The battles of political ideology have not ended.

After the Cold War, the West had assumed the contest of ideologies had been settled and that the last man had emerged. Political liberalism was victorious and non-democratic regimes were on “the wrong side of history,” as President Bill Clinton told the Chinese. The world seemed to agree as it experienced the third democratic wave. It was expected that alternatives to open markets, democracy, and individual human rights would not be welcomed but imposed.

Yet, in 2018, this is no longer true as both China and Russia offer alternative political models which are both gaining appeal around of the world.

What does Russia offer? Mostly a response to the social costs of liberalism. The cultural consequences of open markets and respecting civil liberties are not welcomed by all of society. The multiculturalism which results from respecting individual rights often challenges the traditional foundations of society. What Russia offers is a model to confronts these trends. Under Putin, Russia  is the defender of “the values of traditional families, real human life, including religious life” against those that “revise their moral values and ethical norms.” To pursue these goals, Russia offers a semi-autocratic state with leadership not subject to the rule of law or a critical press. In place of a rule bound, consensus driven executive, Russia offers a democratically elected leader yet one not obligated to respect individual rights. Once in power, the majority can impose what it wants on the non-majority. Such a model is usually referred to as illiberal democracy and is arguably the most powerful political trend in the Western world at the moment, recently planting roots in Poland and Hungary.

What China offers is something similar in spirit but with different motives. While Russia promotes a democratically elected head of state tasked to combat the erosion of traditional values, China offers an authoritarian political model responsible for economic growth. The common narrative that emerged after 1989 was that economic development was only possible when state interference was minimal. Free trade, private property, and democratic participation were all thought to be essential ingredients for a healthy economy. China demonstrated that this isn’t entirely true and that an alternative path exists, consisting of state own industries, politically controlled capital, and deep participation in the global supply chain. The political component of this model is an autocratic state with strict one-party political rule. Human rights are not respected nor is public criticism tolerated, and democracy is out of the question.

And the China model has its fans. Before his death in 2012, Ethiopian president Meles Zenawi routinely lauded the Chinese growth model and stated he sought to imitate it in Ethiopia. It is obvious why the ruling elites in Africa and Central America find such a model appealing. They get the economic growth but are also allowed to retain their positions of power. But there is a good amount of admiration for the China model among the governed as well. In 2017, Canadians viewed China more favorable than the United States by 5 percentage points. While it does not offer human rights or political participation, the China model is appealing because experiments with democracy and free markets have failed in other parts of the world. According to the World Bank, in 1980, the gdp per person in the worlds largest democracy (India) was 263 dollars. China’s was 194. In 2016, India has a gdp per person of 1,709 and China 8,123. You can see why there is no “India model.” Many view free markets as chaotic and the democratic process slow and inept. Such beliefs were confirmed by the financial crisis of 2007 and chronic political gridlock in America. Not only did China’s economy grow during the great recession, but they have maintained a relatively high degree of social and class cohesion in the process (albeit with a steep cost to human freedom).

What are China and Russia motivated by? They want deference from their neighbors and it is expected that states that share their politics will be more likely to do this. Some of the desire for deference is security driven and some by prestige, but either way, the West should allow it to occur. The principal reason why the Putin model is so popular is because of liberalism overextending itself. The more that Brussels and D.C. pushed their politics into Eastern Europe the more appealing the Putin model became. While not ideal from a human rights perspective, it would be better to find a compromise with the reactionary elements than stubbornly impose on them values they do not want. In regard to the China model, the United States should want to know if alternatives to the Washington Consensus are available. The traditional path to growth has not worked everywhere, as observed with Argentina in the 2000s. Unlike the Western model which is highly ideological, the China model is flexible and pragmatic, and could perhaps better suit the needs of a developing country than Western orthodoxy. Frankly, what the West should do is act more Western, and allow the market place of ideas to determine which model is more suitable for developing countries.

Chinese-American tensions in the South China Sea.

