Sunday, November 23, 2014

America’s Trouble with China

WASHINGTON, DC – Xi Jinping, China’s newly anointed president, made his first visit to the United States in May 1980. He was a 27-year-old junior officer accompanying Geng Biao, then a vice premier and China’s leading military official. Geng had been my host the previous January, when I was the first US defense secretary to visit China, acting as an interlocutor for President Jimmy Carter’s administration.

Americans had little reason to notice Xi back then, but his superiors clearly saw his potential. In the ensuing 32 years, Xi’s stature rose, along with China’s economic and military strength. His cohort’s ascent to the summit of power marks the retirement of the last generation of leaders designated by Deng Xiaoping (though they retain influence).

Despite China’s greater weight in world affairs, Xi faces internal strains that make China more fragile than is generally understood. China’s export-led economic model has reached its limits, and the transition to domestic-led growth is intensifying internal frictions. Managing unrest through repression is more difficult than in the past, as rapid urbanization, economic reform, and social change roils a country of 1.3 billion people. Ethnic conflicts in outlying regions will also test Xi’s political control.

China’s foreign policy is another cause for concern – especially for the US. History teaches us that rising powers inevitably compete with status quo leading powers, and that this conflict often leads to war.

For now, the large bilateral trade imbalance has exacerbated US-China tensions, and can be safely reduced only by changes in behavior on both sides – or, unsafely, though a dangerous crisis-driven correction.

More immediately, China’s territorial claims – particularly in the South China Sea, but also regarding its border with India – and its efforts to expand its influence over neighboring countries will force the US to navigate two overarching risks. The first is confrontation, which could occur directly or as a result of the US being drawn into conflicts between China and its neighbors.

The other risk is that Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, or Myanmar could fall into China’s strategic orbit. Many of these countries will look to the US as a strategic counterweight should China seek to assert local dominance. But some may conclude that it is safer to steer closer to China than away from it, because their economies depend so strongly on Chinese trade.

As recent events in the East and South China Seas show, China sometimes attempts to strong-arm its neighbors. The US will need to defend its allies and interests by pushing back, but with actions modulated to limit Chinese concerns.

One way to do this is to understand China’s motives. China’s drive for economic and political leadership in East Asia, and its increased military capability there, is inevitable. But the world can be confident that the US will remain stronger, wealthier, and more influential in global affairs than China even in 2030. That argues against American overreaction, which could fuel the kind of self-reinforcing downward spiral in bilateral relations that occurred between Great Britain and Germany prior to the conflagrations of the first half of the twentieth century.

Perhaps the best way to avoid confrontation is to cooperate on shared external threats, most notably nuclear proliferation, global climate change, and Islamic extremism. But getting to 2030 without a major confrontation will be a major achievement. While the US is likely to maintain the upper hand in terms of military power for at least another 15-20 years, asymmetric warfare could undercut America’s advantage should China engage in cyber-attacks on US electronic and satellite systems, along with attacks on infrastructure.

In response to China’s capability to project power many hundreds of miles from its borders, the US (as I have suggested for the last 25 years) should develop a long-range bomber capable of penetrating sophisticated defenses and delivering great force. As US security interests shift to the Pacific, Americans now rely on increasingly vulnerable forward land bases and carrier fleets with tactical aircraft that have a combat radius of 300-500 miles (482-805 kilometers). But a long-range bomber would be more cost-effective than standoff bombers with cruise missiles, and, unlike shorter-range tactical bombers, its bases would be invulnerable to attack.

That said, America’s most serious challenge right now is to get the US economy and its governance in order. I believe that it can do that. But, unless and until it does, thereby giving President Barack Obama a firm basis from which to engage Xi on issues requiring international statesmanship, the prospect of trouble between the US and China will continue to grow.

Read more from our "America's Pacific Pivot" Focal Point.

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    1. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

      "China has a very long way to go before it becomes- if it ever becomes- a true global power. And it will never 'rule the world'," says Prof. Daivid Shambaugh of Georgetown University in Goes Global: The Partial Power.

    2. CommentedTenzin Namdhak

      It is outrageous to comment that America has to expand its military capability to counter attack the growing Chinese influence in the Asia. Personally America has a bigger role to manipulate other countries to conduct its action so that no untoward incidents in the world happen. We don't at any cost need any war in the future and i really admire the Barack Obama's vision of nuclear proliferation and focussing more on domestic issues like unemployment and growth and happiness of low income groups.

    3. CommentedJohn Brian Shannon

      Hi Harold,

      It was fascinating to read about some of the history behind the present status quo. Thank you for posting your article publicly.

      You say; "China’s export-led economic model has reached its limits..." and I believe this is a most profound point.

      IF China has reached it's export-led model as you assert, it has only done so because there is presently a lack of purchasers to purchase Chinese goods.

      For years, China has manufactured products to sell around the world and as long as there has been plenty of disposable income in the West, there has been plenty of sales.

      As the Western economies fell backwards -- so did Chinese exports.

      Funny how that works.

      In case policy-makers haven't yet reached the same conclusions I have, let me say the situation I describe above is easily verifiable and directly correlates with the economic events of the early 21st century.

