Is China really profiting from American overreach?

Over at The National Interest, Ted Galen Carpenter blogs that America’s militarized focus on the Middle East is providing a huge strategic opening for China:  Members of China’s political elite who are eager for the Middle Kingdom to displace the United States as the world’s leading power probably can’t believe their good fortune. America has ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Over at The National Interest, Ted Galen Carpenter blogs that America's militarized focus on the Middle East is providing a huge strategic opening for China: 

Members of China’s political elite who are eager for the Middle Kingdom to displace the United States as the world’s leading power probably can’t believe their good fortune. America has so many natural advantages that such a displacement would normally take several generations, if it occurred at all. Yet clumsy, counterproductive U.S. policies may be shortening that time frame dramatically....

Global meddling is also damaging the American brand with respect to political values and even popular culture. That is especially apparent in the Muslim world, where public opinion surveys reveal that positive views of the United States now sometimes languish in the single digits. But America’s popularity has waned even in Europe and other formerly very friendly regions. Even as Washington’s aggressive behavior alienates populations, especially in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, China is cultivating countries in those regions, portraying itself as a less intrusive, more cooperative political and economic partner.

Over at The National Interest, Ted Galen Carpenter blogs that America’s militarized focus on the Middle East is providing a huge strategic opening for China: 

Members of China’s political elite who are eager for the Middle Kingdom to displace the United States as the world’s leading power probably can’t believe their good fortune. America has so many natural advantages that such a displacement would normally take several generations, if it occurred at all. Yet clumsy, counterproductive U.S. policies may be shortening that time frame dramatically….

Global meddling is also damaging the American brand with respect to political values and even popular culture. That is especially apparent in the Muslim world, where public opinion surveys reveal that positive views of the United States now sometimes languish in the single digits. But America’s popularity has waned even in Europe and other formerly very friendly regions. Even as Washington’s aggressive behavior alienates populations, especially in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, China is cultivating countries in those regions, portraying itself as a less intrusive, more cooperative political and economic partner.

Um, Ted?  2006 called, and it wants the hackneyed geopolitical analysis back…. and sent via MySpace. 

Seriously, this blog post reads like it’s five years old.  It either ignores or elides the following facts: 

1)  America’s popularity in the rest of the world has rebounded quite  nicely since 2006

2)  Contrary to Carpenter’s claims, the Libya intervention has gone down rather well on the Arab street.

3)  China committed a series of foreign policy blunders in 2009 and 2010 that increased regional and global wariness about the Middle Kingdom and (according to China experts who talk to me) forced Beijing to rethink its grand strategy. 

4)  Chinese authorities are currently occupied with trying to censor news about the Arab revolutions, play hide and seek with its dissidents, get a grip on its real estate bubble, and avoid populist blowback for its Africa investments.  I’m not seeing a lot of successful efforts by Beijing to push the "less intrusive" line elsewhere in the globe. 

These are pretty important facts that get in the way of Carpenter’s analysis.  Now, there is a glimmer of truth to this kind of realpolitik argument.  Saudi Arabia, for example, is less than thrilled with how the Obama administration is handling the Arab revolutions, and it might cozy up more to Beijing as a result.  That said, if we’re really witnessing a fouth wave of democratization in the Middle East, does Carpenter seriously think that these regimes will automatically be more sympathetic to China than the United States?  That would be the realist argument, but I think this is one of those situaions when realists don’t sound terribly grounded in reality. 

There are a lot of good critiques that can be levied against American grand strategy and the Obama administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East.  The notion that China has gained a strategic advantage in recent months ain’t one of them. 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he is the co-director of the Russia and Eurasia Program. Twitter: @dandrezner

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