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Interests, not morals, explain China’s isolation

March 20, 2012

Minxin Pei has an interesting article out in foreign policy on China’s diplomatic isolation. At first, his article has solid argumentation: China is in a fiercely competitive neighborhood, and as a centrally-located rising power with presumably revisionist intentions, it has a geographically logical array of potential rivals. As I have noted before, countries see an alliance with the United States, an offshore power with no territorial ambitions in Asia and a general satisfaction with the status quo, as less potentially dangerous than a rising China whose intentions are unknown and whose ambitions are likely close to home. Even for states that do not fear Chinese aggression, they will at least tack a neutral course for fear of offending the U.S. and anti-Chinese powers, or they will genuinely see a greater advantage, as middle powers often do, in allying with an offshore balancing state rather than bandwagoning with a local hegemon.

But Pei’s second explanation, that China’s political system is limiting its alliance choices, makes far less sense:

If geography conspires to deprive Beijing of durable security allies, the Chinese one-party system also seriously limits the range of candidates that can be recruited into Beijing’s orbit. Liberal democracies — mostly prosperous, influential, and powerful — are out of reach because of the domestic and international liabilities of forming an alliance with a dictatorship. China and the EU wouldn’t forge a security alliance; the rhetoric elevation of their relationship to a “strategic partnership,” is immediately made hollow by the existing EU arms embargo against China and incessant trade disputes.

Daniel Larison rightly tears into the bizarre nature of the European Union claim:

There are many reasons why China and the EU wouldn’t forge a security alliance. For one thing, a common European foreign policy has been notoriously difficult to formulate, which is why the EU does not collectively wield nearly as much influence in international affairs as its wealth, population, and military power might otherwise allow. Even if some EU members saw value in a security alliance with China (which they wouldn’t), it would be virtually impossible to get the rest to agree to it. Besides, the EU has no need of a Chinese alliance. There would need to be a common threat that unites them, and no such threat exists. Russia has ceased to be a real threat to European security, the membership of the EU and NATO is almost identical, and alliances with the U.S. would preclude alliances with China. There are no shared Chinese-European security interests that a formal alliance would serve. If that changed in the future, and if it became valuable to have China as an ally, it is doubtful that China’s form of government would matter very much.

Even if there were matters of common concern besides Russia, neither side really has the independent military capability to assist the other. The European Union states do not have the naval capability to seriously challenge a rival power’s fleet in the Pacific or likely even the Indian Ocean. The Royal Navy now has roughly the same number of frigates and destroyers that were sunk or damaged during the Falklands War. France, for its part, has a carrier, but even the combined might of European fleets would be hard pressed to put together the logistical tail and the combat strength to seriously throw their weight around in Asian waters in a real shooting war – and for what end would they want to? Similarly, China is still developing the naval power projection just to be able to have a credible presence in the Malaccas. In the face of great power opposition, China would find it extremely difficult to effectively project naval power versus a peer competitor west of Southeast Asia.

But just because China and the European Union aren’t about to enter a security pact anytime soon doesn’t mean there could be more potential cooperation. Pei mentions the arms embargo on China as proof that China’s regime is holding it back. But this argument is relatively unconvincing.

Many European countries would be open to ending the EU arms embargo on China. France, in particular, has frequently questioned the value of the embargo and even demands on mere human rights improvement conditions. In 2004, a variety of other countries – including Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Greece, and Italy were also basically open to the possibility, and sometimes seemed more concern about regional security implications than Beijing’s government type. When the idea reappeared recently, it was the UK, a reliable U.S. ally which stood strongly against the measure. While party politics within each country have contributed to some shifts in position in 2010, portraying EU as unified against China’s one-party system is grossly misleading.

Upon examination, it is the United States, which has deliberately discouraged the formation of an independent European security policy outside of NATO, and it, along with ally Japan, is one of the more likely targets of European arms sold to China, which has strenuously opposed European arms sales to China at virtually every turn. Although the European Parliament has been more supportive  of human rights issues, the enormous influence of the United States on European security decisions is likely playing a far more important role. France and the UK already sell significant amounts of military technologies for large conventional weapons to China, and France has concluded arms deals with Russia, such as for the Mistral-class vessels, which suggest it’s far less queasy about arming despots than Pei implies.

