China’s Strategy Has Completely Eluded Washington

China’s Strategy Has Completely Eluded Washington

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The Chinese dragon, awake and alert for some time, is suddenly stretching its arms and embracing what it thinks with conviction is its destiny as a Pacific power. Will the American protectorate in place for 70 years hold, they ask in Tokyo, in Seoul, in Manila, and now even in Hanoi.

The short but unqualified answer is, “No.”

China’s emergence is a matter of history, of geography, and, since Deng opened the reform period in 1978, of accumulated economic power. Behind the rise we witness now lie Beijing’s view that the post 1945 order in the western Pacific must be corrected and a fulsome measure of Middle Kingdom determination. In one of the world’s wounded civilizations, the recovery of lost greatness has been the national dream since Mao took Beijing in 1949.

Does the Obama administration grasp any of this? This has not been clear for some time and grows more questionable now. 

Last Saturday, Reuters reported the U.S. issued one of its strongest warnings to China when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told an Asia-Pacific conference that the U.S. “will not look the other way when fundamental principles of the international order are being challenged.”

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Hagel said the United States took no position on the merits of rival territorial claims in the region, but added, "We firmly oppose any nation’s use of intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force to assert these claims."

The posture here is not right. The primary lesson to be grasped in Washington and the Asian capitals is that the less time spent with fingers in the dike the better. The task now is to devise sensible, imaginative, sustainable policy responses that protect the interests of the U.S. and its allies while altering the climate in Asia from the poisonous antagonism we have to accommodation and on to cooperation.

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This can be done, providing the wit and guts are there.

Recommendation No. 1 for Washington: Cut out the political appointees game in the foreign service. Restore the State Department’s institutional memory with good brains versed in history, the languages, and culture as opposed to rational choice theory.

Recommendation No. 2: Take control of the policy process away from Defense and the military and give it back to State, thus correcting an error that has for decades been detrimental to U.S. interests and the American profile in Asia.

The moment to rebuild strategy, ground up, is upon us for a simple reason: China has chosen it. Beijing has for many years waited for the right occasion to assert itself with concrete actions. As our jargon has it, China is “calling us out.”

There is not much ambiguity on this point. China has been increasingly aggressive in asserting its position in an islands dispute with Japan since last year. Six months ago came its declaration of an air defense zone that intersects with those Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have had in place, courtesy of American cartographers, since the early Cold War years.

More recently Beijing has advanced maritime claims in the South China Sea that place its rights within a few dozen miles of the Philippines shoreline and 300 miles from the mainland. In its boldest moves to date, it recently towed an oilrig into waters claimed by Vietnam, prompting protests in Hanoi that resulted in four deaths.

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These are not separate questions. They are better understood as the start of China’s campaign to renovate the power balance in the western Pacific. David Pilling, Asia editor at the Financial Times, sees savvy tactical design as a unifying theme across the region. “China’s probing the edge of what it can do,” Pilling said the other day. “These are issues Beijing knows America will not react to other than rhetorically.”

Pilling, who is among the most astute Asia analysts now in the field, takes a very long view of Chinese thinking. China turned inward after the 1949 revolution, he says, finding Washington’s Pax Pacifica objectionable but expedient. So did Deng, who said in effect, “Let’s proceed with our reforms and choose our moment carefully.”

“Some people took acquiescence in the post-1945 order to be permanent policy, but it’s a misreading,” Pilling said. “If one is to take one’s time, the only question left is, “When?” And it now starts to look as if the answer is, “Now.”

O.K., Pilling, but why now?

The 2008 financial crisis was a tripwire, in Pilling’s view. America no longer appeared infallible; China, as America’s biggest banker, a WTO member, and ahead of Japan as the No. 2 economic power, gained confidence. “There’s a prestige factor here, too,” Pilling added.

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Equally, the Law of the Sea had long been on the U.N.’s docket, but only recently have nations marked out formal territorial claims. When Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, asserted America’s role in protecting Asian sea lanes on a visit to Hanoi in 2010, Beijing’s back stiffened. “Critical point,” Pilling thinks. “China saw no role for America in Asian disputes. What if relations with the referee turned hostile?”

At the security conference in Singapore at the end of last week, the shared concern among Hagel and his counterparts was the pressure Beijing now intentionally exerts to weaken Washington’s network of alliances with regional capitals. This is almost certainly an accurate perception. 

Yet, it would be a mistake to assume China intends to replace Pax Americana with a Pax Sinica. It is too busy at home, cannot afford any such an ambition, and has proven from Mao to Deng and since that pragmatic self-interest figures high in its calculations. This is the door to renovated relations Washington must not fail to step through.

Hagel’s criticism of Beijing’s recent moves in the region—“intimidation and coercion,” he said—was a mistake on numerous counts. First, it was Hagel’s remark. The defense secretary should do less traveling in Asia and Secretary Kerry more. Second, Hagel betrayed anxiety, and one must avoid that with the Chinese. Third, he signaled that Washington remains determined to fight the forlorn fight against the incoming tide.

Finally, Hagel elicited two reactions in the region, neither desirable. Beijing denounced the conference point blank. Elsewhere, Hagel’s talk will merely confirm the widely shared impression that talk is all Washington finally has on offer.

Asia Sentinel, an authoritative online journal published in Hong Kong, said it this way in a recent edition: “For a nation that is supposedly paying more attention to Asia and building relationships with old and new friends, the U.S. response to recent Chinese moves against Vietnam and the Philippines has been mealy-mouthed.”

Not the desired effect, to put the point mildly.

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