The “weird irrationality” of America’s China policy

I finally got around to reading Gideon Rachman’s essay in the Life & Arts section of the Financial Times. I know, it was last weekend’s Life & Arts section. But the ponderous title, “War and peace in Asia,” gave me pause.

In fairness, Rachman is a graceful writer. He marches briskly through “5,000 years of Chinese civilization,” Europe’s rise and fall and America’s emergence and decline as the world’s preeminent superpower, arriving finally at what he sees as the paradox of US foreign policy during the Obama years:

The US has deliberately hung back from deeper involvement in the Middle East, partly because it is attempting to preserve its power and resources for a struggle with a rising China. Yet power is also a matter of perceptions. So the vision of America that is less committed to playing the role of global policeman in Europe and the Middle East has–ironically–also sown doubts about the durability of US power within Asia itself.

Rachman believes that, if  Hilary Clinton triumphs in the U.S. presidential election, she will remain committed to the twin pillars of U.S. foreign policy since 1945: maintenance of open global markets and the U.S. alliance system. But Rachman says the stability of those pillars is being steadily undermined by the “easternization” of global economic and political power.

His essay stops there, well short of any attempt to predict whether the pillars will endure or ponder the implications should the pillars topple. Presumably he considers those questions in his new book, from which the essay was extracted, Easternisation; War and Peace in the Asian Century . In a review in The Times of London, Richard Lloyd-Parry puts Rachman’s the argument with a sharper point: “After a generation of false alarms, the Asian century is finally at hand.”

The Obama administration’s top national security adviser, Susan Rice, has a more upbeat assessment of American leadership this interview with Vox’s Zach Beauchamp–as one might expect. But where Rachman describes the Obama administration as exercising restraint in the Middle East to preserve strength to manage affairs with China, Beauchamp suggests just the opposite. He argues the administration has been distracted from its Asian “pivot” by affairs in the Middle East.

The rise of China really is far more important for the stability of global institutions than most anything going on in the Middle East. Yet Obama’s foreign policy was consumed by managing the post-Arab Spring crisis.

Beauchamp sees a “basic tension” between the administration’s aspirations and its actual policies: “The Obama administration is in the weird position of investing heavily in fighting a threat that they all but openly acknowledge isn’t that severe — because people think it is scarier than it is, and the administration can’t persuade them otherwise.”

Meanwhile, the Economist, in its current issue, sees the Communist Party’s annual policy retreat in Beidaihe as an important opportunity for president Xi Jinping to consolidate his power. On paper, Xi is the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping. He is general secretary of the party, chief of state, head of the armed forces. He has a more forceful personality than his recent predecessors, and has used an anti-corruption drive to strike fear in the hearts of his enemies. He has dismantled the collectivist approach to party leadership put in place by Deng and assumed direct control of a host of initiatives large and small by introducing a “leading small group” system of committees he himself chairs.

And yet, says the Economist, Xi’s “authority remains hemmed in….Among the next layer of the elite, he has surprisingly few backers….The president needs enthusiastic support, as well as just a show of hands, to get his policies—such as badly needed economic reforms—implemented.”

Xi has an opportunity next year to appoint an usually large number of allies to positions of power next year when the party selects new members for its Central Committee at its regular five-yearly congress. The Economist estimates that Xi may have as many as 92 places to fill, compared to the 40 slots that come open in a normal rotation. At Beidaihe, he has a chance to vet candidates.

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