Jaw-Jaw: How America Got China Wrong
How did American analysts seem to get China so “wrong”? Why wasn’t there more of a debate until fairly recently inside the halls of power? What concerns drove the Obama administration’s China policy? What would a Chinese-led international order look like? Ely Ratner discusses these issues and many more in the fifth episode of “Jaw-Jaw.”
Ely Ratner is the former deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, and he currently is Executive Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security. His extensive writings on China have been published in Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, among other outlets.
Brad Carson is a professor at the University of Virginia, where he teaches in the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2001 to 2005 and was undersecretary of the Army and acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness in the Obama administration. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Liz Economy, The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State, (Oxford University Press, 2018)
- Thomas Wright, All Measures Short of War: The Contest for the 21st Century & the Future of American Power, (Yale University Press, 2017)
Brad: Dr. Ely Ratner, views on China seem to have changed considerably in the last couple of years even among people who previously urged a more conciliatory approach towards China. Can you explain perhaps the evolution of the views in Washington about China?
Ely: Sure, Brad and it’s great to be with you today.
I think what we’ve seen over the last couple years is that the delta between what people’s expectations were about China’s evolution and development and what we were seeing in reality in terms of both its domestic governance as well as its foreign policy grew so large that what appeared ambiguous to people for many decades was starting to become quite clear during the Xi Jinping era in particular that China internally was becoming more authoritarian, that Xi Jinping was reasserting the role of the state in the economy rather than gradually liberalizing the economy, and on the foreign policy front that China was at best a selective stakeholder using Bob Zoellick’s famous phrase of wanting China to be a responsible stakeholder, it was increasingly hard to make that argument and what we saw instead was a China that was more revisionist and that in many instances was setting up its own parallel institutions inside those that we consider part of the international liberal order.
So all of this together, I think, became harder for those to sustain that the policy of engagement that had been the consensus in Washington for decades was still the right approach.
Brad: So I’d like to explore those issues a bit. On one hand, it is obviously true that China is increasingly setting up its own international institutions. Is that a national security threat to the United States that we should be planning for, the Defense Department for example, or having a more aggressive foreign policy? Or should we limit those kind of agencies responding to what you might think as classical security problems, such as possible Chinese aggression towards Taiwan or toward its neighbors that surround it in Asia?
Ely: Right. So if your question then is how do these issues relate to each other, the political issues and security issues and the economic issues, I actually think they’re all related and the way that I think about the problem is not that there are singular challenges from China’s rise like just a technology challenge or just a South China seas challenge or just a challenge associated with its authoritarianism, but rather that there is a challenge of a rising or potential Chinese fear of influence or a China-led order that would come as an integrated set of rules and norms and institutions that would affect every aspect of international life from the domestic, from the economic to the political in the security, so I actually don’t think we should differentiate these things as somehow separated from each other and I think they interact quite a bit actually.
Brad: So is it reasonable for us to expect that China, the most populous country on Earth, it will soon be the wealthiest country on Earth, for them not to pursue in a peaceful way their own type of institutions, their own infrastructure banks, a greater say in the IMF, the World Bank, the U.N.? Is it reasonable for us to expect that they won’t try to maybe peacefully try to revise what was a world when led by the United States dominated simply by us?
Ely: No, I think we should expect them to and you know, this sort of obviousness in some ways of the answer to that question speaks to the question of why we thought they would actually act any differently in terms of how they approached issues that were obviously not in the interest of the Chinese Communist Party related to opening its economy or opening its politics up, so it’s a good question.
My answer would be of course we should expect China’s influence in power to expand and I don’t think that’s what’s the question here. I think the question is should the United States except Chinese dominant control over Asia or other parts of the international system and that is what I think is at stake. I’m not interested in rolling back Chinese influence in power. I don’t think their efforts to express their power and influence are illegitimate, but I do think it’s in the interest of the United States to prevent China from exerting so much control that it exerts a sphere of influence over very large swaths of Asia and beyond which has long been in the US interest to prevent any country from controlling the Eurasian land mass so this is nothing new, and in fact, you know, to the extent that people ask, “Well, what’s the U.S. goal here?” and again for me it’s about curbing China’s ability to have dominant control over the security and the economics and the politics of Asia, which in some ways, is actually a more modest goal than trying to shoehorn China into a liberal international order.
So yeah, of course they should have more influence. They may even be the most powerful country in Asia. They probably will be. But that’s quite different than being a large actor integrated in the region than being a dominant hegemon.
