The Debate

US Foreign Policy in the Face of a ‘Might Makes Right’ China

“Chinese leaders have concluded that, in international affairs, power is the ultimate and only source of legitimacy.”

US Foreign Policy in the Face of a ‘Might Makes Right’ China
Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

In 2014, strange creatures began appearing in the South China Sea. They looked from afar like some odd flagellates from biology class—dark central masses with long, wispy appendages that slithered into the sea.

At the time, I was on active military duty serving as Fleet Intelligence Watch Officer for the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet aboard the flagship USS Blue Ridge, responsible for managing a team that provided the fleet commander with real-time situational awareness throughout Asia. Those experiences—not least those weird sea creatures—offer several insights into U.S.-China relations, including the July international tribunal decision against Chinese actions in the South China Sea.

The creatures turned out to be massive Chinese dredgers clustered around specks of land called the Spratly Islands, pulling up sand from the bottom of the ocean and creating large artificial islands to buttress legally dubious Chinese sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. (China has claimed the South China Sea as, essentially, national territory. To gauge the scope of such assertions, imagine if the United States suddenly declared that it owned the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea.)

The island building was part of a pattern of aggressive sovereignty assertion by China, which also included sending a giant oil rig protected by military and civilian escorts into Vietnamese economic waters, and taking control of a shoal 140 miles off the coast of the Philippines (and over 500 miles away from China).

Such aggressive Chinese actions have superficially been interpreted as victories for Beijing that have increased its military reach and scored public relations wins in favor of its territorial claims. To be sure, China has notched some tactical victories that should concern international policymakers, but ending the analysis there only considers half of the ledger. It does not adequately examine what China has lost by taking this approach.

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As a result of China’s aggression, there have been anti-Beijing riots in Vietnam and demonstrations in the Philippines. Being seen as too close to China is now a liability in several states previously well disposed to the regime. China’s actions have led numerous regional states to ramp up their cooperation with the U.S. and with one another.

This spring, the Philippines (which kicked out the U.S. military in 1991) finalized an agreement to host U.S. forces at several bases in the country, and a similar deal may be codified with Vietnam, formerly one of the bitterest American enemies. As Jeffrey Goldberg writes in the April issue of The Atlantic, “The U.S. Navy’s return to Cam Ranh Bay would count as one of the more improbable developments in recent American history.”

None of these changes could have occurred without China’s aggression on its periphery. In effect, China has gained a few rocks but lost the hearts and minds of key regional players.

These trade offs are apparent in Beijing as well. So what are Chinese leaders thinking? Why are they willing to follow policies that incur such costs?

Analysts have tried to explain this behavior in two ways. Some have focused on tactics—so-called salami slicing techniques, where China repeatedly takes two steps forward and one step back, slowly accumulating beneficial changes to the status quo while staying under a threshold of a U.S. response. Others have highlighted strategy—a long-term, generational focus on changing the status quo to become the dominant regional power, under which China is willing to bear short term costs for the sake of its longer plan.

But those two explanations are incomplete. There is a third, critical factor: the growth of a particularly dangerous mindset among Chinese leaders. Directly addressing this mindset presents the best opportunity for the next American president to positively impact U.S.-China relations.

Under President Xi Jinping, Chinese leaders seem to have settled on the conclusion that, in international affairs, power is the ultimate and only source of legitimacy. In this view, to prove yourself a strong power—especially after emerging from what China views as a “century of humiliation”—requires throwing your weight around to establish a sphere of influence. Domestic successes in China’s top-down, autocratic political system have also shaped its leaders views about how to succeed in the very different realm of foreign policy.

Xi’s proposal for “a new type of great power relations” between the United States and China is fundamentally grounded in this kind of mindset that power alone matters. Relations on such terms would imply that, because China is now strong, the United States should defer to Chinese actions in their own backyard regardless of legitimacy or the wishes of lesser powers, and in turn China would do the same in the American sphere of influence. The Obama administration has been right not to assent to such a bargain.

