China, Foreign Policy, Security, Top Stories, World Affairs

Cold War Now or Hot War Later

One might have expected the COVID-19 crisis to produce an inflection point at which agreement was finally reached about the menace presented by China’s regime. However, more than a few political figures and intellectuals remain unconvinced. Writing in Reason, Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, announces that “there is no China crisis.” Against the gathering consensus that China’s brand of authoritarian capitalism and aggressive nationalism poses a genuine threat to the American interests and security, Drezner serenely reassures his readers that it is “hysterical” to believe that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) possesses the power or the will to challenge and subvert the international system. Is this true?

Drezner readily concedes that the old Washington consensus—the notion that engagement would spur China’s transformation from ruthless dictatorship to responsible liberal stakeholder in the international order—was erroneous. Although globalization (the integration of world markets for commodities, labor, and capital) has raised living standards throughout the world, including in China, there is scant evidence of political progress in Beijing. To the contrary, General Secretary Xi has consolidated his cult of personality. When such a regime holds nearly one-fifth of humanity in its dictatorial clutches at home, it is safe to assume it will not be doing much to advance the cause of liberty worldwide.

Nevertheless, Drezner asks us to recall America’s “distinguished history of freaking out about powerful rival nations” and advises its leaders not to overcorrect by treating the world’s largest and strongest one-party state as a hostile hegemon incompatible with the liberal order. This is a difficult balancing act, and the argument doesn’t exactly remain upright. Of course, a Bismarckian concern with preventing the rise of hostile foreign states is hardly unique to American statecraft. What’s more, when this strategic consideration has failed to animate US foreign policy in the past, Americans have found their interests and security imperiled.

It is an iron law of international relations that the contest for power is natural and eternal. Strong nations vie to preserve their strength, influence, and prestige, while dissatisfied weaker nations jostle for favor and advantage. Nor is it paranoid for nations to defend and promote their own interests and beliefs in the world, and they must be expected to insist on the legitimacy of their own interests, honor, and fear (the three concerns that drive nations, according to Thucydides). When nations encounter resistance to their claims, they naturally bristle and try to thwart those of their rivals.

This is not to say that Drezner credits the Kissingerian assumption that the United States is in inexorable decline. He correctly points out that the post-American world hasn’t emerged yet, and is not likely to do so anytime soon. He further observes that there are “good reasons to believe” that China will succumb to its manifold difficulties and ultimately fail to match, let alone overwhelm, the comprehensive power of the American-led order. China’s declining economic growth rate and population crisis show that it is growing old before it is getting rich. This was true even before the coronavirus contagion, which will undoubtedly prevent Xi from meeting his goal of doubling the size of China’s 2010 economy this year. Additionally, China is beset by gender imbalances, environmental degradation, income inequality, and faltering productivity. In strategic terms, too, it lacks the comprehensive strength and formidable allies required to dislodge American hegemony and establish a new world order in its own image.

Even so, China remains the world’s strongest one-party state and will likely become the world’s largest economy in the coming decades. (It is already the largest in the world in terms of purchasing power parity.) Beijing possesses many potent advantages, from a diversified and increasingly competitive manufacturing-based economy to a sophisticated and rapidly expanding technological sector exporting tools of surveillance and control. The CCP is also able to field advanced military capabilities, and has begun to project its power across the East and South China seas and beyond. China’s official defense spending has risen to almost $150 billion, but the true figure is likely much higher. Its estimated defense budget swells into the hundreds of billions and has already been put to use in quasi-military confrontations with various neighbors over disputed waters. Claiming “indisputable sovereignty” over a vast maritime sphere of influence, Beijing has occasionally seized contested territory, militarized artificial islands, and the People’s Liberation Army has nearly one million more men under arms than the United States. It may not yet boast of the full-spectrum strength to constitute a military peer of the United States, but it is well positioned to emerge as one.

And this is precisely the ambition of China’s present rulers. The days of strategic restraint in the Middle Kingdom, when Deng Xiaoping insisted that China “bide its time,” are fast becoming history. In recent years, Xi has called on China to become “a global leader in terms of comprehensive national strength and international influence” by mid-century. He lauds China’s development model as a “new option for other countries.” This remarkable combination of power and ambition in the People’s Republic provides vast potential for mischief. Just as the appearance of economic success has burnished the China model of authoritarian capitalism, so its immense military might will boost the prestige of autocratic hard power. Without a coherent and coordinated response from the outside world, China’s economic clout and military might will reorder the assumptions that have animated the course of nations since World War Two and especially since the end of the Cold War. The question of what can be done to avert conflict is a pressing one, but the answer will remain elusive unless America simply ceases to be a power in Asia.

