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The Harmonious Non-Start of Pacific Strategic Cooperation?

June 14, 2010

Last week’s unusually candid exchanges between US and Chinese military and defense officials have brought to public attention the vital limits of Sino-American cooperation. The kind of language that Mullen, Gates, and Chinese officers use stands in stark contrasts to the rhetoric of cooperation, harmony and shared interests that the NSS or other statements of grand strategy. The American bid to adjust to the rise of new powers and leverage its leadership multilaterally to share the burdens of maintaining a new international order sounds great on paper (logically, if not stylistically – it does not make for the most inspired rhetoric), but it will fail if its constituents do not share  an understanding of what international order actually entails.

Does international order and cooperation mean an armed Taiwan with de facto political-military independence from the mainland, Finlandization, or the return of the “rogue province?” Does it mean China drops or solidifies its claims on the South China Sea? Does it mean Chinese abetting with, acquiescing to, or standing firmly against the undermining of the Kim family regime in North Korea? This is not to say compromise is impossible on any of these issues, but because there is risk of political conflict and economic disruption, we cannot assume that persuasion or a convergence of interests will take care of things. Grand strategy requires priorities among the geographies and principles that constitute our interests. When all our principles are sacrosanct and our interests are universal rather than particular, the cumulative effect is not the transcendence of local enmities and the rise of value or rule-based order, it is incoherence and misperception. It is good that a more concrete vision of strategy informs the US military when it thinks and speaks about China – but the military alone cannot and should not make grand strategy. America needs a clear strategy for managing China’s rise. The current hodgepodge of lukewarm diplomatic efforts, criticism on currency issues, and suspicion about military aims will not do. Our current NSS hedges its virtually unlimited conception of our interests with proclamations that internal renewal and international engagement will be necessary to overcome the limits of our resources. Deferring greater responsibility and leeway to a great power with obviously disparate interests on vital issues means sacrificing some of those interests. That is the price of retrenchment and multilateralism. As the ongoing deterioration of political-military issues demonstrates, if we cannot ascertain or prioritize what we are willing to give up or concede to China, or China to us, then we are due for steeper challenges in the 21st century’s most important bilateral relationship.

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