China Is Overreaching — Does the U.S. Have a Plan?

China Is Overreaching — Does the U.S. Have a Plan?

Dan Twining’s excellent post-mortem on the Shangri-La security summit in Singapore accurately captured China’s isolation in Asia on both security and values issues. There is more to the story though. The Shangri-La meeting came just a week after China hosted the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), a once sleepy gathering organized by Kazakhstan that Chinese President Xi Jinping took over this year in an effort to form a new continental security system to counter the United States and Japan’s strengthening network of maritime democracies. In another over-reach, Beijing thought that Japan-South Korea tensions over history and growing Sino-Korean economic ties would provide an opening to enlist South Korea in that continental system and to pull Seoul away from the United States. 

In the lead up to CICA, Beijing pushed hard for all the participating countries to sign on to a joint statement that declared bilateral alliances obsolete in Asia and called for a new system of security that would be hailed by Xi Jinping in his keynote speech to the conference. U.S. allies Turkey and Israel signed on, but the Koreans held firm and the joint statement was watered down, though Xi did make his declaration in the keynote speech anyway. The Chinese also tried to get Korea to sign on to a new common front against Japan on history issues, but Seoul rebuffed Beijing again, explaining that these were bilateral problems with Japan and not a reason for Sino-ROK cooperation.

The extent to which Beijing’s aggressiveness is pushing the region to the United States for security cooperation was evident in a recent poll we conducted at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) of foreign policy elites across Asia. In the survey we asked experts in 12 countries what future order they expected in Asia in a decade and a majority answered that it would be one led by the United States (as opposed to a Sino-centric system, balance of power, U.S.-China condominium, or East Asian Community). Outside of China, a majority of respondents also said they preferred a U.S.-led system. Koreans were among the most enthusiastic about retaining U.S.-leadership in the region. This was not surprising, given that a significant majority outside of China thought it was having a negative impact on regional security, despite enthusiasm about economic ties with China.

But is the United States up to this leadership? The survey showed enthusiasm for the "rebalance" (also known as "the pivot"), but real concern about whether it will be implemented. More troubling was the curious divergence between American foreign policy elites and their Asian counterparts on democracy and human rights. When we did this survey five years ago, there was a stunning consensus outside of China on the need for Asia’s future order to be built on free and fair elections, human rights and rule of law (caveated by Indians and Indonesians on the need for non-interference in internal affairs).

The support for democratic norms increased even more this time, but no thanks to the Americans. The percentage of American foreign policy elites who said it was important to promote free and fair elections in Asia dropped from 86 percent to 66 percent, and those arguing human rights mattered to regional order dropped from 94 percent to 72 percent. This is still a majority, but the Americans were dead last on promoting human rights and women’s empowerment — behind even the Chinese respondents.

Why, as Asians embrace these democratic norms, are American foreign policy elites moving away from them as a core element of our foreign policy? Part of the reason has to be the setbacks in the Middle East and perhaps even frustration with our own democratic process, but I suspect one big reason is the trickle-down effect of the Obama administration’s faux realism. My guess is that a content analysis of speeches and public national security documents relating to Asia (and for that matter, the world) would find that the Obama administration references democracy and human rights less than any President since Nixon — and possibly since Warren G. Harding (Nixon, after all, gave a full-throated endorsement of democracy in Asia even in his famous 1972 Shanghai Communiqué). Oh well. At least we have something to work with, as Dan Twining points out.