Suspicious of American power and disdainful of the liberal order it upholds, China’s leadership has little reason to permit the US to continue its primacy in what it has always thought of as its own proper sphere of influence. As Chinese power grows in both absolute and relative terms, that sphere will increasingly harden, and China will chafe at any intrusion in its neighborhood, even if only by a force that seeks the freedom of the seas. Likewise, as China’s position strengthens, it will be less and less inclined to abide by the rules and norms of an order it did not create and by which it feels constrained and subordinated. Ultimately, it cannot—and, in time, will not—tolerate the liberal status quo.

Instead, China will seek new terms of engagement in a world that has still to adjust to its status as a great power. It has already begun to initiate this transformation. It has simultaneously deepened its commitment to existing international institutions like the World Health Organization, while laying the foundation of new institutions with a conspicuously mandarin character. It has not escaped notice that these new initiatives have not extended the courtesy of membership to the United States. China has launched the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the New Development Bank, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi’s grandiose vision for building land and maritime routes to connect China to much of the world.

The Chinese effort to erect institutional pillars of a new order received an unexpected gift from President Trump in his first week of office when he withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, thereby unraveling a 12-nation fabric of commercial cooperation that excluded China. The Trump administration’s indifference to the role of human rights and democracy in American diplomacy has also been an unexpected boon to Beijing’s barbaric regime. When peaceful democratic protests erupted in Hong Kong last year against the authority of the Chinese mainland, the American president declared, “We have to stand with Hong Kong, but I’m also standing with President Xi.” Such moral equivalence casts aside friends of liberty in Hong Kong and within China itself, who do not accept the legitimacy of dictatorship.

An alternative approach is needed. Chinese power is too great and diffuse for the US to counter alone, and the danger it poses to liberal values is too serious for the United States to pursue a cynically transactional foreign policy. The importance of solidarity with democratic allies has been noted by more strategic minds than those at work in the White House. Senator Mitt Romney, for instance, has signaled support for China’s vulnerable neighbors and wisely called for “narrowing trade disputes with our friends and uniting against China’s untethered abuse.” China’s anti-competitive and predatory trade practices deserve steep economic penalties that can only be arranged and enforced through collective multilateral action.

The fatal mistake of yesterday was to believe (or at least to pretend) that China’s rise could be safely accommodated without exposing the liberal order to immense risk. The fatal mistake of today, it would appear, is to imagine that America can prevail without a vigorous strategy and capable allies over such a dynamic and formidable revisionist power. The last time liberal civilization faced such a determined adversary it was the Soviet Union. It is common to regard the peaceful end of the Cold War as inevitable, but in truth its outcome was shaped by a series of decisions and policies that were by no means predetermined. Many of the global institutions of the liberal order played their part in the struggle against various forms of communist totalitarianism, but it was the strategic foresight of Washington and the global deployment of American power that made the difference.

Despite the profound differences with Soviet communism, the challenge posed by the authoritarian ideology of the People’s Republic of China is redolent of the long twilight struggle that marked the second half of the 20th century. Nonetheless, prominent voices today allege that a cold war with China would be “unnecessary” and “destructive.” But compared to what? The prospect of a shooting war, or even intense competition, is invoked to incapacitate prudent measures to contain Chinese power and deter Chinese aggression. For those who believe in liberal ideals and principles, it is the prospect of Chinese hegemony under the writ of the CCP that presents a more truly unnecessary and destructive scenario.

In the years ahead, the potential for armed conflict between the United States and the People’s Republic is by no means trivial. But as the first cold war largely demonstrated, great power conflict is not inevitable. Beyond capitulation to the CCP’s strategic imperatives—allowing Beijing to quash the freedom of Hong Kong, annex Taiwan, and bully other free peoples into submission—the surest way to avoid war is by adopting a robust strategy to counter China’s expansionism. This would entail acting in concert with like-minded nations to divest and decouple from China’s economy while deploying and, if necessary, wielding military force to establish what Dean Acheson once referred to as “situations of strength” in the Far East.

Such a strategy would be premised on observing a distinction once made by Michael Ignatieff—that adversaries whose designs “you want to defeat” are not necessarily enemies whose existence “you have to destroy.” It can no longer be credibly denied that China is an adversary of the United States. If it is not treated accordingly, it may prove impossible to prevent it from becoming a full-fledged enemy.

 

Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer primarily focused on US foreign and defense policy. You can follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776.

Comments

  1. I am in general agreement with Mr. Stewart. The Chinese are deeply xenophobic, as a general rule. They are also deeply ethno-nationalist. The people of the Chinese diaspora, no matter how scattered or for how long, remain deeply Chinese. Which is why the regime can refer to Chinese citizens of other countries as “overseas Chinese” and such like. The regime is not wrong to assume they can call upon a deep reservoir of ethno-national loyalty in the diaspora.