China also established its first overseas military base, conveniently located in Djibouti, near a valuable global shipping lane and just four miles from a U.S. installation. In addition, Chinese warships have been popping up all over the globe, including near Alaska, Japan, and Australia. While their movement thus far has been through international waters, and therefore not in violation of any international law, it is a clear sign of China’s desire to be taken seriously as a global military power. Too bad Beijing doesn’t respect that same right when other countries attempt to exercise their freedom of navigation in the South and East China Seas.

and there is this as well.

There is a slight cause for optimism on this front. An exclusive story from Breitbart last week claims the White House has approved a proposed plan crafted by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to conduct regular freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, or FONOPs. According to an anonymous U.S. official, Mattis wants to change the nature of conducting FONOPs. Instead of sending discrete requests to the National Security Council each time the U.S. Navy plans such an operation, he allegedly outlined a schedule for conducting them regularly throughout the rest of the year.

 

Carrying out FONOPs is a good way to challenge Beijing’s claims on the high seas. Despite China’s aggressive provocation, the Obama administration put an end to FONOPs from 2012 to 2015, and only conducted three in 2016 out of fear of upsetting Beijing (because appeasing a revanchist power always turns out so well). So far this year, the Trump administration has carried out three FONOPs and clearly has plans for several more. Let’s hope the Breitbart story is accurate and these become much more frequent as the year wears on.

You can read the article in its entirety here.

Hegemony with Chinese Characteristics.

I argue that these conclusions are premature. China’s grand strategy is clearly aimed at supplanting the United States as the dominant military power in East Asia. But this alone does not mean that Chinese and American interests are incompatible. The real question is what China plans to do with its emerging regional preponderance.

 

Would China use its hegemony to maintain an economically open, institutionalized, and rule-based regional order, even if one that is tilted in its own favor? Or would it seek to fundamentally overthrow these decades-old rules and norms in ways that effectively exclude outside economic engagement and threaten the territorial integrity of America’s regional allies?

 

If the latter, then the costs and risks of a more confrontational policy of “containing” China’s rise may be justified. If the former, then Chinese regional hegemony is perfectly compatible with America’s substantive interests, and may even help reduce the burden of the United States’ expansive global commitments. To date, there are surprisingly few indications that a Chinese-led regional order would be antithetical to core American interests in the region.

The author is Kyle Haynes and you can read the full version at the Diplomat.

My only disagreement with the piece is that he implies that Taiwan is an American core interest. It is not and the balance of interest is vastly in favor of China on this interest.

The Chinese and “White left”

That is the new insult being lobbed among China based netizens.

Although the emphasis varies, baizuo (or white left) is used generally to describe those who “only care about topics such as immigration, minorities, LGBT and the environment” and “have no sense of real problems in the real world”; they are hypocritical humanitarians who advocate for peace and equality only to “satisfy their own feeling of moral superiority”; they are “obsessed with political correctness” to the extent that they “tolerate backwards Islamic values for the sake of multiculturalism”; they believe in the welfare state that “benefits only the idle and the free riders”; they are the “ignorant and arrogant westerners” who “pity the rest of the world and think they are saviours”.

You can read more here.

 

The Trump u-turn on China and Russia is welcomed policy: Why the United States should be wary of Russia, and not China.

During the presidential race, political commentators were equally dismayed and puzzled by the developing relationship between then candidate Trump and President Putin. All sorts of explanations were offered to explain the apparent goodwill, from naked business interests to an alleged sex tape. But whatever the reason, Trump complimented Putin on a regular basis, referring to Russia’s president as a “strong leader” and “smart,” and stated that he intended to have a good working relationship with Russia’s president.

China, however, would be the center of a Trump administration’s ire. Trump accused China of “raping” the United States and promised that on day one he would label China as a currency manipulator and erect steep trade barriers. During his confirmation hearing, his nomination for Secretary of State suggested denying Beijing access to their artificial islands in the South China Sea.

That was then but this is now. After 100 days of Trump, the expected rapprochement with Russia has cooled and Chinese-American relations have apparently warmed. President Trump has directed 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Russia’s ally Syria, accused Russia of complicity in Syrian war crimes, has made no attempt of removing the sanctions imposed after Crimea, and has publicly stated he expects the peninsula to be returned to Ukraine.

