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China is America’s biggest challenge

Washington – President Barack Obama’s distant management of foreign policy has left the world hungering for American leadership. His low-risk attitude combined with an array of tactical moves has done little to create a coherent vision of where he wants to lead the world. Or if he does at all.

Devastating portraits of the Obama White House in recent books – from Vali Nasr’s ‘The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat’ to Robert Gates’ ‘Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War’ – paint a picture of a president driven not by strategic calculus, but by public opinion.  In general, he seems disinterested in the world, preferring to focus on domestic issues under the guidance of his small and fiercely ‘local’ advisers.

But America’s absence is felt across capitals, even mourned, as China establishes itself as the superpower in the wings. The slow, gradual process makes Beijing’s ascendancy seem natural even while it makes bold new rules of the game as it goes along. In the absence of any real pushback, it envelopes small island nations like a cabbage with its ships, claims air space over disputed territory and conducts aggressive patrolling across borders in an expansionist crawl.

Obama’s China policy has gone from the happy place of creating a G-2 condominium to deciding that China’s rise is consistent with international norms, that it is stabilising and not disruptive. Nowhere has he considered Beijing’s ascendency – and by consequence the dislodging of Washington as global hegemon – a problem in itself. Hillary Clinton as secretary of state specifically rejected the balance-of-power logic in explaining relations with China, saying she was full of optimism.

Unsurprisingly, Chinese president Xi Jinping welcomed this “new type of great power relationship” but on his own terms. It has become clear since the Obama-Xi shirt-sleeve summit that Washington is required to respect Chinese “core interests” – a clear show of Beijing exercising its increased leverage.

Even Obama’s ‘pivot’ to Asia was rechristened in deference to Chinese sensitivities as a mere ‘rebalance.’ It is yet to evolve as a strategy that can be seen and felt.

To focus the mind, Ashley Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment and an expert in international security and Asian strategic issues, has written an exhaustive report on the rise of China, and what it means for the future of U.S. power. He calls China’s rise “the most serious geopolitical challenge facing the United States in this century”. Intended or not, Beijing’s stated and implied national ambitions make competition inevitable.

‘Balancing Without Containment: An American Strategy for Managing China’ is a sobering read, especially for those who have stopped questioning Beijing’s periodic aggressions or accepted the party line. Tellis cleans their glasses thoroughly and forces a rethink.

For starters, the U.S.- China competition is starkly different from the U.S.-Soviet Cold War rivalry. China has grown and prospered in a U.S.-backed system and is deeply enmeshed in the American economy. Its national power is more comprehensive, not just based on military strength.  Therefore the China challenge is far more serious. Even at its height, the Soviet GDP was only half of the American – a brutal fact that ultimately led to its collapse.

The Chinese economy, on the other hand, is set to surpass the U.S. economy by 2017, if it continues to grow between 7% and 10%, and the U.S. at less than 3%, according to the data from the Penn World Tables. China has a huge industrial and manufacturing base. It has also shown its ability to develop and field a variety of weapon systems. Additionally, it has systematically built linkages across the world, gaining access to raw material and influence as the Santa Claus of credit.

No surprise China wants great power status, now that its national ‘rejuvenation’ is near completion. Tellis says China’s expanded interests are “likely to scrape against the existing security order” centered on American primacy.  The consequences for all who benefit from a U.S.- led system would be grave.

To be sure both China and the U.S. are suspicious of each other’s intentions – the Chinese believe that the ultimate U.S. goal is to maintain its hegemony and prevent emerging powers like China from taking their rightful place. As American power declines in relative terms, and China’s capacity to challenge the U.S. grows, it is important to note that “Beijing has, at least so far, studiously refused to renounce the use of force in resolving geopolitical disagreements”.

The message has gone home to the Americans, if not to the liberals and conservatives who continue to argue over how best to deal with China’s challenge. A recent Chicago Council survey found that 40% of Americans see Chinese growth as a negative for the United States.

Tellis says that even before China actually attains full superpower status, it is trying to force a strict hierarchy in Asia, where its neighbors must acknowledge and respect its position at the top of the heap. It is being called “coercion without force”. In case anyone misses the signal, China has other ways to show who is boss – the nine-dash line in the South China Sea, the air defence identification zone, and camping on the wrong side of the disputed Sino-Indian border.

“China is systematically laying the foundations to ensure that its neighbors acquiesce to its burgeoning hegemony, while simultaneously ensuring their isolation vis-à-vis their most important external protector, namely the United States”, writes Tellis. But then the Obama Administration hasn’t exactly risen to defend its Asian allies in any discernible manner.  Its mantra against Beijing’s assertiveness is continued calm, without an effective strategy to ensure that calm prevails.

Tellis recommends developing a “grand strategy” that limits China’s ability to push the U.S. off its pre-eminent position, now while Beijing is still some distance away from effectively challenging the U.S.  The first prescription is “raising others up instead of pushing China down” by helping their growth and “weaving a net” to moderate Chinese behavior.

If Japan, India, Vietnam, Indonesia and others around China realize their strategic potential and increase cooperation, China would less likely misuse its power. But the U.S. should undertake the project without demanding things in return, while at the same time encouraging larger countries such as India and Japan to take on more security responsibilities. And perish any thoughts about a “G-2” condominium of the U.S. and China managing the world, a flirtation that Obama tried early in his tenure.

The second leg of this grand strategy should be to create new, segmented trading arrangements, which either exclude China or include it only if Beijing genuinely opens its markets.  The Trans-Pacific Partnership, an arrangement currently being negotiated among 12 countries with the U.S. as the central player, is one such attempt.  India is also excluded from it. China first reacted with umbrage to TPP, but softened its tone as studies showed that it stood to lose $100 billion in exports. Now it wants to join. Tellis says China should be kept out of TPP until it is finalised to increase U.S. gains.

Other recommendations include expanding and maintaining U.S. military superiority to defeat Chinese attempts at thwarting U.S. power projection in Asia. And finally, reinvigorating the U.S. economy – the most essential element in realizing the ultimate goal of maintaining superiority.

The report lays out what is at stake – a whole new world order designed in Beijing. It will be a lot less liberal for sure.

Seema Sirohi is a Washington-based analyst and a frequent contributor to Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. Seema is also on Twitter, and her handle is @seemasirohi

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