    (Please, for heaven’s sake, do not throw at me, “but, what about my friend, LI?!” and silly nonsense of this sort. Okay? Everyone knows there are outliers. We do not throw our friends under the bus.)

    In keeping with the tradition of bringing to your attention books forbidden by polite society:

    Ways that are Dark: The Truth about China

    by Ralph Townsend (once US diplomat in Shanghai)
    https://b-ok.cc/book/3409976/288510

    In the west, we have an oscillation of Plato and Aristotle, of Athens and Jerusalem, of Catholic and Protestant, of Anglo-Scot and Continental, of Jefferson and Hamilton. We muddle along in the midst of protestation and contestation of all sorts. No such thing in China.

    It would be a rather different kettle of fish if they had an oscillation of Lao Tse and Confucius—Hong Kong has chosen Lao Tse—or for that matter, of Confucius and Buddha. They do not do protestation and contestation. (I am not primarily interested in value judgments here.) The CCP is not some anomaly from which we will “liberate” the long suffering Chinese people, okay? They are not longing to become Americans or liberals. We cannot afford to indulge our silly, nonsensical, Utopian selves.

  2. It doesn’t help when the west disparages its own values.

  3. How is the Chinese system not worse? We all know about the shortcomings and crimes of the American government; nobody is saying that this system cannot stand to improve. Indeed, the American system is perenially capable of improving, and I would say that this is largely due to the fact that Americans are free to identify and critize the policy failures (and crimes) of their government, mount an opposition to their government, and ultimately effect change in their government. Examples of failure do not make this fact a fiction, and that is not nothing.

    En revanche, how fares the Chinese system? Mao Zedong Thought and Xi Jinping Thought (that actually is a thing, now) make no room for independent criticism or opposition.
    Opposition within the government is even frought with danger; have you ever heard of the purges? Improvement, if it comes, comes by way of the one strong man.

    I presume you are saying your reading of history gives you at least as much confidence in the enduring power of enlightened despotism, then, as in republicanism? With the Chinese system you may get Mao, but hey you won’t get Trump or Biden (an unproven assertion…Chinese Communism may be shot through with Bidens and Trumps, but how would you know?). And that appeals to you, how?

    Yes Trump sucks and Biden is senile, but get back to me when either of them confect a great leap forward. If you think Maoism and Xiism are different, I do urge you to pay closer attention.

    As far as I can tell, you are trying to convince us that one system is at least as good as the other just by listing some of the crimes of one of them (along with the observation that one election cycle has produced some really lousy candidates). Anger, however, is not argument, and you will have to take pains to balance one side against the other if you wish to convince us of a moral equivilance, or of the superiority of one over the other.

  4. The Chinese effort to erect institutional pillars of a new order received an unexpected gift from President Trump in his first week of office when he withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, thereby unraveling a 12-nation fabric of commercial cooperation that excluded China. The Trump administration’s indifference to the role of human rights and democracy in American diplomacy has also been an unexpected boon to Beijing’s barbaric regime. When peaceful democratic protests erupted in Hong Kong last year against the authority of the Chinese mainland, the American president declared, “We have to stand with Hong Kong, but I’m also standing with President Xi.” Such moral equivalence casts aside friends of liberty in Hong Kong and within China itself, who do not accept the legitimacy of dictatorship.

    I agree with the author that China represents a threat to its own citizens, its neighbors, international commerce (by buying up half the ports in the world), global health, IT protection (they steal way more than they develop), etc.etc.etc.

    However trade deals like the TPP are not the answer as long as they include provisions that give away national authority to an unelected international authority (see NAFTA and the EU for examples). The American people have rejected that kind of globalism.

    Also, Trump standing with Hong Kong even that much was infuriating to Xi Pooh (as was Trump’s phone call with the president of Taiwan), yet XP stayed at the bargaining table nonetheless (because he needs us).

    Lastly, Trump seems serious about holding them accountable for the WuFlu they unleashed on the world, is even toying with the idea of stopping all trade with them. Personally that’s what I’d like to see happen, though it likely won’t.

    Right now china’s rep is in the toilet. It’s time to act, and flush it down.

  5. I would add that China’s growth is highly extractive. It’s not based on a liberal society, which makes its growth unsustainable by default.

    Once American policymakers freaked out because they feared the Soviet Union was going to overtake them, even though a rational analysis of the Soviet economy predicted misery. Well, it’s easy to achieve high growth by forcedly industrialising a feudal society, but it’s temporary, because of lack of innovation and creative destruction. Turned out the rational analysis was right all the time and those who believed in the USSR’s growth were blinded by snapsnot view of growth numbers. And I haven’t even mentioned the human cost of Soviet growth.