To be sure, China still cares to some degree about being perceived as a responsible power, but only in a tactical sense. Its current leaders seek to avoid losing face on the international stage, but they do not value international consent and legitimacy as anything other than a public relations exercise—a means to an end. As a result, in the words of U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift this spring, Asia is experiencing “a potential return of might makes right after more than seventy years of stability.”

Even though China has no interest in direct conflict with the United States, such mindsets are profoundly dangerous and can become self-fulfilling. The last time a rising power became enthralled to such a power-only approach was Germany at the start of the 20th century. Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer summarized it thus: “In [late 19th century] German thinking, power became inextricably associated with nationalism and militarism. As a result, unlike France, Great Britain, or the United States… Germany understood its power in terms of raw military force.”

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Fortunately, policymakers can prevent such trends from crystallizing into a precarious common destiny. On this side of the Pacific, our next president must systematically orient U.S. diplomatic, military, and economic policy toward disabusing Chinese leaders of the notion that might alone makes right.

One key element of such policy would involve countering some widely held inaccurate views about the United States in Beijing.  Many Chinese leaders truly believe that a rules-based international order, consent, human rights, and other elements of legitimacy are pure artifice decorating a coldly calculating American realpolitik. At the same time, in recent months, Beijing officials have repeatedly asked visitors about how the U.S. has managed to pick itself up crisis after crisis over its history.

U.S. interlocutors must explain that those two issues are related: America’s resilience is critically dependent on allowing room for legitimacy alongside power.

The inaccurate Chinese view of a purely bullying, realpolitik American approach is blind to the reason why the U.S. continues to punch above its weight internationally—while China does not. Combining a true concern for legitimacy with the exercise of power has generated enough buy-in from other states to prevent the so-called balancing coalitions that have undermined every other hegemon throughout history. (During the few times in its history when America has back-burnered legitimacy, including its interventions in Iran in the 1950s and Iraq in the 2000s, its power alone has proven inadequate to achieve the country’s national security goals. Such anomalies have reinforced U.S. foreign policymakers’ conviction that a sustainable foreign policy must balance power and legitimacy.)

If strategic dialogue on such subjects does not change minds and behaviors in Beijing, the next Administration must be willing to confront Chinese aggression using the tool that China has set aside: legitimacy. Rather than focusing exclusively on tit-for-tat tactical responses to each new aggressive act, the United States must respond in the domain of legitimacy. The harder China pushes with a raw power approach, the more the United States must be willing make China feel costs to its international legitimacy.

A generation ago, Chinese economic policymakers were as defiant with regard to international legitimacy as its present-day national security policymakers are. But today, Chinese economic and trade policy has come around to taking into account World Trade Organization rulings and other expressions of legitimacy—and China continues to thrive. American policy must seek to use incentives and deterrents to steer China toward a similar conclusion on national security affairs.

A decision by Chinese leaders to step back from the brink of a pure realpolitik approach to world affairs would also connect its current government to the richness of its own historical traditions. Professor Alastair Iain Johnston of Harvard has written eloquently on the two traditions of Chinese national security thought: the legitimacy-focused Confucian strain most often demonstrated when its leaders felt secure, and harder-edged, power-focused strain associated with Sun Tzu and the Seven Military Classics that came to the fore when leaders were insecure or knew they lacked legitimacy. By righting the balance between those two traditional approaches, China’s current leaders can demonstrate their own place as successors to that three thousand year tradition of governance.

History shows that the first few decades after the rise of a new international power are among the most dangerous for mankind. But foresighted leadership on both sides of the Pacific can demonstrate that some historical traps can be avoided—even in a world of mechanized sea creatures and artificial islands.

Andreas Xenachis is a 2016 Presidential Leadership Scholar and a participant in the Council on Foreign Relations Study Group on U.S. Policy Toward Asia. The views expressed here are strictly his own.