INTERVIEW/ Aaron Friedberg: More balancing needed than engagement with China

September 13, 2012

By YOICHI KATO/ National Security Correspondent

PRINCETON, New Jersey--Bilateral relations between the United States and China remain tense, and those ties are bound to further deteriorate if Beijing does not embrace more liberal democracy.

So says Aaron Friedberg, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University.

In a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun, Friedberg, an Asian policy adviser for Mitt Romney, the GOP candidate for the U.S. presidential election, called for greater emphasis on balancing rather than engagement to deal with China's emergence as a world power.

He said that if nations in the region, such as Japan, bend on territorial disputes with China, Beijing will just keep pushing.

Excerpts of the interview follow:

* * *

Question: You wrote in your recent book "A Contest for Supremacy" that China does not fit into any existing category of U.S. strategic thought, not as a trusted friend nor as a sworn enemy. What is it?

Answer: Well, I think China is obviously a rising power in the sense that it's growing rapidly economically and increasing its military power. And those factors, in and of themselves would not be a great concern. The real source of the concern is the combination of China's growing wealth and power, and the unchanging character of its political regime, the fact that it's still ruled by a one-party, authoritarian dictatorship.

If China continues to grow wealthier and more powerful, but if its political system doesn't change, then the tensions between the United States and China, which are already evident, are going to grow.

Q: How do you evaluate the China policy of the Obama administration?

A: Over the last 20 years, regardless of political party, American administrations have pursued a strategy, which is more or less constant, in its broad outlines. This strategy includes elements of engagement, economic and diplomatic. It also included efforts to maintain a favorable balance of power in Asia, even as China grows stronger. I think it's the policy of the Obama administration, too, and I don't expect a dramatic change, whether the next president is Mitt Romney or it's President Obama in a second term.

Q: But didn't the Obama administration change its approach?

A: The Obama administration, when it came into office in 2009, wanted to change the mix of the elements. They wanted to emphasize the engagement part and to downplay the balancing part.

The then-deputy secretary of state, James Steinberg, said the watchword of American policy should be “strategic reassurance.” The word “hedging,” which had been used by the Pentagon in the Bush administration, was effectively banned from the official vocabulary.

What happened was that the Chinese proceeded to do a number of things, both in their relationship with the United States and in their relations with Japan, South Korea, and the smaller countries of Southeast Asia; India too, which really caused a great deal of anxiety about Chinese intentions, Chinese assertiveness. The Obama administration, starting in 2010, really began to change direction. They didn't abandon engagement, but placed a lot more emphasis on the balancing part of the long-standing U.S. strategy. The president's visit to Asia in November, 2011, was the most dramatic example of this shift, when he went to Australia and announced the deployment of some American Marines.

Q: What does this change tell you?

A: I think what it tells me is that you have to get the mix of these two elements right, first.

And we have to place greater emphasis on balancing, because what happened was, particularly in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 financial crisis, that many people in China concluded that China was rising even more rapidly than they had expected, and that the United States was declining faster than they thought it would. And that encouraged a certain arrogance and willingness to push.

Q: How should we respond?

A: Part of what we have to do is to demonstrate our resolve and build up our capabilities to maintain a balance, in the face of China’s growing capabilities and growing confidence. If we can do that, I think we then discourage any thought on the part of Chinese decision-makers that they can get what they want by threats or coercion, and force them to focus more on cooperation.

Q: You think the engagement approach has its limits?

A: I do think that there are limits to what we can expect from engagement. In the United States, there has been a tendency to over-sell what we’ve accomplished, at least in the diplomatic domain. People are always talking about how helpful China is going to be on dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue or the Iranian nuclear issue, or after 9/11, dealing with terrorism. And yet, when you look at those issues, in fact, China has not been very helpful. Another aspect of the engagement policy, which I think is being re-examined, is the hope, the expectation that engagement would hasten political reform in China.

Q: So, you are saying that China won't embrace democracy, even if it achieves prosperity?

