China will seek more authority, but not to overturn the existing liberal international order, said G. John Ikenberry, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University in a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun in Tokyo.
A well-known liberal theorist of international relations, Ikenberry describes China as the only possible “peer competitor” for the United States in terms of global influence, but it will not offer a different vision of the international order, because “China’s mercantilist capitalism requires a system of global free trade to be successful.”
But at the same time, Ikenberry warns that “the most fundamental clash between China and the United States in the years ahead will be over the role of the American-led alliance system.” Some in China find that it stands in the way of a multilateral regional security system that ties China to the region, according to Ikenberry. With a major updating process of the Japan-U.S. alliance under way, he advises Japan to be cautious about breaking out of its postwar system, which was known for its restrained security identity and was instrumental in achieving Japan’s postwar economic success.
Excerpts of the interview follow:
Question: In your recent Foreign Affairs piece, “Lean Forward,” China was described as “a potential contender for regional hegemony.” Why?
Ikenberry: China is on a great upward move, rapidly acquiring economic and military capabilities, and so it is increasingly able to project influence across Asia and the world. Among all the great powers--most of which are democratic and tied to the United States--it is really only China that poses a challenge to the United States as a so-called peer competitor. It is the only country that could someday rival the United States in terms of its global influence.
Q: And you expand that theme in your next book?
A: I’m writing a book about the rise of China and the future of the U.S.-led international order. And the question I’m asking is, “As China rises up, is it offering a fundamental challenge to that old liberal international order or is it going to integrate and cooperate within that order?”
Q: Your conclusion?
A: Well, I ultimately think that China will not be the kind of challenge that many people think it will be. I don’t think it’s going to be offering a different vision of international order. For one thing, China’s mercantilist capitalism requires, ultimately, a system of global free trade, to be successful. Also, as China gets more powerful and wealthy, it will actually have growing incentives to operate in a world of stable and agreed upon rules and institutions. They will have more “equities” to protect, and this will lead them more deeply into the existing order.
So, my argument is that China will seek more authority, but it will not seek to overturn the liberal international order and establish a kind of Chinese-centered world. It just won’t work. And even if China did have a radically different vision of international order, Beijing can’t lead the world in a direction that the world doesn’t want to go.
This is why the liberal democratic capitalist states need to work together to renew and upgrade international institutions and address problems that stand in the way of economic growth and social advancement. The “healthier” the existing order is, the greater the incentives that China will have to join and work within that order.
Q: But the way they think of their future seems different from the way you just described, because, especially after the shock from the collapse of U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers in 2008, they think their system is better in dealing with the crisis.
A: This is the critical issue, and you saw this during the 20th century and particularly during the Cold War: rival great powers making competing claims about where the world is going--about the direction of modernity, if you will--with each arguing that it offered the best model for how to develop and modernize and take the world into a better future.
And this is why a lot of the arguments in my work are directed at the liberal democracies. They need to get their house in order. They need to address issues of rising inequality, economic stagnation, fiscal crisis and political gridlock because, in the end, 20 years from now, whether China is casting a greater shadow over the West or whether the advanced industrialized liberal democracies are still at the center of world politics will ultimately hinge less on military questions and more on which countries--democracies or nondemocracies--are better able to solve social and economic problems and offer an attractive model for the future.
And I have a very strong view that, over the long term, authoritarian states are less legitimate and less effective in mobilizing and modernizing, even though China has shown us that a single party state that is growing quickly can throw resources at problems and can build great buildings and do impressive infrastructure projects.
But is that a model for the world? I’m not sure. Is it sustainable? I’m not sure. Is it free of corruption? Definitely not.
Q: What made you decide to write a book on China?
A: I think the debate about American foreign policy, in the years ahead, is going to center on whether the United States should continue to make global commitments and pursue deep engagement with the world. And, as this debate intensifies, I think it is very important to remind the American foreign policy thinkers of the accomplishments of the liberal international order with all of its various features--alliance partnership, extended deterrence, open markets, democratic solidarity and multilateral cooperation.
It’s a global system that has tied the United States to Europe, Asia and other parts of the world. And it’s a kind of global framework, a kind of complex modern order that has generated great successes--ushering in a golden era of growth, reintegrating of Germany and Japan, organizing the collective management of the world economy, facilitating democratic transitions after the Cold War in Europe, Asia and South America. We almost take the problem-solving capacity of liberal international order for granted, but it is a set of institutions and relationships that have allowed the world to live together in more peaceful and mutually beneficial ways than any other type of order or era of world history.
And I would say that the book I’m writing, hopefully, will send the message that the same framework can be used to engage and integrate a rising China. And it would be a mistake, furthermore, for the United States to give in to the voices that are suggesting that this old American era is over and now America needs to come home.
