Author: Zha Daojiong, Peking University
‘China is a disruptive, transitional force in the Indo-Pacific’. So declared United States Pacific Command Admiral Harry Harris at a recent Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) conference in New Delhi. On the same day, United States Secretary of Defense James Mattis unveiled the United States’ new defence strategy in Washington. Thus far Beijing has reacted with a shrug of the shoulder.
It is not difficult to understand the United States’ characterisation of China as ‘disruptive’ — it repeats US insistence on maintaining its own continuous primacy in the regional and global order. Over the past two centuries, the United States has frequently branded aspects of the Chinese civilization as disruptive of its definition of the international order.
What is Harris’s ‘transitional force’ meant to imply? Must the United States now work to set China on a different ‘path of transition’ that is more forcefully conditioned by the United States and its allies? Is China now seen as a force of transition that other states will be required to follow? What exactly is in transition?
The latest US defence strategy document defines China as a ‘revisionist power’ — one that is uncomfortable with the terms of the order as dictated by Washington and its allies . The primary focus of US national security is said to have shifted from a platform focused on curbing spread of terror to one of prioritising ‘great-power competition’ with countries such as China.
Even when anti-terrorism was the central focus of the declared US defence strategy, competing against China was still seen as paramount. Successive US governments refused to extradite those Chinese nationals who were arrested by US forces in Afghan battlefields. The US government determined that honouring the wishes of detainees cleared for release was more important than letting Chinese police authorities have access to them as a means of dealing with terror in their own part of the world. Nobody in the US security establishment has explicitly said that their country differentiated acts of terror by the victims, but the message can hardly be lost on anyone.
Viewed from China, the particularities of style that come with the Trump team say very little about changes in US strategy. US security elites across the ideological spectrum have for decades argued that the pillars of recent Chinese success are made in the United States. They argue that Washington carved this path by letting China into the World Trade Organization and that it continues to facilitate China’s success by providing their navies to help keep the Indian and Pacific oceans open for shipping in and out of Chinese ports.
Washington deems these points to be facts, while Chinese security analysts often see them as opinions. Does the difference really matter? A sensible response irrespective of opinion is that neither side can afford to rock the boat. Both sides need to find ways to peacefully co-exist with one another.
The angst that the Trump team is projecting over China has a precedent in former president Reagan’s ‘city on a hill’ imagery back in the early 1980s — the bottom line being that the United States risks falling behind other nations. Thirty years ago, the United States took issue with its then main trade competitor: Japan. This included questioning Japan’s economic system and practices. It is little coincidence that a Reagan-era trade policy veteran is picked today as United States Trade Representative — Robert Lighthizer’s first major act in office is to activate ‘Super 301’ investigations against China, similar to those he launched against Japan years ago.
A more thorough line of ideological debate is at work. For many in Washington, China was meant to develop a multi-party political system in exchange for its access to the commodity and financial markets of liberal democracies. Its perceived failing to achieve this yet is the means by which the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific quadrilateral’ became attractive to some players in the region. Official Chinese ideology rejects that logic of causation. Some in China even risk overselling the purportedly unique (with an implication of superior) Chinese approach to governance.
Still, does China not have a right to choose its own path of development? So long as China is not imposing its system of governance as a precondition of aid, trade and investment — which it is not — what makes the China’s situation so unacceptable?
It should not be hard to recall the policy rhetoric in decades gone past that talked of ‘East Asian models of capitalism’ or ‘Asian values’. Such discussions came and went, mostly due to management challenges common to all economic systems. Nobody has the final say on any governance system or its keys to success.
When it comes to grand strategy, both the United States and China have built up their respective echo chambers that are comfortable to domestic constituencies. From ‘pivot’ to ‘rebalancing’ and now to ‘Indo-Pacific’, the US chamber seems to be enlarging, although still with some level of uncertainty.
At the end of the day, a civilisation becomes stronger by opening itself up to competition. This is a long-term goal. In the short term, conflict avoidance ought to prevail across the Pacific and Indian oceans. The collective wisdom emanating from the societies of Quad countries should have no problem keeping the occasional bursts of hostile rhetoric in perspective and maintaining the status quo. It goes without saying that China would have the most to lose should it mistakenly and foolishly fail to put the ongoing Quad rhetoric in proper perspective and should it fail to avoid knowingly aggravate Quad countries’ feelings of uncertainty.
Zha Daojiong is Professor of international political economy at Peking University.