The Debate

For a Grand Bargain with China

Recent Features

The Debate

For a Grand Bargain with China

A new book lays out a comprehensive and detailed Asian foreign policy for the United States.

For a Grand Bargain with China
Credit: The White House

Few people who are in Asia or who are interested in Asia can afford not to study Kurt Campbell’s new book The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia. The main reason is the book lays out a comprehensive and detailed Asian foreign policy for the United States. It combines the scholarship of a Harvard professor (which Campbell was) and the talents of a consummate diplomat (which he is). The book is very systematic and clearly written: the plan for the U.S. has ten points. These points are spelled out with various sub-points, and many nations in the region each get their own section. Another reason this book will be on the must-read list is that Campbell is considered a leading candidate for the position of Secretary of State in President Hillary Clinton’s administration.

The book justifies the pivot by arguing that “the lion’s share of the history of twenty-first century will be written in Asia.” Campbell is calling for much more than for the next president and her State Department to be paying more attention to the Far East, committing some additional resources to the region (e.g., further increasing in the U.S. fleet’s presence), and supporting some military developments (e.g., to counter China’s access denying weapons). He sees Asia as the region on which the U.S. should focus its total foreign policy efforts. He scoffs at those (me included) who argue that the pivot means neglecting other regions. However, the inevitable fact is that there are always limits on the total amount of military assets, economic resources, and even White House attention. This is especially true in recent years, as U.S. economic growth has been anemic and the willingness of Congress to increase expenditures on anything has been in extremely short supply. Hence major increases in investing in one region inevitably come at the cost of other regions, though Campbell is correct that such shifts do not mean that the U.S. will “withdraw” from any region.

Focusing on Asia (Campbell emphasizes that U.S. should focus on all the players in the region rather on bilateral relations with China) is oddly seductive. This is the case because the U.S. has shown a reverse Midas touch in the Middle East: Whatever it touches is scorched. The U.S. heavily invested blood and billions in the wars in the region, for more than fifteen years, and all it has to show for it is ruined countries, engulfed in civil wars, which are breeding grounds for terrorists. Jihadis, Iran and Russia are on the rise, pushing the U.S. out of the Middle East. Its allies are much troubled (which cannot but damage the trust Asian allies will have in the U.S.’ role in their region). While ISIS may be defeated militarily, it is spreading into scores of countries in Africa and Asia, in places as different as Nigeria, the Gaza Strip, and Indonesia. Hundreds of millions of Muslims, more educated than their parents and hence more politically aware and mobilized, are unemployed. They are very likely to add to instability in the region and in Europe, and some will end up joining insurgent and terrorist groups.

No wonder the U.S. is tempted to focus on another region where the rising power it faces is still much weaker militarily than the U.S., and is very careful to keep its new assertions to a low level to avoid an armed conflict. A region in which, despite all the headlines about China’s aggression, not a shot has been fired and not one person has been killed, in an armed conflict at least during last ten years. Hence, for the U.S. to now to significantly pivot from the Middle to the Far East, is akin to the child who looked for his dime not where he lost it but next to the lamp post – because searching there is easier. As I see it, the history of the U.S. role in the world will be written in the next years in the Middle East. If it continues to fail there, it will not be a credible power anywhere.

If pivot we must, here are the main outlines of Campbell’s comprehensive strategy. (Fair warning: I am unable to do justice to many points, subtleties, nuances, and sub-points he makes in a 399 page book). Over the decades, the U.S. built an effective “operating system” in Asia. This system includes freedom of navigation, free trade, and peaceful resolution of disputes. All the nations in the region, China included, benefit from this system. The U.S. is called upon to shore up this system and to prevent any nation from becoming a hegemon in the region. Various nations in the region are called upon to help strengthen the operating system. All the means of foreign policy – including not just diplomacy but also economic sanctions and military means – are to be dedicated to ensure the stability of this system. China’s choices should be shaped in a way that will encourage it to buy into the system rather than seek to undermine it.

Among the specific measures called for are the U.S. bolstering its alliance with various nations in the region; insistence on multilateralism (e.g., the U.S. encouraged small Asian countries to deal with China not individually but as group); for nations to act as “stakeholders” in international institutions (e.g., increasing their contributions to humanitarian projects); economic “statecraft” (e.g., advancing the TPP), and increasing U.S. military capabilities. Hence “[T]he United States must strengthen and diversify its military capabilities by ensuring it receives ample, consistent, and flexible funding. Only then can it effectively cope with A2/AD technologies, diversify its posture southward, and increase presence through exercises port calls…” All aimed at, as Campbell puts it, “induc[ing] fidelity to international norms.”

There are two rather different ways to read the book. One as an effective, encompassing and detailed agenda for a U.S. foreign policy for dealing with Asia. By this reading, the book provides much substance and guidelines for implementations of what are often referred to as the liberal principles of a U.S. foreign policy: building international institutions that seek to serve one and all, while also protecting U.S. interests; protecting small weak nations from a potential regional hegemon; and encouraging free trade and human rights.

Another way to read the book is to study it as a highly successful text of public diplomacy. It provides a liberal framing for U.S. moves in the region which, in effect, amount to calling on various Asian nations to align themselves with the U.S. to contain China (a term that Campbell explicitly disavows), and not granting China an area of increased influence, even in countries that constitute its “near abroad,” namely those on its borders. And if such a policy requires using economic sanctions and military means, these are to be viewed as part of the strategy that makes diplomacy work. Critics argue that this kind of policy will lead, in the longer run, to a major war. (For instance Hugh White. See also, Campbell’s response.) Those who read Campbell’s book this way will point out, for example, that he views the TPP as part of the needed statecraft, while in effect it served to coalesce other nations in the region, and is excluding China.

As I see it, the U.S. and China have very few truly conflicting interests, and many complementary ones, something that becomes clear once ego issues are taken out of the picture. Granted the U.S. cannot simply yield to a rising power. It can, though, look for a grand bargain which will focus on the most salient interests of both powers. Washington’s number one security risk in Asia is a North Korea armed with nuclear and chemical weapons and long range missiles and an unpredictable dictator. If it attacks South Korea or Japan, the U.S. will be dragged into a war, which it is sure to win but only after devastating costs to its allies and its standing. China has the leverage to compel North Korea to change course, but it has to be incentivized to proceed because the costs to itself from twisting North Korea’s arms. The second major U.S. security interest in Asia is to ensure that terrorists will be unable to get their hands on nuclear weapons in Pakistan (something they already tried six times). China is the major source of arms and investments for Pakistan. In addition, the U.S. has a major interest in making substantial investments in nation building at home and not in continuing to increase military expenditures in preparing for a war with China.

China might agree to help the U.S. in these key matters (including slowing down its own military buildup because of its own domestic needs) if the U.S. would allow China to gain an increase in influence in the countries on its border (influence, not military interventions!) and the U.S. stopped its military buildup on China’s borders. Or agree to some other such grand bargain. (My colleague Charlie Glaser has suggested one that involves Taiwan). Whatever the specifics, such a bargain must constitute a win-win for both powers and other nations in the reason, while affording China some leeway as a rising regional power – without the U.S. seeming to appease it.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University. His book, Foreign Policy: Thinking Outside the Box, was just published by Routledge.