The cascade of statements, deployments, agreements and announcements from the United States and its regional associates in the last week has to be one of the most unpleasant shocks for China’s leadership — ever. The US is moving forces to Australia, Australia is selling uranium to India, Japan is stepping up military actions and coordinating more closely with the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea, Myanmar is slipping out of China’s column and seeking to reintegrate itself into the region, Indonesia and the Philippines are deepening military ties with the the US: and all that in just one week. If that wasn’t enough, a critical mass of the region’s countries have agreed to work out a new trade group that does not include China, while the US, to applause, has proposed that China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors be settled at a forum like the East Asia Summit — rather than in the bilateral talks with its smaller, weaker neighbors that China prefers.Rarely has a great power been so provoked and affronted. Rarely have so many red lines been crossed. Rarely has so much face been lost, so fast. It was a surprise diplomatic attack, aimed at reversing a decade of chit chat about American decline and disinterest in Asia, aimed also at nipping the myth of “China’s inexorable rise” in the bud.The timing turned out to be brilliant. China is in the midst of a leadership transition, when it is harder for important decisions to be taken quickly. The economy is looking shaky, with house prices falling across much of the country. The diplomatic blitzkrieg moved so fast and on so many fronts, with the strokes falling so hard and in such rapid succession, that China was unable to develop an organized and coherent response. And because Wen Jiabao’s appearance at the East Asia Summit, planned long before China had any inkling of the firestorm about to be unleashed, could not be canceled or changed, premier Wen Jiabao was trapped: he had to respond in public to all this while China was off balance and before the consultation, reflection and discussion that might have created an effective response.In this position, he acted prudently, which is to say he did as little as possible. His public remarks were mild. He did not pound his fist (or, like former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, his shoe) on the table. He did not rage against and upbraid his neighbors. He did not launch tirades about American arrogance and aggression. He uttered no threats but renounced no claims; he even participated in a quick unscheduled meeting with President Obama.The effect of this passive and low key response (the only thing really, he could have done) is to reinforce the sense in Asia that the US has reasserted its primacy in a convincing way. The US acted, received strikingly widespread support, and China backed down.That is in fact what happened, and it was as decisive a diplomatic victory as anyone is likely to see. Congratulations should go to President Obama and his national security team. The State Department, the Department of Defense and the White House have clearly been working effectively together on an intensive and complex strategy. They avoided leaks, they coordinated effectively with half a dozen countries, they deployed a range of instruments of power. In the field of foreign policy, this was a coming of age of the Obama administration and it was conceived and executed about as flawlessly as these things ever can be.
A great series of moves here by the Obama foreign policy team. But as Han Solo once said, "Great, kid! Don't get cocky!"
But a successful opening is not the same thing as a final win. The opening American gambit in the new great game was brilliant, but China also gets a move. On the one hand, the sweep, the scope and the success of the American moves make it hard for China to respond in kind; on the other hand, the humiliation and frustration (and, in some quarters, the fear) both inside the government and in society at large over these setbacks will compel some kind of response.
China, mindless conventional “decline” wisdom to the contrary, is much weaker and poorer than the United States, yet it is Chinese power rather than American supremacy that China’s neighbors most fear. China’s diplomacy faces an infuriating paradox: If it accepts the renewal of a US-based order in Asia it looks weak and is forced into an inferior political position; if it openly fights that order it alarms its neighbors into clinging more closely to Uncle Sam.This reality constrains China’s response in many ways, but China cannot remain passive. China must now think carefully about its choices and to work to use all the factors of its power to inflict some kind of counterblow against the United States. Look for China to reach out much more intensively to Russia to find ways in which the two powers can frustrate the US and hand it some kind of public setback. Pakistan? Iran? Afghanistan? Palestine?Regionally, China may try to detach one or more countries from the American system by some combination of economic influence and political ties. It will take advantage of the fact that the other Asian powers do not want the United States to be too dominant; they may fear China more than they fear us, but their aim is to maximize their own independence, not to strengthen US power.Longer term, the conviction in the military and among hard liners in the civilian establishment that the US is China’s enemy and seeks to block China’s natural rise will not only become more entrenched and more powerful; it will have consequences. Very experienced and well informed foreign diplomats and observers already warn that the military is in many respects becoming independent of political authorities and some believe that like the Japanese military in the 1930s, China’s military or factions within it could begin to take steps on critical issues that the political authorities could not reverse. Islands could be occupied, flags raised and shots fired.
The model of the Imperial Japanese Army in the 1930's is a chilling one. World War II in the Pacific was engineered by Nihon Rikugun, ironically, to end the quagmire of a war it started in China. The Meiji Constitution gave disproportionate power to the military to bring down governments. How much the Japanese civilian population, the civilian government, the Imperial Japanese Navy or even the leadership of the Army supported war with the United States are open questions. What is known is that a major portion of the junior and mid-level officers of Nihon Rikugun were insistent on doing everything "necessary" -- including assassination of senior officers who disagreed with them -- to avoid a loss of "face" by losing the war in China. If that meant doubling down with a war with the US, Britain, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand -- a war that could destroy Japan, a war that even the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, believed Japan could not win -- so be it.
Given China today has a much larger population, industrial base and holdings of natural resources, the prospect of a Nihon Rikugun running China should give us pause.
An intense debate in China will now turn even more pointed. There will be some who counsel patience, saying that China cannot win an open contest with the US and that its only hope is to stick with the concept of “peaceful rise”: eschewing all conflict with the US and its neighbors, behaving as a “responsible stakeholder” in the US-built international system, and growing richer and more powerful until such a time as alternative strategies can be considered. That in my opinion is China’s wisest course.Others will argue that the international system as it now exists, and American power in it, are weapons in the hands of a country which is deeply hostile to China and its government and that the US will not rest until China, like Russia, has been reduced to impotence. They think (they really do) that our aim is to overthrow the Communist government, replace it with something weak and ineffective — as in Yeltsin’s Russia — and then break up its territory the way the Soviet Union broke up. Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, perhaps more will be split off until China is left as a weak and helpless member of an ever more ruthless American order. To act like a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system would be to tie the knot in the noose intended to hang you; China must resist now, and ally itself with everyone willing to fight this power: Iran, Russia, Syria, Venezuela, Pakistan, perhaps even Al-Qaeda. And rather than trying to prop up the international capitalist system, China should do what it can to deepen crises and aggravate tensions.
This might explain China's seeming malevolence in the world today. But the problem is the same as in the Middle East, where most of the population thinks that everything bad -- literally, everything bad, from major disasters to mild annoyances -- is caused by some CIA-Zionist conspiracy, the denial of which is only proof of its existence. There really is nothing we can do about that. If they insist on thinking such irrational thoughts, we have to deal with it.
Regardless, though, for right now the Obama foreign policy team has scored a major coup. They should be congratulated.