Trump, however, has failed to label China as a currency manipulator, reneged on trade barriers, and restricted Navy patrols in the South China Sea. Xi Jinping, apparently, is even President Trump’s friend.

This u-turn is highly welcomed news for the simple fact that Russia is the troublemaker, and China, not so much.

Russia is the bigger problem for American foreign policy primarily because Russia is seeking to undermine 50 plus years of European economic integration and political liberalism. As articulated in a 2013 Center for Strategic Communications policy paper titled “Putin: The New World Leader of Conservatism,” Putin’s strategy of gaining influence in Europe is by assuming the leadership role of a transnational movement that defends and renews traditional social values, both in side Russia in Europe. This means supporting positions that are anti-immigrant, homophobic, and Eurosceptic, among other anti-liberal policies. This essentially makes Russia a proselytizing power as Putin seeks to export these policies to Europe by hacking elections, funding far right parties, and spreading fake news. The French presidential election offers ample evidence of this strategy in motion.

Compare this to China which has no designs on the political makeup of foreign states, doesn’t seek to export any particular culture to its neighbors and, despite lifting 800 million people out of poverty, doesn’t pressure others to adopt its version of state sponsored capitalism. They do hack, but not to influence election outcomes, and the fake news it produces is mainly for Chinese consumption and not to influence foreign elections.

The Chinese and Russian objectives for their respected neighborhoods are in contrast to one another. Russia’s objective is to sow political and economic uncertainty throughout their neighborhood, as a Europe divided by nationalism and economic populism is a plus for Moscow. But where Russia is deliberately stirring up tensions throughout Europe, China’s number one regional goal is stability. From their policy towards North Korea to their relationship with the United States, China’s number one goal is to avoid destabilizing the region. This is because unlike Russia, China has experienced legitimate economic gains and political consolidation over the past 30 years and would prefer not to upset this trend.

When one also considers that Putin’s Russia has also invaded two countries, committed war crimes in Syria, has sold arms to the Taliban, and violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, it is rather clear that Russia, and not China, should be considered the bigger problem for American. American priorities and rhetoric should reflect that.

 

 

The Philippines and American credibility.

“America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow.” These are the words of the Philippines president announcing his “separation” from the United States. A large part of the recent Philippine separation can be explained by the personality of its leader. The man makes Trump look like Winston Churchill. For a list of Duterte greatest hits, see here. Although the statement has been qualified, the “separation” is alarming for the United States and its allies as the bilateral alliance is the bedrock of the American strategy for achieving South East Asian stability. The defection of the Philippines, however, may not be particular to its leader but a consequence of diminished American credibility and the inability to clearly define US foreign policy objectives.

With the Syrian red line, the lament for the ruin of American credibility is rife. See here, here, here, and here. Credibility has an unflattering history in American foreign policy. President Obama complained of the “fetish” for credibility and how it results in “dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone.” In the most notorious example of credibility being pathological, the United States waged what most agree was a meaningless war in Vietnam largely to maintain credibility.

The United States is suffering from a lack of credibility amongst our South East Asian allies, but Syria is not the root cause. The academic literature points to states evaluating their opponents power and interests when judging the credibility of their statements. So backing down from a Middle East quagmire wouldn’t reduce the credibility of the United States in the Far East as the US doesn’t have any strategic or economic interest in the civil war. The lack of American credibility in the Far East results from our inability to clearly state our vision for the region and to successfully implement our stated policies.

Asia is on the cusp of a reorientation of the regional “rules” with a revisionist China offering the middle powers an alternative to the American lead order. What China proposes is something modeled on their past “Sinocentric” tribute system although updated to include modern intuitions such as international financial banks and foreign direct investment. China has the final say on non-domestic regional politics and will not limit its use of power and economic leverage against those who disagree. An obvious example is China’s behavior in the South China Sea. But members of the China led order are offered a deep respect for state sovereignty and China wouldn’t take issue with the tactics used in the drug war of a neighbor. The American order is just the opposite. The United States will largely refrain from great power politics with the regional players yet will involve itself in their domestic matters from time to time. This approach takes shape as a hub and spoke alliance network and multilateral trade agreements. Increasingly, the middle powers are being pressured to choose which camp they are in, the separation being one example of a regional actor defecting from the US.

