Future of Asia, Rethinking America

US: Headless on China

The United States’ greatest failing is the inability to fashion a strategic conception that accommodates the rise of China as a superpower.

Credit: Route66 Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • The United States’ greatest failing is the inability to fashion a strategic conception that accommodates the rise of China as a superpower.
  • Disjointed and incoherent are apt description of the American floundering efforts to impress its will on the world.
  • The Pentagon brass is pursuing their single-minded – and single dimensional – project of constraining China by keeping its full-spectrum dominance over the PLA.
  • The People's Republic is craftily and systematically circumventing the US cordon sanitaire by winning allies and influencing elites around the globe.
  • The current round of trade negotiations happening in Beijing right now are ultimately evidence of the hopelessness of the US strategy. For a strategy it is not. More a bunch of hopeful wishes.

Foreign policy without strategy is like trying to make bricks without straw. It crumbles into fragments none of which serve any useful purpose.

This is especially problematic in the case of a great power – one that presumes to master the affairs of the globe. Yet, this is exactly the state of affairs which the United States has created for itself.

Disjointed and incoherent are apt description of the American floundering efforts to impress its will on the world. Our leaders possess neither an accurate intellectual map nor a well delineated set of goals nor methods for achieving even tactical successes.

The United States’ greatest failing is the inability to fashion a strategic conception that accommodates the rise of China as a superpower with the might and reach to pose an insuperable obstacle to America’s desire to maintain a global supremacy.

The harsh truth is that Washington has no plan to deal with China’s multidimensional challenge. Instead, it falls back on a piecemeal approach whose convenience for policymakers is exceeded only by its futility.

The military level

At the military level, the Pentagon brass is pursuing their single-minded – and single dimensional – project of constraining China by keeping its full-spectrum dominance over the PLA, denying Beijing sway in the South China Sea and Western Pacific and reinventing the necklace of alliances circa 1955.

This approach might possess a semblance of logic were China the reincarnation of Imperial Japan. It isn’t, though.
The People’s Republic is craftily and systematically circumventing the U.S. cordon sanitaire by winning allies and influencing elites around the globe. It is knitting a dense web of political, commercial and financial ties, often admittedly in a style the other, weaker “partner” can’t refuse.

Still, this approach will doubtless have some tangible military pay-offs. More significantly, it is integral to a far more sophisticated game to which American ways are not well adapted.

So when the PRC promulgates its historic One Belt, One Road (Silk Road) initiative, the United States of America famously responded by sending 3,000 marines to a base on Australia’s remote north coast somewhere in the vicinity of Darwin – Camp Croc.

And when the PRC lays the foundation for an Asian New Development Bank that promises to supplant the World Bank in the region, the United States signs an accord with Vietnam that permits the Seventh Fleet to refuel in Camranh Bay; back to the future.

Next, when the PRC takes measures to internationalize the RMB and points toward formation of a Yuan-based monetary authority (establishing the dim sum bond market and expanding the Cross-Border Trade RMB Settlement Pilot Project), the Pentagon accelerates acquisition of the Navy version of the F-35B. Is this strategy?

The economic realm

The same holds in the economic realm. There, the American hope has been to keep intact organizations and arrangements of post-war vintage that have served effectively to shape the economic affairs of the world according to U.S. preferences – material and ideological.

This was critical in opening the way for U.S. multinationals, especially financial institutions, to run the show, and to reap rents. The big hope is to keep Chinese economic forces from spreading their wings too much.

Thus, the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO and associated institutions welcome a Chinese presence, of course. They are trying very hard to socialize China into the established ways and means of conducting collective business.

The second, complementary idea the United States is basing its future strategy on is “liberal peace.” This is pure Kant. Its core premise is that there exists a powerful affinity among free markets, liberal democratic political regimes and peaceful interchange among nations.

Inconveniently, China never bought into this philosophy. While giving priority to economic development from Deng onward, its leadership has been vigilant about keeping the move toward free markets (and private property) separate from Western style political forms.

The directive authority of the state is seen as crucial to building a wealthy, powerful – and stable – country with a distinct national character.

The current round of trade negotiations happening in Beijing right now are ultimately evidence of the hopelessness of the U.S. strategy. For a strategy it is not. More a bunch of hopeful wishes.

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About Michael J. Brenner

Michael Brenner is Professor Emeritus of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. [Texas, United States]

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