Brad: Well a number of levers have influence over Asia, perhaps the whole world, first of which is economic. They’re a huge market. Even America’s close allies in Australia and New Zealand are more and more tied to the Chinese economy. So the question is can we keep China from having economic domination over the Asia-Pacific area? Is that a feasible goal for the US to stop that from happening?
Ely: Well, I think it’s a feasible goal for the United States to band together with other countries in the region and other countries in the world to try to establish higher standards of economic exchange in trade and investment and that’s what the Transpacific partnership was all about. That’s what T-TIP, the Trans-Atlantic version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership was all about toward the end of the Obama administration to try to bring together the major economies of the world to set rules about things, like [inaudible 00:05:59] enterprises and subsidies and other rules associated with the 21st century economy and yes, China’s an enormous economy, it may be the largest economy in the world at some point soon, but it’s nowhere near as big as the United States plus the E.U. plus Japan plus other major powers, so I think that’s what we need to be doing and the idea there is not to again isolate China. Of course it needs to part of the international economy, but to set rules such that China can’t do so on its own, which it will do in the absence of a more concerted and coordinated response from the rest of the world led by the United States.
Brad: So that raises the question, what do you think China’s ambitions really are? There’s been a lot of discussion about this among China experts. The Chinese government itself is a bit of black box. People don’t even know how much support Xi Jinping himself has for some of the initiatives he’s undertaken. Left unmolested, what do you think China aspires to do?
Ely: That’s such a good question and in fact, I’m on the cusp of starting a project here at CNAS looking at what are the contours, what the contours of a China-led order would actually look like, because the answer to that question is not clear. China does not have official documents like the United States does laying out a grand strategy. Chinese scholars and officials certainly are reluctant to paint clear visions of what a much more powerful China would do in the region. And frankly, I think in a lot of ways, those views are not yet resolved.
But the concern that I have is that what leaders within Beijing are thinking is not or what they’re dreaming of or aspiring to is not necessarily the most important thing. I think the way that I often look at the problem is what are the interests of the Chinese Communist Party? What are the national interests of China and how will a more powerful China express those interests as it becomes more rich, more powerful, has more interests and frankly, security risks around the world? And my view is to this question of what would a China-led order look like, I think it would be less open to the United States, it would be less open to the U.S. military, it would be less open to U.S. trade investment, it would be more authoritarian, it would be less democratic and the United States likely would have fewer allies and security partners.
And so again, it’s not a singular problem where you can put your finger and say, “Well, if China controls this island in the South China Sea, then this is the very specific consequence of this action.” It’s about the interaction between the economic and the political and the security coming together where China has dominant control over all of these domains in which undermines some of the core elements of the ability of the United States to advance its prosperity and security in the world.
So I actually do worry about what a Chinese sphere of influence or Chinese [inaudible 00:09:02] or dominance or what you would call it would look like and I’m not at all comforted by official statements out of Beijing that their ambitions are this or that. I mean, look at the ambitions of George W. Bush when he ran for president, right? No more nation-building, we’re gonna nation build at home, we’re not doing anymore of these Bill Clinton mid ’90s humanitarian interventions and then we found ourselves in two wars two years later, right? What were Barack Obama’s intentions? We’re getting out of these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Eight years later, we saw neither.
So China as its power and influence grows will find its desires growing. We’re already seeing the PLA seeking new presence and access and posture arrangements with partners around the world. They’re expanding their forced projection capabilities. They’re starting to lead in international organizations. I think their power and influence will move faster than the leaders in Beijing’s ability to constrain it actually.
Brad: How much of this is about Xi Jinping, because when we talk about the hardening the views in the United States today about China, it seems to be that some of that at least is driven by the fact that Xi is seen as a neo-Maoist, maybe a neo-Stalinist figure, someone who’s perhaps different than the leaders from Deng Xiaoping to Hu Jintao.
So I think one of the interesting questions about China to me is how much of it is Xi Jinping and perhaps new leadership would do something different and even in a world without the Chinese Communist Party, maybe China would go a different direction and how much of this is structural which is to say China is a rich, powerful country and it could be governed by a different Communist leader or it could be governed by a wholly different type of regime and this is what China’s going to do?
Ely: Another terrific question, unknowable, but you know, I was just in a debate yesterday with some leading analysts inside the U.S. government who are actually asking this exact question around the question of economic reforms and thinking about is the reason why we haven’t seen economic reform since 2013 when the Chinese government pledged that it was gonna head down this road toward giving the market a greater role in the economy, is the reason we haven’t seen those because of Xi Jinping in particular or is it because of special interests, bureaucratic politics, the economic risks associated with actually reforming out of the system that they’ve built up already and frankly, we don’t know the exact answer to that. I think it’s probably all of these things together, although personally I do think Xi Jinping has been a decisive figure.
