Here’s a real shocker: The Council on Foreign Relations, which has long disseminated reams of research and analysis favoring panda-hugging China policies, has just issued a report strongly echoing an argument I made in an op-ed last July: that America’s longstanding strategy of encouraging China’s rise to great power status in the hope of turning into a “responsible” global player is failing badly, and that a fundamentally new approach recognizing Beijing’s threatening nature is imperative.
Right off the bat I need to acknowledge that this post is based on a quick perusal of the report’s introduction and conclusions. Doubtless, therefore, I’m leaving out some important missed nuances. But the main thrust of the study, written by veteran senior U.S. diplomat Robert Blackwill and longtime think tanker and Defense Department advisor Ashley Tellis, is clear enough.
According to Revising U.S. Grand Strategy Toward China, “The long-term U.S. effort to protect its vital national interests by integrating China into the international system is at serious risk today because Beijing has acquired the capacity, and increasingly displays the willingness, to pursue threatening policies against which American administrations have asserted they were hedging.” In particular, “China has not evolved into a ‘responsible stakeholder’ as then Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick called on it to become.” Not only could I have written this practically word for word – I did!
It gets better. Despite the emerging Chinese threat, the authors charge, “these same U.S. policymakers have continued to interact with China as if these dangerous Chinese policies were only theoretical and consigned to the distant future. In short, successive administrations have done much more cooperating with China than hedging, hoping that Beijing would gradually come to accept the United States’ leading role in Asia despite all the evidence to the contrary, not least because cooperation was so much less costly in the short term than military, geoeconomic, and diplomatic hedging.”
I do, however, have many more problems with the policy recommendations. The good news is that responses to the China threat like strengthening U.S. military forces and alliances in the East Asia-Pacific region make sense if you agree with the authors that the nation’s China policy should aim first and foremost to maintain America’s preeminence in that part of the world in all dimensions – military, political, and economic. In particular, it’s gratifying to see that the authors recognize the big hole punched in U.S. strategy in the form of trade and technology transfer policies that have dangerously strengthened China’s military capabilities.
At the same time, as I’ve long written, what really matters to America in Asia is maintaining adequate – and reciprocal – access to its trade and investment markets. This objective can be achieved overwhelmingly via the decisive leverage the United States enjoys from its status as the main customer to which the region’s economies need to sell to realize their growth and development ambitions. And America’s market power is so immense that it can be wielded successfully regardless of who controls East Asia politically and economically.
So it’s heartening that an influential organization like the Council acknowledges the dangerous absurdity of trying to counter China’s growing power by boosting its own defense spending, and by incurring ever greater military risks, while simultaneously showering this potential adversary with wealth and knowhow. It would be even better, however, if the organization recognized that America enjoys enough actual and potential security and self-sufficiency to promote its essential interests in East Asia in much safer, cheaper, and more efficient ways.
Incidentally, one interesting question still left open is exactly how much of the foreign policy establishment the study’s views represent. The Council itself claims to take no institutional positions. Moreover, another Council staffer just published an article in the Financial Times that seems to contradict Revising U.S. Grand Strategy pretty directly in terms of where President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal should fit in. At the same time, authors Blackwill and Tellis belong to a Council “Study Group on Grand Strategy Toward China” many of whose other members have been strong supporters of the U.S.-China policy status quo. That also goes for Blackwill himself. Stay tuned for more details as I try to figure this puzzle out.