Commentary / World

A smart, not confrontational, China strategy needed

In a recent American Interest article penned by an anonymous official of the Japanese government titled “ The Virtues of a Confrontational China Strategy,” the official compares U.S. approaches to China under Obama and Trump administrations. The core argument is that there is much to criticize about the “Trump administration’s confrontational approach to China, but on balance finds it preferable in almost every way to Obama’s engagement and accommodation.”

Many countries share a similar sentiment concerning the harder line vis-a-vis China as there is deepening anti-Chinese sentiment globally.

This sentiment is grounded in China’s assertive behavior in the East and South China Seas, its bellicosity toward Taiwan and other neighbors, rapid military buildup, economic coercion, weaponization of history, its turn toward hard authoritarianism, and now its initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

These are legitimate reasons to have growing concern about China and its future in the region, but race and culture are not justifiable reasons to have concerns about China.

U.S. President Donald Trump has dangerously added fuel to this discriminatory fire with the usage of the term “Wuhan virus” or “Chinese virus” on COVID-19 and placing China square-center in the upcoming November presidential elections.

Policies such as banning Chinese students and scholars that his administration considers to have ties to China's military risks lighting the flames of ethnic profiling and broader, cultural racism against Chinese nationals and ethnic Chinese everywhere.

Even Trump’s representatives are using racially charged explanations as a lightning rod to garner support from his base for his hard line on China and re-election.

How should allies such as Japan, Canada, Australia respond to the Trump administration’s more confrontational approach to China? What are the repercussions for them as Trump's China approach is accented with racist undertones?

These questions will become even more critical going forward as the U.S.-China rivalry intensifies and if Trump is re-elected. In the case of the former, it is clear that the United States and China are competing across all spheres of power and that policymakers in the U.S. understands that they are at a pivotal stage if the U.S. wants to maintain the post-World War II international order intact or at least in a version that maintains most of its core principles.

This is expected and can be managed with proper leadership, consultation and multilateralism.

In the case of the latter, a re-elected Trump will likely double-down on his approach to China, which could lead to a U.S.-China relationship that is permanently seen through the lens of civilization and race as envisioned in Samuel Huntington’s signature book, "Clash of Civilizations."

This has very severe and unpredictable consequences for allies and friends of the U.S. Most worrisome, though, is the petrification of the competitive relationship into one bounded by race and culture.

To date, Japan and other U.S. allies have refrained from using racially charged expressions to criticize China. They are trying to walk the tight rope between maintaining economic relations with China while at the same time contribute to constraining Beijing’s revisionist behavior and track record of not only eschewing international law but seeking to undermine it in the region.

Artificial island building in the South China Sea, ignoring the July 2016 ruling against its claims in the area by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, and regular incursions into the waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands are some of the most contemporary examples of this behavior.

Japan’s approach is primarily economic. It is investing in building resilience into the Indo-Pacific economic integration through infrastructure projects, strengthening global supply chains throughout Southeast and South Asia, developmental and technological aid that strengthens economic integration, support for a shared rules-based understanding of trade and the use of sea lanes of communication.

The supplementary budget for fiscal 2020 includes subsidies to promote domestic investment for support of supply chain (¥220 billion), and for supporting diversification of global supply chain (¥23.5 billion). These are examples of this investment during the COVID-19 pandemic but so do many of the core pillars of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision.

The logic is sound. The smart strategy for dealing with a revisionist China must be more than a defense strategy, it has to be about economic security, a rules-based order, and an extensive set of partnerships with like-minded countries buttressed by an iron-clad U.S.-Japan alliance.

Canada, Australia and other partners of both Japan and the U.S. understand this too.

Currently Trump’s China approach echoes Sun Tzu’s saying that “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

In this sense, partners and allies of the U.S. prefer a confrontational strategy rooted in a series of linked tactics that are tangentially build on achieving a strategic objective. Tactics necessarily should include a multilateral approach to exerting diplomatic, economic and other forms of pressure on China to alter its behavior.

The problem for allies and partners of the U.S. under the Trump administration is that while they may appreciate the shift away from the Obama era's engagement and accommodation, they don’t have a sense of the strategic objective of the Trump administration or the U.S. in general.

This lack of clarity means Japan and other states cannot harmonize policies to work synergistically to contribute to achieve a long-term strategic objective. The most vivid example of this lack of synergy was the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement that by most accounts would have tethered the U.S. to the Indo-Pacific economically, an agreement that would have represented over 40 percent of global trade, and an agreement that would be the foundation for 21st century trade rules.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has demonstrated himself to be adept at Trump diplomacy. He needs to harness that skill set to work with the U.S. and other like-minded countries to formulate a smart China strategy that is principle-based and one that explicitly rejects the racial/cultural currents that the Trump administration has deployed.

This means engagement with China from a unified position of strength with like-minded states.

What is a “smart China strategy” and how long it will take are difficult questions to answer. Most of China’s neighbors want to continue to benefit from their trading relationship with Beijing. At the same time, they resent economic coercion and hostage diplomacy when political differences emerge.

In short, they want Beijing to truly fulfill its Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence including mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence.

A smart China strategy must aim to hold China to its own principles when dealing with all other states. To do this, the U.S. and its allies and partners need to expand upon Japan’s economic playbook to create a cohesive, dynamic, and stable economic counterweight to the Chinese economy. Expanding the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, advocating World Trade Orgaization reform, forging trade agreements with muskateer clauses to protect against economic coercion are the first step.

Education is also critical. More Chinese literacy includes political and economic literacy to develop the expertise to understand the internal workings of China imperative to ensure that citizens understand their Chinese counterparts but also why certain policy approaches are necessary.

No strategy to hold China accountable to its own Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence could be achieved without continued and deepening security cooperation with like-minded countries. China respects or at least defers to power — which is why so often friends of the U.S., and not the U.S. itself, are subject to economic threats, coercion and hostage diplomacy.

While not comprehensive, linking these tactics and approaches can contribute to achieving a smart China strategy and China’s Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence international characteristics.

Stephen R. Nagy (@nagystephen1) is a senior associate professor at International Christian University and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs.

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