Some of the trends that we’ve seen in China today particularly in terms of the crackdown domestically began before him under Hu Jintao, but clearly, those have accelerated. Clearly he has positioned himself as a dominant leader ending the practice of consensus rule among the [inaudible 00:12:12] politburo standing committee and he’s exerting his own style and influence on Chinese politics, so I don’t think we’ll ever know if it hadn’t been Xi Jinping and it had been somewhere else, was this China’s moment particularly in the context of a distracted and divided United States would China have thrust forward anyway? I don’t think we’ll know the answer to that, but I think he has been quite decisive.
Brad: Do you have any sympathy for the arguments for people like John Mearsheimer who wrote now more than 20 years ago in the Tragedy of Great Power Politics that China would be basically where it is today? You know, he wasn’t concerned given his own kind of philosophy of international relations about the government in China or what’s going on in the [inaudible 00:12:52] politburo standing committee. It’s he looked at China and he said, “Look at their history. Look at the potential power they’re going to have and this is where China is going to be today.”
And so he was writing that 20 years ago lamenting the fact that we had in so many ways aided their rise through our economic ties with them. Do you have any sympathy for that idea, that this was China’s destiny and Xi Jinping is just the person now who’s kind of riding the tiger?
Ely: Well I do and I don’t. I guess in the case of China in particular, I think Mearsheimer’s argument is right and I’ll come back to that in just a minute. The argument that I don’t find persuasive are the structural arguments about rising powers and established powers and of course, Graham Allison has written a book on this talking about the Thucydides trap, Obama administration officials, Hillary Clinton gave a speech talking about the need for a new answer between rising powers and established powers. I actually don’t think that they’re first of all from an empirical perspective is actual and historical record of rising powers and establish of powers coming into conflict.
If you look at the history since the invention of the light bulb or the automobile, the major power wars we’ve had have been from imperial and Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. We didn’t have a problem with the re-rise of Japan after World War II. We didn’t have a war between the United States and Britain. We certainly have not had problems with the E.U. over the last 20 and 30 years and what the 20th century history tells me is not that we had a problem of a structural problem of rising powers and established powers, but rather a problem of rising powers being militant and revisionist in a way that was incompatible with the rest of the international system. So I’m not persuaded that there’s a generic problem between rising powers and established powers.
In the case of China, I think John Mearsheimer’s right and so far has the interests of the Chinese Communist Party and I’ve been saying this now for a decade and certainly within the last couple of years, are incompatible with the interests of the United States and incompatible with what we conceive as the liberal international order that everything from the way we expect governments to treat individuals to the way that open market should work to the rules of the law of the sea. What the United States wants is not what China wants and to your earlier question, we should never have expected that as it grew more powerful, it would simply relent to rules that are both not in its interest and in many cases, it wasn’t part of the derivation of.
Brad: One of the things you’ve been particularly critical about in your writings is this long standing American notion that we could influence China’s trajectory in some way. Can you talk about the origins of that belief and perhaps the pernicious effects of that as it comes to US policy today toward China?
Ely: Well, first of all, I guess the question is what are we talking about here, because people I think do like to [straw man 00:16:10] what the consensus was or was not. My reading, and I would chart this particularly around the time of the Cold War in the early and mid-1990’s, you know, we all remember the “end of history” and George W. Bush talking about a new world order. Bill Clinton’s national security strategy talking about enlargement and there was a sense then that the future trajectory of international politics was gonna be the slow expansion of to increasingly open and democratic societies and yes, we were gonna have to deal with rogue states and transnational issues, but the big argument was over about the ways in which both international politics and domestic politics should be ordered in the world and China, I think, was swept up in that, that there was the Cold War strategy toward China was much more focused on the competition with the Soviet Union obviously and after the Soviet Union fell, the goal with China became integrating it into the international community and engaging it economically with the belief that that would lead toward a set of domestic, political, economic and foreign policy reforms.
Again, not to be caricatured. No one was expecting Jeffersonian democracy in China by 1995, but I think there was a sense that over time there would be an easing and an opening and in many instances there were, but that unfortunately started to change, you know, you can set it to different dates, but certainly throughout the 2000’s and definitely during the Xi Jinping era and on most parameters, while there were examples, again, I spoke earlier about some of the ambiguity, there were examples where China was contributing to things the United States was trying to do internationally, whether it was on climate change …
Ely: Ebola, the Iran nuclear [crosstalk 00:18:09]
Ely: Counter-piracy. Those were all good examples, but I think in the main and particularly as it relates to the geopolitics of Asia, there was not a lot of give on issues associated with certainly China’s contested sovereignty claims in Asia, nor the security order led by American alliances which China has always felt was a certain form of hostility toward China and which it has been seeking to chip away at, so there was no growing acceptance of the U.S.-led security and order in Asia. As many expected and wrote about during the 1990’s as we put together some combination of both engagement, as well as deterrence.
