Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Conversation: the Pivot, Chinese Aggression, Theory Building, and More

Below is a conversation between Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman that took place via email over the last week.

Brad Nelson: The American elections are over. Barack Obama won a second term in office. To begin this conversation, let's talk about the international political and security implications of the election results. In particular, I'm curious to get your thoughts on what you think four more years of Obama means for Asia?

Yohanes Sulaiman: The nice thing about Obama's reelection, I think, is that this means the U.S. will remain committed to focus on Asia. This is probably one of few the Obama foreign policy initiatives that I truly support. Asia is where all the action will take place in the next few decades. With the rise of China and the growing tensions accompanying it -- like it or not, regardless of its intention, China is a 800-ton panda that will leave a mark for sure -- the United States will have to spend more resources in this region, away from Europe and other regions.

There are, of course, distractions, notably all the fights against terror groups in the Middle East and North Africa, the intractable Israel-Palestinian problem, and even Iran. Still, if you look at the grand scale of things, these things are probably not as important as they used to be.

BN: I think the idea of the so-called pivot is a good one. Business, money, arms, and political influence are all heading East, toward Asia. It's a good to get on top of this reality now rather than later, when it's too late.

I am concerned, though, that the pivot relies too heavily on military and security arrangements and instruments, such as a growing number of military exercises in the region, the base in Darwin, and so on. Sure, these things reassure America's allies, like Japan and South Korea and the Philippines. But they also make Beijing feel as if Washington is seeking to contain and encircle China. This provides incentives for China to act increasingly aggressively, like pressing its claims to the South China Sea, so as to maximize its power and prevent the U.S. from hemming it in.

YS: On the base in Darwin, my sources told me that it will do nothing to help the U.S. to contain China. The base is small and there are only 3000 marines there, and apparently it is used mostly for joint U.S.-Australia disaster training. The Okinawa base is closer to China and more useful for any attempt to contain China. Singapore is actually currently a host to three American littoral ships. Still, the symbolism, I think, is very important, as even with such a token presence, it assures both Vietnam and the Philippines of America's commitment to the region. China seems to realize that, as it created the City of Sansha last June, and put a military base there -- though it's pretty useless as all Chinese ships are still based on Hainan Island.

Still, on China's aggressiveness, I think a bulk of it is caused by the Bo Xilai scandal -- he was so close to the Chinese military, and in order to safely contain the fallout of the scandal, the military had to be appeased, including taking a much harder line on Spratly. (Jack Snyder's Myths of Empire comes to mind here). It is not that easy to deescalate the situation, considering the fact that the Chinese government has been inflaming the public opinion too.

BN: I don't doubt that the military capabilities the U.S. has in the region is more symbolic than suited to fighting wars. In one sense, it doesn't matter much. Both factors can have an equally powerful impact on Asian countries. They are reassuring to America's friends and provocative to China. But in another sense, these symbolic moves by Washington, if that's what they are, could prove detrimental. The capabilities are just enough to rile up China but probably not enough to deter unwanted Chinese policies and actions.

You make good points about Chinese nationalism and civil-military relations. On the surface, it seems like we have competing hypotheses here. On the one hand, as I suggest, perhaps it's U.S. foreign policy that's motivating China's behavior. Other the hand, as you point out, maybe China's domestic politics is the driving force. But the truth is that both explanations, to varying degrees, are likely consequential. Just for a little fun, care to take a stab at putting together a theory of Chinese aggressiveness that incorporates both external (e.g., U.S. foreign policy) and internal factors or variables (e.g., nationalism, civil-military relations)?

BN: Ever since I posed the above question to you, I've been racking my brain thinking about it. And I believe I have one possible answer. It's a neoclassical realist explanation for China's behavior.
China's rapidly expanding power bases, combined with U.S. foreign policies directed at Beijing, create systemic incentives and pressures for China to vigorously assert itself in international politics, especially within its region. Typically, Chinese elite preferences would push against and often neutralize these temptations, as historically China's leaders prefer not to engage in such behavior, fearing the potential negative international, regional, and domestic repercussions. Henry Kissinger has described Chinese decision making as a game of wei ch'i, and that captures the basic point I'm making here.

However, today that's no longer that case. As you argue, Chinese nationalism and civil-military relations are pushing Beijing in a more aggressive direction. Hence, the intervening variable in this neoclassic realist formulation--the various layers and permutations of Chinese internal politics--no longer tamps down the impulses for China to expand its power and influence. Nowadays we find both systemic incentives and pressures and Chinese politics pointing the state down the path of confrontation and aggression.

