Reuters featured a story on China’s involvement in Afghanistan just when the Delhi newspapers are reporting that India just walked into the ‘great game’ in the Hindu Kush. Reading it from Thiruvanathapuram in the southern-most tip of India gives a surreal feeling. How much at variance are the preoccupations of our pundits in Delhi and the throbbing concerns of small-town folks in India! Yet another foreign-policy disconnect?
The Afghan policies of China and India present a study in contrast. China is also a regional power like India and, arguably, China is not lacking ‘influence’ with the Hamid Karzai set-up in Kabul, either. Yet, Reuters’ thesis is that China is clear-headed and down-to-earth about its priorities and doesn’t want to follow the footsteps of Great Britain, USSR or USA.
The obvious danger in these extremes is that they are mutually exclusive and, as such, have successfully promoted inaction. For Aaron Friedberg, professor at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School and author of the new A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia, pursuing the status quo in the face of China's rise would be a strategic error.
Friedberg's book is less a call to action and more a series of increasingly probative questions and macro-observations that seek to determine whether American policy towards China has grown complacent and, if so, whether we have considered the mid and long-term implications of our complacency.
In this way, Friedberg's work echoes a similar question asked by James Mann in his book The China Fantasy where Mann asked whether American policy makers had really questioned how comfortable they would be with a rich and powerful, but thoroughly totalitarian-socialist, China. Both authors clearly have their own opinions on how the United States would respond to such a possibility, and both equally worry that America's leaders will only address the question when it is too late to change China or prevent the two countries from colliding into one another.
For Friedberg, a holistic evaluation of China's military strategy coupled to an appreciation of its reinvigorated defense spending should leave one with an understanding that China's objectives and policies are not lining up as we had predicted in the past. Why has this realization not more deeply impacted American policy makers? Because, according to Friedberg, a "willful, blinkered optimism on these matters" remains the most common position held by those in the policy community.
Taking to task the community of China policy-hands who have long acted as cheerleaders for China, offering to the American public the hope that if we economically engage China they will ultimately liberalize their politics, Friedberg believes their optimism has prevented more serious adjustments of American policies towards China.
Early into A Contest for Supremacy, Friedberg establishes one of the primary reasons he believes this optimism is unwarranted: at their core, the American and Chinese systems of government have incompatible values. This is problematic because, according to Friedberg, it adds another complication to the underlying challenges inherent when two great powers find their respective trajectories out of sync.
As he writes, "Deep-seated patterns of power politics are driving the United States and China toward mistrust and competition, if not yet toward open conflict. The fact that one is a liberal democracy while the other remains under authoritarian rule is a significant additional impetus to rivalry." (pg 42) Surveying China, Friedberg sees a country still ruled by a heavy-handed regime that mistrusts their own people and believes that maintaining order at any cost justifies suppressing dissent and limiting personal freedom.
If Friedberg is correct, the optimism of the past has largely been warranted for two reasons: shared economic interests and a hope that China would ultimately come to look more like us. As the latter has become more and more unlikely, American policy-makers are beginning to wonder if the most fundamental precept that has guided US-Sino relations for three decades (engage and "they" will come to look more like "us") is wrong.
If so, the American policy of engagement with China is going to have to change, a change made that much more difficult to successfully execute because American attitudes towards China have soured as the economy in the United States has withered while China's has stayed strong.
Readers may wonder if the delicate rebalancing act Friedberg proposes is possible against the backdrop of an increasingly frustrated American public who largely believes much of their economic pain has been caused by China. To the extent politics follow economics, the nuance of Friedberg's analysis and his suggested policy adjustments - however good and necessary - will likely prove difficult to actualize.
According to Friedberg, China's policy during this period has been to remain largely opaque as to its longer-term objectives while making doubly sure that those outside the country have their own vested interest in maintaining the status quo. As he writes, "if [China] can delay the responses of potential rivals and discourage them from cooperating effectively with one another, China may eventually be able to develop its strength to the point where balancing appears hopeless and accommodation to its wishes seems the only sensible option." (pg 119)
This then becomes Beijing's primary aspiration: grow and become large enough, and sufficiently interconnected with regional actors, that China becomes too important to challenge.