Frankly, it didn’t work and you know, one of the things that I’ve written in the last couple years is that there was this theory about U.S. China policy that if we had this right combination of policies that essentially we could prevent a China challenge. That it would both be constrained from and choose not to challenge the United States in Asia and in the world. What that strategy never had was an answer to the question of what do you do when China steps outside that box of expectations and once started seeing that, once China for instance started building islands in the South China Sea and then turning them into military bases, there was nothing in that strategic framework to answer the question of what do you do with a China that’s operating wholly outside that system, because the whole strategy was predicated on preventing it from engaging in activities like that in the first place.
Brad: Well it raises two interesting questions for me. One is about how consensus in foreign policy is developed and specifically about maybe the Obama administration where you were deputy national security advisor to the vice president. I worked at the Department of Defense and saw a lot of discussions about China there.
But to the first matter. One of the things that increasingly people talk about, Ben Rhodes called it the blob and he was talking mostly about Iraq and Afghanistan and perhaps our counter-terror policies. But it seems in some ways if you accept that critique of Washington and how our foreign policy experts think, the same thing could be said about China. You had a bipartisan consensus in lots of ways of people who believed that China would go in a more peaceful arc. That’s been contradicted in the last couple of years. So how did so many smart people, area experts, people who speak Mandarin who devoted their whole career to studying China seemingly get it so wrong?
Ely: Well, I think my judgment would be that although I was calling balls and strikes differently over the last several years, I do think the evidence was ambiguous enough that smart people were doing smart analysis predicting that China was going to develop in a certain direction in part because I think there was a belief as well that this was in China’s interest or at least in the interest of the Chinese people and that’s probably true, right? The types of economic reforms that U.S. policymakers were trying to get China to do for instance during the Obama administration in the long run for sure would be in the interest of the Chinese people, although potentially not in the near-term interest of the Chinese Communist Party.
So I think you had smart people who were well-intentioned. I don’t think there was enough a debate about these issues and frankly, I think there was just a very deeply embedded paradigm and I think this is potentially more sort of a sociological or academic argument about the role of paradigms in theory and thought and less maybe about a China specific case, but I think there was a dominant narrative, it had enough evidence to support it and it was driven by a set of assumptions that people held so deeply, people who really came of age during that post-Cold War period who saw the world through that frame of American primacy and again, going back to some of those concepts about the direction of the world and the developing world was inevitably heading in, that the idea that there was going to be a return to great power competition for instance or that there was gonna be a zigzag back to a rise of authoritarians challenging the United States was just beyond people’s basic assumptions about the direction of the world.
And I think there is very much a generational piece to this as well where I think you had a generation of people again who grew up in this post-Cold War period combined with a generation of people, particularly China experts, who spent their careers bringing a weaker, more isolated China into the international community and seeing the economic growth and seeing the success which is quite different than I think myself and others here at the Center for New American Security who are in the middle of their careers and the China that they’ve seen has been a rising China and a geopolitical partner, not an isolated, weak country that needed America’s assistance.
Brad: So looking back on the last 20 years of policy before coming to the Obama administration, I was in Congress for example when the whole issue of Most Favored Nation status for China came up and there were a lot of interests at work. There was a theoretical idea that integration would help China. The American business community very much wanted this as well.
So to what extend do you think our policy toward China is driven by the American business community that sees an incredibly large market that can sustain its own competitors to American companies but can drive a lot of business activity for American companies too? That does seem to me from looking at it from the outside a major driver of what’s happening with our China policy.
Ely: Absolutely. It’s huge and I think that’s an important part of this story too and I should have mentioned that that it wasn’t just sort of academic dreams about a transformational China but there was a huge economic relationship that was benefiting not only China but many Americans and not only business interests but the American people and farmers and workers and small business persons and all of that and that’s all true. I think what we’ve seen over the last five years is that the business community, what people often talk about as the ballast of the U.S.-China relationship. So back ten years ago when there was a crisis with China, that ballast would say no whether it’s a human rights issue or a security issue, we have this economic relationship that’s absolutely vital. We have to preserve this and there was a dominant view of that such that those other issues were in a sense tolerated.