    Likewise, if no revolutionary political change occurs in China, in 100 years we will most likely say: See? The Chinese way was destined to collapse from the very beginning. And this might be a small accelerator of decline :point_down::

  6. Do not wait for any uprising of the populace in China. The younger generations have sold out to capitalism and wealth. I spent 35 years working in and out of China and the trade-off was the accumulation of goods and wealth while giving up any freedoms that we cherish here. There are a couple of positive signs.Countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia are paying their money to dredge their harbors to facilitate the visits of US warships. Take Vietnam as one example, which has a 1000 year enmity with China. We need to solidify our relationships with these other Southeast Asian tigers.

  7. One might have expected the COVID-19 crisis to produce an inflection point at which agreement was finally reached about the menace presented by China’s regime.

    Why?

    The Chinese are deeply xenophobic, as a general rule. They are also deeply ethno-nationalist. The people of the Chinese diaspora, no matter how scattered or for how long, remain deeply Chinese. Which is why the regime can refer to Chinese citizens of other countries as “overseas Chinese” and such like. The regime is not wrong to assume they can call upon a deep reservoir of ethno-national loyalty in the diaspora.

    Seems like a feature not a bug.

    without exposing the liberal order to immense risk.

    If the liberal order is destroyed, it will be because it rotted from within. China is the obvious “outside force that pushes over the rotting structure”, but if liberalism falls it will be because liberalism is weak.

    The western world order could, in theory, call on the combined resources and economies of North America, Europe, and Australia. It could most likely call on China’s neighbors for support (Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, India). It controls global oceans and thus global markets. Arrayed on the other side is a country with no children, not enough resources for self sufficiency, a GDP/capita at what any western nation would consider poverty levels, and existential pollution issues. This should be a slam dunk. The only way it could not is if we sabotage ourselves. If that happens, don’t blame the Chinese.

  8. And even more importantly you can eventually choose to throw the bums out without resorting to bombs and bullets.

  9. For the love of God, somebody warn the illegal immigrants not to come here.

  10. An increasingly common belief, and unfortunate. If every piece of bad news promoted by a disliked administration is propaganda, then what happens when a real danger emerges?

  11. I have yet to hear anyone on the left put forward a convincing argument that Hilary Clinton or any other plausible major political figure would have made a measurable difference in how the US responded to the virus were they president in place of Trump.

    Obama and Biden neglected to improve national preparedness for eight years, and I see no reason at all to suppose Hillary would have proceeded in a different manner had she become president in 2016. Why would she have? She had Obama’s example to follow.

  12. I assumed that the scenario the author is discussing is a militarily aggressive China launching invasions of other countries.

    I fail to see how trading with China “expos(es) the liberal order to immense risk.” Risk of what?

    I have my own views on international trade and what my nations stance on it should be, but its hard to see how trading with China would cause us to stop having elections, courts of law, a constitution, etc. The only way the Chinese could take that away against our will is to physically conquer our lands and impose it on us.

    Absent that, anything we give up we give up on our own.

    The NBA doesn’t have to kowtow to the CCP. It can choose to, if it’s so greedy it wants the money more then “values”, but the CCP isn’t forcing them too. I’m far more angry at an American company selling out professed values than I am with the Chinese doing their own thing. CCP paratroopers didn’t storm NBA HQ and force this on anyone. Executives at the NBA would be rich fucks regardless of whether they get business from China.

    I have a cousin who is a CEO for a major company that sources all their merchandise from China. He knows they pay slave wages. He’s seen the pollution his factories spew out, so much that being exposed to it made him sick. But he wanted to be richer. He wanted to have a huge wedding for his daughter at a premier NYC venue with rock stars paid to perform live for a private event. He wanted a whole bunch of other stuff too. Is it the CCPs fault that he sold out? Did they force him?

    What else are we supposed to be afraid of? That the CCP will “succeed” along some metric people envy and might try to emulate it? Again, this isn’t be forced on anyone. If your own system is so broken you think the CCP is better its not the CCPs fault.

    My point is simply that China poses no direct threat to the liberal order. It can’t force the liberal order to change against its will. If the liberal order changes, it will be due to the failings of the liberal order. Not the CCP.

  13. There’s been many fantastic books written recently about what is going on in the South China Sea. These countries have harbors dredged already for container ships. They want the US warships in there as a message and a deterrent to China who is encroaching on their sovereign territory.

  14. Here in America we do not “clutch”. We do however bitterly cling to our guns and bibles. Its very deplorable of us :slight_smile:

  15. "My point is simply that China poses no direct threat to the liberal order. It can’t force the liberal order to change against its will. If the liberal order changes, it will be due to the failings of the liberal order. "

    Your average citizen of Taiwan disagrees rather strongly with this statement. Or is their liberty a necessary sacrifice?

    “# China to conduct major military drill simulating seizure of Taiwan-held island”

    JapanTimes

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