China has been actively reshaping the regional power structure in the Indo-Pacific. Evidence includes island building and militarization in the South China Sea, daily incursions of government and other Chinese vessels into Japan’s contiguous zones and intrusions into territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, and the promotion of ambitious mega-infrastructure initiatives such as the “Belt and Road” initiative to transform the region.
Equally important to this broader strategic objective is the forming of asymmetric economic relations with all of China’s neighbors, including Japan. This economic asymmetry provides Beijing enormous leverage in shaping the behavior of states that implement foreign policy that Beijing deems harmful through economic coercion.
The adoption of ChinaNet also is indicative of an effort to dominate the region and its partners as it bifurcates cyberspace into a China-controlled closed digital space and an open digital space.
Last but not least, the advent of new laws such as the national security law in Hong Kong — which labels any discussion by Chinese and non-Chinese citizens deemed to be promoting an understanding of China not in line with that of the Chinese Communist Party illegal and subject to the mainland judicial system — is further confirmation that Beijing aims to extend its control over geographies and issues deemed critical for the CCP regime.
Japan and other neighbors should be concerned about these Chinese initiatives and what a return of the “Middle Kingdom” under the CCP means for the region. Notwithstanding, the July 23 speech by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, titled “Communist China and the Free World’s Future,” badly misreads China’s, the CCP’s and President Xi Jinping’s vision for the region and the world.
Japan and other U.S. allies should be wary of aligning themselves with a vision that is so inaccurate and absent in strategic thought.
First, Pompeo focused on the “Chinese Communist Party’s designs for hegemony” and said that Xi believes in an “ideology that informs his decades-long desire for global hegemony of Chinese communism.” Seeing these two statements together demonstrates a serious lack of understanding of the CCP and Xi’s leadership priorities and their very realistic understandings of sustainable socio-economic development.
The CCP and any successful leader in China must prioritize meeting the daily needs of 1.4 billion Chinese citizens. That means jobs, jobs and more jobs. That means tangible senses in the improvement of everyday life and sustainable socio-economic stability. Global hegemony, let alone peripheral security concerns, are not at the top of the list for any Chinese leader who needs to manage a society that is rapidly transforming, will be burdened with demographic issues worse than Japan and has a structurally slowing economy that will further complicate domestic governance.
This downward pressure on the domestic economy will only become more weighty as supply chains selectively decouple from China and trading partners diversify their trade portfolios in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns about being overdependent on the Chinese market and economic coercion.
Second, Pompeo made the claim that “The CCP fears the Chinese people’s honest opinions more than any foe. And save for losing their own grip on power, they have reason — no reason to.”
His assertion is not borne out in surveys. For example, in a May survey the China Data Lab at UC San Diego found remarkable growth in favorable opinions of the Chinese government, and declines in favorable opinion of the U.S. compared to surveys from June 2019 and February this year.
Another survey conducted this month by Harvard University’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation titled Understanding CCP Resilience: Surveying Chinese Public Opinion Through Time, also found that Chinese “citizen perceptions of governmental performance respond most to real, measurable changes in individuals’ material well-being.”
For Chinese citizens, both over time and during the pandemic, the measure of support for their government is based on an increase in quality of life, health and safety. In the case of the first, since 2010 the average wage of a Chinese citizens has tripled. This compares extremely well to the U.S. average increase for the same period — which was 5 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economics.
When considering the pandemic response, while initially extremely problematic in their response, Chinese government policies have limited the number of COVID-19 deaths to 4,663, whereas the U.S. has at least 146,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.
Rather than the CCP fearing the views of their citizens, it understands that its citizens want effective governance, which it has provided over the long term but also during the black swan event of COVID-19.
A caveat: There is dissatisfaction among many with corruption, environmental issues, with regards to human rights limitations, and for some the creation of a new Chinese emperor for life and a techno-authoritarian state. Nevertheless, survey after survey suggests that Pompeo’s assertion is plain wrong and unnuanced in terms of how Chinese people see the CCP.
Third, Pompeo claims that “We’re seeing staggering statistics of Chinese trade abuses that cost American jobs and strike enormous blows to the economies all across America.” These are exaggerations and mischaracterizations of the mutual benefit both the U.S. and China (and the world) has enjoyed because of trade with China.
As Joshua P. Meltzer and Neena Shenai point out in their 2019 Brookings Institution report on the U.S.-China economic relationship, trade with China has led to job destruction in some U.S. industries — particularly in low wage manufacturing — but the same trade with China supports around 1.8 million jobs in sectors such as services, agriculture and capital goods.
Supporting the benefits of trade, studies have found between 1995 and 2001, U.S. exports overall are estimated to have created 6.6 million jobs. These findings echo a Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis survey, which found that since 2010 the U.S. has added over 1.2 million manufacturing jobs.
John Lewis Gaddis, the “dean of Cold War historians,” defines grand strategy as aligning “potentially unlimited aspirations with necessarily limited capabilities.” He also stresses that the best strategists focus on overarching goals but respond pragmatically to circumstances.
Building a strategy on so many false premises and no overarching goals is hugely problematic, and even more so when the U.S. secretary of state advocates for “The United Nations, NATO, the G7 countries, the G20, our combined economic, diplomatic, and military power … to meet this challenge …” after a track record of unilateralism and browbeating allies and friends through tariffs and insults.
Japan and other like-minded states must help the U.S. define its overarching goals for a new international order that is not defined by the U.S.-China strategic rivalry. Core strategic goals should include preservation of a rules-based order, economic and expanded infrastructure, digital connectivity in the Indo-Pacific, and a focus on non-traditional security issues in the maritime and terrestrial domains, while at the same time developing the concept of what Brad Glosserman calls collective resilience to push back against egregious behavior.
The first three are areas where all stakeholders have shared interests. The last area is the most contentious, but it need not inhibit cooperation in other domains where cooperation is critical to regional and global stability. A coherent strategy must not let critical areas of contestation override necessary cooperation in exigent domains.
Middle powers like Japan have a track record of shaping a rules-based order and encouraging the U.S. to move in more productive directions, as UBC’s Yves Tiberghien and research team showed in their July report “Japan’s Leadership in the Liberal International Order: Impact and Policy Opportunities for Partners.”
Without question, in the months and years ahead Japan and others will need to shoulder a heavier burden within alliance structures to assist the U.S. in formulating a rational strategy to manage China’s re-emergence as the largest economy in the world. At the same time, they will need to proactively build crosswalks of cooperation between the U.S. and China to address regional and global issues.
Stephen R. Nagy (@nagystephen1) is a senior associate professor at International Christian University and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs.