- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
There’s a must-read op-ed in today’s New York Times by Yan Xuetong, the dean of the School of Modern International Relations as Tsinghua University. Writing as a self-described "realist," Yan acknowledges that the emerging Sino-American competition is a zero-sum game (an idea deemed politically incorrect by many inside-the-Beltway), and plainly states that "competition between the United States and China is inevitable." He approvingly quotes past Chinese sages as emphasizing that "the key to international influence was political power."
Part of the novelty in Yan’s essay is his emphasis on political morality. Power is critical, he says, but "the central attribute of political power was morally informed leadership." Accordingly, the future struggle between the United States and China will be won by the government that best demonstrates what he terms "humane authority," which is material power fused with moral principle. In his words, "states relying on military or economic power without concern for morally informed leadership are bound to fail." Even more interestingly, he says the essential "humane authority begins by creating a desirable model at home that inspires people abroad."
There’s a lot of wisdom in this essay, as well as a subtle warning. On the one hand, Yan offers a neat summary of America’s current advantages over China: our model of governance, tarnished though it is, is still more attractive than Chinese-style authoritarianism. America’s past efforts to stabilize key regions have won it a large array of allies around the world, although these ties have been weakened by a decade of folly and misplaced aggression. U.S. society remains far more open to talented immigrants, such as AIDs researcher David Ho, journalist Fareed Zakaria, the late General John Shalikashvili, or former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and State Madeleine Albright. Yan offers a set of prescriptions clearly intended for Chinese readers: the country must assume more global responsibilities, open itself up to talented individuals from overseas, and "develop more high-quality diplomatic relationships."
But on the other hand, Yan also believes China "needs to create additional regional security arrangements with surrounding countries," and says its leaders "must play a larger role on the world stage and offer more security protection and economic support to less powerful countries." These words sound innocuous, but they actually reflect China’s understandable desire to create a sphere of influence in key areas, and especially in East and Southeast Asia. Why should countries like South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, or Indonesia maintain security ties with the United States, if Beijing is willing to offer beneficial economic ties and "protection?"
This is what all great powers tend to do as they grow stronger: they extend "protection" to weaker states in their vicinity in order to make sure that those states adopt foreign policies that do not threaten the larger power’s interests. ("Hmmmm. Nice country you’ve got there. Would hate to see anything happen to it.") This doesn’t mean China wants to conquer its neighbors or incorporate them into a formal empire, because that would be hard to do in an era of nationalism and wouldn’t be worth the effort. Instead, the long-term goal is merely to ensure that its weaker neighbors defer to Chinese interests on key issues, including the future role of the United States in the region.
And as I outlined last week, that is why Sino-American competition in the years ahead is going to be primarily a competition for allies. Yan maintains that "there is little danger of military clashes" and that "neither China nor America needs proxy wars to protect its strategic interests." He’s right in theory — neither state needs such things and both would do well to avoid them — but that is no guarantee that they won’t happen anyway.
And to bring this full circle: that is why the latest episode of Congressional dysfunction — the failure of the inaptly named "supercommittee" — is so worrisome. The United States possesses the basic ingredients needed to more than hold its own in a future competition with China — a competition that is already underway — were it not for our growing talent for podiatric marksmanship (i.e., shooting ourselves in the foot). Whether the issue is the GOP’s stalwart effort to protect the super-wealthy, the bipartisan commitment to throwing good money after bad in Afghanistan, or the gradual hollowing out of the essential sinews of an advanced society (schools, roads, power grids, transport hubs, etc.), it is clear that our problem is not a rising China. On the contrary, the real problem is a befuddled and aimless political class, comprised of men and women lacking knowledge, accountability, political courage, or any genuine commitment to the common weal. What they’ve got in spades is personal ambition, but not much else. If "morally informed leadership" is a prerequisite for success, then we are in big trouble.