I think what we’ve seen is that the business community is now split and there are many who are saying, “Look, the China market’s really important. It’s our future. It’s a big market. We don’t wanna be left out of it,” but you also have a lot of people saying, “You know, frankly we got screwed by the Chinese and we’ve been treated unfairly and we don’t think it’s fair and although we may not like the way Donald Trump is dealing with the problem, it’s about time someone did.”
And on top of that, the cost of doing business in China, it’s no longer the cheapest place to set up shop in Asia and elsewhere and so I think the belief that the protection of the business community around the U.S.-China relationship really eroded and that’s obviously not the only story of the Trump administration and this turn but it’s a big one because I think it did reduce one of the huge constraints that would have otherwise held back this change in policy that we’ve seen over the last couple years.
Brad: And when it comes to the Obama administration, there are many people who would self-identify as China hawks who saw the Obama administration as not sufficiently stern with China. And I myself saw when I was at the Department of Defense when the island-building was going on in the South China Sea, there are many people at the Department of Defense who wanted more freedom of navigation operations, more U.S. Navy presence and that was generally seen at the Department of Defense as being stalled at the White House, that people at the National Security Council thought that was too provocative, for example.
How do you characterize the Obama administration policies towards these issues and would you have any agreement with what perhaps I said the Department of Defense officials thought at the time?
Ely: Yeah, what I think I would say about the Obama administration’s China policy ’cause there were elements of it ultimately pieces of the policy that I didn’t agree with that I wrote about before I went in and after I came out. However, a couple things.
Number one, President Obama and his national security team ran an extremely thorough and fair national security process and so whether you liked where it came out or not, all the departments were consulted, all ideas were considered and there was a very methodical process from the bottom up as you know, right to the president who was engaged on these issues, so again you might not like where they came out, but they were running a fair and thorough and responsible process which is really important. I mean, I think as we’re finding out today but in general is really important, so credit to them for that.
Second, in terms of why did they come out differently than maybe where you or I would have or others at the Pentagon, I mean, one of the answers to that is they had a different set of priorities in terms of the U.S.-China relationship and fair, right? They believed, as do many, that climate change was an existential threat to the world and the United States and that the U.S.-China relationship was so important to addressing that problem that when push came to shove and you were racking and stacking on which issues are you going to push hard on China or which issues are you gonna seek to cooperate that the cooperative elements on climate change were in a sense really important and needed to be protected and shouldn’t be pulled down because of other issues in the relationship and I would have put the Iran nuclear deal in that category as well.
I think the critique of the Obama administration that I have made is that I think we were too risk averse on a number of issues where there was a belief that if we pushed back in the South China Sea or elsewhere that China was very likely to escalate and I just don’t think there was much evidence for that. In fact, I think even to today, the instances where the United States has been firm and consistent and principled and acting on its national interest, that China is not seeking to escalate, certainly not militarily but that China is interested in preserving a functioning US-China relationship as well and I think we were too reticent to push back and I think when we did, we actually achieved success in moving China off of some of the policies but we should have done more of that for sure.
Brad: Well it’s interesting to me even if you don’t think that they would have perhaps escalated in response to some kind of military activity from us, it doesn’t seem implausible that they might have reduced their support for the Iran nuclear deal for example, maybe even tried to undercut it and that any kind of work on global climate change might have been [inaudible 00:29:50] stymied as well.
So if we had done more things to kind of stop them, right, more aggressive posture with the U.S. Navy or diplomatic efforts for that example, do you think they still would have been helpful to us on these other important issues that the Obama administration cared about?
Ely: You know, that’s certainly been the argument over the years and you could throw North Korea into that as well. I think my response to that would be that I tend to think, and I don’t want to make too a generic comment here, ’cause obviously there are examples in which China’s making concessions to cooperate with the United States, but I think in general, major pieces of Chinese foreign policy are modulated quite directly associated with their level of interest. And so they’re not cooperating on climate change to please Washington, they’re cooperating on climate change ’cause they understand both that the pollution problem and the environmental issues in Beijing and in China are severe and are starting to become a political problem for them which they saw and I think they saw an opportunity to use the climate negotiations to help advance China into some of the green economic sectors where they could be leaders that would important both for their future economy as well as have positive effects in terms of their environmental situation. So they are acting in their national interest.
I think it’s the same vis-a-vis [inaudible 00:31:15] Iran where they’re not interested in seeing another nuclear power or nuclear power in the Middle East and I think frankly it’s the same thing vis-a-vis [inaudible 00:31:24] North Korea ’cause people make the same argument today worried that China will start modulating its policies towards North Korea in response to how the Trump administration is responding on trade. I’m not so sure. I think China’s interests on [inaudible 00:31:40] North Korea are quite important to Beijing and it’s setting its policy directly associated with those interests and I don’t think it’s gonna go fudging around on North Korea in one direction or the other just to aggravate the United States.
