Trans-Pacific View

Statecraft and Grand Strategy: Assessing the US and China

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Trans-Pacific View

Statecraft and Grand Strategy: Assessing the US and China

Insights from Charles Hill.

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Charles Hill – Brady-Johnson Distinguished Fellow in Grand Strategy, diplomat in residence and lecturer in International Studies at Yale University – is the 85th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Identify the key elements of American and Chinese modern statecraft.

America’s grand strategy has been generally consistent across the political administration since World War II: to support and defend the international (Westphalian) state system that has been the structural foundation of the modern era; its elements have been the state as the basic entity of world affairs, international law, human rights, and professional military and diplomatic services. The Second World War, the Cold War, and radical Islamism all have been efforts to overthrow and replace this system while America’s strength has been employed to protect it.

China’s modern statecraft has gone through several phases in the modern era: the Qing dynasty’s resistance to the international state system; the 1911 Revolution and early participation in it; warlordism and civil war; the victory of Mao’s communism, which rejected the established world order; the Deng years, which brought the PRC into the state system; and, more recently, the post-Deng period, which has taken an assertive stance toward it even while welcoming its phenomenon of globalization.

Assess the efficacy and sustainability of the U.S. and China’s statecraft tools.

At present, neither the mechanisms of statecraft employed by China or the U.S. appear to be entirely coherent or capable of being conducted successfully over time. President Obama’s statecraft conveyed a message to the world that the U.S. had become too deeply involved in foreign affairs and would begin to step back from its formerly active role in leadership. There was a sense that America had not only caused too many of the world’s problems but also had created problems for itself at home. While the U.S. remained highly active militarily in conducting anti-terror operations abroad, these were characterized as essential for the defense of the American homeland, not as a contribution to world order in general.

China, after many years during the 1990s and early 21st century as a near-perfect “citizen” of the international state system, began to conduct its statecraft in inconsistent ways, at times using “soft power” under the label of “peaceful rise” while at other times disregarding international legal norms and using, or displaying, its increasing military capabilities in ways that could appear threatening rather than stabilizing. Each in different ways, the statecraft tools of the PRC and the U.S. do not inspire confidence around the world at large.

What are the key characteristics of American and Chinese grand strategy in Asia?

The key characteristic of American grand strategy in Asia is uncertainty. This is not by design but by an inconsistent relationship between America’s foreign policy rhetoric and its actual performance. The U.S. declared that it would “pivot” to Asia and away from the Middle East, but has not done so in a convincing way or with any clear explanation of what purpose would be served by such a shift.

In a significant way, the grand strategies of China and the U.S. in Asia are incompatible with each other. China has asserted that its control of the South China Sea is a “core” interest. In recent years, while the U.S. has been assuring itself and others in the region that the South China Sea issues were not a major factor for world concern, the PRC was proceeding to build reefs and shoals into hardened military airstrips with deployed surface to air missiles, thereby ensuring that the area would become such a major security factor. On the part of the U.S., freedom of the seas in all international waters has been a core interest since the founding the United States, yet China now appears to be seeking national dominance over all maritime waters of Asia.

North Korea is another problem in which the two grand strategies are at odds. The U.S. over the past two decades generally has conveyed its understanding that China has a major security interest in preventing the collapse of the North Korean regime because the refugee outflow and political ramifications of such an event would severely impact the PRC. Now, however, the acquisition of nuclear weaponry and long-range missile capability by the North has brought a fundamental security threat to the U.S. that no American administration can ignore. It thus becomes imperative that the U.S. and China seriously and cooperatively address the challenge to world order posed by North Korea.

Explain whether Trump’s “America First” policy can be considered a grand strategy.

Yes, the “America First” policy can be a grand strategy. Whether it will be a good grand strategy for America or for the world at large remains to be seen. The approach of President Trump is still in the making and has not yet been confronted by the kinds of international security challenges that are sure to come. At present, the Trump foreign policy approach, as indicated by him during the presidential election campaign and through the first weeks of his administration, does not seem very different from that of President Obama; that is, to focus on the security and success of the American homeland while becoming directly involved in fewer international crises. Three categories – near term, mid-term, and long-term – of challenges will determine the nature and definition of the Trump grand strategy. In the near term will come immediate forms of harassment actions designed to humiliate or embarrass the U.S. such as those periodically conducted by Iranian swift boats near American ships in the Persian Gulf. In the mid term will be steps required to defuse the North Korean threat. And in the long term will come the steps needed to sustain the international state system and world order among the great power centers of the world.

How might the American-led liberal world order evolve with the rise of China and apparent retreat of U.S. global leadership?

It is imperative to understand that the liberal world order has been co-extensive with and indispensable to the modern age itself. It is nearly 400 years that it has, based on the state, international law, and the doctrine of the juridical equality of states (as in the Member States of the United Nations) made possible the concepts of open trade, open expression, the ideal of consent of the governed, and the procedural universality of all peoples. If this world order is not preserved and allowed to flourish, “modern life” itself will come to an end.

At present, all the major power centers of the world are in an indifferent or antagonistic position toward this established world order. The European Union deliberately sought to transcend the system it gave birth to in 1648 at Westphalia by downgrading state powers, diminishing state sovereignty, and eliminating state borders. This has not worked well. Russia is challenging every aspect of the established system by causing trouble omnidirectionally. The Middle East is in the midst of a vast civil war to determine whether the entire region will remain inside the state system or become antagonistic toward it. China is displaying a heedless attitude toward international law of the sea and the comity of nations in general. Chinese intellectuals write and speak openly about their disaffection with the modern world order and their preparations for another form to come. And the U.S. has stepped back from its formerly well-established world role.

At this moment, uncertainty cannot be overcome. What can with a reasonable degree of certainty be said is that if the modern international state system continues in its downward spiral and moves toward its conclusion, China will not step into the American role as leader of the liberal world order; what replaces the modern state system will neither be liberal or orderly.