Q: You advocate the maintenance of “deep engagement.” But at the same time, you criticize “neo-imperial grand strategy,” such as the one during the administration of former President George W. Bush. What is the difference between those two?
A: That’s a good question and it’s a very important difference. For me, deep engagement means alliances and liberal internationalism. So, ultimately, it means security cooperation that is embodied in alliances in Asia, Europe and elsewhere, and a commitment to protecting the global commons and upholding global institutions, guided by agreed-upon rules and norms about diplomacy and trade.
And that’s an internationalism that can be called “liberal internationalism,” which should be distinguished from “neo-conservatism” and to some extent the “liberal hawk” position.
Q: What is “liberal hawk”?
A: It’s the Democratic version of neoconservatives. Among liberal internationalists, there is a subgroup which goes further than simply supporting an open, rule-based international order. These are liberal hawks. They see a special role for the United States and other liberal democracies in promoting democracy and intervening in troubled countries to protect people from violence and genocide. They go a step further than the traditional liberal internationalist perspective and advocate muscular responses to violence and despotism. They want to see the United Nations Security Council be the place where intervention is debated and approved. But they are willing to go around the U.N. if it won’t act, particularly if the violence rises to a “crime against humanity” standard.
I’m sympathetic to what they’re trying to accomplish. But what I want to make clear is that you can be an internationalist, you can be in favor of a vigorous American role in the world, and be very opposed to military interventions like the Iraq War and the unilateral preemptive use of force.
Q: China has come up with a new idea of “New Type of Major Power Relationship” to manage its relationship with the United States. I wonder how you perceive the current strategy of China, in terms of dealing with the outside world.
A: Well, I think that China, today, is more concerned with stabilizing its economy and making a transition from the export-led form of growth to one that entails more consumer spending and a more sustainable domestic growth model.
I think in the years ahead, the most fundamental clash between China and the United States will be over the role of the alliance, the American-led alliance system, as a source of stability in East Asia.
And to the extent voices in China are suggesting that there is something illegitimate about the American alliance system and that it stands in the way of a multilateral regional security system that would tie China more directly to the region--to the extent this is the Chinese vision--we’ve got problems.
The challenge, I think, is to find a larger vision that both the United States and China agree upon, one where there are both U.S.-led alliances and multilateral security mechanisms, a vision of regional order in which China can have more authority and voice, and one where countries in the region that are situated between the United States and China find agreeable with their vision of the future.
In the end--and this is very important--it’s not the United States or China that will determine what Asia looks like; it’s going to be the middle states--Japan, Korea, ASEAN countries--who are going to decide “How much America do we want in Asia, and how much China do we want in Asia, and how can we find a system where both are deeply involved in constructive ways?”
Q: But with the rebalance or pivot, didn’t the United States declare that it intends to maintain its primacy in this region and will not give away any part of its leadership to China?
A: I would put it slightly differently. I think the American strategy towards Asia is multifaceted, involving the reassurance of allies, engagement and integration of China, and the strengthening of an open regional system. So the United States is trying to do two things simultaneously--it is trying to pull China into the region and the global system as a stakeholder, doing so through engagement. And it is also trying to counterbalance China through the reinforcement and strengthening of the alliance system.
Stepping back, the great drama we’re seeing is really a movement from a hegemonic order in Asia, where the United States has been the focal point for security and economics, and for political stability, to one where there is, perhaps, less hegemony and more balance, more great power multipolar dynamics. And in that context, the United States is taking steps, with its allies, to provide counterweights to China, to allow countries in the region to hedge their futures by continuing to tie themselves to the United States in security, even as they increasingly are tied to China for economics.
Q: But the reality is China is not happy with the U.S. rebalance at all. And what’s happening as a consequence of this new U.S. initiative is the heightened tension between China and the United States.
A: Well, I think where I might make a criticism of rebalancing is that it’s not in America’s interest to wave its hands and say, “We are here. We are going to build up.” I think a quiet approach to affirming and deepening the alliance system is all that’s needed. It doesn’t really even need a label. And probably without a label it’s even more effective.
Q: Some policy experts point out that this rebalance actually exacerbated the deep-rooted, long-term strategic distrust between the United States and China. Do you agree?
A: Well, I think this distrust is real. But to the extent China sees a future in Asia where the United States is withdrawing its security system and the United States sees a future in Asia where the United States is not withdrawing, it’s not distrust; it’s just a disagreement. It’s a clash of visions.