So when I look out at Chinese foreign policy and I think I was involved in an exercise recently where one of the questions that was posed to a group was, “How would a much more assertive China act in international politics,” or more clearly, “What would Chinese foreign policy look like if the U.S.-China relationship got much more confrontational,” and interestingly, most of the China experts in the room from actually a wide spectrum of views, the answer was actually not that much different, because most of their policies today are not a favor to Washington, they’re directly tied to Chinese national interest.
So again, I understand those arguments. They may be true around the margins, but I don’t think it was right to go soft on certain issues to gain advantage on others.
Brad: I wanna come back to the question of the danger that China poses to us if any. You know, I have a friend who often says that the ultimate revisionist power today is the United States. We’ve been involved in war after war across the world. China’s not been involved in military conflict since 1979, right? In some ways, a long streak of restraint.
So a Chinese-led international order or one where they had equal say to the United States. You know, for an American citizen, how would that hurt them? And I also would like to tie that into one of your early articles in your own career was about the mythical international order. So, you know, why should we really be concerned if China has an equal say with us in IPCC talks or at the World Bank or the IMF, things like that? How would that affect American citizenry?
Ely: It’s a good question and this is one of the things that makes this problem hard, because you have members of Congress who are clearly interested in these issues from a geopolitical perspective, but it’s not always easy for them when they go back to their districts to explain, you know, “Here’s exactly the problem for you, voter in my district, if China controls the South China Sea,” because these things, again, are large and interconnected.
The article that you’re referencing about the mythical liberal international order, the argument there was that the liberal order consistent with our conversations today, that the liberal order never ran as wide or as deep as the integrationists thought, those who believed that the order was so strong that it would constrain and socialize any rising power to accept its major contours and again, I think it’s hard to make the alternative argument at this point. The types of arguments that John Ikenberry was making for many years, that the liberal international order would constrain countries like China and all it would want would be a seat at the table. I think in some of the instances that you reference whether it’s the World Bank or the IMF, of course China should have commensurate with its size and influence, the same with United Nations.
I think, again, my answer to your question and I’m unsatisfied with the public discourse around that question which is exactly why I’ve pursued this project that I was describing earlier about trying to deepen our understanding about what China-led order would look like. I do think from issue to issue to issue, it would disadvantage the United States.
So again, on the issue of governance for instance. I’m extremely confident that a China-led order that had less influence from the United States and less influence from the democratic world would be less democratic. It would be more authoritarian. We’d see more of the kind of surveillance state and facial recognition and this sort of dystopian future that China’s already implementing domestically and now starting to export abroad, that that would become maybe not everywhere, but common in parts of the world and the United States doesn’t wanna live in a world that is increasingly less free and authoritarian for a lot of reasons and it’s long been the case that we believe that a more open and democratic world is better for the United States even if you don’t wanna be a neo-conservative overthrowing governments in the Middle East. I think you do think that whether Thailand or Kenya or Zambia is more or less democratic or authoritarian over time, much less partners of the United States and eastern Europe and Asia, that that really matters.
So on the governance side. Same on the economic side, that a China-led order would start setting economic rules that disadvantaged American firms and American businesses and so it would be harder for the American people to sell their goods in China or in Asia, to invest in parts of Asia and American products, the types of standards that would be set would disadvantage the United States and over time, the United States would no longer be potentially the leader in technology and innovation around the world which has been a core component of our prosperity. So that’s the economic piece.
And then on a security piece, it’s not hard to imagine a United States or future in which China has effective control essentially of the entire first island chain, sort of neutering the situation on the Korean peninsula, some sort of accommodation with Japan and an environment with the United States was deemed uncommitted and absent and then effective control of the South China Sea which they’re on a glide path to now much less the Taiwan question. So if China controlled that area militarily, if the United States military no longer had access to that, if the partnerships and alliances that the United States had as a result of that started eroding and America had no longer the ability to project power into that region nor to count on its allies and partners around the world or potentially in Asia, that becomes a world where coercion and even military force becomes something that China or others can use and the US military is no longer there to deter it and that’s a world that will come back quite quickly to haunt the United States.