Readers may encounter this conclusion and, even if they share fears over China's rise, be tempted to shrug their shoulders at what Friedberg has sketched out. His vision of the future has, admittedly, a certain feeling of inevitability about it. But Friedberg is unwilling to allow the reader to stop here, likely because he believes the response from within the region initially from countries like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan will not be so sanguine, and could well draw America into a conflict with China. This is where the bulk of Friedberg's book focuses: how and why should America rebalance its relationship with China.
It is a tricky transition because the narrative of Friedberg's analysis must draw into sharp focus the dissimilarities between the American and Chinese belief systems while elevating the very real strategic challenges posed by China's expanding military reach without sounding alarmist. Outside his advancement of the idea of how we might rebalance the strategic relationship between the two countries, striking the right note between concern and confidence remains an achievement of this book.
What A Contest for Supremacy advocates is that the United States place a priority on rebalancing the strategic relationship between the two countries. For Friedberg, this starts with America addressing its own economic and political dysfunctions. Being successful at both will require American politicians to summon their collective will and "take some novel and potentially controversial long-term measures, such as the introduction of a national consumption tax or a tax on energy use". (pg 271)
In his view, this is important because it would address the fundamental source both of China's growing strength and America's cascading weakness: "China's huge bilateral trade surpluses, and its continued accumulation of dollar-denominated assets." (pg 270)
Beyond tending to our own economic well-being, Friedberg believes the United States needs to re-affirm its commitment both to our Pacific allies, while also working to ensure it has the tactical superiority in the Pacific theater to "maintain a margin of military advantage sufficient to deter attempts at coercion or aggression". (pg 274)
In the face of an American public increasingly tentative over the role of our military and the fiscal reality that defense spending - like all other areas in the public sector - will be cut, Friedberg's advocacy may well fall on deaf ears.
Beyond these suggestions, Friedberg also believes successfully rebalancing the US-Sino relationship will require American policy makers to stop trying to focus primarily on the positive gains China has made. According to Friedberg, this not only does nothing to "change Beijing's perceptions of US intentions and strategy", but in the United States it also "risks raising public expectations to unrealistic levels".
This is troubling because, among other things, it "set[s] the stage for disappointment and a possible future backlash." (pg 265) Readers may finish Friedberg's book wondering if this has already happened, and if so, what that suggests about the future between our two countries.
His analysis is at times sobering, but not alarming, and in striking this balance it is able to nudge along readers who might otherwise be comfortable not rocking the boat at all. This is largely accomplished because while Friedberg's primary emphasis is on US-Sino relations, his larger point is about America.
Specifically, A Contest for Supremacy is a reminder that America has often found itself in wars due to a want of policy, not an overly antagonistic or militaristic one. As such, Friedberg worries that America may one day wake up to the reality that China's interests are not aligned with ours and in such a moment America may find itself in the untenable position of having to choose between accommodating China's wishes or pushing back, with the latter choice being one that could well provoke conflict.
As readers finish Friedberg's book, some may feel a sense of despondency over his conclusions. After all, to the extent his proscriptions require political will and an ability to navigate increasingly complex geo-political waters, America's most recent actions do not inspire confidence. It is possible to leave A Contest for Supremacy with a feeling of foreboding, even a sense of inevitability, born from a mistrust over America's ability to summon the courage to master the rebalancing act Friedberg advocates.
In some ways, this may be the most important unanswered question of his book: is the rebalancing he advocates for even possible now? The question of "whether it is too late?" lingers in the mind. Wisely choosing to avoid playing the role of soothsayer, Friedberg instead chooses to offer up to his readers the choice: find the courage to re-balance or face the uncomfortable reality that inaction may ultimately make conflict more likely. If America's response to its own political crisis in the wake of 2008 is any sign, we may already have chosen.