It is true that China is often forced into relationships with pariah states – but when this is not explicable in terms of basic political-military geography, as Pei acknowledges, U.S. pressure often has a far larger role to play than critics of China would like to admit. Were the U.S. not able to lend so much diplomatic, economic, and military power to its moral preferences, there would be few inherent moral barriers to many relatively democratic or liberal states entering into relationships with Beijing.

Take India. India is a rival of China, but primarily for geopolitical considerations, rather than ideological ones. Indeed, India does not have many qualms about tolerating odious regimes or partnering with undemocratic ones. As has been a source of significant consternation lately, India has been reluctant to commit to isolating Iran. It also began cultivating partnerships on strategic issues with Burma years before the country showed any sign of reform because of balance of power considerations against China. India is also a close partner in military arms exchanges with Russia. India’s democracy has hardly been a barrier to the cultivation of ties with autocracies. Brazil, for its part, is also willing to cooperate with the Chinese military on naval platform development. Were a democratic state to find closer relationship with China advantageous, and were the U.S. or some other powerful state not to deter it, there would be nothing preventing them from forging such a bond.

Pei notes that Russia is hardly an easy ally of China, primarily for geostrategic reasons:

Russia is the closest thing China has to a powerful quasi-ally. Their shared fear and loathing of the West, particularly of the United States, has brought Moscow and Beijing ever closer to each other. Yes, their common economic interests are dwindling: Russia has disappointed China by declining to deliver advanced weapons and energy supplies, while China has not lent enough support to Russia in its feud with the United States over missile defense and Georgia. But in a strictly tactical sense, China and Russia have become partners of convenience, cooperating at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to avoid isolation and protect each other’s vital interests. On Iran, they coordinate closely with each other to moderate the West’s pressures on Tehran. On Syria, they twice jointly vetoed UNSC resolutions to protect the Assad regime. Yet any honest Russian or Chinese would tell you point-blank that they are no allies; their strategic distrust of each other makes genuine alliance impossible.

What is ludicrous about U.S. policy, though, is that the U.S. consistently chooses to exacerbate issues which bring two naturally distrustful and rivalrous powers together, rather than taking advantage in their often competing national interests to balance them against each other. R2P and Iran are two issues on which the United States has alienated Asian powers with respect for sovereignty rights at little strategic gain to itself. Meanwhile, so long as U.S. foreign policy commentators insist that the United States stand against authoritarianism and one-party states, it gives Russia and China more common ground to stand on. If the U.S. was less insistent on its democratic allies staying further away from authoritarian great powers, this uneasy partnership would be in even worse condition. Continual insistence on the necessity of China moving away from authoritarianism produces exactly the sort of paranoia about American intentions that makes an alliance with a rival neighbor seem attractive. Not only do they produce such an effect, but U.S. efforts to isolate authoritarian powers make them more likely to support authoritarian clients, and in turn increases the risk that interventions in countries such as, say, Serbia, Iraq, or Syria could damage U.S. relations with non-democratic great powers.

Understanding that the foundations of the favorable diplomatic map in Asia derive from geostrategic and balance of power considerations, rather than any kind of inevitable flaw in foreign authoritarian diplomacy, is essential to maintaining a stable and secure region. If Americans place too much faith in ideological revulsion, they may be unpleasantly surprised to find that as U.S. ability to exert pressure on democratic states wanes, other states may be more willing than expected to cooperate with the supposedly untouchable one-party regime in Beijing. Not only that, but it would also likely lose out on opportunities to leverage conflicts in the national interests of authoritarian states to American advantage. Pei’s absolutely correct that the balance of power is unlikely to yield a Chinese century. But if we’re wrong about what the sources of stability and friction really are, the chances that we could stumble into or encourage a conflict unnecessarily greatly increase.

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