AIIB, allies, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Australia, China, containment, Financial Crisis, Following Up, Global Imbalances, IMF, Japan, pivot, quotas, TPP, Trade, Trans-Pacific Partnership, World Trade Organization
It’s been a while since any global development has generated so much hypocrisy, baloney, and hypocritical baloney as China’s new Asia infrastructure bank and America’s response. (OK – maybe it’s only been a couple of days.) Still, the hubbub about something whose name is dominated by a MEGO word if ever there was one (“infrastructure”) is worth examining again. For it once again reminds that U.S. leaders, as well as most of our leading commentators, really aren’t smarter than a fifth grader when it comes to foreign policy, international relations, and the Pacific Rim.
Last week, I focused on how the rush of American allies to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) exposed the folly of President Obama’s dream of a Pacific Rim trade zone that would be governed by U.S.-style commercial rules. Since then, however, it’s become embarrassingly clear that the same ridicule is deserved by the president’s belief that his Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal will balance rising Chinese power in the region. For Japan is now apparently ready to join the long list of TPP countries (including Australia, one of the planned pact’s other major economies) that is signing up with the Chinese. Whether Mr. Obama really does believe in “leading from behind” or not, it’s getting painfully obvious that he has precious few followers.
In addition, some recent commentary shows that it’s imperative to dispel two other myths surrounding the AIIB and hanging over the future of the Asia Pacific region and the rest of the globe.
The first has to do with the nature of President Obama’s China strategy. Critics of his administration’s opposition to the AIIB’s creation charge him with pursuing a crude, outdated strategy of containing China’s rise the way many of his predecessors sought to contain the former Soviet Union. Nothing could be further from the truth. There’s no question that the president wants the United States to remain the Asia-Pacific region’s preeminent power, that he sees China as America’s main challenger, and that he’s even announced that America’s grand global strategy will “pivot” from its preoccupation with the Middle East to give economically dynamic Asia its proper due. There’s also no question that, even before the last year’s flareup of large-scale Middle East violence, it was apparent that the Obama pivot was nearly all talk and little military redeployment.
But Mr. Obama’s China/Asia strategy is not simply half-hearted. It is completely incoherent. For despite his stated China concerns, the president has steadfastly continued his predecessors’ policies of looking the other way while Beijing’s predatory trade policies led to huge trade surpluses with the United States (which have undoubtedly helped China finance its huge, ongoing military buildup), and while U.S. technology and manufacturing companies transferred much of their most advanced knowhow to China (which has undoubtedly increased the sophistication of China’s weapons and helped teach the Chinese how to hack effectively).
In other words, Mr. Obama has kept feeding the beast he has warned against. As a result, the only legitimate beef American allies have with the administration’s current opposition to the AIIB is that it has been so sudden, and so completely out of character.
The second myth entails the claim that the United States (and especially the hawks in its Congress) are reaping what they have sown when they decided to block a decision by other International Monetary Fund members to give China more voting power in the institution. What the critics forget is that the world already has experience bringing China into a front-line international organization before making sure that Bejiing would act as “a responsible stakeholder” of the international system (as a former senior Bush administration policymaker once put it). And it’s backfired disastrously.
Since joining the World Trade Organization, China has profited handsomely from the benefits of membership (which include substantial immunity from unilateral American counters to Chinese protectionism). But it shouldered few of the obligations. The immense, China-centric global trade and investment imbalances that built up subsequently were crucial in setting the stage for the financial crisis. Those who hope that dealing with Western powers in the AIIB will lead to more constructive Chinese behavior need to explain why China will not remain as parasitic as ever, and even backslide – as it has on trade and economic liberalization during its WTO years.
More broadly, the free-riding U.S. allies who are grabbing for Chinese money while still enjoying American military protection are forgetting a vitally important (for them) truth. The United States is geopolitically and economically self-sufficient enough now – and potentially much more so – to be able to get by quite nicely a world with a much more influential China. Few of them, particularly in China’s neighborhood, can say the same.