I was taken aback by the Brookings report on strategic distrust and by the observation that my friend professor Wang Jisi (of Peking University) made in that report, that Chinese intellectuals do not credit this open, liberal-oriented international order as an important factor that allowed China to advance itself. Indeed, professor Wang reports that they tend to think the opposite, that China has risen up despite the efforts of the United States to block China’s rise. They think the liberal world system is stacked against them.
This view, it seems to me, is absolutely wrong. I would hope that China would recognize that the United States has not been hostile to China’s rise. It supported the open-door policy toward China, it championed China’s seat on the U.N. Security Council, and it has welcomed China into the WTO.
Q: The Japan-U.S. alliance is now in the process of readjustment. The Guidelines for Defense Cooperation between Japan and the United States are now being reviewed. How do you think this alliance should be adjusted?
A: I want to make one point very clear. I do not think that Japan should engage in a radical reassessment of its position in the world. It should, in fact, remember the goals and successes it achieved by not becoming a militarized great power. So, I think Japan should be very cautious about breaking out of its postwar system, embodied in the peace Constitution, alliance ties and restrained security identity.
The rise of China creates a convenient pretext for Japan to ignore some of those long-held commitments in how it approached and built its position in the world.
Q: You don’t think it’s a good idea for Japan’s Abe administration to change the interpretation of the Constitution so that Japan can exercise the right to collective defense?
A: I’m not arguing that any constitutional reform would be bad. There are certainly some constitutional changes that would bring the Constitution in line with reality. What I am cautioning is what we might call a “big constitutional change,” which would truly transform Japan’s security identity in the region.
Q: By “big change,” do you mean amending Article 9, which renounces the war as a tool to settle the international disputes?
A: What I mean is that a big step would be less about the Constitution than about defense spending and signals about projection of force, and not so much a constitutional signal as a signal about Japan’s military posture in the region.
Q: But it is the United States who wants Japan to take on a larger security role.
A: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emphasized in his Jakarta speech and in his speech in Washington at CSIS that Japan’s foreign policy identity is really about three things: Supporting international rules and institutions, protecting the global commons, and embracing democratic and human rights ideals. For me, this should be the core of Japan’s message to China and the region. And it is important for Japanese leaders to emphasize these goals and commitments, particularly as Japan takes steps to enhance its military and alliance capabilities.
If Japan is simply seen, in the region, as bent on becoming a normal military state, Japan is going to be worse off at the end of the day than it is today. So Japan needs to be doing two things at the same time. It needs to be in intense conversation with the United States about alliance capabilities, but it also needs to be sending signals to China and Korea about what Japan is, and its eagerness to work through historical memory issues and to remain a kind of special great power that supports the United Nations and the internationalist aspects of the global system.
Q: Japan-China relations are now perhaps at an all-time low since the end of World War II. And the immediate event which triggered this exacerbation was, of course, Japan’s “nationalization” of the Senkaku Islands. How do you see the current status of the Japan-China relationship?
A: It’s in a very dangerous position, and I think that it’s one that both sides are going to have to address though diplomacy. Both sides need to step back, cool off the dispute over the islands and begin looking for some of the kinds of solutions that ASEAN and China may be finding for the South China Sea.
And the responsibility is as much on China as it is on Japan because it seems to me that the Chinese leaders need to keep their nationalist politics under control. This is not going to be an issue that is going to advance Chinese interests.
Q: What is it that the United States wants Japan to do under these circumstances?
A: Americans are sending a message to Japan to increase defense spending and to put Japan in a position where it can fulfill not only its alliance role more effectively, but actually to become a more capable military power in the region. There’s room for Japan to do more, for sure. But, Japan needs to realize that in going down this so-called normalization route, it risks a backlash in the region that could put Japan in a worse position than it is now.
The key for Japan is to wrap its security agenda of enhanced military capabilities into a renewal of its role as a so-called global civilian power--a champion of nonproliferation, the rule of law and peaceful settlement of disputes.
Q: What else?
A: Japan should start thinking about a kind of arms control agenda for Asia. Japan is charting a path of more defense spending because it sees China rapidly increasing its military capabilities. The United States is also responding to China’s moves with its own military modernization efforts. So what we are starting to see is a sort of action-reaction sequence that leaves everyone worse off while creating greater risks of conflict. As an alternative, Japan--which has a certain moral authority because of the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki--could become a leader in the region by advocating an arms control agenda. It might advance proposals, for example, for a moratorium on new kinds of weapons systems. There would be gestures of, “I will restrain if you restrain.”
* * *
G. John Ikenberry is the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of the award-winning book, "After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars," and more recently, "Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order." In 2013-14, Ikenberry is the Eastman Visiting Professor at Balliol College, Oxford University.
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