China is not (Richard Haas’s borrowed terminology) ten feet tall
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 13 Apr , 2022

Decades back when the US reigned supreme in the aftermath of the Second World War, dictating the political, moral and economic character that the world, many parts were yet under colonial rule, must follow none had the courage including the European allies whose interests coincided with those of the US, to oppose the diktat. The Americans had an easy acceptance of their views because these were based on democratic principles in consultations with the Europeans whose overseas colonies were not yet threatened.

Perhaps the most compelling factor that forced Europe to toe the line was the Monroe Doctrine. In a speech to Congress in 1823, President James Monroe warned European powers not to attempt further colonization or otherwise interfere in the Western Hemisphere, stating that the United States would view any such interference as a potentially hostile act. Later known as the Monroe Doctrine, this policy principle would become a cornerstone of U.S. diplomacy for generations. From time to time later US Presidents took refuge of the Monroe Doctrine. Most importantly President John Kennedy warned then Soviet Union to withdraw its nuclear weapons from Cuba. President John Kennedy  ordered a naval and air quarantine of Cuba after the Soviet Union began building missile-launching sites there. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan similarly used the 1823 policy principle to justify U.S. intervention in El Salvador and Nicaragua, while his successor, George H.W. Bush, similarly sanctioned a U.S. invasion of Panama to oust Manuel Noriega.

Now with a changed definition of national security consequent to the demise of Soviet Union, onslaught of pandemic with no clear sign of its abatement, turbulence in the global market, US-China uneasy relationship; the Monroe Doctrine is no longer the defining criteria of national security. Rise of China as a political and economic power in the world has complicated the twin competition between the US and then Soviet Union for global influence. In simple term the fight centered around democratic and non-democratic forms of government. Also the Non-aligned Movement which was perhaps the largest assembly of world leaders who shaped the destiny of the world for many years had adopted a “declaration on promotion of world peace and cooperation and a collective pledge to remain neutral in great power rivalry.  Non-aligned Movement (NAM) lost much of its relevance with the demise of the Soviet Union. 

More emphasis was given to economic development of member states and national security started getting new meaning. One such meaning is given by emphasis on economic development sometimes putting democracy at risk. To understand alliances today, we need first to understand how we got here. Thucydides tells us that alliances have been an enduring feature of war and conflict for thousands of years. Multilateral military arrangements allow states (and their historical analogues) to aggregate their capabilities and collaborate on common security challenges…. China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.

Contemporary international organizations and alliances are often formed without the specific goal of collaboratively conducting military operations, and when international organizations or other institutions do decide to undertake multilateral military operations, they often do so utilizing a subset of their membership. Not all NATO members have participated in all of NATO’s post–Cold War operations. Today, this U.S.-led hub-and-spoke system includes a variety of different strategic arrangements, most of which do not fit commonly accepted definitions of alliances. These arrangements include: International institutions, such as the United Nations Security Council and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), to contend with security challenges; Multilateral military organizations like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance itself; (Kaththleen Mclnnis – Nonresident Senior Fellow of Atlantic Council). 

Ryan Haas tells his readers that China is not ten feet tall. It is becoming a military and economic force because of the system of governance. Arthur Schelenger Jrexplains: contrary to the conventional wisdom, India stagnated historically not because it was a democracy, but because, in the 1970s and 1980s, it was less democratic than it appeared.  The economic consequences of this period of illiberalism were long lasting. Many contrast India’s experience with that of China, implying that its economic success is derived from “an efficient, massive, and rapid embrace of the global economy” by a closed communist regime. But…the idea that China grew because of its one-party rule stems from a mistaken focus on a single snapshot in time at the expense of an understanding of shifting trends. China did not take off because it was authoritarian. Rather, it took off because the liberal political reforms of the 1980s made the country less authoritarian. As scholar Minxin Pei has noted, every single important political reform—such as the mandatory retirement of government officials, the strengthening of the National People’s Congress, legal reforms, experiments in rural self-government, and loosening control of civil society groups—was instituted in the 1980s. As happens with all autocracy cracks start within the ranks of the highest body though ever one has to be member of the Communist Party.

Thus a plutocracy is born and tussle for power begins within. An expert whose knowledge is regarde  by many (The Party That Failed: An Insider Breaks With Beijing By Cai Xia January/February 2021)  has observed that “Over the course of his tenure, the regime has degenerated further into a political oligarchy bent on holding on to power through brutality and ruthlessness. It has grown even more repressive and dictatorial. A personality cult now surrounds Xi, who has tightened the party’s grip on ideology and eliminated what little space there was for political speech and civil society. People who haven’t lived in mainland China for the past eight years can hardly understand how brutal the regime has become, how many quiet tragedies it has authored. After speaking out against the system, I learned it was no longer safe for me to live in China”. Going back from  the period of Xi Jinping when Deng Ziaoping  was in power he declared:-