Seoul fears such a move would leave it in diplomatic isolation from its staunch ally, the US. The South's insecurities are wired into its DNA, given the long history of more powerful countries manipulating Korea's destiny.
On October 6, South Korea's newly minted Unification Minister, Yu Woo-Ik, told the foreign relations committee of the National Assembly, the nation's parliament, "People say the US and China have come to recognize North Korea as a de facto nuclear country." Yu told lawmakers he disagreed with the view.
The US and China have never officially recognized North Korea as a nuclear country, even though the latter has conducted two nuclear tests. The question is why Yu took pains to emphasize such an obvious point to lawmakers?
On the same day, Yang Moo-jin, an expert on North Korea at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies, argued in a column in the South Korean newspaper Kyunghyang Shinmun, that, "Sooner or later, there will be a second high-level meeting between Pyongyang and Washington." North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan met with Stephen Bosworth, Washington's point man on Pyongyang, in July.
The hardline Lee Myung-bak administration in South Korea doesn't want this to happen unless North Korea pledges to relinquish its nuclear weapons first and makes credible tension-thawing gestures on the Korean Peninsula.
A senior person in the know on international diplomacy surrounding North Korea's nuclear development, courteously yet clearly admonished this writer for "not seeing what is coming". That is, the US will eventually relent to North Korea's demands to resume the six-party talks, shoving out Seoul. Involving the Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and the United States, the negotiations have been stalled since December 2008.
All of this reflects a powerful sentiment in South Korea that has not been well captured by outside observers.
The South Korean view goes like this: Washington and China were greatly alarmed by North Korean provocations in 2010, the sinking of the Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, which jacked up regional tensions to an unprecedented high. Observers began to talk about a full-scale war on the Korean Peninsula.
Sensing the heat of the tinder box, the US and China, the two big players of world affairs, stepped in. The theory surmises that at their January summit in Washington, Chinese President Hu Jintao and US President Barak Obama agreed to manage the Korean Peninsula through the six-party talks and by engaging North Korea.
The logic went that, as long as North Korea was engaged it would refrain from provocations. According to this "grand plan" hammered out by the two world powers, Beijing and Washington would goad the Koreas to the six-party talks negotiations table and force them to reconcile with each other, with Washington taking charge of its ally South Korea and Beijing taking charge of North Korea.
Currently, Washington takes sides with Seoul in demanding Pyongyang meet preconditions for resuming the six-party talks, including a firm pledge to denuclearization, reintroduction of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to the North's nuclear program site, stalling further nuclear testing and long-range missile launches, and improving inter-Korean relations. North Korea insists on unconditional resumption. According to analysts, China supports the North. The South's fear is whether the US will backpedal from its commitment to Seoul.
For South Koreans who believe in the "grand plan", the resumption of six-party talks is already inevitable. That is, although the US has been taking sides with South Korea so far in keeping the preconditions, it is only a matter of time before the US will go its own way to engage North Korea in consideration of Washington's domestic political interest. They argue the US doesn't want North Korea to make provocations during Obama's re-election campaign for next year's US presidential election.
But do the US and China really have a "grand plan" to manage the Korean Peninsula?
Han Park, director of the Center for the Study of Global Issues at the University of Georgia in the US, said it depends on how the US sees South Korea. "South Korea is a strong ally of the United States. If the Lee Myung-bak administration's hardline posture toward North Korea represents the genuine opinion of the majority of South Koreans, that is, the will of South Korea, then Lee's policy will be much more important to the United States.
"But Lee is also seen as a lame-duck leader. And the US will look at the entire spectrum of the [South Korean] leadership as well as the incumbent opposition party's view [which wants reconciliation with North Korea]. So, the US policy will not be directly tied to Lee only. Washington is more realistic. It is more engagement-oriented toward North Korea than any other time in recent months," said Park.
