Commentary

Rational versus popular foreign policy

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the images of China and the United States have been tarnished for different reasons. In the case of Beijing, its initial mishandling of the novel coronavirus outbreak and subsequent hard lockdown of Wuhan and Hebei Province revealed both the strengths and the weaknesses of its political system.

In contrast, despite early warnings of the severity of the virus, the U.S.’ handling of the pandemic has revealed the dysfunction in the U.S. political system and under U.S. President Donald Trump's leadership there have been over 100,000 COVID-19 deaths.

Internationally, the favorability ratings of both China and the U.S. continue to drop. A recent EU PEW survey released on May 18 showed only 37 percent of Germans viewed the U.S. in a favorable light. China fairs no better at 36 percent.

These results mirror NHK’s May 19 poll in which 57 percent of respondents viewed Trump’s re-election negatively, and the Genron NPO poll of October 2019 that found 84.7 percent of surveyed Japanese have unfavorable views of China.

The U.S.’ unfavorability rating is related to the character and nature of the Trump presidency, which eschews multilateralism, America "first-ism," and the use of bullying tactics to push allies into shouldering a greater burden in their security and economic partnerships.

The Trump factor in the unfavorable views of the U.S. in the European Union are understandable. His policies are in direct opposition to what the EU (and many other liberal democracies) stands for, international institutions, international norms and international law, and also the fight against climate change.

Japan’s views are more nuanced. They view the U.S. favorably but see the Trump administration as escalating tensions in Japan’s backyard without a strategy. Simply put, Japan has a lot to lose if the current foreign policy trajectory continues.

In the case of China, its unfavorability ratings are less related to President Xi Jinping and more related to long-term behavior that has turned citizens from many countries against the polices of the Chinese Communist Party.

Negative impressions about the Chinese government are associated with economic coercion as experienced by Japan, South Korea, Canada and Australia among others. Hostage diplomacy and the imprisonment of foreign nationals such as Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who still languish in detention, and a growing track record of assertive behavior in the East China Sea and South China Sea, and most recently the Indian border region, further contribute to China’s unfavorability ratings.

Uighur re-education camps and the imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong further go against what Japan and other liberal democracies hold dear.

These unfavorability ratings, while understandable, are challenges for rational foreign policymaking in capitals around the world as it is not feasible or desirable to decouple from China.

For example, China is the biggest trading partner of Japan, South Korea and Australia. Japan and South Korea contributed to and form part of a sophisticated production network centered in China. Australia depends on China to purchase enormous quantities of natural resources and to support its tourism and education industries. To decouple or cut ties with China would be economic suicide.

There are similar trends in Southeast Asian countries. Despite security concerns, ASEAN’s biggest trading partner is China and the development of the region depends on China. The Institute for South East Asian Studies’ annual “The State of Southeast Asia: 2020 Survey Report” shows that, despite China being the biggest trade partner of all 10 members, they overwhelmingly worry about “its growing regional political and strategic influence.”

From Tokyo to Hanoi, Seoul to Canberra and Ottawa to Washington, anti-Chinese sentiment is on the rise. This is quandary for makers of foreign policy. In the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, China's increasingly acerbic "wolf warrior" diplomacy, hostage diplomacy and economic coercion, the citizens and political parties of many states are demanding their governments dramatically rethink their engagement with China.

Some call for a decoupling of their economies. Others advocate for a containment strategy to de-fang the CCP, still others think that they can simply avoid and or withdraw from China and China-led institutions such as the "Belt and Road" initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. During my testimony before Canada’s Government Operations Committee on June 1, some committee members even advocated that Canada stop funding the AIIB.

While they are popular among the public in many countries, these are not rational foreign policy choices, as they would have negative economic and security impacts, and make it difficult to deal with global challenges such as climate change.

This approach very much embodies U.S. national security strategist and intellectual Zbigniew Brzezinski’s view that “Most Americans (pick any nationality) are close to total ignorance about the world. They are ignorant. That is an unhealthy condition in a country in which foreign policy has to be endorsed by the people if it is to be pursued. And it makes it much more difficult for any president to pursue an intelligent policy that does justice to the complexity of the world.”

At the economic level, businesses are not in favor of decoupling. The Business Confidence Survey compiled by the EU Chamber of Commerce in China found that only 11 percent of EU businesses were considering leaving the Chinese market. These results echo a similar survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in which fewer than 9 percent of businesses were relocating and 8 percent considering relocating.

Businesses see China’s burgeoning middle class as a driver of growth for the long-term and an opportunity to seize. Notwithstanding the political challenges and risks, they are actively building resilience into their business models and their associated supply chains. This includes selective decoupling as part of a risk mitigation strategy to continue to accrue benefits from trade with China while insulating themselves from the inevitable troubles that lie ahead.

Japan’s rational foreign policy approach has been to build resilience through supporting the diversification of global supply chains and providing subsidies to promote domestic investment for support of supply chains. In short, this means reshoring some manufacturing to Japan, and enhancing the resilience of supply chains in Southeast and South Asia while keeping a strong foothold in the Chinese market.

Working with like-minded states through initiatives such as the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision (FOIP) could enhance and expedite the diversification of global supply chains. Here, Australia, the U.S., Canada, South Korea, European countries and even Taiwan would be suitable partners as they bring different capabilities and capacities to the table.

At the security level, popular foreign policy choices advocate confrontation and containment. These are both unwise and dangerous. China is too big to do either and the consequence of conflict are unthinkable.

Here, a rational foreign policy must focus on compartmentalizing red lines and needed cooperation. Needed cooperation in the region includes maritime security issues such as anti-piracy, over-fishing, illegal resource exploitation, managing maritime resources, and climate change. All could spill over into homegrown nationalists’ agendas and spark a conflict.

Importantly, these areas of cooperation are in the interests of all stakeholders in the region.

Red-line issues are more complicated but need to be explicitly conveyed to Chinese counterparts. For Japan, the most important of these areas is China flagrantly destroying the rules-based order in the region, violating of its sovereignty (Senkaku Islands), economic coercion and hostage diplomacy.

Like-minded countries need to support each other’s red lines to ensure that there is a consequence for egregious behavior.

With anti-Chinese sentiment on the rise, crafting rational foreign policy will be increasingly a difficult needle to thread. Part-in-parcel of that process is ensuring that citizens are literate about the complex interdependence that exists between our countries and China while supporting policies that deal with the security, economic and ideological challenges that exist adroitly.

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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