The party had to represent three aspects of China: “the development requirements of advanced productive forces,” cultural progress, and the interests of the majority. This was regarded as  a significant shift in CCP ideology. In particular, the first of the Three Represents implied that Jiang was abandoning the core Marxist belief that capitalists were an exploitative social group. The emergence of Xi Jinping as the supreme leader of China despite reports of internal power struggle does not appear to harm Chinese rise as a super power. A lifelong communist and an important functionary has observed “Over the course of his tenure, the regime has degenerated further into a political oligarchy bent on holding on to power through brutality and ruthlessness. It has grown even more repressive and dictatorial. A personality cult now surrounds Xi, who has tightened the party’s grip on ideology and eliminated what little space there was for political speech and civil society. One wonders how far the character of the absolute leader contributes to national and international events. Did Kaiser Wilhelm II caused the First World War (assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand aside) ? Did Adolf Hitler’s unbending attitude prolonged the Second Great War? Did the 9/11 attack on New York goaded  George W Bush’s determination to take revenge influence his Middle East policy?  Did Donald Trump’s declaration at his inauguration to make “America First” contribute to US-China trade war which President Joe Biden would have difficulty to contain? Character does play an important role in international affairs.

The international community however may remain edgy watching the Great Powers tussle lest they fall into Thucydides Trap that caused Peloponnesian war due to Sparta’s fear of a rising Athens. Such an eventuality is remote in democracy but may be a possibility in total autocracy. One may recall the words of then Secretary of Defense from 1973 to 1975 under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. James Schlesinger during the cold war warned that Soviet Union should not be seen through “Ten Foot Tall Syndrome’. Schlesinger believed that the theory and practice of the 1950s and 1960s had been overtaken by events, particularly the rise of the Soviet Union to virtual nuclear parity with the United States. Schlesinger believed that “deterrence is not a substitute for defense; but the potential for effective counteraction, are the essential condition of deterrence.” The demise of the Soviet Union has not ended the struggle for supremacy of global affairs. On the contrary the rise of China has thwarted the aspiration of the US to remain supreme in global affairs.

After Trump’s chaotic foreign policy pursuit President Joe Biden in addressing the State Department said: America’s alliances are our greatest asset, and leading with diplomacy means standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and key partners once again. By leading with diplomacy, we must also mean engaging our adversaries and our competitors diplomatically, where it’s in our interest, and advance the security of the American people. He pointedly mentioned China and said: American leadership must meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism, including the growing ambitions of China to rival the United States and the determination of Russia to damage and disrupt our democracy. Undoubtedly China’s power is growing.

Today, writes Harvard’s Joseph Nye Jr, nearly 100 countries count China as their largest trading partner, compared to 57 for the US. China plans to lend more than $1 trillion for infrastructure projects with its Belt and Road Initiative over the next decade, while the US has cut back aid. China will gain economic power from the sheer size of its market as well as its overseas investments and development assistance. China’s overall power relative to the US is likely to increase. Yet the US has no reason to believe in Ten Feet Syndrome for China. It will take many years for China to catch up with the US both militarily, US military expenditure is four times that of China, and economically.  The problem however remains as pointed out by Singaporean Prime Minister (The Endangered Asian Century America, China, and the Perils of Confrontation Lee Hsien Loong July/August 2020) relates to the troubled U.S.-Chinese relationship that raises profound questions about Asia’s future and the shape of the emerging international order. Southeast Asian countries, including Singapore, are especially concerned, as they live at the intersection of the interests of various major powers and must avoid being caught in the middle or forced into invidious choices.

Lee Hsien Loong advises the two powers “must work out a modus vivendi that will be competitive in some areas without allowing rivalry to poison cooperation in others. Asian countries see the United States as a resident power that has vital interests in the region. At the same time, China is a reality on the doorstep. Asian countries do not want to be forced to choose between the two. And if either attempts to force such a choice—if Washington tries to contain China’s rise or Beijing seeks to build an exclusive sphere of influence in Asia—they will begin a course of confrontation that will last decades and put the long-heralded Asian century in jeopardy”. 

Lee Hsien Loong added the obvious that the prime driver of the prosperity of the free world has been the US open market, its rule based economic system, and its practice of democracy. It is inconceivable that Xi Jinping’s autocracy can ever be an alternative.  Fareed Zakaria was prescient when he wrote that the “rise of the rest” (i.e., non-American powers) would be one of the major features of a “post-American world.” But he argued that this trend was essentially beneficial to the United States: “The power shift … is good for America, if approached properly. The world is going America’s way. Countries are becoming more open, market-friendly, and democratic.” Both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton took a similar view that globalization and free trade would serve as a vehicle for the export of American values. In 1999, two years before China’s accession to the World Trade Organization, Bush argued, “Economic freedom creates habits of liberty. And habits of liberty create expectations of democracy.… Trade freely with China, and time is on our side.” There were two important misunderstandings buried in this theorizing.

The first was that economic growth would inevitably — and fairly swiftly — lead to democratization. (FOREIGN POLICY THINK AGAIN AMERICAN DECLINE This Time It’s For Real. BY GIDEOMAN RACHMAN JANUARY 2, 2011). How short sighted American policy makers could be that they could not foresee the emergence of a person like Xi Jinping who has now been appointed President of China with unpreceded authority.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Kazi Anwarul Masud

former Ambassador and Secretary in the Foreign Ministry of Bangladesh.

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