No one in their right mind wants a war with China. There are, of course, circumstances in which a hot war would be unavoidable. It would, for example, become necessary in defense of Taiwan or Japan or any other of our allies in the region. To my mind, upholding the long-standing principle of “the freedom of the seas” is also worth the risk of conflict.
Outside of the most dire circumstances, however, most Americans want peaceful, commerce-enabling relations with Beijing. We also want China to evolve into a liberal polity. That evolution need not produce a full-blown Jeffersonian democracy; I’ll take the Singapore political model. And as a believer in natural rights – and the sort of conservatism that stems from it – I don’t think that’s impossible.
But if U.S. foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific is to avoid outcomes that no one wants and to maximize prospects for peace and liberal values, we have got to recognize some ground realities about China.
First, with regard to the situation in Hong Kong: the truth is that Hong Kong is a part of China. We may not like it, but we’re stuck with the deal the Brits negotiated back in the ‘80s. That doesn’t mean we can’t have opinions on what happens there. We can certainly enact bills like the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act to better align policy with the current state of affairs. And we can call Beijing to account on the basis of the international treaty it signed with the Brits.
But Hong Kong’s status as a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China means that our ability to prevent Beijing from undertaking anything as stupid as military or armed-police action there is extremely limited. Beijing will certainly never agree to talks with the U.S. over political developments in Hong Kong. From its perspective, neither we, nor the Brits, nor anyone else in the world has the standing.
Second, with regard to the prospects of a second cold war (or decoupling or whatever you want to call it): a Beijing-led crackdown in Hong Kong could precipitate something approximating that. It would so isolate China, that the once unthinkable, like international boycotts, would become quite possible. Short of such an epoch-changing event, however, a new cold war is not in the cards.
In fact, an American effort to pursue a strictly confrontational approach to China will result in its own isolation. Imagine a “long twilight struggle” with fewer than half the allies we had during the last one, and probably not the most important of them – their refusal attributable, if nothing else, to the critical role China plays in their own economies.
Which brings us to the third core reality: money talks in Asia. Yes, that holds true most anywhere. But if in the Middle East, there is a driving interest in conflict, this is not the predominant motivator of international relations in Asia.
And, yes, Asia has its fair share of high-minded people serving causes greater than themselves. I’ve met and admire many of them. But as a general matter, your average Indo-Pacific citizen is not waking up thinking about how to retake a piece of stolen property or seek revenge for a historical misdeed—at least, not regarding China anyway. He or she is looking to make a buck.
What this means for our China policy is that you can’t beat something with nothing, and you shouldn’t want to. The Chinese government has a lot of money to spend abroad, and the region is going to take it. Most of the investments under its Belt and Road Initiative are good. And where they are not, it’s fine for the U.S. to warn countries about the financial risk.
But we must recognize that their bureaucrats already know the risks. I know many of them, too, and among them are some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. The issue is that politicians in places where Chinese investment poses a problem don’t listen to their bureaucrats. Politicians there have their own, sometimes personal and corrupt reasons, for proceeding. You’re not going to change that by throwing good money after bad.
The fourth core reality is that much of the Indo-Pacific is disinterested in geopolitics. While there are notable exceptions—New Delhi, Tokyo, Canberra, and Singapore—most of the elites in the region just don’t care about the geopolitical risk China poses.
In places like Manila, Hanoi, Kuala Lumpur, and Jakarta, officials and politicians overwhelmingly concern themselves with local strategies to secure local interests. Seoul is so intensely focused on North Korea and wartime grievances vis-a-vis Japan, that it has no time for anything else. Manila cares about its claims to the South China Sea – or it did before Duterte took office – but it is not worried about the theoretical rise of China. It is similar with Vietnam. There is no U.S.-Vietnam alliance in the offing to “balance” China. In fact, as my colleague Dean Cheng points out, there is no tradition of “balancing” in East Asia. If the Chinese can address the region’s most acute local concerns, their neighbors are more likely to accommodate their regional leadership than oppose it.
So where do these realities leave us? They should leave Americans as idealistic as ever, but cognizant that idealism is about outcomes. When applied to analysis, it is naiveté.
Walter Lohman is director of The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.