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April 11, 2012


Reading Aaron Friedberg in Southeast Asia

by Mike M

Reading Aaron Friedberg’s fascinating, informative, sometimes questionable, ultimately unsatisfying argument about China’s strategic mindset and the necessary US response, A Contest for Supremacy, many issues suggest themselves.  It’s a great read, elegantly written, well-argued, highly worth one’s time even if the case doesn’t eventually persuade.  His insistence on trying to see the world through the eyes of Chinese strategists—rather than seeing Chinese strategy through the eyes of an American NSC advisor with a year of Mandarin and an MA in Asian Studies—is refreshing, even if one doesn’t fully agree with the Chinese worldview he sketches out.

Three notions occur on reading Friedberg, all related in a way to the character of Chinese power.  We talk a great deal about “the rise of China” as if it were some obelisk heaving up from the ocean, objective and generic.  In fact Chinese power is just that—Chinese power, as distinct from American power as American is distinct from Canadian and Canadian is distinct from … most everyone, really.

Point One:  Nationalistic Paranoia Doesn’t Play Amid Globalized Self-Satisfaction.  Friedberg mentions at one point some Chinese writers who thirst after a muscular China emerging “at the center of a new regional order in which all the other nations of East Asia will have no choice but to accept its leadership.”(181)  He depicts Chinese strategy as aggressive, rejectionist of US influence in Asia, determined to seize the mantle as regional hegemon.  He describes, as have many others, China’s sense of grievance and humiliation after centuries of western condescension and repression.

But China is not rising into a regional playpen of weak and retiring targets of its belligerence.  It is arriving onto a world stage of increasingly fractious, self-important countries with no patience for any country to replace the United States as the global (or regional) bully.  After the Cold War, the United Stated faced a world of largely collapsed adversaries, many begging help and trying to become “like America,” and docile allies.  Entering this new era, China faces nothing of the sort.  It is ringed with the likes of Russia, India, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines—countries with no patience for Beijing’s adventurism and a growing willingness to collaborate to send messages that China had better respect the by-now well-established norms of the post-war world.

The more China fights this reality by descending into fist-waving bouts of nationalistic paranoia, the more the region will pull back, find alternative trade partners, re-arm, and generally spark counterproductive results for a Chinese political leadership that (let’s not forget) needs these trade ties as badly for its own domestic legitimacy as anyone else needs them for economic progress.

So one tentative conclusion is that the nature of the supposed Chinese threat, when placed into not some generic context but the real context of current Asian and global geopolitics, looks much less fearsome, because the more fearsome it becomes the more self-defeating it becomes.  It’s a sort of very specific version of the Security Dilemma with Chinese Characteristics.

Point Two:  The Much-Feared Bandwagoning Never Happens.  A much-discussed risk of any “perceived US weakness or withdrawal” from Asia is claimed to be bandwagoning toward China.  Absent a strong America, countries will scurry under Beijing’s shadow, we are warned by the defenders of primacy.

Yet there seems precious little evidence of this.  Friedberg gives one example:  Thailand (207), but Thailand can afford to “bend with the wind” because it has no real disputes with China and large economic stakes.  It’s just not in Beijing’s cross-hairs.  It’s not so much an example of a country crawling under China’s wing as one quietly maintaining good relations because the alternative would be stupid.

Countries with more to fear, and lose—like South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Australia—have taken a much tougher stance of late.  Their conviction seems clear:  They must send the message that China cannot bully them.  There seems no reason why this would be less true regardless of perturbations in US credibility.  In fact the more decisive variable, the literature on alliances would suggest, might be perceived threat:  If China plays nice, neighbors might cozy up for the special trade benefits; we saw some of this dynamic in South Korea a few years back.  A warm, benefit-offering Beijing is a much bigger danger to US alliances in Asia than a belligerent one; no regional country will agree to become a vassal state under threat.

Until we see actual examples of Chinese threats causing states to distance themselves from the US and align themselves as Chinese quasi-vassals, there are many reasons to reject the argument that we have to overcompensate with US power to prevent such a result.  Especially, as argued here before, because overcompensation risks provoking Chinese paranoia.

Point Three:  China Ain’t Got No Friends.  Reading a paper on Chinese strategic culture and comparing it to some of the analysis in Friedberg, a point that has been made by many recurs:  China doesn’t have allies.  There are reasons for this—its form of government, for example—but a leading one is its strategic culture, which is inward-looking and essentially untrustworthy.  These are not characteristics one would describe as useful in a globalized information age.  They may also be changing among China’s younger leaders, but that is to be seen.  In any event, the point is, in terms of sustaining existing alliances, building new relationships (and Friedberg refers interestingly to “quasi-alliance” partnerships, 103-4), participating energetically in the state/non-state issue networks that are coming to define the response to many challenges—the United States has vast advantages.

