Two days after his speech to a joint session of Congress during which he stressed a budget dedicated to national security and public safety, President Donald trump visited Newport News shipyard for a tour of a new aircraft carrier. He told the crowd, "I asked Congress to eliminate the defense sequester and to support my request for a great rebuilding of the United States military and the United States Navy." Expanding the fleet to 350 ships from the present 275 has been in the vanguard of Trump's rearmament program. Unfortunately, he only mentioned terrorism as a threat. He did not mention China (or even North Korea), growing dangers on the Pacific Rim, the natural theater of the U.S. Navy. Trump has, however, focused on China in other forums. And while trade has loomed large, he has not separated Beijing's economic rise from its larger geopolitical ambitions. Trump has also appointed a national security team that understands that America faces more than just terrorism in a contentious world.
Naming economist Peter Navarro to head the newly created National Trade Council best illustrates the theme of embedding commerce into a broader strategic framework. Navarro has written three books that apply this theme to the People's Republic of China (PRC). The title of his most recent 2015 work, Crouching Tiger: What China's Militarism Means for the World, tells the tale. For the last twenty years, wishful thinking has hoped that as Beijing gained more wealth and power it would be tamed by the same find of decadence and malaise towards foreign affairs that gripped an affluent Western Europe even before the Cold War was over. A Leninist regime still holds sway in China, however, so more resources and capabilities only mean more items on its antagonistic agenda can be pursued.
Writing in the March issue of the U.S. Naval Institute's magazine Proceedings, retired South Korean Captain Sukjoon Yoon argues that Beijing's naval buildup is essential to achieving the "China Dream" which is at the core of President Xi Jinping's vision of his nation's future as the dominant power in Asia and with the strength to project a new Silk Road (by both land and sea) across Eurasia, the Middle East, and even into Africa. He calls this a "restorationist" vision that heralds back to the glory days of the Chinese Empire before the coming of the barbarians from the West. Beijing's claim to sovereignty over the East and South China seas is based on the alleged control of these maritime areas by the old empire. Such historical references can only worry the South Koreans given how often Chinese armies have invaded the peninsula over the last two millennia.
Capt. Sukjoon argues that what Beijing wants, in its words, is respect for its core strategic interests. This may sound reasonable until one understands that means accepting as legitimate Chin's historical claims not only out to the "first island chain" along the Pacific Rim but also its Silk Road plans which use historical references to cover expansion into areas well beyond anything held by the defunct Chinese empire even at its greatest extent. A large and modern Chinese fleet, backed by land-based air and missile forces, is meant to pose such a challenge to U.S. and allied forces that Washington will chose appeasement over confrontation.
There are those in the liberal Establishment who already favor appeasement even when the balance of power still favors the United States. Their views are on display in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs, the flagship journal of the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR). The purpose of the issue is to provide advice to President Trump on a wide range of topics. Two major essays address relations with China. The first is by Susan L. Shirk, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State who handled Chinese policy during President Bill Clinton's second term and currently chairs the 21st Century China Center at the University of California-San Diego. She wrote the 2007 book China: Fragile Superpower which argued that the greatest threat to American security was not Beijing's rise, but the risk that the PRC would fail. She argued,
Although China looks like a powerhouse from the outside, to its leaders it looks fragile, poor, and overwhelmed by internal problems. But China's massive problems, instead of reassuring us, should worry us. It is China's internal fragility, not its growing strength that presents the greatest danger. The weak legitimacy of the Communist Party and its leader's sense of vulnerability could cause China to behave rashly in a crisis involving Taiwan or Japan.
Thus, the U.S. should not press China too hard. It should not criticize Beijing on its suppression of democracy or abuse of human rights because it looks "to the Chinese like a form of containment meant to keep China weak." And while the U.S. should maintain the "will and capacity" to defend Taiwan, Japan and our other allies, "we must be careful to avoid saber rattling" and not encourage Japan to build up its military. She argued, "Any benefit the United States gains from having Japan share the expense of deterring China and preserving stability in Asia is offset by the cost of inflaming public opinion in China." In this cost-benefit analysis, Shirk has her thumb on the scale to favor Beijing. After all, she believes the path to cooperation with Beijing is to make its leaders feel safe regardless of their bad behavior.
A decade later, Shirk has not changed her advice even though events have required her to open her Foreign Affairs essay by listing Beijing's bad behavior:
In recent years, China has started throwing its weight around. It has defied international law and risked violent clashes in the East China and South China Sea. It has bent trade rules by discriminating against foreign businesses to help its own. It has tried to shut out foreign influences while promoting its own propaganda abroad. And it has resisted Western demands that it put more pressure on its ally North Korea. China's new assertiveness stems, in part, from its growing power.
