Is It Time to Meet China Halfway?

May 12, 2015 Topic: China Region: Asia Tags: ChinaAsiaMeeting China Halfway

Is It Time to Meet China Halfway?

Book Excerpt: An important new work offers important ideas on how to defuse the emerging U.S.-China rivalry. 

A few additional caveats must be stated at the outset. Regarding the rather extensive employment of Chinese sources throughout the chapters that follow, a couple of methodological issues may be considered. First, which Chinese sources are examined, and how is their credibility evaluated? A weakness of some other studies in this field is a tendency to rely exclusively upon a single set of sources. As much as possible, therefore, this book relies on the widest possible array of sources, prioritizing academic writings above magazine-type articles, but hardly dismissing the import of the latter. Second, why does the book focus almost exclusively on Chinese and US sources? For example, Taiwanese sources are not generally examined for the chapter on Taiwan, Korean sources are not considered for the chapter on Korea, and so on. On one hand, this reflects a simple limit on the scope of the project and the difficult requirements of restricted space in a book covering such a broad range of topics. On the other hand, the reader will also quite correctly discern a certain “G2” (Group of Two) aspect to the prioritization of American and Chinese sources, vice those of “third parties.” In defense of this approach, one may say first that the views of Seoul, Tokyo, Manila, Taipei, Canberra, Jakarta, New Delhi, and so on are quite well represented among the Washington foreign policy elite. To take but one obvious example, in the last decade the Tokyo-based English-language magazine The Diplomat has become a leading forum for American strategic thinking about the Asia-Pacific region’s security. True enough, it is not quite fair to prioritize Chinese and American perspectives over those from other nations, but then international affairs is also not quite fair either. It is, moreover, suggested in this book that a substantial amount of the tension in the Asia-Pacific region today results from a failure to create decision frameworks that are in accord with the genuine balance of power, and its obvious tendencies. This book reflects the fact that ultimately peace and stability will flow, first and foremost, from a carefully negotiated consensus among the two leading superpowers that is then shaped and further modified by the other powers and lesser states. The new balance of power in the world dictates such a structure and process for the emerging world order. This book conforms to this new reality of world politics.

Two additional assumptions that need to be addressed at this point include the key foreign policy concepts of “linkage,” on one hand, and that of “spheres of influence,” on the other hand. Each of these concepts is critical to the book’s argument. At the most basic level, the term “linkage” in a foreign policy context simply implies that issues are related in various ways. Most fundamentally, for example, a whole variety of issue areas can benefit from the general strengthening of a given relationship. Intuitively, it seems quite plain that a leadership summit between two rivals can serve to break through a series of policy logjams because the leaders are seen to value the overall relationship above the minor costs of mutual accommodation on any given issue. During the Cold War the term “linkage” first came into vogue during the 1970s, as the Nixon administration attempted to link progress in arms control and economic issues with Soviet behavior in the developing world. Paradoxically, the opposite policy currently seems to be fashionable in US-China relations— “delinkage,” perhaps dating from the 1990s, when the Clinton administration prudently chose to delink economic cooperation from the sensitive human rights issue. Within the conceptual framework of “delinkage,” there are certain issues on which the United States and China remain deadlocked or engage in strategic competition, while simultaneously pursuing robust cooperation in other areas where US and Chinese interests closely align. I do not dismiss the value of isolating certain issues in order to make progress where possible. Indeed, the discussion of environmental cooperation in chapter 5 showcases the considerable success of that tactic. However, the general approach adopted here is that there are real limits to delinkage, and, moreover, that progress on the most substantive and difficult questions presently dividing Beijing and Washington would benefit not only from a general improvement in the relationship but also, in particular, from the linking of certain critical issues. For example, there could be a mutually advantageous linking of the Taiwan and Korean Peninsula issues, as discussed in the book’s concluding chapter.