Gordon Flake, a long-time Korea watcher and the executive director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, disagrees. "No. I see no evidence or no realistic likelihood of a shift in US attitude on North Korea. Look. On Capitol Hill, you have the appointment of [new US Ambassador to South Korea] Sung Kim held up by Senator Jon Kyl and others, based primarily on the concerns that the US policy [on North Korea] might change. You have a fierce opposition to any progressive approach toward North Korea from the House [of Representatives] side which the Republicans control," said Flake.
Kyl, a Republican senator from Arizona and staunch conservative on foreign policy, has been blocking the confirmation process of Sung Kim, the nominee to become a new ambassador to South Korea, for over two months.
"So, any change in US policy toward North Korea would meet considerable political opposition, which means there has to be a clear reason for the US to go forward in that direction. And there has to be a potential benefit the US could gain. But so far, our allies, both South Korea and Japan, are opposed to it. The US is certainly not going to do anything that will embarrass South Korean President Lee Myung-bak," said Flake. Lee is scheduled to visit Washington next week and meet with Obama.
John Park, senior research associate for Northeast Asia at the United States Institute of Peace, believes South Korea's fear is an inherent Catch-22 it has to work with. "That's an interesting dilemma right now. There are some in South Korea who are definitely concerned about the US-North Korea talks going a different way. They fear any progress there might leave South Korea behind," he said.
However, he prompts South Koreans with those concerns to closely examine the behavior of the US and China.
"From the summit meeting by the US and Chinese leaders in January, we saw China was encouraging North Korea to rejoin the six-party talks and improve relations with South Korea. And likewise, the US has been also encouraging South Korea to do the same. I don't think there was any secret deal on that. It was more of a broader effort to improve the overall situation on the Korean Peninsula. For them, it is not only important to restart the six-party talks, but also to tackle the more immediate challenge of reducing tension on the Korean Peninsula," said Park at the United States Institute of Peace.
Hwang Jae-ho, a security expert at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, agrees. "It's not necessary for the US and China to take the initiative and push the Korean Peninsula issue in their own 'grand plan', disregarding South Korea's feelings. [The US-China summit] was more of an agreement to contain the tension so that things won't get out of control in the region."
Seoul's fear of having its fate decided by larger powers is rooted in history. While the rival imperial ambitions of Russia and Japan led to a 1904 war for dominance over the Korean Peninsula, Japan and China fought in 1894 over "the right to govern Korea". Late South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun once painstakingly explained to his American counterpart, George W Bush, that Korea had been invaded by China "hundreds of times", in an effort to convince Bush that he was not a "pro-China" figure.
Historically, relations with the US were also not all smooth sailing. The Taft-Katsura Agreement, a 1905 agreement between the US war secretary William Howard Taft and Japanese prime minister Katsura Taro, recognized Japan's sphere of influence in Korea; in exchange, Japan recognized the United States's sphere of influence in the Philippines. Japan ruled Korea under a brutal occupation from 1910-1945.
Furthermore, in 1980, when military leader Chun Doo-hwan gained power through a coup and massacred democracy protesters in Kwangju, South Koreans looked to the US to intervene. But the US recognized Chun's legitimacy for the sake of the stability in the region. The US even invited Chun to visit Washington to help him to sculpt legitimacy in South Korea’s domestic politics. Many South Korean intellectuals felt betrayed by the US, which they hads looked up to as the beacon of freedom and democracy in the world.
These historical scars are still fresh in the minds of South Koreans. So, when they see the upcoming events organized by The Washington Quarterly and the Freeman Chair in China Studies of CSIS that discuss topics such as "Should the United States Abandon Taiwan?", they also tend to think this could be the South's destiny.
Flake, at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, views that South Koreans who argue for the "US-China grand scheme" theory in a sense have been signaling to the US to appreciate its sense of insecurity in its current hardline posture toward North Korea and the need for US support. "I would call it a pre-emptive anxiety. It's what we call a 'trial balloon'. Their primary objective is, by expressing their concerns they are trying to dissuade Washington from thinking that way."