Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Greater China
     Dec 23, '13

Page 2 of 2
Erase that war with China 'in 2014'
By Peter Lee

Kennan's containment theory drew its strength - and America's self-satisfying posture of moral superiority - from the idea that the USSR was a failed system that couldn't handle the truth. Unable to face up to its political, social, and moral failings, the USSR would instead dishonestly define the West as its hostile, active enemy, wall itself up within its nasty communist Iron Curtain, and eventually collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.

At the popular level, the Cold War containment analogy is a tribute to the heroic ability of people in the West to forget the erosion of US hegemony over the last 20 years and turn their

thoughts to the infinitely more gratifying vision of the PRC falling on its ass for the same reasons that the USSR did.

In the case of the People's Republic of China, which has done rather well for itself over the last 25 years - and has increasingly integrated itself into the West-led capitalist economy - the containment framing looks mistaken, both as an explanation for China's behavior and as a justification for Western policy. The PRC renounced war on the West and on capitalism when Mao withdraw support for communist struggles in Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War and invited Nixon to China. Deng Xiaoping threw North Korea under the bus by normalizing relations with South Korea.

The PRC's response to the slide of Myanmar toward the Western camp has been to step up diplomatic and economic engagement, not to recapitulate the Warsaw Pact invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. And the last war that China fought - the 1979 incursion into Vietnam (only one war in the last 35 years? What kind of great power is that?) - was a joint project of the US and the PRC to balk the Soviet Union's push into Southeast Asia.

In 2013, if anybody is trying to use the threat of an alien system and an implacable enemy to revitalize national and security doctrines challenged by disturbing national and global trends in the way Kennan envisioned, it's not the People's Republic of China. Interested observers would be advised to look (*cough* Japan *cough* United States *cough*) elsewhere.

Xi Jinping's PRC doesn't want to confront the West - it wants to do business with it and to minimize disruptions as the Chinese leadership wrestles with its large and intractable domestic economic and social problems. In foreign affairs, the PRC if anything wants the United States as an ally, or at least a sympathetic participant, in its effort to create a new security tripod that somehow incorporates the PRC, the US, and China's increasingly hated rival Japan, into an advantageous regional security and economic framework.

It will be interesting to see if in 2014 Xi decides to follow through on some vague rumblings in the Chinese press and bids farewell once and for all to the archaic nine-dash-line that delineates its claims in the South China Sea, in order to regularize the situation there and put maritime relations with ASEAN on a truly modern footing.

It can be argued that the key feature of the world in 2013 is not the bifurcation of into Chinese and anti-Chinese camps. Chinese foreign policy and diplomacy are still largely driven by its desire to avoid isolation before the West and dilute the polarizing power of "the pivot to Asia".

A better model for China, and arguably for relations in Asia, instead of Soviet-style containment, might be "Balance of Power", the arrangement that kept hostile nations in Europe at peace for several decades until the whole edifice came crashing down in World War I.

Given the PRC's interest in solving its extremely vexing domestic problems - and, I think, awareness that xenophobic nationalism directed at Japan might offer some political breathing space but a war in East Asia will only serve to exacerbate China's difficulties - the next few years will see it try to avoid the cathartic Good versus Evil confrontation that China-bashers long for.

Pivot 2.0
As long as the PRC is an authoritarian state, the West will presumably never completely abandon the rhetoric of containment. But the emerging reality might be something different - and beneficial to the United States and the overall security order in Asia.

Pivot 2.0 might not involve roiling Asian security in order to forestall Chinese regional hegemony from supplanting US preeminence; instead it might involve acceptance of a shift toward military parity within the region as burgeoning economies, threat perception (and inflation), and the desire for independence in security policy drive defense spending of all the Asian countries. At the same time, economic interrelatedness of the various antagonistic parties would hopefully heighten awareness of the dangers to all sides of unbalanced reliance on the military/security narrative.

If things break the Chinese way, the United States will respond to its evolving role in Asia to play the honest broker and counterbalancer-in-chief, instead of clinging to its role as my-way-or-the-highway hyperpower lawgiver-in-chief on behalf of the Asian democracies confronting China.

Of course, things might not break the Chinese way, a not unlikely scenario since the current generation of US leaders lacks the doctrine, experience, skills, or inclination to function effectively in an environment that demands more than the determined exercise of hegemony.

And, unfortunately for America's allies as well as its enemies, the US track record as the practitioner of hegemony is decidedly mixed.

That the United States is the responsible, omni-competent steward of the world's freedom and prosperity is a pleasing assumption that Washington does nothing to dispel. Indeed, this sunny view provides the much of the underlying justification for the assertion that the US "pivot to Asia" will make things much, much better for everybody, instead of recapitulating the three decades of misery that the United States has helped perpetuate in the previous focus of its attention and abilities, the Middle East.