A second key theme that emerges in the chapters that follow is that of “spheres of influence.” Going against the grain of much contemporary commentary regarding international relations in the twenty-first century, my analysis accepts spheres of influence as an integral and natural organizing principle of world politics that follows from the continued deep relevance of geography to almost all interactions in international affairs—not least those of a strategic nature. The Ukraine crisis that developed in the spring of 2014 seems to have shown that spheres-of-influence principles may substantially trump those of universalist principles, even within the comparatively stable and prosperous European context. The larger point is that the general phenomenon of states, and often great powers, seeking a larger voice on issues that are immediately proximate to them cannot be ignored or wished away. Alternatively, it is also conceivable that spheres of influence can play a stabilizing, and indeed positive, role in global politics. As conceptualized in this book, the immutable process of the diffusion of global power, or “multipolarization,” will of necessity involve a greater salience for spheres-of-influence-type diplomacy. Although Americans, imbued with a liberal internationalist ideology, are prone to deep suspicion regarding spheres of influence, Christopher Layne recently reminded us that this concept was a key part of George Kennan’s crucial theorizing during the early Cold War, and that a closer adherence to this conception during that long struggle might well have saved the United States considerable blood and treasure.49  Similarly, Steinberg and O’Hanlon observe that American strategists during the Cold War “recognized the need to develop a modus vivendi with the Soviet Union to limit the dangers of inadvertent conflict or the escalation of peripheral conflicts to a direct confrontation between the two nuclear powers themselves, . . . [and they were]. . . willing to tolerate . . . Soviet spheres of influence.”50

Thus, readers should not be surprised in the chapters that follow to see a considerable willingness to accord Beijing a sphere of influence in the Asia-Pacific region. As is discussed in much greater detail throughout the book, this judgment is premised not only on the realities of the evolving global and regional balances of power but also on a reasonably positive outlook with respect to Chinese intentions. It is important to recall that China has no military bases abroad; nor has it resorted to a large-scale use of force for more than three decades. Whether this quite remarkable restraint continues without exception is less important than the overall trend, which is clearly favorable. Connecting the themes of linkage and spheres of influence, one might crudely summarize the book’s general thesis to suggest that bestowing or even deputizing Beijing with a larger role in the Asia-Pacific region, and especially in its backyard, will yield a higher degree of successful bilateral cooperation across a whole gamut of global issues, from nuclear proliferation to climate change. Is this not how London courted Washington so that the two could put their long history of militarized rivalry and contentious squabbling behind them to become effective partners on the world stage?51 In effect, making room for China on the global stage, but especially within the Asia-Pacific region, will actually benefit both US prosperity and US national security. 

A somewhat perverse impression, however, can result, and this is the notion that the United States is giving up distinctly more within each cooperation spiral than is Beijing. Although none of the related spirals call upon the United States to reduce its military outlays more than China does, many American readers are sure to be uncomfortable with the fact that the various spirals proposed in this book call for drawing down certain of the US forces deployed to the Western Pacific. Elsewhere, the spirals call for reduced US military surveillance in areas close to China (chapter 10) and also for halting US drone attacks in Pakistan (chapter 11). It is quite true that Beijing is not asked in this book to decrease its presence at various far-flung bases, nor to halt drone attacks. However, China’s national defense posture is quite different than that of the United States: There are no far-flung bases (or any overseas actually); nor are there any drone strikes (at least not yet). Given these asymmetrical postures, it is only natural that the scope and scale of measures to reach accommodation in each would be quite different. Put another way, if China maintained bases in Cuba, Mexico, and other areas proximate to the United States, then such deployments would quite obviously also be part of a package negotiation, but China’s posture is already quite defensive. As Ambassador Chas Freeman explains, “We seem to think that if we Americans don’t provide it, there can be no balance or peace in Asia. . . . [However, the]. . . bottom line is that the return of Japan, South Korea, and China to wealth and power and the impressive development of other countries in the region should challenge us to rethink the entire structure of our defense posture in Asia.”52 American readers should also keep in mind that the cooperation spirals described herein are, in fact, also quite exceptionally demanding from a Chinese perspective. In each of the extremely sensitive territorial disputes on China’s maritime flank, Beijing is asked to significantly adjust its current and long-held positions: reforming the so-called nine-dash line in the South China Sea, adopting the median line in the East China Sea, and renouncing the use of force on Taiwan. Indeed, the book has been designed such that the author expects to be equally unpopular in both Beijing and Washington. But that is the nature of asking statesmen to “meet halfway”—to take the long view for the sake of future generations and thus make brave and hard choices for peace.