      Whether political leaders in the U.S. or China like it or not, the relationship has been, is, and must continue to be, a symbiotic one.

      China NEEDS a healthy, stable and frankly, a wealthy Western world to sell it's wares to -- and the West needs a source of low priced goods to assist growth to continue at lower cost than otherwise would be the case.

      The U.S. needs a large export market for its billions of tons of coal and millions of barrels of petroleum that it must sell every year to support those industries here.

      By 2017 the U.S. will surpass Saudi Arabia as the world's #1 oil exporter -- according to the IEA -- but in actuality, this may occur in 2015.

      Not only that, but many U.S. products are manufactured in China at much lower cost than they could be here -- therefore personal happiness is enhanced on a massive scale by products Western consumers can afford. Thanks to China.

      And without a healthy China (and Japan) who will buy all those T-Bills to float the American economy? Along with all of the other China-driven (and increasing yearly) investment and purchasing of American goods and services.

      For the next few decades, the only politics that make over-arching sense will be the politics of economics. For now, more than ever, the politics of self-interest will be the politics of economics and the politics of economics will be the politics of self-interest.

      The stronger the Chinese economy, the better the effect on Western economies and Western governments. The stronger the American and other Western economies, the better for Chinese exports.

      Any other model will be a lesser model and will bring it's own problems with it.

      As for the long-range bomber policy. I too, want a strong, secure and freedom-loving North America -- but let us hope the days of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) are over.

      Instead of sabre-rattling and the nuclear threat, let us hope that our thinking as a species has moved on.

      (A Pentagon report laid it out in stark terms a couple of decades back, "it is not a case of if, but of when" a nuclear exchange would take place under the then-MAD paradigm)

      If we can't co-exist, if we can't form and retain viable and symbiotic relationships with other nations -- every one of us will be dead -- eventually. And then, none of this will matter.

      That's not the goal I'm working for.

      Best regards, JBS

    4. CommentedRobert O'Regan

      Because the US could not destroy the Chinese economy with their IMF advice' then they should develop a long range bomber? There is a word to describe this attitude Harry.

    5. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

      How about starting to take up "America's serious challenge" by knowing the history and the logic of free trade, though I know I am going to talk about something which I do not understand well myself.

      We usually have such a strongly-held blind faith in free trade as something so sacred that if we deviated an inch from it we should be morally degraded. But the principle of free trade is different from Newton's law of universal gravitation. Newton's law is unchangeable; we cannot escape from it.

      Everything of free trade such as when and by whom and by which country it was propounded and how it was put into practice is all historically conditioned. It was an ideology not simply economic but also political in character. It has profited defferent groups of people unequally and made them suffer losses unequally.

      Its basic economic idea is good: We should make things in place A where costs are lowest and sell then in place B where prices are highest.

      If GM lays off ten million people in Michigan and transfers its factories to Texas, giving jobs to ten million people there, it would be no problem. But if it transfers to China, leaving ten million Americans jobless, it would be no "no problem." If it transfers to North Korea where the hourly wage is one dollar instead of to the Philippines where people ask for two dollars, this would be a rational, sound economic choice, but the Philippines is a US ally. An economic sound judgement can be a dangerous judgement. Thou shalt not live by economics alone.

      We cannot say that free trade is impartial and fair, protectionist trade partial and unfair. Both policies can be fair or unfair, depending on contexts and on who is to gain or to lose what and to what extent and who is to be protected from what and to what degree.

      If we shed infrared beams on the world, we would have an economic map which would be all flat, green plains with no national boundaries. Ultraviolet beams would show us a map of the world full of mountains, rivers, deserts, clliffs, etc. devided by national boundaries. The two maps are all true.

      China had been virtually an autarkical society throughout its history, autarkical in goods and autarkical in worldview. But it has never been so vulnerable as it is today; it is very much dependent on the external world for its prosperity. The leaders have tried to make China safe by standing it aloof above ups and downs of international market by politically turning other countries into its dependecies. This was China's traditional domestic and foreign policy. Today its strengths and weaknesses both come from its access to open international market, which is China's Achilles' tendon. The trouble with China is that it is not commited to international society despite the fact that it is a recipient of large benefit. It looks at international society as it has been historically accustomed to.

      A small disagreement to Mr. Brown if he has Japan in his mind. "History teaches us that rising powers inevitably compete with status quo powers, and that this often leads to war." Japan fought the United States in the Pacific area but it did not want to supersede the United States in East Asia. And the United States was not a hegemon country in this part of the world, either.

      Am I saying that Japan was a pacifist country and the United States a rogue country? Am I saying that more responsibilty lay on President Roosevelt and Tojo should be acquitted? Am I denying that Japan was an aggressor nation? No, I am not. I would hope that I should have time for this some other time.

    6. CommentedS.Mahmud Ali

      Secretary Brown makes some cogent points from the US perspective. He clearly knows a great deal about the formal and informal support Washington provided to China's efforts to build "comprehensive national power," encouraging NATO allies and Israel to deliver what US law prohibited America from supplying to China itself. So, his commentary is especially welcome.

