alliances, allies, Asia-Pacific, Aspen Institute, Cato Institute, China, East Asia-Pacific, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Jim Risch, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, Republicans, South Korea, Taiwan, Ted Galen Carpenter, Trade, Trump
Some leading Republican Senators are slated to introduce legislation today intending to fill what they see as a big and dangerous gap in U.S. globalization and national security policy: the alleged lack of a comprehensive strategy to push China to conform with international norms on trade and related business policies and practices, and to make sure that the People’s Republic doesn’t replace the United States as the kingpin of the East Asia-Pacific region.
I haven’t seen the bill yet, but this Financial Times report gives what looks like a pretty complete summary – which comes from the horse’s mouth (Idaho Republican Senator Jim Risch, the lead sponsor and the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee). Some of the economic proposals seem promising – although their focus seems to be China’s appalling human rights violations (about which the United States sadly can do little) as opposed to China’s economic predation (which Washington has considerable power to fight effectively).
As for the national security stuff – I really wish that Risch and his colleagues had consulted with Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute, one of America’s most trenchant foreign policy critics (and, full disclosure, a valued friend).
For in a new survey just posted by the Aspen Institute, Carpenter has made depressingly clear that one of the conditions most vitally needed nowadays for containing China’s growing military power and political influence in its back yard – reliable allies – simply doesn’t exist and isn’t likely to anytime soon.
Risch and Carpenter certainly agree on the importance of reliable allies, and apparently on their absence – although the former evidently and bizarrely believes that President Trump deserves at least part of the blame for the current unsatisfactory state of America’s regional security relationships. That take on the U.S. approach is bizarre because America (a) keeps running a growing risk of nuclear attack on the American homeland by stationing “tripwire” forces in South Korea largely because that wealthy country continues to skimp on its own defense; and (b) last I checked, America’s immense (and expensive) naval, air, and land deployments in the region were still fully intact.
And don’t just take my word for it: Carpenter lays out in painstaking detail how under President Trump the United States has actually clarified its rhetorical opposition to China’s territorial ambitions, stepped up its military operations in the Asia-Pacific region, and boosted military aid to Taiwan – which of course China views as nothing but a renegade province that it has every right to take back by force.
Regardless of what the United States is or isn’t doing, though, if U.S. alliances are going to be strengthened and oriented more explicitly against China, the allies themselves need to be at least as concerned about Beijing’s aims as Americans. That’s mainly, as Risch and his Senate colleagues note (along with yours truly over the years, as in the above linked 2014 RealityChek post), because China’s military buildup and modernization drive have eroded U.S. military superiority, and because if there’s anything worse than going to war without needed allies, it’s going to war with allies unlikely to help out once the shooting starts. And Carpenter revealed exactly how real that latter danger is by detailing just the latest instance of allied timidity:
“Washington is seeking backing from both its European and East Asian allies for a more hardline policy regarding China. The Trump administration exerted pressure for a strong, united response to Beijing’s imposition of a new national security law on Hong Kong. US officials wanted a joint statement condemning that measure and an agreement from the allies to impose some economic sanctions. However, the European Union collectively, and its leading members individually, flatly refused Washington’s request. With the exception of Australia, the reaction of the East Asian allies was no better. Japan declined to join the United States, Britain, Australia, and Canada in issuing a statement condemning the PRC’s [People’s Republic of China’s] actions in Hong Kong. South Korea seemed even more determined than Japan to avoid taking sides on the Hong Kong issue.”
And as the author rightly emphasizes, “Given the dearth of even diplomatic support from the allies for Washington’s Hong Kong proposal, there is even less chance that those countries will back a military containment policy against the PRC.”
A principal reason is money. Since the 1990s, America’s Asian allies (in particular, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan) have profited hugely from setting up electronics assembly operations in China and selling the final products (made largely of their own parts, components, and materials, and put together with their production equipment) to the United States. Why on earth would they want to break up this highly lucrative marriage of their technology on the one hand, and China’s low labor costs and lavish subsidies on the other?
To be sure, as noted repeatedly on RealityChek, China has been moving up the technology ladder, and replacing Made-Elsewhere-in-Asia inputs with its own manufactures. But it’s a long way from totally supplanting its neighbors’ products.
It’s true that American multinational companies also are guilty of feeding and profiting handsomely from the Chinese beast. And it’s equally true that pre-Trump U.S. Presidents have helped create the problem by coddling allied fence-sitting. But at least the Trump administration’s trade policies are striving to disrupt these U.S. corporate supply chains, and its tariffs are threatening the profitability of foreign-owned multinationals’ export-focused China operations. Japan has followed suit on decoupling to a limited extent, and India – which has moved closer to the United States lately for fear of China – is increasingly wary of its own, much less profitable, entanglement with the People’s Republic. But even Taiwan keeps eagerly investing in China and thereby increasing both its wealth and its military power.
Neither Carpenter nor I support the goal of beefing up U.S. military China containment efforts in the Asia-Pacific region (though not for the exactly the same reasons). In fact, we both favor major pullbacks. But we both agree that if containment is to be pursued, Washington needs to do a much better job of lining up its local ducks. Otherwise, it could find itself either losing another war in Asia, or winning a victory that’s pyrrhic at best.
P.S. One of Risch’s co-sponsors, Utah Republican Mitt Romney, has just revealed that he’s especially clueless on the potential of rallying the allies.