So I wish there was an easier answer to that question which is, you know, every American will see ten less dollars in their pocketbook tomorrow. It’s not that simple and it’s hard to imagine I think a world in which other major powers are making war, ’cause we haven’t seen that in awhile, but we ought to consider if we let this slip to a point again where China gains dominant control of these domains that the US is gonna be disadvantaged in many, many ways and I think an America that is less prosperous and is no longer able to exert military power in a way that it did before is gonna be a fundamentally different world and a different experience for the American people.
Brad: China seems to have a couple of obstacles to achieving what you believe are Xi Jinping’s goals. The first of those is possible balancing by other states in the region. You have some powerful countries there, Japan, India, Vietnam, and there are people who argue today that those countries are beginning to balance against China. You have people like Edward Luttwak who’s called Chinese behavior, “autistic,” that they don’t really know what they’re doing. They’re spurring people to coalesce against them. Do you think that offers a perhaps a Super Bowl obstacle to what China’s ambitions are even if the United States did not radically change course?
Ely: So, no I don’t think that should give us comfort and let us sit here and be complacent about the China challenge. There is a camp of people and they have different views, but they’re in the, “Don’t worry about it,” camp and one segment of the don’t worry about it camp says that the constraints, as you just said, on China’s power and influence are such that there are real limits to its expression, maybe we’re at the outer bounds of those limits, as well. People talk about the other balancing behavior externally that you just described, others talk about China’s internal issues, economic slowdown, demographics, environmental [crosstalk 00:40:10]
Brad: That was the second issue I was going to say. Many people seem to think China’s so brittle that it’s not gonna rise up to be this, you know, omnipotent country that we have to fear so much.
Ely: Yeah, so I’ll take those in turn. On the internal, I would say, yes, those are real constraints, but we ought not to wait for them to express themselves because the kinds of things that China can do in the sort of path dependencies and institutions and regional security orders that can lock in in the interim will be very hard to reverse even if China has an economic slowdown or domestic trouble.
I mean, look at Russia and Crimea. You know, these kind of examples where you can lock in a geopolitical move regardless of the broader economic or power balance environments, so China could make a lot of gains before those things kick in that could haunt us for decades.
On the external front, my response would be I actually think this is pretty easy if the United States gets its act together. And I think I would say as pessimistic as I may sound today in our discussion, I wouldn’t wanna leave your listeners there because I think if the United States gets its strategy right, we can prevent that kind of future and we have everything we need and in part, China’s had such momentum because America hasn’t been on the field at all, not ’cause we’ve been trying hard and not succeeding. So I think the elements of what a China strategy would look like in terms of the economic component and the values piece and the allies and partners piece is pretty clear, it’s just we haven’t been focused frankly on this challenge yet.
So absent the United States however, I worry that we would ultimately see potentially more bandwagoning that we would expect and you often hear and the people who are in this camp, the don’t worry about it camp, say, “Well, no one wants to live under a China-led order, so they’ll prevent it.” It’s not that easy and in fact, it’s not hard to imagine a future in which, if the United States remains divided and distracted and uncommitted, countries like Vietnam, even Japan and ultimately India deciding, “Well, we don’t like this, but we think we can preserve enough of our interests by seeking some accommodation of Beijing within a China dominant led order.” Again, that would severely disadvantage the United States.
So we are seeing balancing behavior. We are seeing India and Japan and India, Australia and Japan, Japan and Southeast Asia engaging in some of their own cooperative activities, but I think absence of the United States, we won’t see the kind of coalescence that would be necessary to prevent China from having dominant control.
Brad: So we have a President Ely Ratner in a few years here in charge of China policy. What specific policies would you like to see the US start doing and maybe what would you like to see us stop doing?
Ely: Well, that would be a very long conversation and I’ll be testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in a couple weeks when I’ll have the opportunity to go through some of those in detail and I think there are areas in which in the security competition and the economic competition and in the informational and political competition all were there important and different policies that the United States should be taking.
I think the out of the gate, I think some of what the Trump administration has done has been good. I think there’s some very smart people, strategists, inside that are doing some interesting thinking.
Brad: What do you like that they’ve done and what do you think Trump has got right about this?
Ely: Well, I think the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy basically get the narrative right, that it’s consistent with our conversation today that the integrationist agenda has largely failed, that China’s a revisionist power and that the United States needs a more competitive strategy.
I particularly liked the line in the National Defense Strategy that major power competition and read China first and Russia second is now the principle national security focus of the United States, not terrorism explicitly. I think that was an important statement, so I think they have the framing right. I think the willingness to take risk is right. But the way that I’ve often described many aspects of the Trump administration’s China policy is that they’re confrontational without being competitive. That’s the way I like to describe it, because I think there are so many elements and many of them are particular to Donald Trump and his approach to international politics and domestic politics that are the exact opposite of what the United States should do if it actually believed it was in a strategic competition with the United States.
