While the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
—A.E. Housman, “Terence This is Stupid Stuff,” (1896)
THE WORDS of Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, delivered on the 3rd of June to the assembled leaders and representatives of the Southeast Asian nations then gathered in Singapore:
The choice for Southeast Asia in the 21st century is not between the United States and China, as some would make it out to be. Instead it is a choice between two futures—one in which the rules-based order is upheld and its benefits expanded to ever more people in Asia, or a darker future that resembles the past in this region and the world, where might makes right, and bullies set the rules and break them.
The rules-based order has not and will not enforce itself here in Southeast Asia. Nor can America, despite its great power, achieve this feat alone. It requires its stakeholders, including the nations of Southeast Asia, to uphold its principles, especially when they are challenged. America and the world are counting on the nations of Southeast Asia to recommit their power and resolve to upholding this system on which our shared security and prosperity depend.
…Like Southeast Asia, China also faces a choice. No nation has benefited more from the rules-based order than China. In just a single generation, China has become an economic superpower and a major player in international affairs. No nation in history has risen so high, so fast, and in so many different dimensions. And no nation has been a greater advocate for China’s success than America. Let me repeat: No nation has done as much to contribute to what China calls its “peaceful rise” as the United States of America.
…Regrettably, in recent years, there have been disturbing signs that China is maneuvering toward a policy of intimidation and coercion—harassing fisherman from the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia; using trade as a weapon in disputes with its neighbors; using cyber to steal intellectual property from foreign businesses to benefit its own industries; conducting dangerous intercepts of military aircraft flying in accordance with international law; and in the South China Sea, shattering the commitments it made to its neighbors in the 2002 Declaration of Conduct, as well as more recent commitments to the U.S. government, by conducting reclamation on disputed features and militarizing the South China Sea at a startling and destabilizing rate.
The choice for China is how it uses its growing power and position. China could continue to coerce and intimidate its neighbors and unilaterally enforce its territorial claims. It could pursue mercantilist economic policies. And it could engage in a zero-sum game for regional power and influence. China could do all of this, and it would harm the interests of every nation in this region, including its own.
Alternatively, China could choose a better path. It could cooperate with its neighbors and manage disputes peacefully, consistent with the same international rules that have benefited China so greatly. It could expand free and open trade with the region and the world. And it could expand cooperation with other Pacific powers on regional security challenges, from piracy to stability on the Korean Peninsula.
…In short, China can choose to disrupt the rules-based order. Or it can choose to become a vital partner in maintaining it. I fear the consequences if China chooses the path of disruption. But I am confident that if China chooses the path of partnership and cooperation, China’s growing influence will be welcomed by the international community. And the benefits of greater security and prosperity will extend to more citizens of this region than ever before, China’s included. 1
John McCain, “The Choice for Asia in the 21st Century,” War on the Rocks (3 June 2016).
McCain’s words echo those spoken by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter last week to the graduating midshipman at Annapolis. Read them both. Compare what they say. Behold the quickly crystallizing American narrative on China. This is a bipartisan message. It will be the starting point of a President Clinton’s policy. Whether a President Trump will endorse it is hard to say. In either case, it is a narrative whose momentum is building.
There is much that is good in this narrative. McCain proclaims that “no nation has done as much to contribute to what China calls its “peaceful rise” as the United States of America.” He is right to do so. No nation has done more to enable China’s rise than America has. No country’s citizens have done more for the general prosperity of the Chinese people than the Americans have. This is true in ways that are not widely known or immediately obvious. For example, the role American financiers and investment banks played in creating the architecture of modern Chinese financial markets and corporate structures is little realized, despite the size and importance of their interventions. Behind every great titan of Chinese industry —China Mobile, the world’s largest mobile phone operator, China State Construction Engineering, whose IPO was valued at $7.3 billion, PetroChina, the most profitable company in Asia (well, before last year), to name a few of hundreds — lies an American investment banker. I do not exaggerate when I say Goldman Sachs created modern China. China has much to thank America for.2
However, I cannot endorse all that is included in this emerging narrative, for part of it is deeply flawed. The flaw may be by design; if the purpose is to stir cold hearts and gain the moral admiration of others, such flaws can be excused — that is how politics works. But this sort of things can only be excused if those delivering the speeches take the implications of their own words seriously when it is time to make policy.
I speak of China’s “choice.” The thread that runs through all of these talks is that the Chinese have yet to choose whether they aim for order or disruption, the existing regime or the chaos beyond it. The truth is that the Chinese have already chosen their path and no number of speeches on our part will convince them to abandon it. They do not want our rules based order. They have rejected it. They will continue to reject it unless compelled by overwhelming crisis to sleep on sticks and swallow gall and accept the rules we force upon them.