Yet, she then returns to her old line, "President Xi Jinping is increasingly anxious about internal threats, from popular protest to splits in the ruling Communist Party. In response, he has flexed the country's muscles abroad to play to nationalist fervor at home, while cracking down on any hint of domestic dissent." In response, "The United States must figure out how to channel the ambition in a positive direction while respecting China's nationalist pride and protecting the United States' own interests....Both countries would lose if it provoked a trade war, an arms race, or a military confrontation. ...The United States should welcome a more influential China, so long as it respects other countries' interests, contributes to the common good, and adheres to international laws and norms." The Establishment has been waiting in vain for decades for these good things to happen. The question is: how can China be persuaded to change course when America clings to the "prudent approach" Shirk claims "has served it well?" This is an approach Beijing has taken the measure of and believes rewards "throwing its weight around." Since the world has not gone the way Shirk thought it would, why should anyone believe her ideas will work any better in the future now that China has grown stronger?
Shirk wants the U.S. to "push back against Chinese practices that directly harm the United States, even if that means raising tensions" but only in measured ways and her examples do not involve military threats. She thinks a successful example was when President Barack Obama threatened sanctions against China for stealing commercial secrets just before his 2015 summit with President Xi. The Chinese leader promised to stop hacking and Obama did not impose sanctions for past attacks. Yet, Chinese hacks have not stopped; indeed, their capabilities have continued to improve. The real U.S. response has been to downplay such attacks, even when the security files of some four million Federal workers were stolen. After all, as Shirk advises, "the United States should refrain from stoking antagonism toward China. A majority of the publics in both countries now view the other country negatively, making it hard for the two governments to compromise on high-profile issues." It must be remembered that to appeasers, it is not aggression that starts wars, it is standing up to aggression that causes the collision.
The second China essay in Foreign Affairs is by Jennifer Lind, Associate Professor of Government at Dartmouth College and a Faculty Associate at the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard University. You can't get more Establishment than this! If anything, she makes Shirk look like a hard-liner, though she also opens the piece with a list of Beijing's bad conduct,
Recent Chinese policies have fueled concerns that the country seeks to overturn the post-Cold War geopolitical order. President Xi Jinping has begun to modernize China's military, gradually transforming the regional balance of power. He has pursued assertive policies in the East China and South China Seas, appearing to reject both the territorial status quo in East Asia and the role of international law in adjudicating disputes. Many observers now believe that efforts to integrate China into the international system have failed and that East Asia will have to contend with a dangerous, revisionist power.
But Lind can't stick with this line for more than a paragraph. She has to shift to blaming the United States for rising tensions because America is also a "revisionist power" that provokes Beijing. "Since the end of World War II, the United States has pursued a strategy aimed at overturning the status quo by spreading liberalism, free markets, and U.S. influence around the world. Just as Chinese revisionism alarms Washington, the United States' posture stokes fear in Beijing and beyond" she writes. It is the liberal practice of "moral equivalency" that she puts on display and it should stoke dismay among Americans. Lind asserts in her opening line that "Donald Trump's election as U.S. president threatens to upend the world's most important bilateral relationship" because he wants to retaliate for China's theft of American secrets and predatory trade practices; and had the nerve to talk on the phone with the elected president of Taiwan, an island Beijing covets against the desires of its inhabitants.
Since this issue of Foreign Policy has hit the stands, the Beijing regime has vetoed a UN Security Council motion sponsored by the U.S. Britain and France to sanction the Assad dictatorship in Syria for its use of chemical weapons against civilians. Beijing did not have to cast a veto as the Russian "no" vote was sufficient to block the motion. China did so just to make a point about its hostility to the West and its own values in the conduct of war. Beijing has continued to protest the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea in the wake of Pyongyang's multiple tests of ballistic missiles. On March 1, PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Vice Foreign Minister Ri Kil Song of North Korea (DPRK) and again called for calm and new talks to deflect any counter-action against Pyongyang. As the statement from the PRC Foreign Ministry put it, "Wang Yi expressed that China and the DPRK are linked by mountains and rivers. It is China's consistent stance to consolidate and develop China-DPRK traditional friendship." And on March 9, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang jumped on the Wikileaks release of stolen CIA documents to declare with audacious hypocrisy, "The Chinese side is opposed to all forms of cyber attacks, and urges the US to stop its wiretapping, surveillance, espionage and cyber attacks against China and other countries."
So much for any hope that Beijing is looking for chances to cooperate with the U.S.----except at the Council for Foreign Relations where hope always springs eternal regardless of history or the facts on the ground. And yet the Establishment still seems perplexed by the banner headline placed across he top of the front cover of the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs: "How America Turned Against Experts."
William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former economics professor and Republican Congressional staff member.
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