestic challenges that will limit what it can do overseas. He pointed out that:

The Chinese have bigger problems though. They've got huge problems, starting with the fact that they've got 1.3 billion people, and hundreds of millions of them live in abject poverty. That means jobs, that mean all the rest. They've got energy issues they're going to be living with ... They are a great power today, and they going to continue to be a great power—and that's okay. But we shouldn't cower in the wake of that, or we shouldn't be concerned that they're going to take our place in the world.

Above all, Hagel feels good about America:

I'm not worried about this country if we continue to do the wise things, the smart things. We lead the world; we don't dictate to the world, we don't impose to the world, we don't intervene everywhere, and we don't occupy and invade. We work with our allies. We do exactly what Eisenhower, Truman, and Marshall, and all those other wise leaders after WWII did.

There is thus no room for doubt where Hagel stands on this key issue. He is a China dove—and one can assume that he will help President Obama reign in those in the Pentagon who see China as a threatening adversary and are making moves that, however inadvertently, slide the United States toward a new Cold—if not shooting—War with China.

Amitai Etzioni served as a senior advisor to the Carter White House; taught at Columbia University, Harvard and The University of California at Berkeley; and is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. His latest book is Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World.

Image: Flickr/domesticflight. CC BY-SA 2.0.