Commentary

Confrontational approach to China: Emotionally satisfying, strategically shortsighted

by Brad Glosserman

Contributing writer

Japanese are debating foreign policy — in The American Interest, a conservative magazine (and website) that explores U.S. foreign policy and international affairs. “YA,” an anonymous “Japanese government official,” and Toshihiro Nakayama, a professor at Keio University and one of Japan’s best America watchers, are assessing the Trump administration’s China policy. It is an important conversation, with potentially real consequences — although not necessarily the ones the authors intended.

The debate over “the virtue of a confrontational China policy” boils down to the proposition that “Asian elites increasingly calculate that Trump’s unpredictable and transactional approach is a lesser evil compared to the danger of the United States going back to cajoling China to be a ‘responsible stakeholder.’” YA argues that most of Japan’s China experts think the belief that their country should be the dominant power in Asia is embedded in Chinese DNA and there is no deterring the nation from that ambition. If true, then the Obama administration was deluded when it sought to shape China “into a more liberal actor that would share the U.S. burden of underwriting the existing international order.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gets credit for moving quickly to forge a relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump. While unconventional (and controversial), his effort paid off by transforming alliance decision-making. “For the first time, Japanese officials were jointly formulating strategic directions and approaches to geopolitical challenges in the Indo-Pacific with our American counterparts.” The close relationship has continued throughout Trump’s tenure despite his skepticism about alliances and his longstanding antipathy toward Japan.

The Trump administration gets high marks for dispensing with the naive belief that China can be shaped. YA applauds its recognition that the U.S. and China are in a great power competition that demands resolve and, if necessary, a readiness to confront Beijing. He concedes that implementation of the Trump policy has been inconsistent and caused “considerable confusion.” Nonetheless, he concludes that “a poorly implemented but fundamentally correct strategy is better than a well-implemented but ambiguous strategy. We don’t want to see the United States go back to engagement, which will come at our, and other Asian countries’ expense.”

Nakayama disagrees with each key point. While acknowledging that Japan is “the Trumpiest of advanced democracies,” he points out that former President Barack Obama is evaluated far more highly than Trump: In a recent NHK poll, 54 percent of respondents said Obama was the best president ever while Trump scored only 2 points. Moreover, he warns that Trump’s assertiveness is dangerous if “it is grounded in narrow and parochial selfishness.”

He disputes YA’s characterization of the Obama policy toward China. While Obama initially sought to engage China, that stance toughened as it became clear that President Xi Jinping was a new type of leader, more assertive and eager to restructure the regional order. Nakayama astutely observes that Trump’s hard line reflects a bipartisan consensus in Washington that emerged before Trump took office. Hillary Clinton and her team were “frustrated with how slowly and imperfectly Obama executed the “Pivot to Asia” and her presidency would have aimed to do it right. (His assessment validates my belief that Nakayama is one of the best of Japan’s U.S. watchers; his analysis of American politics is often better than that of U.S. experts.)

Nakayama counters that YA is “not sufficiently attentive to how narrow the Trump response has been.” He sees chest-thumping gestures that betray a lack of strategy. The China challenge is systemic, which demands a broad-based and sustainable policy of “smart competition, coordinated with allies and partners, to complicate China’s calculus in achieving its ambitions.” Central to that project is countering China’s efforts to rewrite global rules, which demands a coalition and work through international institutions. Instead, the Trump administration pursued unilateral efforts that undermine, rather than support, those bodies.

To be fair: After YA’s article appeared, the Trump administration published “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China,” the whole of government approach that Nakayama seeks. Its language tracks his, calling for coordination with allies and partners to check Chinese revisionism. Most observers would agree with Nakayama, however, that the administration’s actions have not aligned with that strategy.

Nakayama cautions against a reductionism that he sees in YA’s analysis, one that “tends to boil down policy options as a choice between confrontation and capitulation.” Japan hasn’t been “monomaniacally” focused on being tough on China: Tokyo stands strong against regular incursions that challenge its territorial integrity, but its broader approach is nuanced. Nakayama points out that Abe has been “rather conciliatory toward Beijing on the assumption that Abe can build a relationship with President Xi and influence his behavior.” The prime minister’s determination to hold a summit with Xi this year — eventually postponed because of the COVID-19 outbreak and yet to be rescheduled — earned him strident criticism from hardliners.

Finally, Nakayama chides YA for missing a fundamental shift in the U.S. body politic, one that he warns “bodes ill for Japan in the long run.” Nakayama espies a deeper current in U.S. foreign policy, one that predates Trump and is evident in the thinking of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden. He sees exhaustion and a growing sense that U.S. attention and resources are more needed at home.

While he isn’t an isolationist or nationalist like Trump, Biden, like Obama, is skeptical of “forever wars,” seemingly endless foreign engagements. The U.S. isn’t turning its back on the world, but after reading Biden’s thinking in Foreign Affairs, Nakayama concludes that “one should no longer take for granted America’s forward-leaning global leadership.” The U.S. is not going back to the pre-Trump world.

The fact that this debate is taking place in an English-language, U.S. publication is revealing. Plainly, the intended audience is the U.S. foreign policy community, and since the Trump team has shown little concern with the popularity of its policies, the targets must be Biden and his advisors. If that is correct, then YA might be doing his country a disservice — and not because he could be viewed as taking sides in U.S. domestic politics.

Rather, as Nakayama points out, Japanese policy toward China is nuanced. Tokyo is tough when necessary but it also seeks to engage Beijing when it can. Japan deals with China as a geographic and geostrategic reality: It is a looming, well-armed and aggrieved neighbor, simultaneously confident and insecure, dangerous when strong and when weak. It makes no sense to treat China as implacably hostile, capable of only understanding force. Japan, like other countries, must find issues with which it can engage China, build trust and solve problems. It is a prudent and smart approach that prepares Japan for a range of contingencies — involving both China and the U.S.

The idea that Tokyo embraces an unrelenting hard line sets Japan up for a crisis with Washington when allies’ interests diverge — which is inevitable — and Tokyo is not as confrontational as the U.S. is or wants. Tactically, it denies the alliance the option of a “good cop, bad cop” approach to Beijing as well. Japan needs sophisticated thinking and a rich menu of options to deal with China: A purely “confrontational” approach is neither.

Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.”

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