Carl Walter and Fraser Howie, Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundations of China’s Extraordinary Rise (New York: Wiley, 2011), passim, but see esp p. 159.
China has made its choice. The real decision that will determine the contours of the 21st century will not be made in Beijing, but in Washington.
Observers of Chinese affairs have come to recognize two uncomfortable truths. The first is that China is a growing power whose might will continue to grow in every dimension we can measure for decades. The second is that the Chinese system of government is a fundamentally illiberal one, and the system of international relations the leaders of this system prefer reflects their illiberalism. These two things are not determined in the stars; either may change, and may change quite suddenly. But Americans will be better served if we plan as if both of these truths will remain true to the end of our lives.
This is not what we have been doing. For the most part Americans were able to accommodate themselves to the first of these realities by pretending that the second was not true. China could become more powerful, we said, because it will not be illiberal for long. After all, on this Earth the arc of history bends towards justice. Those on the ‘wrong side’ of history do not last long. How can the illiberal hope to endure?
Last spring it finally sunk in. Chinese illiberalism not only can endure, it is enduring. The old consensus cracked apart. No new consensus on how to deal with China has yet formed to take its place.
But old habits die hard. We see this at the highest levels of policy, as in the McCain speech, where American policy is justified in terms of giving China a chance to choose the right. The same spirit is invoked further down the line. Ash Carter, for example, recently described American tactics in the South China Sea as a “long campaign of firmness, and gentle but strong pushback… [until] The internal logic of China and its society will eventually dictate a change.“3 In other words, American policy is a holding action until the Chinese see the light.
What if they never do?
THE CHINESE believe that our international order is a rigged system set up by the imperial victors of the last round of bloodshed to perpetuate the power of its winners. They use the system, quite cynically, but at its base they find it and its symbols hypocritical, embarrassing, outrageous, and (according to the most strident among them), evil. In their minds it is a system of lies and half-truths. In some cases they have a point. Most of their actions in the East or South China Seas are designed to show just how large a gap exists between the grim realities of great power politics and soaring rhetoric Americans use to describe our role in the region. Murphy Taggart describes how the Chinese were able to exploit tensions over the Senkakus to manipulate the Japan and America’s relations:
Bradley Peniston, “Pentagon Playing the Long Game in the South China Sea, Carter Says,” Defense One (26 May 2016).
Beijing saw what happened in the wake of Ozawa’s comments to Hillary Clinton on her February 2009 visit to Japan, not to mention the coincidence of the ersatz “investigation” into Ozawa’s finances that destroyed his chances of becoming prime minister. Chinese leaders noted the spasms of hysteria that shook the American foreign policy establishment after Ozawa led his 600-person delegation to their country. They understood how the Hatoyama administration had been deliberately sabotaged by a de facto alliance of Pentagon functionaries, the establishment press in Japan, and Japanese spokesmen in the United States committing what amounted to treason against their own government. And they decided to call Tokyo’s— and Washington’s— bluff. 4
Murphy, R. Taggart. Japan and the Shackles of the Past (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 352.
Another example was the crisis started when Beijing moved the oil rig HYSY981 into Vietnamese waters:
“The deployment of the CNOOC mega rig was a pre-planned response to President Barack Obama’s recent visit to East Asia. China was angered by Obama’s support for both Japan and the Philippines in their territorial disputes with Beijing. Therefore China manufactured the oil rig crisis to demonstrate to regional states that the United States was a “paper tiger” and there was a gap between Obama’s rhetoric and ability to act.”
President Obama’s tour, which ended shortly before the whole HYSY-981 fiasco began, brought the President to Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Tokyo, and Seoul. One wonders if it was wise to exclude Beijing from this list—particularly seeing as the President’s agenda included signing a ten year military pact with the Philippines, declaring that the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are under U.S. military protection, and cajoling South Korean and Malaysian government officials and corporate bigwigs into joining the Trans Pacific Partnership. From the Chinese perspective it is hard to look at this trip as anything but a hostile attempt to draw tight the noose and solidify a regional alliance to contain it.
