Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Uncle Sam and the Giant Midget?

Interesting post from James Fallows on the current enthusiasm for the "Pacific Turn" that recently appeared in the Obama Administration's publication of "Sustaining National Leadership", the ostensible strategic blueprint for the coming decade or so of U.S. geopolitics. My fellow pubcrawler seydlitz has a nice discussion of this document here.

Central to this worldview seems to be a belief that a U.S.-v-China faceoff is inevitable.The publication states that
"U.S. economic and security interests are inextricably linked to developments in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia, creating a mix of evolving challenges and opportunities. Accordingly, while the U.S. military will continue to contribute to security globally, we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region. Our relationships with Asian allies and key partners are critical to the future stability and growth of the region... The maintenance of peace, stability, the free flow of commerce, and of U.S. influence in this dynamic region will depend in part on an underlying balance of military capability and presence."
Fallows discusses this in relation to the recent work of John Mearsheimer, who seems to have an even more definite view of the degree to which this is likely to be a military confrontation.
"I--China--want to be the Godzilla of Asia, because that's the only way for me--China--to survive!"
Mearsheimer is quoted as saying,
"I don't want the Japanese violating my sovereignty the way they did in the 20th century. I can't trust the United States, since states can never be certain about other states' intentions. And as good realists, we--the Chinese--want to dominate Asia the way the Americans have dominated the Western Hemisphere."
Fallows disagrees; the PRC is too fragile, too riven and riddled with internal problems to present a genuine expansionist military threat, a factor he believes that Mearsheimer and his interviewer Bob Kaplan ignore:
"From the outside, it looks like an unstoppable juggernaut. From inside, especially from the perspective of those trying to run it, it looks like a rambling wreck that narrowly avoids one disaster after another. The thrust of Mearsheimer's argument is that such internal complications simply don't matter: the sheer increase in China's power will bring disruption with it. I am saying: if you knew more about China, you would be less worried, especially about military confrontations. He is saying: "knowing" about China is a distraction. What matters are the implacable forces."
I will be the first to admit that I don't know enough about the economics, politics, and military capabilities of the PRC to make an informed assessment, but what I know about recent history suggests to me that none of those vulnerabilities are enough to prevent a polity from embarking on a ruiniously destructive and aggressive foreign policy - we've watched it occur in our own country in our recent lifetimes.

Earlier examples abound as well. The disastrous endless wars between Byzantium and Sassanid Persia that crippled them when confronted with the Umayyads. The various military overreaches of several European states, particularly Spain in the Netherlands in the 16th Century and in general in the 17th and 18th, Portugal after the 1600s, and France pretty much throughout her history.ISTM that there is a genuine discussion on the subject to be had here; as Fallows concludes,
"I think...while we need to think constantly and seriously about China, a "showdown" would be a result of miscalculation or recklessness on either side, rather than of unstoppable tectonic pressures. On the other hand, I completely endorse Mearsheimer's (and Kaplan's) view that we should have been paying more attention to China, and been less bogged down in the Middle East, through the past decade. But his case is certainly worth considering..."
but I guess I'm skeptical that, given the current trends in U.S. politics, - that tend more towards magical thinking and foreign-policy-as-domestic-politics - such a discussion of an sort of intelligent throw-weight worth having could be had, or even had at all. But I'm willing to do convinced otherwise; as I said, I don't even begin to pretend to have enough information on the strengths and weaknesses of either side...

Consider this a "what do you think" open thread.

(cross-posted to MilPub).


  1. It's always strange to me to read about supposedly self-evident U.S. interests in East Asia.

    To me, these interests are probably self-evident, but not in the usually assumed way. The U.S. might serve itself well to disconnect (= no trade) with East Asia. The current trade relations appear to be a losing proposition.

  2. Sven,

    Cutting off all trade might serve the US well? That's almost a trillion dollars annually. I want some of what you're smoking.


    Good post. I think a lot of it comes down to allies. Korea, Japan, the PI, our new friends the Vietnamese (to name a few) are all worried about China's rising influence and its increasing ability to throw it's weight around. And, despite Sven's comment, follow the money. Regionally, Asia is our biggest trading partner.

    1. So what?

      Describe how a move of consumer products factory central from China to (an)other region(s) would hurt the U.S..

      You seem to trust conventional wisdom without questioning it at all.

    2. Sven,

      It's not about conventional wisdom, it's about reality. The US government can't waive a magic wand and divest from China specifically (or East Asia generally) even if it wanted to. At least it can't without a huge economic downside. I don't trust conventional wisdom, but neither do I trust fairy tales.

  3. The Chinese got a 10 year pass - on 9/10 they were the neocons evil. So easily distracted, they were, when it came to the bogeyman Mussulman.

    America can only achieve greatness in the 21st Century by defeating the last vestiges of Communism in the guise of 1 billion Chinamen.

  4. Chief-

    I think it more a question of American decline and confusion than Chinese ascendancy . . .

  5. For the record, here's my thoughts:

    1. I think the basic notion - that the U.S. should start taking more interest in, and concern for, the West Pacific Rim, is a sound one.

    2. That said, I don't see how that has to put the U.S. on a collision course with the PRC. Largely because;

    2a: China has historically been a continental power. It's primary area of interest has been the "danger areas" to the west, the places where people have invaded in the past, as well as the "near abroad" such as Korea and the southeast Asian peninsula. It has never at any time in its history showed any real interest at becoming a blue-water power, and, no, I don't count the Spratleys.

    2b: The current PRA/PRAF/PRAN plans look more like a force tailored to project force within a limited area, including a rather littoral navy. It's hard to guess how the reported carrier construction program fits into this; it may be a sign of a truly outward-looking global strategy. OTOH, it might just be another case of Chinese "me-tooism", seeing that carriers are the most visible sign of a Great Power.

    2c: I think there's some merit to Fallow's arguments about the fundamental fractures inside China. But I think there's more merit in the notion that the Chinese have never liked, or succeeded at, ruling over substantial "foreign" populations. "Chineseness" is a tough quality to export, and I don't think the PRC really wants to acquire by force what it can get by suasion and trade.

    In short, I think the U.S. would do well to look at China in the medium term as a "regional power", whose aspirations should be treated with caution but with the respect DUE to a regional power. So long as the Chinese don't want to conquer their neighbors I think we'd be fools to fight them over the desire to have compliant neighbors on and near theor borders...

  6. And Sven, Andy has a sharp point - the reality is that even if it wanted to (and we show no sign of wanting to) trade with the West Pacific and East Asian region will continue to be a major factor in the economy of the U.S. for a decade or more. While I agree that I'd like to see U.S. trade policy turn away from taking a blind eye to "offshoring" that's not going to happen.

    But as I detailed above, I don't think that makes the U.S. and the PRC "natural enemies". I think what does need to happen is some sort of recognition in D.C. that it will break the bank if the U.S. insists on being the Global Ultimate Arbiter of Taste. There IS a place for regional powers, and China - given her historical insularity - seems to be a good candidate for a relatively "easy-to-live-with" regional power.

    But if we insist that Korea, Japan, Vietnam, the PI HAVE to toe Washington's line in everything, could be a long, ugly couple of decades in the West Pacific...

  7. Gwynne Dyer discusses the real strategic dilemma of the next 30 years.

    When the crops wither, Asia is going to be a real mess.

    Ignore the faint hope about cultured meat.