For a worst-case look at what the United States could inflict on Asia, consider the presidency of George W Bush.

Thanks to the unexpected appearance of a Middle East quagmire beneath the carpet of rose petals scattered for Iraq's American liberators, the Bush administration did not have much opportunity for Asian mischief.

However, countering the China threat was a touchstone for vice president Dick Cheney, who considered the application of a chokehold to the PRC's energy supplies an important justification for the adventure in Iraq. His allies in the Department of Defense were not afraid to play the Taiwan card and with it the promise of more creative destruction in East Asia.

In 2007, Congressional Quarterly relayed the recollections of former secretary of state Colin Powell's chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, concerning the neo-conservative perspective on Taiwan independence:
The Defense Department, with Feith, Cambone, Wolfowitz [and] [defense secretary] Rumsfeld, was dispatching a person to Taiwan every week ... essentially to tell [president at the time, from the Democratic Progressive Party] Chen Shui-bian ... that independence was a good thing.
Wilkerson said Powell would then dispatch his own envoy "right behind that guy, every time they sent somebody, to disabuse the entire Taiwanese national security apparatus of what they'd been told by the Defense Department".

"This went on," he said of the pro-independence efforts, "until George Bush weighed in and told Rumsfeld to cease and desist [and] told him multiple times to re-establish military-to-military relations with China."

The head of the American Institute in Taiwan in this period was Theresa Sheehan, who was married to Larry DeRita, Donald Rumsfeld's chief press flack at the Pentagon. She used her bully pulpit to push for Taiwan independence and support the credibility of the Department of Defense approach until Colin Powell demanded her resignation and she was removed.

For those that draw reassurance from the fact that Cheney is now out of office, recall that the evil that men do lives on

Even after the various foreign policy and political debacles of president Bush's second term had discredited Cheney's aggressive foreign policy posture, the vice president shrugged off Condoleezza Rice's attempts to assert control over US foreign policy and embarked on a "going rogue" tour to rally support for a confrontational anti-PRC alliance of Japan, India, Australia, and the United States in 2007.

Shinzo Abe, in his brief first prime ministership, was the receptive focus of Mr Cheney's attentions. He enthusiastically endorsed the four-way "diamond" containment policy, made it the centerpiece of his Asian strategy, and has sought to implement it with a major security outreach to India during his current term.

With this background, one of the most significant metrics for mischief in Asia is the political situation in Taiwan and in particular the unpopularity of the Republic of China's determinedly pro-mainland President Ma Ying-jeou. As a November 13 item from the Taipei Times tells us, he has been unable to spin any political gold out of his tilt toward Beijing:
The poll, conducted from Tuesday to Thursday, found that just 15.5 percent of respondents approved of Ma's performance, the lowest since the think tank began conducting a bi-monthly poll in March last year. His disapproval rating also hit a record high of 75.9 percent. [3]
If Ma is unable to turn things his way, the independence-minded Democratic People's Party and its presumptive presidential nominee, Su Tseng-chang, will be in the driver's seat in 2017. Su cultivates ties to Japanese ultra-nationalist Shintaro Ishihara as a counterweight to the Kuomintang romance with Beijing and is quite possibly mulling endorsement of Japan's claim to the Senkakus as part of his strategy of realignment.

If the DPP takes power, Prime Minister Abe continues his productive meddling in regional geopolitics and the PRC continues to get the back up of its neighbors with its maritime policies, then forbearance of the United States becomes more important in coping with a destabilizing scenario of a successful Taiwan independence referendum with Japanese backing.

In that case, the PRC is faced with either accepting a huge knock on its prestige and power or pushing the war button. [4]

If Taiwan moves toward independence, the United States is not faced with a comfortable containment model, where the United States and its allies are slapping the snout of a Chinese dragon trying to intrude into regions beyond those considered right and proper. Instead, it will be dealing with an overt repudiation of the one-China system, major disruption to the regional balance of power, and the need to push back against an angry adversary driven by irredentist sentiment, nationalism, and a sense of existential threat.

That is a situation that I believe the Obama administration is not keen to find itself in. But the Obama administration will not be in power in 2017.

I think that the politicians today have the foresight not to roll the dice on war in Asia. But, as they say, past results are no guarantee of future performance. No war in 2014. But 2017? I wouldn't take any bets right now.

1. Maybe that war with China isn't so far off after all, Asia Times Online, December 22, 2011.
2. Japan spins anti-China merry-go-round, Asia Times Online, October 29, 2010.
3. Mas rating hits rock bottom: poll, Taipei Times, November 9, 2013.
4. DPP chairman risks Beijing backlash by meeting Ishihara, South China Morning Post, February 3, 2013.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.

(Copyright 2013 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

1 2 Back




All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2013 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110