Prompting a crisis was an adroit way to show that the PRC cannot be contained. Washington will not crusade against Moscow and Beijing at the same time. Beijing has forced the Americans to choose between the two. To the chagrin of our Asian allies, Washington’s priorities are not those proclaimed in the President’s speeches last month. ASEAN’s inability to stand as a united front against China’s actions is icing on the cake. Reports from the ASEAN negotiations have been more muted than the last time China was able to sow disunion in ASEAN’s ranks, but it is a safe guess that Chinese diplomats were able to pull many of the same strings they did in 2012. One suspects that China specifically timed the crises to display ASEAN’s disunity, showing the region’s middle tier powers that attempts to use ASEAN to stifle China’s ambitions are nothing but a pipe dream. 5
Tanner Greer “A Few Comments on China, Vietnam, and the HYSY981 Oil Crisis,” The Scholar’s Stage (22 May 2014).
A similar story can be told for numberless Chinese diplomatic and military initiatives, from 2012’s failed ASEAN summit to the seizure of Scarborough Shoal. This is what the Chinese do. I am convinced that the Chinese are so adept at doing this—finding the places where one small push is all that is needed to display American impotence or indifference—because they are trained from the beginning to see the entire edifice as a lie, and thus are aware in a way most Americans are not of the gap between the way we talk about our alliance system and the way Asians experience it.
Wedded to this cynical vision of the current arrangements is an equally cynical take on the history of America’s imposed order. Beijing is well aware that if it decided to do to Tonga now what the United States did to Hawaii more than a century ago it would mean war. At the time the United States suffered nothing of the sort. Not that American wars were without their own rewards—the Americans claim island bases like Guam and Saipan as prizes won through conquest. China is not allowed to conquer its own prizes. It cannot fight wars to give its forces a new ports and bases; it is not even allowed build little artificial islands for the purpose.
Never mind that all of that strikes the Chinese’s ire happened generations ago. Anything this side of the Taiping is modern history for the Chinese. American attempts to deny that, to claim that the world should work differently now than it did when the American star first began to rise, simply prove that morality and sweet sounding words like ‘international norms’ are for the winners. All of that talk about being a responsible stakeholder is just a nicer way to say we plan on kicking down the ladder now that we have finished climbing up it.
In simpler terms, the Chinese equate “rising within a rules based order” with “halting China’s rise to power.” To live by Washington’s rules is to live under its power, and the Chinese have been telling themselves for three decades now that—after two centuries of hardship—they will not live by the dictates of outsiders ever again.
THE Chinese will never choose our rules based order. That does not necessarily mean they want to dethrone America and throw down all that she has built. What they want is a seat at the table—and they want this seat to be recognized, not earned. That’s the gist of it. Beijing is not willing to accept an order it did not have a hand in creating. Thus all that G-2 talk we heard a few years back. The Chinese would love to found a new order balancing their honor and their interests with the Americans. It is a flattering idea. What they do not want is for the Americans to give them a list of hoops to jump through to gain entry into some pre-determined good-boys club. They feel like their power, wealth, and heritage should be more than enough to qualify for automatic entrance to any club.
The decision then, lies not with them, but with us. An illiberal China is rising. No matter how nuanced our negotiation or how righteous our indignation, the Chinese will always feel that any attempt to get them to play by rules they did not have a hand in making is 1) morally wrong and 2) damaging to the Party’s domestic power. They are interested in making a new order for the 21st century. In this the Chinese of today are not too different from the Americans of yesteryear. We forget that sometimes. There was once an era where Americans were the ones demanding that the shape of the world change to better match their values and interests.
The question before us then is whether we can compromise with the Chinese on this, and if so where those compromises can be made. What form that compromise might take—spheres of interest are the classical model here, though others exist—is still up for discussion. If this is our path then these discussions must be had with fierce urgency.
The alternative to compromise is containment. If we decide that any compromise with illiberal China would poison the international order beyond repair then we must move swiftly to contain China before its power grows further still. Our aim will not only be to restrain but also to reduce Chinese power when and where we can. This too will require spirited discussion, for containment is fraught with danger. We must ponder long and hard how we might go about limiting Chinese power without making the Party’s domestic position so vulnerable that they see no alternative but war before them.
Both paths before us require careful thought and vigorous debate if we hope to traverse them safely. These discussions are not happening. As long as we cling to the illusion that China has not made her choice they will not happen. The fruits of this foolishness are not hard to see: we do not contain yet we refuse to compromise, suffering the costs of both choices while reaping the benefits of neither.6 The hope that the Chinese will admit their wrongs and ask to join our rules-based club is a mirage. It must be given up. We hold to it only because we fear the responsibility the truth would force upon us. The Chinese have made their choice. The ball is in our court now.
The way the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank hullabaloo went down is a perfect example of all this. American incoherence and tone deafness, refusal to compromise or properly contain, wishful thinking instead of clear vision–it is all there.