A: I don’t know too many people who are, at this point, willing to say in five years, in 10 years, in 15 years, China will be moving toward democracy. We may be faced with a country that looks like an even bigger and stronger version of what it is now, an authoritarian regime with a one-party system, that is determined to maintain its grip on political power.

Q: How long can it last?

A: Now, will they be able to continue this indefinitely? I don’t think so. I think the current system has contradictions that will ultimately lead to its demise. But this could take a while. And the Chinese regime could mutate into something different than what it is now, but which would not be a liberal democracy.

Q: Then what?

A: Well, it could become, essentially, a fascist regime, statist, with an emphasis on militarism and nationalism. I think there are some elements of that present in Chinese political culture and in the rhetoric of the state, even now.

Q: There has been the 10-year war in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the main strategic focus was on the war on terrorism. Was that a strategic distraction?

A: Definitely, without question. 9/11 was, in a strategic sense, a gift for China. It was something that deflected the United States from what appeared to be an increasing focus on China.

And, in a sense, we have come back to that now, 10 years later. If it were not for 9/11, if not for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I think the United States would be much further along in developing the kinds of military capabilities it needs, to counter China’s growing anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) capabilities.

Q: Given the current budget crunch, can the United States maintain the balance with China?

A: If we look at the countries around China that share an interest in not allowing China to be the dominant force in the region, and we add up their GDPs, there's no reason why these countries, which include Japan, South Korea, the United States, Australia, India, and some smaller countries as well, Vietnam and the Philippines, shouldn't be able to maintain a balance. The question is whether we're going to do it. And that's a matter of political will.

The other thing we need to look at is China's potential vulnerabilities. It is by no means inevitable that China is going to continue to grow at anything resembling the rate that it has been growing thus far.

It's premature to come to the conclusion that China is inevitably going to be a dominant power in the region and that we should be giving it what it wants now in the hopes of appeasing it.

If we were to fail to maintain the balance, the most likely path would not be one in which there would be direct conflict, but in which China would simply be able to exert greater and greater influence, greater and greater control, over what went on in its region.

My greatest concern is not some deliberate decision on the part of China's leaders to seek a confrontation with the United States or with Japan, but a miscalculation that could lead to escalation and conflict, that would grow out of a mistaken belief that the United States and its allies didn't have the capabilities or the resolve to stand up to China.

Q: The Obama administration claims that the United States is a “Pacific power.” How does China regard that statement?

A: I think, from a Chinese perspective, the United States is an outside power. We're there because of the results of the Second World War, basically. We maintain the position that we have because of what they describe as “unequal treaties,” with Japan, South Korea and others that allow us to maintain our forces there.

In their view, it is not inevitable that the United States will remain. In fact, they believe that eventually the United States will go home and, at that point, they believe, China will resume its rightful place as the dominant country in the region. And I think that’s their objective, to weaken the basis of American alliances and to ease us out of the region.

I use the phrase from Sun Tzu, to “win without fighting.” That's their objective, to create conditions in which resistance to China's power is seen as being futile, and the only choice that anybody has is to accommodate as best they can with China.

Q: Do you think China can achieve that goal?

A: I think there are many reasons to believe that they won't be able to achieve that. One is the resources that are available on the other side to maintain a balance. The other is something we've seen in the last couple of years, and may see more of, which is that China's own behavior can provoke balancing. Look at what happened with the change of government in Japan (in 2009). There was the best chance that China has had, certainly since the end of the Cold War, to fundamentally alter its relationship with Japan and perhaps to weaken the Japanese tie to the U.S. But what did they do? As soon as there was a minor crisis (the fishing boat incident off the Senkakus), they blew it up into a major diplomatic confrontation. Beijing showed its ugly face and made people in Japan realize that they couldn’t live under Chinese domination.