      For nearly two decades since 1971, China and the USA were tacit allies engaged in covert global collaboration against the Soviet Union. This alliance fell apart in 1989, but Israel was allowed to transfer military technology until 2000 when President Clinton forbade Prime Minister Ehud Barak to supply AWACS equipment for Russian-built Chinese aircraft. By then, elements within the US national security establishment had already identified China as a "near-peer rival." The transition from tacit ally to adversary was rapid and one that occurred without Washington, or Beijing, for that matter, explaining why elemental perceptions had been so transformed.

      The collapse of the Soviet Union provided a first-order and rather superficial explanation, but not a substantive one, unless one accepts as valid the utterly unprincipled quest for absolute control of the strategic environment in a Hobbesian milieu. Having built up Chinese power to curtail Soviet strength, America now must contain China with new allies such as India.

      If this argument, premised on the supposed legitimacy of the indefinite perpetuation of systemic hegemony by one particular power while others are "rising" to occupy some of the space hitherto dominated by the former, is seen as the defining feature of the post-post-Cold War era, be prepared for perpetual conflict. It is unlikely that any amount of "rebalancing" can deter economic growth.

    7. CommentedJakub Słowiński

      Why is China's economic model no longer sustainable, they are growing over 7% this year, maybe 2013 won't be much better, but then they will accelarate again. Is it not sustainable because of the so-called currency manipulation? There is not solid proof that there actually is something called currency manipulation regarding Chinese economy. World Bank estimated it's just over 1% of apreciation, when we are talking about renminbi. Chinese economy is just more competetive - face it or live in clouds. There are some calls for reform even in Chinese leadership, but even these call for evolution, not immediate peak of Chinese economy and do-or-die situation. Intensifying internal frictions? Are you writing in relation to Bo Xilai case? Was there any look-like "serious" tensions not seen before? Wukan? I often see comments in relation to Chinese property bubble, but when will someone write about Western media's China coverage bubble, because it have already outbursted?

    8. Commentedcaptainjohann Samuhanand

      With regard to India/China border, The Chinese knew very well the Indians were a pushover in 1962. and they waited for the right time when Bay of pigs fiasco made USA/soviet union in eye ball confrontation.They attacked Vietnam also when Indian foreign minister was in Chinese soil. Now also they see Indian Airforce preparations and Missile movement but they are worried about Indian nukes which is what makes them worry about Indian/Japanese friendship and Indian/USA emerging.But they will use force where they see opportunity as the new English knowing chinese come into power

    9. Commenteddan hitt

      "As recent events in the East and South China Seas show, China sometimes attempts to strong-arm its neighbors."

      Perhaps this is a reference to a few barren islands?

      In any event, surely our own strong-arm actions against our nearyby neighbors in Latin America and far-off countries in the Middle East are several orders of magnitude greater than anything China has done. (China, after all, has 4 times our population and borders 14 other countries, but spends 10% of what we do on its military.)

      In any event, Secretary Brown is certainly right about our "economic governance" being our most important priority.

      Our economy is collapsing now, even as the robust Chinese economy continues to grow.

      Perhaps we could learn something from China and close down our hundreds of foreign bases ---- especially the ones in Korea and Japan ---- so that we can redeploy our assets to something more productive.

      Right now, we're losing in every way that matters, as well as some that don't matter so much (e.g., retaining control over the Middle East).

    10. CommentedDallas Weaver, Ph.D.

      Mr. Brown is thinking in the past, when military superiority provided some significant economic advantages. Today's world is one with exponential rates of change in all technological areas (think Moore's law and the falling cost of DNA analysis). Information/science/technology has become truly international and accessible as it has doubled every few years. Consequently the old thinking about relative military power reflected in the desire for a modern B52 is irrelevant. Modern wars haven't been profitable for a century. Germany and Japan have achieved their WWll goals of power, wealth and influence in the world with economics, technology, etc., without a significant military bureaucracy. One could argue easily that their having not spent huge amounts of their resources on bellicosity enabled them to progress.

      Despite the cost of our military bureaucracy and the outrageous amount of money (debt) spent on our wars of choice, we have achieved little and gained nothing. If you look at these wars as necessary to achieve access to OPEC oil at world prices, you need to note that for the cost of these wars the US could have a completely CO2 emission free, oil free (90%) economy.

      People don't have a feel for billions and trillions of dollars and the real significance of our $700 billion DoD budget and how little benefit we get for that money. For a perspective see: -- some services don't make it a full active link so you may have to cut and paste the URL.

      We need to look at the future, not continue think in terms of the past. In the era of thermonuclear weapons, no war can go beyond a minor event that kills a small fraction of the number we kill on the highways. Wars have become ego builders for our bureaucrats and "leaders", while our economy and society are advancing by the efforts of the innovators in the world.

        CommentedS ~

        If you really believe that wars have become strictly minor affairs then you are in for a rude awakening. It's only by sheer luck that we've avoided nuclear war this far, and it will only be by more of the same tremendous fortunate that we continue to avoid it. People like Khamenei who have no concept of deterrence are all it takes. And the wars that exist have nothing to do with ego, they are either concerned with usurping an evil regime or exerting power on a region.