They will be important, because Washington will need to alter the relative contribution to security in coming years.  Regional states will need to bear more of the burden.  But they will be able to, because the nature of Chinese power—specifically its sort of power, at this moment in time—poses a far less dramatic threat than many commentators, including Aaron Friedberg, would have us believe.  Because, again, the same basic argument made by George Kennan in 1946 holds, in modified form, today:  We should be confident, and patient, because if we can put our house in order, our system, our values, our alliances, and our norms will prevail.  Unless we screw it up–which, to be truthful, we are in the process of doing–our form of power has inherent advantages.  Recognizing this, and avoiding overreactions to short-term perceived threats, will be critical to keeping our China policy in perspective.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Andres
    Apr 18 2012

    Another well written piece, Jedi Master of Critical Thinking.
    Not yet having read this latest Friedberg work, I cannot credibly comment on it. Yet from your description it, Friedberg seems to fall under that general category of those who would have us fear China, and therefore arm ourselves appropriately.
    This line of thinking just doesn’t ring true to my simple mind. For the reasons you expertly laid out in your article, and for a couple more. Namely, let us do a quick review of the last time we witnessed Chinese troops in, say, South America. Or the Middle East. Hmmm . . . I’m coming up short. In other words, that kind of blatant aggression just isn’t characteristic of China over its long history.
    Far more dangerous are these advocates of American power in the region to counteract the supposed Chinese threat. Along the line of your comment about us being in the process of “screwing it up”, these people would lead us headlong down that path, and be proof positive of Eisenhower’s warnings.

  2. Matt J
    Apr 30 2012

    While in general agreement with Mike on every point, this all has a bit of the sound of the pre-WW I discourse that held that great power conflict was inconceivable because so clearly contrary to the interests of all parties. Unfortunately that’s not really what it’s about — fear and honor are in play as well. The Chinese SHOULD behave toward their neighbors as Mike suggests, and the U.S. SHOULD respond with the kind of patience and confidence that Kennan advocated with respect to the Soviet Union. We did not truly follow Kennan’s advice after NSC-68, however, and I doubt we will now with the Chinese. Although far from a China expert, I also suspect they will increasingly behave, as their power grows, in ways that will give us ample cause for concern.

  3. Stephen Reisman
    Aug 8 2012

    Mike, I both agree and disagree with your points (no surprise given our last in-person dialog).


    Point One “Nationalistic Paranoia Doesn’t Play Amid Globalized Self-Satisfaction”, is incorrect. Nationalism may not play well on the Global stage, but it most certainly does among the 1.7B +/- Chinese nationals. As China engages in the forced migration of 800M from a rural/subsistence existence to an urban existence over the next decade, the government needs to convince the populace that they have the ‘mojo’ to compete with other nations thus the pain of migration/displacement will serve the greater good of China.

    Point Two “The Much-Feared Bandwagoning Never Happens.” is both correct and incorrect. While there is little evidence of Bandwagoning (Thailand excluded), we should not conclude that the major powers in Asia, as you noted above, are fully convinced that the U.S. will staunchly defend them. In recent years, our commitment to the region has come in question, despite the publicly hyped ‘Pivoting’. Doubtful that there are not fears among these countries that the U.S. will not ‘cut & run’. More the pity.

    Point Three “China Ain’t Got No Friends”, is incorrect. China does have one very important friend, the United States. While this may seem counter-intuitive, they need us and we need them, unfortunately, few in the government of either country recognize the profound interdependency. At best, we are currently an annoyance to the Chinese, focusing on minor trade squabbles and Chinese military developments, losing sight of the larger picture. As Kissinger noted in his most recent revision to On China, the U.S. thinks in terms of Election Cycles, while the Chinese think in terms of Dynasties. The Cultural Revolution was an aberration in the history of China, not a fundamental shift as many assume. They are fearful of their future. With the massive migration, the social and political risks will make Tiananmen Square look like a Sunday picnic.

    Net, the U.S. needs a better engagement plan for China and the region than the the plan we have in place.

    Finally, credit to Friedberg for using a different and better lens, looking through Chinese eyes versus U.S. eyes…sounds like ELA. While I disagree with the conclusions, the process was solid.

    Welcome back from vacation!

    • Mike M
      Aug 9 2012

      Excellent points! Thanks for adding to the dialogue … I won’t quibble with you, you make some good arguments. I would just clarify on the first, the nationalism issue: Absolutely nationalism does play at home, and the egime has been using it for various purposes, trying to meter it etc. I meant more in the context of nations–internationally–and then among the domestic interest groups most connected to thaty reality. But as we are seeing again today in the China-Japan standoff, the dynamic between domestic political appeals to nationalism and the restraint on same in an international interdependent interests context is very dynamic and complex … Thanks again.

      • Aug 9 2012

        I agree with your points. In some ways, China, (post Mao), is like a teenager, growing quickly; coming into their own; finding their identity; trying to make friends; pissing people (countries) off…and most importantly dangerous to itself and the countries around it. Until they reach adulthood, they need a strong, compassionate, guiding hand. This goes back to the point that they need us more than they think (just like the Teen/Adult relationship). To that end, the U.S. needs a well thought out 10 year plan to help China, both guiding and respecting the soon-to-be adult. As a parent of a teenage girl, I feel their pain and ours.

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