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In U.S.-China Standoff, Is America a Reliable Ally?

Sowing doubts about Washington is a potent weapon for Beijing. But even after Afghanistan, U.S. strategy in Asia remains intact.

By , the chairman of the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and a Singaporean ambassador-at-large.
Evacuees from Aghanistan sit inside a military aircraft as they arrive at the airport in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on Aug. 22.
Evacuees from Aghanistan sit inside a military aircraft as they arrive at the airport in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on Aug. 22. Handout/Bundeswehr via Getty Images

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The rushed and chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has once again raised questions about Washington’s reliability as an ally and partner. How much can other nations rely on Washington? Will they also be abandoned? Is the United States even capable of being consistent? As countries position themselves in the context of U.S.-Chinese rivalry, such questions lurk not far beneath the surface of their strategic calculations. Sowing doubts about the United States’ reliability is a potent weapon in China’s armory. However, whether or not Washington is reliable is a more complicated question than it first appears.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has revived the Maoist trope of the East rising and the West declining, claiming that “time and momentum” are on China’s side. This trope appeals because it is not a complete fabrication; it is the caricature of more complex realities. The image of the United States as a “shining city on a hill” has never just been the inspiration that Americans fondly think it is—it has always cast dark shadows. It is therefore all the more crucial to view America and China clinically and whole.

In personal relationships, “reliability” carries strong emotional overtones. But in international relations, the term only connotes an alignment of interests. To confuse the idea of reliability in personal relations with reliability in international affairs is a basic conceptual error. To ask if a country is “reliable” in international relations is meaningless without context: reliable for what purpose, under which circumstances, where, and—crucially—compared to which alternatives?

The rushed and chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has once again raised questions about Washington’s reliability as an ally and partner. How much can other nations rely on Washington? Will they also be abandoned? Is the United States even capable of being consistent? As countries position themselves in the context of U.S.-Chinese rivalry, such questions lurk not far beneath the surface of their strategic calculations. Sowing doubts about the United States’ reliability is a potent weapon in China’s armory. However, whether or not Washington is reliable is a more complicated question than it first appears.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has revived the Maoist trope of the East rising and the West declining, claiming that “time and momentum” are on China’s side. This trope appeals because it is not a complete fabrication; it is the caricature of more complex realities. The image of the United States as a “shining city on a hill” has never just been the inspiration that Americans fondly think it is—it has always cast dark shadows. It is therefore all the more crucial to view America and China clinically and whole.

In personal relationships, “reliability” carries strong emotional overtones. But in international relations, the term only connotes an alignment of interests. To confuse the idea of reliability in personal relations with reliability in international affairs is a basic conceptual error. To ask if a country is “reliable” in international relations is meaningless without context: reliable for what purpose, under which circumstances, where, and—crucially—compared to which alternatives?

Decision-making in all democracies is dysfunctional by design to prevent an overconcentration of power. This is especially pronounced in the United States, where distrust of the state and its institutions was ingrained at its founding. U.S. politics is fiercely partisan. This makes it difficult for Washington to react quickly and steer a steady long-term course without raucous debates and compromises that result in less than coherent policies. The country can be bewildering to the outside observer.

But while consensus is difficult to reach, it is enduring once established. The United States is often slow to react—but once roused, it acts decisively and even ruthlessly. It is all too easy to underestimate, and many who have done so have not lived to regret it.

Washington’s grand strategy is intact: Asia has remained open and has never fallen under the sway of a single power.

Authoritarian systems are better placed to make quick and clear decisions and pursue them relentlessly over the long term. But the ability to take and implement long-term decisions is an advantage only if the decision was correct in the first place.

Deng Xiaoping’s decision to reform and open up China was correct; Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution were immense mistakes that cost millions of lives. It was the very scale of these disasters that made Deng’s sharp correction possible. Had the consequences of Mao’s decisions been less tragic, Deng would probably have found it far more difficult to change China’s course. That catastrophes are often needed for change is also characteristic of authoritarian systems.