YS: Wei Ch'i or Go is a passive-aggressive game. On one hand you are supposed to defend your territories, but on the other hand, the territories are so badly demarcated that you end up invading each other to defend your region. It is quite interesting. We should try playing that game someday.

I kind of disagree with the argument that China hasn't vigorously asserted itself in its history. There are several problems with that argument, but most importantly, there's nothing around it. Well, true, there's the Spice Islands to the southeast, a couple of nice rice-growing areas in Southeast Asia, etc -- but then again, the capabilities of imperial power wasn't not unlimited. Most of China's energy has been spent on trying to defend its northern borders. It is impossible to expand north due to harsh conditions, and any expansion to that region would be prohibitively expensive, causing every dynasty, except Qing, to limit its expansion to the northern limits of the Great Wall. Check Alastair Iain Johnston's book Cultural Realism. A convoluted work but I think has some nuggets to grasp.

To some degree, China's aggressiveness is a systemic cause --  the U.S. has been declining and not paying attention to Asia, and thus China has started to assert itself in the region, as far back as in 2001 (remember the Hainan Island incident). China hasn't really riled up other states until in early this year due to Bo Xilai scandal. So that's the systemic variable. But how the Chinese state ultimately acts, in specific instances, is a product of its domestic political dynamics.

BN: Well, you kind of make the point that I put forward. China could have engaged in imperial expansion, but it really didn't, preferring to secure the state and country rather than seek new spoils abroad. Historically, it has acted rationally. It's avoided the perils of imperial overexpansion that Jack Snyder talks about.

Based on your second paragraph in your last comment, I assume you agree with my quick and dirty model of Chinese aggression. In short, both systemic incentives and domestic politics both push China today in the direction of confrontation and assertiveness.

YS: My argument is that back then it is more of the problem of the lack of opportunity and resources to expand - though that also raises an interesting question: to what degree are state preferences shaped by external factors versus internal consideration (such as national identity or domestic politics)?

Often, I think we mix up the order of horse and carriage. For example, constructivist scholars argue that the concept "identity" matters a great deal and shapes policy preferences. On the other hand, it is also possible to argue that policy preferences are set already and politicians/bureaucrats ty to justify it using national identity (e.g. Confucian ideology) or other tools. Robert Wuthnow's Communities of Discourse comes to mind.

BN: It's an interesting question, but one that involves potentially a limitless number of variables. In my view, the most important of these is the issue of leadership, since it's state leaders who have their mitts on the policy process and make decisions. Of course, once we regress further down the causal chain, it's obvious that leaders are pushed and pulled in a host of directions by various international, regional, domestic, and individual-level variables.

But let's stay on the topic of leadership, since it's allows me to raise a final topic I'd like to discuss: the transition in power in China. What do you think the rise of Xi Jinping, among others, up the political ladder means for Chinese foreign policy? And in particular, what does it mean for China's relations with the U.S.?

YS: Xi Jinping, I think, rose to power at a critical juncture in Chinese history. The economy is overheating and at the same time public trust in the government is declining due to power abuses and corruption. Moreover, China has been burning its international goodwill rather quickly due to the border disputes.

The signs now seem to show that China has painted itself in a corner, though the damage is not necessarily irreversible. I think Xi will try to project an aggressive image, especially on issues concerning China's sovereignty due to the need to placate the nationalists and the militarists, but at the same time he will reach out quietly to Southeast Asian, Japan, and the the United States. For instance, see this article.

BN: I agree that Xi will take a hard line in word and speech on foreign policy. At a minimum, it's sure to bolster his standing and the legitimacy of the Chinese government. The risk, though, is nationalism run amok. It's hard to put the genie, so to speak, back into the bottle once it's unleashed. Hardline views and sentiments naturally stir up nationalist passions, which can make it difficult for Xi and his associates not to be confrontational and aggressive in defending national interests. Quite frankly, this is already happening. Consider the China-Japan spat over contested islands.

As you suggested above, the Chinese government, in league with state media, have manipulated nationalist fervor so high that there have been anti-Japanese demonstrations, protests, and even attacks. And along the way, Beijing has only continued to up the ante, with the passport brouhaha the latest obstacle in China-Japan relations.

BN: Frankly, I think you have hit on an essential point, one that touches the nexus between Chinese domestic and foreign politics. Can Xi successfully balance the foreign policy interests and grievances of moderates and hardliners in China's political and economic and military circles? While it's way, way too early in his tenure to answer this question, keep in mind the answer will have a profound impact on regional and world politics and economics and security. If Xi Jinping can keep both sides in check, then he should have the kind of policy flexibility to ensure that China's various border, territory and waterway conflicts don't spiral out of control. In fact, this might be the key in China's island dispute with Japan (and other Asian countries). But if he can't, then all bets are off.

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