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.
Much ink has been spilt on how the bulk of Donald Trumps policy positions are built around his over-the-top personality. From his signature promise to building a wall to combating illegal immigration to deterring Russia in Europe, his series of policy proposals have little substance beyond having the “Trump brand” to back them up. This is typical of a narcissist running during a time ripe for populism. But because Trumps positions are largely based on his personality, criticism is often personal, or at least perceived by Trump as personal. Combine critiques of his temperament with his sensitivity and you have an unusually entertaining political season. But the entertainment value wears thin and the gravity of the situation becomes concerning once one attempts to anticipate how Donald would perform on the international stage. Trumps inability to self control gives me two concerns, one regarding political rhetoric, the other regarding the theatrics of international terrorism. Both are, in the context of grand strategy, relatively minor but both have the potential to lead to escalation of something meaningful.
Foreign state leadership is often critical of the United States. This is partially a result of state leaders, regardless of their regime style, having to earn some level of political legitimacy among the wider public. Democratic leadership earn it through elections, dictatorship do so through a combination of the security state and a cult of personality. Many democratically elected leaders critique the United States unique political and economic culture because it is good domestic politics. Think the Labor Party under Corbyn or the Parti Socialiste of France. Many authoritarian leaders foster the image of the strong man protecting the populace from foreign encroachment, most often the United States. Think the ruling clergy of Iran or the Chavism of Venezuela. But what is good politics back home can have international repercussions. Recently, President Obama was forced to cancel a visit with Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, over the leaders claim that President Obama was the “son of a whore.” The comments were largely a reaction to western criticism of aggressive policing in the Philippine drug war. Despite the incendiary language, President Obama still met with the leader informally. This was because the involved leaders understood that both countries have a shared interest in working together on issues related to China and that diplomatic spats shouldn’t hinder them from cooperating on their shared regional strategy. In typical fashion, President Obama demonstrated that he is capable of being serious on the international stage. Does anyone seriously think that Trump is adult enough not to take such matters personally? His campaign is the most petty and vindictive in modern history and his personal history of holding grudges over the minor of slights is well documented. He cut the tops off of roses and sent back the stems to Connie Chung in response to what he considered an unfair interview. In response to a critical article, he sent Gail Collins a copy of her column with the note “face of a dog” next to her picture. You cannot make this stuff up. It is inevitable that an American president will encounter critical language abroad and we shouldn’t elect one who is capable of being “baited with a tweet.”
In addition to how Trump would respond to critical political rhetoric, I’m also concerned with the issue of international terrorism. Recruitment tactics of Islamic terror groups usually include large-scale attacks (as in France and the Bataclan) or gruesome spectacles like public beheadings. The motivation of these tactics is to provoke the west into overreacting and thereby pushing those on the margins towards their terrorist group ranks. This is part of the broader strategy to reframe the conflict from civilized versus uncivilized and instead as Islam versus infidel. I imagine that even the most detached state leader would find it difficult not to overreach in such a situation. Innocent women and children are usually killed and the bias of the general public is to demand some sort of reaction, either against the terror group abroad (bombing their members) or curtailing the civil liberties of local Muslims through increased scrutiny (like at an airport). If how the west reacts is not tempered with a view of the long-term goal of assimilation of Islam with modern values, the short-term conflict with terrorism becomes less winnable as a narrative of Islam being under attack emerges. Donald Trump already lends himself into such a narrative with his unapologetic chauvinism and crass showmanship. One of his promoted policies in the war on terror is to ban Muslim immigration. He as also suggested he will start surveilling all American mosques, and to “‘bomb the shit out of extremists.” This is exactly what terrorist groups want.
Presidential contests are not just choosing between different menus of policy options. Temperament and personality matter, as they would in any managerial position. Trump campaigns on a foreign policy of disengaging with the international society and focusing more on domestic issues. But which president hasn’t made this a focus of his or her campaign? Trump may not have a great deal of interest in international affairs but international affairs has a great deal of interest in the United States. And it only takes one event to spiral out of control and become a crisis. Someone who openingly brags about his love for revenge could easily be lured into escalating routine anti-US rhetoric or a small scaled terrorist attack into something much grander than it should be.