Prematurely abandoning Deng’s sage approach to “hide your strength and bide your time” was another serious mistake. Beijing’s aggressive behavior in the East and South China seas, Taiwan Strait, and Himalayas, as well as its mercantilist economic policies, have created a nascent coalition of countries around the world with concerns about China. Once revealed, ambitions cannot be concealed again and will not easily be forgotten. Xi has called on his officials to make China more “lovable” and to widen its circle of friends, a tacit admission that its foreign policy has been less than a stellar success.

Beijing missed or ignored changing attitudes in Washington. It was George W. Bush who first labeled China a “strategic competitor” during his presidential run around the turn of the century. As Hu Jintao’s time as China’s leader drew to a close a decade later, the country began to regard the global financial crisis as validating its own propaganda about the United States’ absolute decline. Beijing misinterpreted the Obama administration’s lack of stomach for robust competition as a new norm of U.S. foreign policy.

Xi has doubled down on these mistakes. By concentrating power around himself, reasserting the role of the state in the economy, strongly emphasizing party discipline, demanding compliance with “Xi Jinping thought,” and imposing harsh penalties for disloyalty, he has reintroduced a single point of failure into the Chinese system. Much as during Mao’s reign, a single bad decision can have a systemwide effect.

China’s confrontation with the United States was one such system error. But Beijing cannot walk it back, because Xi cannot afford to look weak—the shrill nationalism he has stoked to legitimate the Chinese Communist Party is a double-edged sword. As during the Maoist era, it may take a disaster to admit and correct mistakes.

The U.S. system is highly decentralized. The most important things in the United States—the wellsprings of its creativity and power—do not happen in Washington and are less dependent on politics and government at the center than in many other countries. Equally important, if not more so, is what happens in the United States’ great universities and corporations, on Wall Street, in research laboratories, and on the main streets of the 50 states. Decentralized systems are unwieldy and generally move forward only slowly and by lurches and meanderings. But they are self-correcting without having to go as far as catastrophic system failures.

Amid the flux of U.S. politics, continuity is more often to be found in themes slowly unfolding—sometimes over decades or even centuries—rather than specific policies or events. In By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783, Georgetown University professor Michael J. Green locates the unifying thread of U.S. strategy in Asia in the opposition to hegemonic control and its determination to ensure that “the Pacific Ocean remains a conduit for American ideas and goods to flow westward, and not for threats to flow eastward toward the homeland.”

It is now clear that the Biden administration’s China policy is essentially Trump’s.

During the 19th century, the United States countered European colonial pressures and Qing dynasty xenophobes with the so-called open door policy toward China. In the 20th century, the United States fought the Japanese empire to prevent it from dominating the region. After World War II, Washington sustained a 40-year global Cold War against the Soviet Union, forcefully resisting what it regarded (not always correctly) as large-scale probes by Moscow in Korea and Indochina. All this took place amid often bitter domestic political debates.

Washington sometimes miscalculated. Afghanistan was not its first mistake. The costly war in Vietnam led the United States to recalibrate how it engaged Asia. After 1969, the Nixon Doctrine signaled the end of U.S. involvement on the Asian mainland. Thereafter, with the exception of South Korea, the United States has been an offshore balancer in East Asia. It has been remarkably consistent in this role.

But the lot of an offshore balancer is not a happy one. Its porridge is usually going to be considered too hot by some and too cold by others, evoking fears of entanglement if its policies are too active or fears of abandonment if they are too passive. Seldom, if ever, is everyone going to find the porridge exactly right. The intrinsic difficulties of an offshore balancer is another reason for persistent doubts about U.S. reliability.

But although the United States ignominiously withdrew from Vietnam almost half a century ago, it is still engaged in—and vital to—the security of Asia. Recalibration is not retreat. Washington’s grand strategy is intact: Asia has remained open and has never fallen under the sway of a single power.

The United States is indispensable to any balance of power in Asia. That strategic reality makes debates about reliability somewhat moot. East Asia’s prosperity is a U.S. creation. National efforts were of course necessary, but they were insufficient. No country—China included—could have succeeded without the stability that the United States established and its generosity in opening its markets. And Washington did all this not as a favor to anyone but in its own interests.

