Forthcoming Asia Strategy Should Avoid Second-handed Pitfalls

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with supporters as he arrives at West Palm Beach international airport in West Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., December 22, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

The United States is ceding cognitive control of a foundational part of the decisionmaking process to its adversary.

The increasing strength and assertiveness of the People’s Republic of China has been met with calls for the United States to develop weapons, strategies and policies to counter the PRC’s rise. Whether discussing military tactics and strategy, economic policy, or diplomacy, the narrative in the United States is one of reaction and countering a powerful and leading PRC. By focusing on opposing the PRC, the United States has inadvertently become a second-handed actor, driven not by its own values and interests, but by those to which it is reacting. In doing so, the objectives and conduct of U.S. policy have become dependent on the policy and actions of an adversarial power and wanting of a self-interested pursuit of U.S. interests. The United States must break free of this intellectual dependence on the PRC and begin taking actions based on U.S. values, directed at U.S. interests, and guided by a strategy specifically crafted to shape the environment to match the U.S. vision of the future.

A Second-Handed Orientation

The current second-handed orientation of the U.S. policy community is most starkly displayed in discussion of military tactics, operations and strategy. Over the past decade, analysts have written incessantly about countering a range of PRC weapon systems—collectively branded by the U.S. security establishment as Anti-Access, Area Denial (A2AD). This concept integrates improved PRC capabilities in long-range air defense, coastal defense cruise missiles, and the DongFeng-21-D anti-ship ballistic missile to paint a picture of concentric rings of PRC invulnerability that the United States must reduce before its own strategy can even be considered.

The A2AD orientation has led the U.S. security establishment to an intellectual preoccupation with weapon systems and countermeasures. Many U.S. analysts are laser-focused on defeating PRC weapons rather than on developing a strategy to protect U.S. interests. Not only are U.S. interests not the focus, even PRC interests are increasingly ignored in a rush to defeat weapon systems. As it searches for the defense concept of the future, the United States has replaced its own interests with pieces of PRC hardware as the standard by which success is judged.

For strategists who see beyond upgraded PRC coastal defenses, the tendency is still to address PRC strategy, rather than devise one for the United States. For example, PRC actions in the South China Sea are often the starting point of U.S. strategy discussions. This tendency grants the PRC centrality in regional security discussions and creates a de facto concession to PRC interests and view of the status quo. The U.S. position becomes second-handed and defined in terms of PRC values, interests and actions, rather than by a self-interested declaration of values, objectives or interests of the United States.

U.S. economic policy has also been second-handed, focusing on the influence the PRC economy has over the United States or the impact PRC economic initiatives on regional architectures. Even initiatives the United States participates in, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), are couched in terms of their effectiveness vis-à-vis a PRC. It is little wonder the TPP could not garner support when the dominant narrative was not for anything—market access, cheaper goods, or more freedom for U.S. economic actors—rather it was against other trading blocs and foreign-labor standards. U.S. goals were once again second-handed rejections of the ideas of others.

Attempts by the United States to derail the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank showed similar results. The inability of the United States to articulate its broader strategy or vision for the region sent the message that the United States was merely acting in opposition to the PRC, not for anything. A similar sentiment is now being shown regarding the PRC’s One Belt, One Road initiative to build economic infrastructure across and around Eurasia. Discussion in the United States focuses on countering PRC grand strategy and ensuring it does not gain economic, diplomatic or geostrategic benefits from the initiative. Absent is a U.S. vision for the Indo-Asia-Pacific—how an integrated, free global trading regime is good for the United States and regional states the U.S. trades with. Instead, the refrain is a chorus of U.S. opposition to PRC economic overtures—a second-handed opposition to the presumptive regional hegemon.

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