China has helped us more, strategically, in the last two years than anything we've done on our own, by the way that they've behaved. The question is whether China is now going to go back to a somewhat quieter, more strategically rational approach, or whether it's going to continue with this kind of assertive stance.

Q: They backed off in 2011, after the series of assertive actions backfired, didn't they? Was it just a tactical retreat?

A: I think so. Even if they did back off, it would be a tactical retreat. It's not like it would be a fundamental change in strategy.

Q: What do you think is happening in China?

A: Things in China may be changing. The military may be increasing its political role. The domestic political system seems to be evolving toward a kind of weak collective leadership, where interestingly the safe decision in a crisis or in any kind of relationship of tension may be to adopt a more assertive stance. No one wants to be accused of being soft on Japan. No one wants to be seen to be soft on the United States.

I think we're going to see a continuation of this trend. In this situation nationalism or “hyper nationalism,” as some people describe it, will be a major force in China.

The question is whether what we saw in 2008-2009-2010 was an aberration or the wave of the future. And I don't know the answer yet.

There's some reason to believe, however, that it was an indication of what's to come. And that could mean a bumpy ride, more tension, and more confrontation.

Q: You are one of the foreign policy advisers in charge of the Asia-Pacific for the Romney campaign. What kind of changes are we going to see if Romney wins the upcoming election, in terms of China policy?

A: I think, based on what he's said, and pretty consistently across a range of issues, his inclination would be to adopt a firm stance in dealing with China. I think a Romney administration would be more likely to maintain defense budgets closer to what they are now rather than cutting them. Governor Romney has already said specifically that he favors increasing the size and capabilities of the U.S. Navy, which is clearly focused largely on the Asia-Pacific region. He’s also made some pretty tough statements about Chinese economic policies, about currency valuation and also about intellectual property rights, and I think he believes very strongly that it’s necessary for the United States, and other countries, to push back and not to allow the Chinese to get away with some of the things they're getting away with.

Q: You wrote, “Without active cooperation from friends and allies, regional partners, Washington cannot hope, in the long run, to balance against China.” What is the role that you expect Japan to play?

A: What the United States and Japan need to do is to come to a clearer understanding of how they're going to divide the labor in competing against China in the Asia-Pacific. There are things that both countries can do more effectively if we could coordinate our efforts more efficiently. And I’m thinking, in particular, of defending the sea lines of communication, and also preventing the disruption of them by Chinese submarines and other naval forces.

I think we have a convergent interest in the cyber realm, in devising common approaches to dealing with this problem which, in large measure, originates in China.

I think it's a very good thing that Japan has lifted its ban on arms exports, because smaller countries in the region need to increase their own self-defense capabilities and, in many cases, the kinds of systems that they need are not the things that the United States might manufacture itself.

I think Japan also, for its own reasons, is doing things which serve this greater cause, by having greater military-to-military dialogue and cooperation with India, having its own conversations with Australia, with Vietnam. We're not going to create an Asian NATO. But, what would be desirable is something that’s now growing organically, which is a network of multilateral arrangements that are not formal treaty arrangements but which, taken together, knit all of these countries more closely together strategically.

Q: The Senkaku issue is getting really hot. Any advice?

A: I think China's approach in dealing with all of these maritime issues, is to push and push and push. They'll retreat when there is resistance, but they never go all the way back to where they were before. So, I think it's necessary to push back.

I think they do believe that they are legitimately entitled to control most of the resources of the Western Pacific, and they also think they need them for their economic development. So, I'm not sure, at this point, there is a win-win solution, as the Chinese like to say. If there is one, it's only going to emerge in a situation in which the other countries in the region are strong enough to stand up to Chinese pressure. If they bend, the Chinese will just continue to push.

By YOICHI KATO/ National Security Correspondent
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Aaron Friedberg (Photo by Yuko Lanham)

Aaron Friedberg (Photo by Yuko Lanham)

  • Aaron Friedberg (Photo by Yuko Lanham)
  • Aaron Friedberg (Photo by Yuko Lanham)

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