U.S. policy toward China involves strategies designed to keep it a continental power. Keeping China within the confines of its borders calls for two divergent moves: On the one hand, through economic normalization and increased interdependency, China is pushed into the U.S.-led international system so that a mental structure of a mercantilist trading-state is created among the Chinese elite. On the other, China is coerced through containment strategies into accepting the international political system. In either case, the primary objective is to prevent Beijing from having the urge to build an aircraft-based naval fleet able to rival U.S. maritime dominance. Since the normalization of the ties between the U.S. and China in late 1978, U.S. strategy has oscillated between these two options.
The central element to the strategy of assimilation (one might as well call it, in William Overholt’s terms, an ideological proselytization), similar to the one that Japan has been exposed to, includes allowing China to prosper and internalize the international status quo and become a “responsible” stakeholder to the degree that its hegemonic ambitions are blunt and its society is charmed into a wholesale acceptance of the Western lifestyle. It follows that, until the highly publicized move, dubbed by the Obama administration as a strategic return to Asia, the U.S. Asia strategy largely followed this pattern that involved rendering China a status-quo power.
However, the relatively balanced policy changed drastically when Obama declared a troop withdrawal from Iraq and disclosed a renewed U.S. interest in reinforcing the hub-and-spokes system in East Asia. Only a few days after the declaration, the first step toward this new Asia-Pacific order was taken with the announcement in November 2011 of an agreement with the Australian government to set up a permanent military airbase in Darwin.
Indeed, Obama’s foreign policy team has been pursuing a rather aggressive policy to reorient the U.S. military priorities from the Middle East to East Asia. Although, currently, with the tension and military build-up in and around the Persian Gulf culminating at a speed reminiscent of the First and Second Gulf Wars, Obama’s strategy looks more like an even greater over-stretch of the U.S. military than a reorientation. Nevertheless, the current U.S. administration does not shy from implying that it has embarked on a policy of containment toward China.
It would be naïve to suggest that the U.S. government is unaware of the paradigmatic changes that the international system has gone through since 9/11; however, it is not the multitude of options but a lack thereof that indeed compels it to behave increasingly anachronistically. This is seen in the obvious failure of the Chinaphobia strategy, which stands out as one of the dimensions of the U.S. containment policy that has been crafted to alienate the many countries across East Asia from China and construct a physical barrier to stall its development. The U.S. rationale is that as long as China is kept busy with the concern of protecting its borders against intrusions by the countries in its near periphery, it will remain, at best, a land power with a navy only capable of pursuing access-denial strategies. In this respect, the U.S. attempts to play a political game of inducing Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and the South and Southeast Asian states to hedge against Beijing in return for security guarantees and economic benefits. However, this policy has increasingly proven not to work and implementing it will be even harder as regional actors start to view China as a benign power and the U.S. a declining one; thereby, bandwagoning with China rather than hedging against it.
For the purpose of this analysis, I would like to discuss briefly China’s interactions with Japan and Taiwan in light of two recent developments that I consider important indicators of the declining relevance of anti-China propaganda and of the rise of a new order centered on trade and security partnerships in East Asia.
China’s Incremental Rapprochement With Japan
Khoo and Smith’s article, China Engages Asia? Caveat Lector, identifies China’s engagement with Japan and Taiwan in the last decade as a rebuttal to the portrayal of Chinese diplomacy as skillful, citing many examples of contention and conflict that have caused public and political discomfort on both sides. However, what the authors seem to underestimate are the positive contributions that the tribulations the two countries experienced have added to the overall value and strength of the relationship. In international relations, talking overtly and sometimes bitterly about troublesome historical legacies and present-day conflicts is preferable to keeping silent and fomenting discontent. China-Japan and China-Taiwan relations, for that matter, have been quite expressive over the past decade.
In this respect, one of the most recent constructive steps has been taken by Japan during Prime Minister Noda’s December 25, 2011 meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao. At the meeting, the leaders agreed on the establishment of a framework to discuss maritime issues related to the disputed islands and sea borders in the East China Sea through multilayered dialogue. Equally important, if not more, Wen and Noda agreed to strengthen bilateral market cooperation that included encouraging the use of the renminbi and Japanese yen in international transactions between the two economies. Also, the leaders agreed to start formal negotiations on a free trade agreement that will also include South Korea and to strengthen East Asian financial cooperation. Japan also surprised the skeptics of the country’s ability to proactively launch policies with its announcement that it planned to buy Chinese treasury debt to diversify its foreign exchange reserves.
These steps testify against the viability and relevancy of Chinaphobia propagated by the U.S. government and Western scholarship. Obviously, even though Japan has made certain national security arrangements with regard to the re-deployment of its military assets with the Chinese military developments in mind and taken steps to further strengthen its security alliance with the U.S., Tokyo also seems to be aware of the changing paradigms in East Asia and realizes that China’s rise in fact opens up a room for Japan to maneuver more freely in the international arena.
Taiwan’s Preference for Peace and Stability
A second such rebuttal to Chinaphobia took place when the Taiwanese constituency voted for the incumbent candidate, Ma Ying-jeou, in the January 14 presidential and legislative elections. Since he took office in 2008, Ma pursued a constructive foreign policy vis-à-vis China and distanced Taiwan from the pro-independence policies of the previous DPP administration. If the concerns of a belligerent China were legitimate, then the Taiwanese had the opportunity to vote into office the main opposition candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, who ran a campaign in favor of de facto independence for Taiwan.
The examples of Japan and Taiwan attest to the fact that in spite of the external attempts to emphasize the rise of China as a threat to the regional peace and stability, there is a desire to accommodate China’s return rather than confront and challenge it. The realization replacing the old-fashioned fears is that expecting China to willingly inhibit its rise to global prominence (diplomatically, economically and militarily) so that the concerns of even the least important countries are accommodated amounts to a historical anomaly.
Consequently, Obama’s contentious Asia-Pacific policies are unlikely to succeed. Unfortunately, the U.S. government is quite unwilling to acknowledge the seismic shifts that have taken place since 9/11. If the world had been the same world as it was from the mid-40s to the late-90s, Cold War-style containment policies would have stood a chance of success. However, East Asia has gone through a structural renaissance while the U.S. has spent its fortunes on the wars in the Middle East and it is no longer feasible to resuscitate the Washington model of international governance.
*Serafettin Yilmaz is a doctorate student in Asia-Pacific Studies at National Chengchi University in Taiwan. He can be reached at email@example.com