So Donald Trump’s approach to trade, for instance. Going after allies and partners with steel tariffs, threatening Japan and South Korea and the E.U. on economics rather than building an international coalition around trying to ensure that China’s unfair and illegal trade practices either don’t continue or aren’t permitted to prevail in most of the international economies, so clearly that has been a misstep and I think stepping away from the Trans-Pacific partnership, that was something that the democratic party also was waffling on of course, but now that agreement has come into force and now there’s a major trade agreement in Asia that the United States is not part of and now there is increased economic exchange and lower barriers to trade among countries that were not part of, and so the argument about, did we want that particular deal to exist or not, maybe we don’t want it to exist and should hold out is a very different argument than that deal now exists, should we be part of it or not.
I think it’s very hard to sustain the argument that American workers or the United States from a foreign policy perspective is advantaged for being outside of that, because that has become rightly or wrongly the singular symbol of American commitment to the region and as long as the United States is seen as not committed or not leading on economics, the default is a China-led economic order and that leads to all sorts of cascading effects.
So those are just some of the small pieces on economics we can go through. I know we don’t have time today, but on security and information and technology and all these other things, the bottom line would be in every one of those domains, the United States should be thinking about how to be more competitive and there’s a lot of ways to do that.
Brad: Should it be on our agenda to basically curtail China’s economic growth, because it seems we have a lot of capability to do that? What Trump did with ZTE for example showed their vulnerability. I was at a conference last week on artificial intelligence. Chinese are terrific in that field but they use semi-conductors all produced here by American companies, not subject to export control. Some people there were saying if we wanted to stop the Chinese AI industry tomorrow, we can probably do so. Why aren’t we doing these kind of things if China’s emergence in these areas is such a possible threat to us?
Ely: Yeah, my response to that would be I think we need to focus on ourselves more than curtailing China’s economic power. There are instances that, the ZTE example is a little different, because that’s a company that was breaking U.S. export control laws and violating Iran and North Korea sanctions and knowingly engaging in illegal activity and so the bad actors ought to be dealt with. Law enforcement actions against Chinese firms and state-owned enterprises that are engaging in illegal activity or clearly benefiting from unfair trade and economic practices I think are in a different category than in the main, “Do we want the Chinese economy to be growing or not?” I think if China’s playing by the rules and if their Chinese firms that are playing by the rules internationally, then we should welcome that. So I don’t think it should be a goal of the United States to slow the Chinese economy.
When I think about American competitiveness, I think that starts very much with making ourselves as strong as we can be, ensuring that we have the innovation that we need here, that we’re making the kind of investments that we need to be making and then that we are working with allies and partners as well as competing effectively in third countries for influence. So I don’t actually think, again, getting back to my characterization of the Trump administration, I think there are some there who view the US-China competition as a very bilateral event where it’s all about us sort of throwing punches and beating back China. Some of those defensive aspects may be part of what a comprehensive China strategy would be, but I think strengthening our own power and influence should be item number one. Item number two should be strengthening our alliances and partnerships. Item number three should be competing in some of those swing states around which these questions of regional order ultimately are gonna be determined rather than focusing on controlling Chinese power and influence in and of itself which I don’t think should be the focus of our strategy.
Brad: Well, Dr. Ratner, we end every episode of ‘Jaw-Jaw’ by asking people to recommend two or three books or podcasts that people who are interested in China might like to go see. What would you recommend on that front?
Ely: So I would recommend, you know, the China challenge is evolving so quickly that books can’t really keep up with I think where we are today. But probably the best book over the last couple of years on some of the changes we’ve seen would be by my former colleague, Elizabeth Economy at the Council on Foreign Relations who wrote a book called, The Third Revolution, about the Xi Jinping era and what he has meant for China and the direction he’s taking the country.
I think for folks who are interested in the broader question about international order, the liberal international order, and how to think about the China challenge not from a Sinologist China perspective or even Asian perspective, but from a more global perspective, I would recommend a book by my friend, Tom Wright, who’s at Brookings who wrote a book called, All Measures Short of War, about this issue of how the integrationists, the post-Cold War integrationist project has largely failed and he looks not just at China and Asia, but also at Europe and the Middle East and makes a very interesting argument about how the erosion of these regional orders has affected the international order. So for folks who are interested in the bigger picture, that would be a great place to start.
Brad: We’ll put links to both of those books as well as to your many articles on China as well in the show notes to this. Dr. Ely Ratner from the Center for New American Security, thank you today.
Ely: Great. Thanks so much.