In the mid-1990s, in the wake of the Cold War, new political science majors faced a simple choice: China studies or Other. Having lost the Soviets, and not yet gained the Europeans, those looking for the next big monolith had in China a ready candidate–booming economically with the Asian Tigers, unsettled after Tianenmen, and aggressive enough to attract Clinton’s Sixth Fleet. Then came 9/11. Replacing fears of a war over Taiwan with China came fears of a war over civilization with Islam. As Europe and Russia turned inward, the India-Pakistan crisis shifted along with the whole of Asia east of Afghanistan–including North Korea–onto the rear burner.
Now, half a decade on, China is back. President Hu Jintao made that clear as a champagne toaster with the head-of-state debutante trifecta: the White House, the Gates house, and the cathouse of academe, Yale. All knees have bent before Hu–Google and Yahoo! followed in enthusiasm by obliging government and ivory tower.
“We need China,” runs the refrain. “We had better get used to it.” But heckler Wenyi Wang did not take a knee, and China’s dissidents grow increasingly active. Wang’s undiplomatic yawp reminds us that “bad China” remains: in the ability to outproduce us and fix currency, the ability to outpollute us without reprimand, and now, perhaps, even the ability to outproliferate us, as well, helping put nuclear technology in reach of our worst enemies.
We can’t resort to international law or the threat of force to wrangle China. We need great-power allies at a time of diplomatic multipolarity. The drama over Iran has shown divisions clearer than at any time since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Britain and France are together on Tehran, but Russia balks and China moves like a reticent chesspiece. The rhetoric may be civil, but the agendas are divergent and diverging. Economic ties are not enough to seal the gap.
One unglamorous but potent lesson of World War One is that well-integrated world markets cannot override the sudden antagonism of political interests. Sides develop out of crises despite goodwill. The Iranian crisis has put Europe closely on our side–including Germany–but it has also heightened the profile and power of Russia and China. We hem and haw over Russia’s expert consolidation of autocratic power, but it is China we cannot “solve,” China against which we are most reactive, China which is a culture less like ours among significant powers than any save radical Islam.
China, unitary state and truly foreign country, embodies the “billiard ball” nation of realist international relations theory perhaps better than any other great power. And dealing with China in our own best interest means turning to the crown jewel of old-school realism–great power politics itself.
You remember this game. Balances of power, strategic alliances, spheres of influence and high diplomacy–true multipolar politics, like the similarly enduring game of Risk. Who are our counterweights to China? Russia, Japan, and India. Each of these states is more naturally aligned with the US than China–by dint of geostrategy, culture, and history. All three are, like China, sub-superpowers; unlike China, all are connected to the United States by literature or ethnicity, culture or politics, and democracy.
Each counterweight is unique. Since Russia is a global power in a way Japan and India yet are not, Russia is key to offsetting Beijing, but dangerous in a way India is not. India is a natural competitor, our most promising new recruit in the great-power game of the containment of global interest. Japan is an old recruit, well-accustomed to allegiance and overlap with U.S. interests. But neither Japan, India, nor Russia are enough singly. Beijing’s interests in the Middle East and Africa are plain as concrete. Chinese engineers fan out through the developing world. And China is the one great power whose interests accord with the unimpeded proliferation of nuclear weapons across the planet’s least stable areas. These global issues transcend a one-legged alliance strategy in Asia.
Hu’s debut signals a return to the diplomatic tightrope game of smiles and cloaked daggers. Here the Chinese are no amateurs. You can see it in Bush’s businesslike apology for Wang’s outburst; in the net sector’s willingness to sell out its enlightened postindustrial liberalism in order to grab a stake in the China market; in the entirely backroom dealing between Washington and Beijing, on every topic from finance to North Korea to Iran and beyond.
As Russian interests veer from Chinese, French interests spiral away from British, and new global powers India, Germany, and Japan gain stature, the us-versus-them dynamic of the Cold War and the War on Terror may well reconstitute itself as a world in which us and them are open categories–and coalitions of the willing enforce not so much the legitimacy of the international order but the competing desires of shifting alliances for one sort of order instead of another.
James G. Poulos, essayist and doctoral candidate, holds his J.D. from the University of Southern California. His commentaries are found at Postmodern Conservative.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Andrew Stiles
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kathlyn Ehl