Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Uncle Sam and the Giant Midget?

Interesting post from James Fallows on the current enthusiasm for the "Pacific Turn" that is of recent concern in the Obama Administration's publication of "Sustaining National Leadership", the ostensible strategic blueprint for the coming decade or so of U.S. geopolitics. My fellow pubcrawler seydlitz has a nice discussion of this document here.

Central to this worldview seems to be a belief that a U.S.-v-China faceoff is inevitable.The publication states that
"U.S. economic and security interests are inextricably linked to developments in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia, creating a mix of evolving challenges and opportunities. Accordingly, while the U.S. military will continue to contribute to security globally, we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region. Our relationships with Asian allies and key partners are critical to the future stability and growth of the region... The maintenance of peace, stability, the free flow of commerce, and of U.S. influence in this dynamic region will depend in part on an underlying balance of military capability and presence."
Fallows discusses this in relation to the recent work of John Mearsheimer, who seems to have an even more definite view of the degree to which this is likely to be a military confrontation.
"I--China--want to be the Godzilla of Asia, because that's the only way for me--China--to survive!"
Mearsheimer is quoted as saying,
"I don't want the Japanese violating my sovereignty the way they did in the 20th century. I can't trust the United States, since states can never be certain about other states' intentions. And as good realists, we--the Chinese--want to dominate Asia the way the Americans have dominated the Western Hemisphere."
Fallows disagrees; the PRC is too fragile, too riven and riddled with internal problems to present a genuine expansionist military threat, a factor he believes that Mearsheimer and his interviewer Bob Kaplan ignore:
"From the outside, it looks like an unstoppable juggernaut. From inside, especially from the perspective of those trying to run it, it looks like a rambling wreck that narrowly avoids one disaster after another. The thrust of Mearsheimer's argument is that such internal complications simply don't matter: the sheer increase in China's power will bring disruption with it. I am saying: if you knew more about China, you would be less worried, especially about military confrontations. He is saying: "knowing" about China is a distraction. What matters are the implacable forces."
I will be the first to admit that I don't know enough about the economics, politics, and military capabilities of the PRC to make an informed assessment, but what I know about recent history suggests to me that none of those vulnerabilities are enough to prevent a polity from embarking on a ruiniously destructive and aggressive foreign policy - we've watched it occur in our own country in our recent lifetimes.

Earlier examples abound as well. The disastrous endless wars between Byzantium and Sassanid Persia that crippled them when confronted with the Umayyads. The various military overreaches of several European states, particularly Spain in the Netherlands in the 16th Century and in general in the 17th and 18th, Portugal after the 1600s, and France pretty much throughout her history.ISTM that there is a genuine discussion on the subject to be had here; as Fallows concludes,
"I think...while we need to think constantly and seriously about China, a "showdown" would be a result of miscalculation or recklessness on either side, rather than of unstoppable tectonic pressures. On the other hand, I completely endorse Mearsheimer's (and Kaplan's) view that we should have been paying more attention to China, and been less bogged down in the Middle East, through the past decade. But his case is certainly worth considering..."
but I guess I'm skeptical that, given the current trends in U.S. politics - that tend more towards magical thinking and foreign-policy-as-domestic-politics - such a discussion of an sort of intelligent throw-weight worth having could be had, or even had at all.

Consider this a "what do you think" open thread.

(cross-posted to MilPub).


Leon said...

I'm not sure the US at this time is capable of dealing with China in a mature and diplomatic way. It's going to oscillate between an adult conversation and "dey tuk ur jobssss" with bouts of "they're going to take over the world, quick let's spend $1 trillion on a new fighter".

The thing I worry most about is that China will do to the US what the US did to the Soviet Union - bankrupt them through military spending. A decades long war (with one just recently wrapped up) and no tax increase to pay for it is putting the US in the position of Britain after WW2. Except there'll be no austerity measures so who knows how they'll pay off their debts (probably by cutting all that wasteful spending on health). Coupled with the horrible procurement process (how much for a single F-35 now?) and the US is bleeding money.

Ael said...

This USA vs China stuff is all posturing about a dead paradigm.

Given globe spanning corporations and thermonuclear war, great power warfare is gone forever. It would be literal suicide.

Even without nuclear weapons, have you looked at the distribution of commodities and manufactured goods?

The problem is that old habits die hard. The time of the nation state has passed, we just don't know exactly what will replace it.

FDChief said...

Leon: I guess my thought would be that we (the U.S.) seems to be doing just that without any real help from the PRC. But I agree that ginning up some sort of "confrontation" with China wouldn't help.

Ael: Be that as it may, the Westphalian state is still the going concern politically until the Republic of WalMart is formally declared. And I doubt if day of the nation-state will ever be truly over in our lifetime, since the only real alternative is a return to pre-Westphalian polities (which proved no superior and in many ways worse) than the nation-state) or some sort of super-national assemblage, which has proved unstable in the past and does not show any real reason for assuming will do better in the future...

And as we've seen during the cold war. "great power warfare" now tends to be conducted in the form of defense budgets; you "win" by breaking the other power's bank. So I think the concern here is not that the U.S. and China will fight WW3, but that they will gear up to "confront" each other in the West Pacific and south-central Asia...

FDChief said...

For the record, here's my thoughts:

1. I think the basic notion - that the U.S. should start taking more interest in, and concern for, the West Pacific Rim, is a sound one.

2. That said, I don't see how that has to put the U.S. on a collision course with the PRC. Largely because;

2a: China has historically been a continental power. It's primary area of interest has been the "danger areas" to the west, the places where people have invaded in the past, as well as the "near abroad" such as Korea and the southeast Asian peninsula. It has never at any time in its history showed any real interest at becoming a blue-water power, and, no, I don't count the Spratleys.

2b: The current PRA/PRAF/PRAN plans look more like a force tailored to project force within a limited area, including a rather littoral navy. It's hard to guess how the reported carrier construction program fits into this; it may be a sign of a truly outward-looking global strategy. OTOH, it might just be another case of Chinese "me-tooism", seeing that carriers are the most visible sign of a Great Power.

2c: I think there's some merit to Fallow's arguments about the fundamental fractures inside China. But I think there's more merit in the notion that the Chinese have never liked, or succeeded at, ruling over substantial "foreign" populations. "Chineseness" is a tough quality to export, and I don't think the PRC really wants to acquire by force what it can get by suasion and trade.

In short, I think the U.S. would do well to look at China in the medium term as a "regional power", whose aspirations should be treated with caution but with the respect DUE to a regional power. So long as the Chinese don't want to conquer their neighbors I think we'd be fools to fight them over the desire to have compliant neighbors on and near theor borders...

Leon said...

WRT China's delicate internal balance, Fallows is spot on. China is doing an intricate ballet of modernizing (which mostly benefits urban dwellers) while avoiding a revolt from the rural dwellers (who haven't seen as much improvement). If that gets mucked up, there'll be massive amounts of chaos as the rural folks want their share of the new capitalism pie and poof goes the money to build a blue-water navy.

As for China historically as a continental power. That may be due to limits of communication and transportation technology. Other empires dealt with those limitations by appointing officials who would rule with considerable independence (Persian satraps, Roman governors). I assume with China's rigid central government would prevent effective governance due to the distances involved (but I'm not very well informed on ancient China). This inability to control may influence them to conquer/dominate only what they could effectively reach. So today's China may not have that limitation.

And on the off-chance that my yellow brothers do conquer the world, I'll put in a good word to the party about you guys.