Zachary Keck

Missing the Point on the ‘Anti-China Rhetoric’ Debate

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Zachary Keck

Missing the Point on the ‘Anti-China Rhetoric’ Debate

China may be the problem. But anti-China rhetoric isn’t the solution.

Missing the Point on the ‘Anti-China Rhetoric’ Debate
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s Note: Here is a guest post by James Pach, the esteemed editor-in-chief of The Diplomat. James responds to my previous post about anti-China rhetoric, which itself was a response to a piece by Erin Zimmerman.

A recent piece in The Diplomat has generated quite a stir. In the article, Erin Zimmerman argued that engaging in anti-China rhetoric at regional forums like the recent Shangri-La Dialogue will tend to drive China to further bad behavior, because it creates domestic pressure for China to respond with further aggression.

My colleague Zach has, as usual, provided a very well-reasoned response. While Zach, like me, is somewhat baffled at the apparent outrage that The Diplomat would publish something other than a hawkish position on China (something, in fact, it does really quite regularly), he points out that, in essence, China as the aggressor is not in a position to complain about being criticized. Zach also notes that regional forums are precisely the place to express concern over regional tensions, and suggests that Erin’s hope that China could be induced to embed itself in the current order is probably forlorn. Comments suggest that Zach’s piece reflects the thinking of many readers: China gets what it deserves.

At the risk of threading the needle, I would suggest that the critics of Erin’s piece are missing the point. That is, the issue is not whether anti-China rhetoric is justified; it is whether anti-China rhetoric serves any useful purpose.

Speak Softly, and Carry a Big Stick.

Teddy Roosevelt said that. He was an unusual president – one of America’s very few presidents who could be described as a foreign policy realist, sandwiched between 19th century isolationism and Wilsonian idealism. Which makes him a very good reference for The Pacific Realist.

Roosevelt’s advice has resonance for East Asia, and indeed elsewhere today. If, say, defending the global commons is a vital interest, and many of us would agree it is, then by all means prepare to defend it. Form new alliances, acquire new submarines, reopen bases, reinterpret constitutions, rebalance – even fly B-52s through an ADIZ. All measures that raise the cost of aggression. At some point, China’s leaders may realize that planting the flag on some rocks off the Philippines is not worth alienating virtually every country in the region and creating an anti-China alliance that stretches from India to Japan. They may calculate that the cost of conflict is economic collapse and the consequent loss of their legitimacy.

And if they don’t? Then their opponents have a calculation to make. Do they have the wherewithal and the will to defend their territorial claims? If they do not, rhetoric is not going to save them (See, Crimea.)

Murder or a Bar Fight?

Zach offers an interesting analogy. China is like a murderer, he says, who blames the murder on the ex post facto accusations that they killed someone. In other words, China started the aggression and it shouldn’t complain that it is criticized for the same.

Of course, China would argue that the aggression was started by the West a couple of centuries ago, and it is merely redressing historical wrongs. In practical terms, though, Zach is quite right: In the South China Sea at least, China has been aggressive and there is a case to make that criticism is warranted. Yet just because rhetoric is warranted doesn’t mean it is good policy. Optimum outcomes don’t necessarily follow from moral righteousness.

In fact, I would suggest that the murder analogy is not quite appropriate. It suggests the fight is over, the crime is done – the perpetrator has got what they wanted. But that doesn’t hold in the South China Sea, where the tensions are ongoing, and the end result not quite decided. Let me propose an alternative analogy.

You’re sitting in a bar, at a nice spot on the counter, enjoying a quiet drink. Suddenly a much larger figure appears, claiming you’re in his spot. He’s big and aggressive. He crowds you, maybe gives you a shove and moves you a bit. You know you can’t fight him on your own, but you sense you have allies in the room – other patrons who are unnerved or outraged by the thuggish behavior.

So what do you do? Keep your hands by your side and call the bully names? Or do you attempt to deescalate the situation – negotiating, perhaps offering to give way slightly – all the while quietly gathering friends and weapons, until the situation is either defused or you are ready to stand your ground?

Let’s not stretch the analogy too far. Others prefer historical references, often poor old Neville Chamberlain and 1930s Europe. Better to fight the bully than appease, is the argument. But even Churchill recognized that Chamberlain could hardly be faulted for seeking peace first. The fault lay in trying to do so from a position of weakness – Britain was slow to recognize the danger, and to rearm and rally allies.

If you want peace, prepare for war. The ancient Romans said that, and The Diplomat reports extensively on defense policies within the region that are designed to give a potential aggressor pause. Nothing in this article should be construed to mean this author favors weakness.

But the role of diplomacy, whether track I or track II, is surely not to escalate tensions. Yes, as Zach suggests, forums like the Shangri-La are the place to discuss tensions, but the idea is to deescalate them, not inflame them. Ambushing the Chinese delegation by opening with a provocative keynote from a historical revisionist like Shinzo Abe hardly seems helpful.

What is meant to follow the rhetoric? A red line? Surely Syria demonstrates the folly of ignoring Roosevelt’s advice.

A New Regional Order?

Zach also makes the point that China shows little interest in accepting the existing regional order. That’s hard to argue against. By its words and deeds, China does indeed show it wants to create an alternative order. Does that mean that the West should encourage that by making China unwelcome within existing institutions? Sure, if an alienated China serves the West’s interests. But if the West perceives its interests as best served by having China integrated or at least engaged with the existing order, then it should continue to keep that order open to China.

Indeed, for all the talk of China creating an alternative order, it will be easier said than done. CICA has been around for 20 years, and few have heard of it. Yes, China likely has the economic clout to co-opt much of Central Asia, but it is hard to see how it can create a credible pan-Asia security structure when it is engaged in territorial disputes with so many of its members. At the same time, it would not be unreasonable for the existing order to demonstrate a little flexibility to accommodate an $8 trillion economy, by far the region’s largest. Expecting China to act as it did 20 years ago is unrealistic.

Anti-Foreigner Rhetoric

Finally, Zach makes the point that China is “the main transgressor in perpetuating anti-foreigner rhetoric.” Regular readers of the Global Times will no doubt concur. So the argument here is “They did it first.” I’m not sure, though, that this is a basis for policy. It is hard to see how trading barbs with China moves the region closer to a peaceful resolution of its various tensions. When the ambassadors of China and Japan – somewhat incredibly – used a Harry Potter character to insult each other’s country earlier this year, the Japanese ambassador did not come out looking better because he lobbed a Voldemort back at his Chinese counterpart.

A distinction ought also to be drawn between the media and diplomacy. Even though in China’s case, major media outlets have the stamp of officialdom, the roles and objectives of journalists and diplomats differ.

Our colleague Shannon wrote recently that the U.S. needs to accept that China is going to play a larger role in the region. That is hard to dispute. She adds that to defuse tensions, the U.S. would need to reduce its military presence in the region. I respectfully disagree. Whether your model is MAD or a balance of power, deterrence is what will keep the peace. There must be a price for aggression. The best way to exact that price is to continue the current trend towards a broad alliance led by the U.S. and the Western Pacific littoral states. Carry a big stick.

It may then well be that East Asia becomes the epicenter for a new cold war, or it may even slide into conflict. But policymakers must see conflict – even economic conflict – as catastrophic, a last resort, and not at all inevitable. For one thing, it is not at all certain that China’s rise will continue unabated. We may be at peak hubris. So what is there to gain from hastening to define China as an enemy? For as long as there is scope for diplomacy, then be diplomatic. Speak softly.

James Pach is editor of The Diplomat.