Why did the Philippines separate from the US? The vital element of the American order is whether or not the region thinks the US staying power is reliable. China does not need to convince any of the regional actors that China is not going anywhere. America does and American credibility for remaining committed to the region is suspect. The sources for the lack for credibility are varied including the failure of congress to approve TPP, the republican nomination of someone who openly complains and questions the wisdom of our regional alliances and the Obama doctrine itself. There never appeared to be any organizing principle of the Obama doctrine but series of ad hoc and inconsistent policy prescriptions. The signature Obama policy in Asia is the pivot which is itself contradictory, attempting to both economically engage China yet militarily contain them. Most actors are left wondering what exactly the US intends for the region and how committed they are towards pursuing whatever goals those are. It’s clear that China’s rise alarms the region and that most members prefer the benign hegemony of America to the great power politics of China. But with the staying power of the US questionable combined with the perception that the Untied States is a declining power, it isn’t surprising that Duterte would take advantage of the political leverage created by the recent diplomatic row with President Obama to bandwagon with China.

The Far East, Perceptions, and Internal Balancing.

Tensions in the Far East are high. China is, apparently, engaging in traditional geopolitics in the South China Sea building artificial military outposts, increasing their troop and hardware presence, and making territorial claims on disputed international waters. What motivates this behavior? Much commentary on the issue discusses Chinas behavior as driven by economics (fishery and energy resources) or political (just the natural power grab of a rising nation). Both explanations can be simultaneously true, but my interpretation is that this behavior is motivated by the logic of threat balancing. The balancing is internal (shifting resources within a state versus external which entails building alliances). The threat China is balancing against is the United States.

How is the United States a threat?

Two ways. One is the general American pursuit of political transformation of foreign lands. During the Cold War, US foreign policy was mostly, but not entirely, focused on the containment and deterrence of Soviet communism. Since 1989, the United States foreign policy has been mostly designed to do one of two things. The first is power projection. The second is the political transformation of other states. The original designs of the post WWII foreign policy were framed as a matter of national security. The dual policies of containment and determent were intended to prevent encroachment of the USSR into areas considered strategic to American security. But whereas during the Cold War the United States was interested in the domestic political arrangements of foreign states as a matter of halting communist expansion, post Cold War policy has largely been geared towards re-engineering the political arrangements of foreign states so to spread western values. China is balancing against the American assertion that “China is on the wrong side of history.” Attempts to nudge China towards liberalism has been embedded in trade agreements, hosting the Dalai Lama, and other soft power initiatives like its annual Human Rights report on China. From the regimes perspective, all of these measures are an attempt to curtail their control and weaken the communist party’s ability to govern.

The second perception of threat is the US pivot. The pivot is a series of diplomatic, economic, and military initiatives that renew American focus on the Pacific. It is generally packaged as the recognition that the future of politics will be decided in Asia and that to be relevant the US must deepen its presence in the area. Yet the pivot isn’t a regional policy as much as it is Chinese policy. From TPP to the lifting of the Vietnamese arms embargo, nearly all associated policies appear designed to contain China. Despite how often the United States assures China that the pivot is not about China but the region, China considers the pivot as a direct attempt of the United States to keep China from becoming a regional hegemon. Add the pivot associated policies with the already substantial US troop presence in the area and its not difficult to understand why China would feel the need to balance.

Americans would do well to consider that this is China’s back yard and that, starting with the Monroe doctrine, we do not tolerate foreign adventurism in our neighborhood. We view the American presence in the Far East as largely benign but, China views America as “a man with a criminal record “wandering just outside the gate of a family home.”” The South China Sea is their Caribbean and we shouldn’t be surprised when our meddling in that area is met with an aggressive response from China. We may be alarmed by the militarization of reefs and the obnoxious territorial claims of the nine dash nine line, but China’s behavior mimics the behavior of a threatened state.