Tomorrow, a high level U.S. delegation will sit down with Chinese counterparts in Beijing for the latest installment of a biannual “Strategic and Economic Dialogue.” That’s why I’m especially pleased that Fortune magazine just published a new column of mine explaining why the China grand strategy pursued by Washington since the 1970s is showing signs of dangerous obsolescence.
Michele Flournoy, folks I trust tell me, is not an over-promoted policy lightweight – like, e.g., national security advisor Susan Rice, her predecessor, Tom Donilon, or UN Ambassador Samantha Power. (I’m still ambivalent about adding Secretary of State John Kerry to this list.) They insist that President Obama’s former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy is a defense professional and thinker highly respected both by her civilian colleagues and the military. Maybe that’s why I found her new Washington Post op-ed on the allegedly new China strategy needed by America so thoroughly disappointing.
This is certainly an opportune time to review America’s approach to the PRC, with the two countries set to conduct one of their biannual high level Strategic and Economic Dialogue sessions this week in Beijing. And it’s newsworthy that former Obama aide Flournoy believes that this U.S. strategy is failing. But her article, written with a scholar from the Center for a New American Security she now heads, states that what’s urgently required to fix it is…more of the same – plus a little window-dressing.
Flournoy does a good job shredding the assumptions that have been driving American policy toward China going back to the 1970s. Especially perceptive is her observation, contrary to a continuing stream of predictions from Washington under Democratic and Republican Presidents alike, that decades of peaceful, constructive U.S. engagement with China diplomatically and especially economically are not turning the PRC into a “responsible stakeholder” that will help preserve international peace and prosperity. If anything, China’s is now displaying a growing determination to overturn the status quo in the Asia-Pacific region – and specifically to replace America as the region’s most important power.
Flournoy recommends responding with U.S. steps to “bolster its alliance and partnerships“ and to aid China’s neighbors in building up their own militaries. Such measures, Flounoy adds, “should be complemented by diplomatic efforts to build rules of the road for managing maritime disputes” and to negotiate a binding code of conduct for the South China Sea. Pardon me for asking, but isn’t this already American policy?
To her credit, Flournoy recognizes that some elements of America’s economic approach toward China will need to change, too. But her recommendation that Washington “explore” ways to “exert pressure” on China’s state-owned companies doesn’t depart much from the Obama administration’s (stated) view that these public companies distort markets and that the new trade deals must (somehow) start reining them in.
In fact, her article’s virtual neglect of economics sadly mirrors a leading weakness — maybe the leading weakness — of America’s current China strategy. As indicated by the Obama “pivot” to Asia, the United States understands that security business as usual is no longer an acceptable response to China’s more assertive policies in the region. But the President seems to believe that economic business as usual should continue. Thus he’s completely ignored the cumulative effects of decades of U.S. trade and investment policies toward China that have immensely enriched Beijing, made paying for a much stronger military that much easier, and greatly strengthened China’s technology prowess.
As I documented in an article last year, in many respects, China’s high tech weaponry, plus its cyberhacking capabilities, have been Made in the USA – as American tech giants have long been permitted to hand over or sell much of their prize knowhow to Chinese business partners, and therefore to the China’s government and armed forces. What is the point of spending and risking more to deter China’s designs (and it’s important to note that, to date, the pivot remains largely rhetorical) while permitting U.S. multinational companies literally to keep feeding — and upgrading — the beast?
Not that I’m a supporter of simply improving the current U.S. grand strategy toward China and East Asia. I’ve long asked why the nation should incur huge expenses and run substantial risk in protecting (or even stabilizing) a region full of countries that rob Americans blind in trade and other forms of commerce. But nothing would be worse than persisting in the current strategy without taking the security impact of U.S. international economic policies much more fully into account.
Until this greater integration takes place, America’s approach to the Asia-Pacific region will remain un-serious – and potentially disastrously so. Is Michele Flournoy a serious enough strategist to see this economic blind spot before it’s too late? Is anyone anywhere in the U.S. national security establishment?