The United States’ Pacific interests are constant, but its political mood generally oscillates between optimism and self-doubt. These mood swings are intrinsic to what the writer Reinhold Niebuhr, in The Irony of American History, called the country’s “fortunate confusion,” in which national goals are endlessly debated and any particular group or idea is prevented from “grasping after a monopoly of power.” The same happy confusion makes Washington’s networks of allies, partners, and friends looser and belonging to them less burdensome to bear.

Except for a historically short and anomalous period from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the global financial crisis, the United States-led global order has always been contested. Not only by its rivals: Even friends and allies have always debated Washington’s leadership, although not on core issues. The world is now returning to a more historically normal period of contested and debated leadership.

But in the heady years immediately after the end of the Cold War, a single—albeit greatly significant—geopolitical event was mistakenly invested with universal significance as the “end of history.” This hubristic mood coincided with a long period of economic growth, during which the genius of U.S. central bankers seemed to have overcome the business cycle itself in what became known as the Great Moderation. Strategic and economic triumphalism masked unemployment and the stagnation of real incomes among the middle and working classes. The inevitable denouement came in the form of seemingly interminable wars in the Middle East and the global financial crisis.

The consequence, as we all know, was enhanced political polarization and the disenchantment of many voters with traditional politics. When Barack Obama rode the new political mood into the White House promising change, there was no longer any compelling reason why Americans should continue to bear any burden or pay any price to uphold international order. After all the exertions and sacrifices of the Cold War and the so-called war on terror, it was time to put America first, as Donald Trump would later say.

Competition between Washington and Beijing has been described as a new cold war—an intellectually lazy and misleading trope.

As a candidate and as president, Trump took themes that have always been part of the U.S. foreign-policy tradition—fascination with strength, a penchant for unilateralism, an insistence on fairness—and related them to the everyday insecurities of ordinary Americans by wrapping them in a geopolitical fact so large that it could not be ignored: China. He forged a crude but politically compelling narrative: ordinary Americans victimized by foreigners, their generosity abused, and their just wrath aroused after patient suffering. They would now demand better treatment and that the country’s friends share the burdens it once shouldered alone.

Some version of this narrative will long outlive Trump. It commands a bipartisan consensus and will influence U.S. foreign policy for many years to come. The United States has become more transactional, at least with respect to China. Of all this, Trump was not so much the cause but a symptom and catalyst.

It is now clear that the Biden administration’s China policy is essentially Trump’s—except that it is implemented and communicated in a more orderly manner, entails more consultation with allies and partners, and leaves out the histrionics. President Joe Biden is responding to the same political mood as Obama and Trump. What is less well understood is that his emphasis on consultation is just a more polite form of transactionalism.

Consultation is not art for art’s sake. Its purpose is to secure cooperation on issues of importance to the United States, primarily related to competition with China. Biden may not be unreasonable about what he wants from allies and partners. Unlike Trump, Biden emphasizes speaking softly instead of brandishing the big stick. But he nevertheless has expectations. Reliability is a two-way street: For those willing to cooperate, Biden is prepared to provide the tools to meet the challenge posed by China to an extent without recent precedent, as the decision to share nuclear submarine technology with Australia illustrates.

Competition between Washington and Beijing has been described as a new cold war. This is an intellectually lazy and misleading trope. The United States and the Soviet Union led two separate systems connected only at their margins. Their competition was between their respective systems. The United States and China, however, are both vital and irreplaceable components of a single global system—and they compete within that system. They are linked to each other and other economies by supply chains of historically unprecedented scope, complexity, and density. This makes complete bifurcation highly improbable at any acceptable cost.

Every country must therefore deal with both the United States and China. This makes calculations about U.S. (and Chinese) reliability even more situational and conditional. Few countries are likely to consider it wise—or even feasible—to neatly and permanently align all their interests across all domains with one or the other. The result will be greater fluidity and complexity in international relationships. On certain issues, some countries will sometimes tilt one way. On other issues, they will lean the other way. And on occasion, they will go their own way—while trying not to irrevocably alienate either Washington or Beijing.

Bilahari Kausikan is the chairman of the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and an ambassador-at-large for the Singaporean Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He has held various Singaporean diplomatic posts, including permanent representative to the United Nations and ambassador to Russia.

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