Thanks to China’s Rise, the Age of Dealignment Is Here

October 17, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: ChinaAsiaJapanDonald TrumpXi Jinping

Thanks to China’s Rise, the Age of Dealignment Is Here

The rise of China is likely to fashion a kaleidoscopic multipolar world order, as many countries, including former U.S. allies, distance themselves from both China and the United States.

What about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)? According to most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, this would have weakened China by creating a bloc of the United States, Japan, and many Asian nations from which China was excluded. During the 2016 presidential campaign, however, under pressure from progressives and populists, both Hillary Clinton and Trump promised to withdraw from the TPP, and Trump made good on his promise following his election.

The truth is that the TPP would not have weakened China significantly. The claim that it would was just a bogus “national security” rationale designed to neutralize opposition to the treaty in the United States. The unacknowledged goal of the TPP, from the point of view of the U.S. special interests that supported it, was to impose bloc-wide rules favoring U.S. pharmaceutical companies and Wall Street financial firms on the weak developing countries of Asia. China is already the largest or second-largest trading partner of most of the countries included in the TPP, and the treaty probably would not have altered this.

In Cold War I, U.S. military alliance strategy was complemented by the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (CoCom), a U.S.-dominated institution that coordinated a half-century economic and technological embargo against the USSR. Nothing similar to CoCom seems possible in Cold War II. Will the East Asian allies of the United States, to say nothing of NATO members and other countries like India, agree to eliminate most of their trade and investment with China? The answer is no, unless China becomes far more aggressive than it has been. Even if China invaded Taiwan, there might be sanctions at first, but it probably would be only a matter of time before trade delegations from Tokyo, Seoul, Berlin—and perhaps Washington—made trips to normalize trade and investment with Beijing. And yet a strategy of military containment of China without economic isolation of China cannot succeed in Cold War II.

AT SOME point, the perversity of stationing U.S. military forces in China’s major trading partners to protect them from a largely imaginary threat of Chinese invasion and occupation will be too obvious to be denied. The result is likely to be the pulling up of the leftover tripwires in the Korean peninsula and in the South China Sea, and the withdrawal of America’s unilateral promise to go to war with China over Japan, South Korea and Taiwan—a promise that nobody in any country will believe to be credible. The United States may remain engaged in a naval rivalry with China in the Pacific, but the strategy of encircling China’s borders with U.S. bases to protect China’s trading partners from China may be abandoned. In time East Asia is likely to become a de facto Chinese sphere of influence, as North America has been a U.S. sphere of influence since the 1900s. In contrast to America’s East Asian protectorates, India exports much more to the United States (16.8 percent of exports) than to China (5.3 percent). China’s growing regional assertiveness may tilt India toward the United States.

In the near future, India will become the world’s most populous country, surpassing China. And while it has a long way to go, by the end of this century or perhaps in the next, India could have the world’s largest economy, even though its per capita income and standard of living would remain below those of North America and Europe.

Before we celebrate the might of a hypothetical Indo-American alliance, however, caution is in order. During Cold War I, India pursued a policy of nonalignment between the Western and communist blocs, with a slight tilt toward the Soviet Union. And since its independence, India has sought to maximize its economic self-sufficiency by means of socialist or dirigiste economic policies.

Would a richer and more powerful India consent to enduring U.S. hegemony in the newly-christened “Indo-Pacific?” Classical realists would suggest the answer is no. Just as China today is trying to end America’s post-1945 hegemony in East Asia, nationalists in tomorrow’s more powerful and assertive India may insist that the Indian Ocean must be an Indian lake and demand the return of the strategic U.S. naval base in Diego Garcia, which the United States obtained from Britain. The United States, after all, bloodlessly drove the British navy out of the Western hemisphere, more than a century ago, after the United States surpassed Britain in population and industrial strength.

Indeed, it is not inconceivable that the United States and China, engaged in strategic rivalry today, in the future might set aside their differences to unite to check the power of a rising India. In the twentieth century, the United States sided with the Soviet Union against Germany and Japan, only to ally itself after 1945 with West Germany and Japan against the Soviet Union. Late in the Cold War, the United States was even allied informally with communist China against the USSR. With the disappearance of the shared threat of the Soviet Union, mutual suspicion on the part of China and the United States has produced a new cold war.

To return to the projection by PwC mentioned earlier: between 2018 and 2060, China’s GDP may grow from 18 to 20 percent of the global economy (measured in purchasing power parity) while U.S. GDP may decline from 16 percent to 12 percent. The other poles in the global economy in 2050, according to PwC, will be India, 15 percent, and Europe at 9 percent. The specific numbers will almost certainly be wrong, but the trajectory is clear.

In a game of Risk, it would be easy and fun to imagine a “realignment” scenario in which a U.S.-European-Indian alliance with 36 percent of combined GDP overawes China with 20 percent. Go, Alliance of Democracies! But in a “dealignment” scenario, a rich, aging Europe—embroiled in controversies over immigration and inter-regional wealth transfers—might be neutral in a conflict between the United States and China. For its part, a richer and more powerful India might be jealous of its sovereignty, tilting toward the United States when its leaders feel threatened by China but otherwise maintaining its distance from both and intent on building its own regional sphere of influence.

MEANWHILE, OUTSIDE of South Asia, most of the population growth in this century will take place in Africa. By 2100, one in four people on earth may be African. There may be success stories, as falling fertility and rising per capita create a “sweet spot” for economic growth in some countries and regions. There may also be civil wars and independence movements, as increasing prosperity fuels the pride and nationalism of ethnonational minorities in multi-ethnic states created by long-dead European colonial empires.

In a realignment scenario, zero-sum, bipolar Sino-American competition might be transposed to Africa, as Soviet-American competition was. But in a dealignment scenario, the situation would be far messier. The United States, China, India, and individual European great powers, along with Russia and Middle Eastern nations, perhaps, might compete opportunistically for markets and contracts for their firms, or arm rival sides in local wars. The result might look less like Cold War I than like the late nineteenth-century Scramble for Africa, with alliances and trade deals replacing formal colonization. At the same time, the more powerful African states might try to create spheres of influence and trading blocs in their own neighborhoods, as Russia has done in the post-Soviet space.

My aim is not to propose a grand strategy for the United States in Cold War II. It is simply to point out the inadequacy of Cold War I as a model. Rather than a bipolar world of tight alliances like those of the Cold War, the rise of China may produce—indeed, already is producing—a dealignment in which power diffuses and many countries seek to minimize their dependence on both the United States and China.

All of this suggests that the central feature of U.S. grand strategy during Cold War I—a deeply integrated core bloc of allies in Europe and Asia, based on unilateral U.S. military protection and a shared economy—would be difficult to replicate in Cold War II, if the conflict persists for years or decades. The geopolitical landscape of Cold War I was symbolized by frozen conflicts along highly-visible frontiers—the Berlin Wall, the Korean Demilitarized Zone, the former border between North and South Vietnam. The geopolitical landscape of Cold War II and whatever period follows will be volcanic, unstable and fragmented among spheres of influence and trading blocs created by lesser powers as well as major powers. The penalty for failure to understand this may be severe.

Michael Lind is a professor of practice at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas and the author of The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite.

Image: Reuters