Monday, August 05, 2013

On Hugh White's China-American Mirages

A huge fan am I of the East Asian Forum (Link). Dr. Peter Drysdale and associates publish pertinent articles by smart authors on a huge variety of topics. Though I wish I could be more omnivorous, I usually have to restrict myself to the contributions on Japan. While not everything that gets published is great (an occasional contribution by yours truly slips in, for example) the EAF essays in the build up and aftermath of the 21 July 2013 election were thought-provoking and enriching. Stalwarts authors like Aurelia George Mulgan and Soeya Yoshihide were their usual fascinating selves, while new talents like Ben Ascione and Toshiya Takahashi offered balanced broader pictures of the landscape of this blessed land's politics.

In its admirable open-mindedness the EAF every so often publishes a huge white whale of an essay that demands attention and, if possible, a harpooning. The Moby Dick of this weekend, which has caused me to leave the confines of my usual Japan-only reading list, comes from Dr. Hugh White of Australia National University: "Containing or counterbalancing China." (Link)

Dr. White is a prolific and much-quoted author of Big Cross-Temporal Themes And Hard-Nosed Advice pieces about foreign policy. In this essay, he tries to distill and transmit his ideas on the future of American power in the Indo-Pacific region in the face of a rising China, a theme he has explored at length elsewhere. (Link)

The essay, after a little revving up of mental engines, launches with a cascade of related questions and a brief answer.
The key questions are pretty simple: what is the aim of the current US policy towards China? What are its likely costs? Will it succeed? What if it fails? And what are the alternatives?

America's primary aim in relation to China today is to preserve its position as the primary strategic power in Asia. This aim is seldom scrutinised or even acknowledged. It is taken for granted because it assumes that primacy is the only conceivable strategic role for America in Asia, that perpetuating US primacy is thus the only alternative to strategic withdrawal, and that US primacy therefore provides the only possible basis for a stable and secure future for Asia, as it has done for so many years past. And it assumes that everyone else wants Asia to remain peaceful, and that they all agree that continued US primacy is the only way to ensure that.

And no, no, and

While the usual pattern is to smack the first answer, then knock off each subsequent answer in turn, that is not the best way to proceed here. The last three statements can be disposed of without refutation, as they are little more self-aggrandizing positioning of the author as a seer who has thought about the implications of China's rise -- and detractors as acolytes of dead religions who have not examined their received notions.

Which leaves the first answer to the first question as worthy of contention:

"America's primary aim in relation to China today is to preserve its position as the primary strategic power in Asia."


America's aim in its Asia Pacific policy is not primacy. It is presence with depth. The U.S. wants East Asia to operate in ways that further U.S. interests in the aggregate. It is agnostic on the means by which this influence is exercised or the particular hierarchy of interests it is pursuing at any one moment. What the U.S. seeks most of all, however, is to never be reliant on an ideal set of reactions by regional participants to systemic stress or a crisis.

Call it the anti-Blanche DuBois Strategy, where the ultimate goal is to never be dependent on the kindness of strangers. (Link)

Primacy in a region is only one means of realizing U.S. policy. Building up the capacities, either individually or in concert, of allies is another.

That U.S. policy is not obsessed with being the big boss but is instead careful about remaining flexible and sensitive to change in the region is why U.S. community of Japan watchers is so split over the downfall of Hatoyama Yukio. Hatoyama had faults by the bucketful (Link). He was clearly doomed by his dependence on then Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro and Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirano (The Stupidest Person To Ever Serve in the Kantei) Hirofumi.

However, the United States government's intransigence in the face of Hatoyama's attempt to reopen the issue of the relocation of Marine Corps Airbase Futenma -- a conversation the United States had an obligation to have, as Japan had just changed governments after decades of a single party's dominance -- set the stage for Hatoyama's whirling dervish death spiral of contrite reversals.

The Obama Administration's intransigence, undermining as it did the duly elected government of an ally, leaves the Japan analysis community divided into antagonistic tribes. On the one side is the shrugging (and occasionally smirking) defenders of U.S. interference and on the other the holding-their-heads-in-their-hands-in-disbelief critics. Members of either camp can lunch together but cannot start talking about Hatoyama or the Democratic Party of Japan without the conversation degrading into testy sniping over the U.S. government's having transgressed or not transgressed a fundamental principle of U.S. policy.

Getting back to the essay, Dr. White's initial wrong assumption -- that the U.S. is wedded to primacy in the region -- cripples the rest of Dr. White's argument and his prescriptions. While well begun is half done, badly begun means even the sharpest of cooks (and Dr. White is sharp) can only pull out items seemingly half-baked.

How did Dr. White misread the fundamental nature of the goal of U.S. policy in the Indo-Pacific?

One strong candidate is the conflation of strategic and tactical mendacity. Strategic mendacity is the mask of wisdom one must adopt when one cannot, for propaganda purposes, admit the fluidity of situations and limits of human knowledge. Tactical mendacity is an intentional spewing forth of a mix of truth and falsehood under the guise of appearing to get something done.

For those with a greater interest in tactical mendacity, the philosopher John Frankfurt has written the book on it, calling it by its common name. (Link)

White has listened to purveyors of tactical mendacity on the Indo-Pacific -- members of the U.S. Congress, a lot (but not all) of the uniforms in the uniformed services, think tank enablers in Washington...and their respective correlates in the Chinese establishment. He concludes that what they have been saying is indicative of intents or plans.

However, what they are saying is complete...tactical mendacity. It is neither true nor false. Whether the adamant stomping of "America cannot accept a peer rival in the Pacific" or the sly misrepresentation of history of "China seeks a level of military power commensurate with its traditional cultural and economic role" -- the obvious impracticality of the goal should be a flashing red sign with the words "Ignore Me" on it.

Strategic mendacity -- the obvious and not-so-obvious nonsense that governments say because they have to keep up appearances -- is by contrast a worthy subject of attention and dissection. The lies governments tell because they have to can be lined up alongside truths, with the writer and the reader learning something from the differences in between the two.

As for truth, what Xi Jinping and Barack Obama can talk about in private...or what Abe Shinzo and Barack Obama can talk about in private, if and when President Obama feels confident that Prime Minister Abe understands the difference between reality and strategic mendacity -- that neither Dr. White nor I can be privy to for a very long span of decades.

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