China, the 7th Fleet, and the future of US power
The Cosmopolitan Globalists welcome our first Letter to the Editors
The Cosmopolitan Globalists are thrilled to present the first Letter to the Editors we have ever received.
Adam Garfinkle—member of the editorial board of American Purpose, founding editor of The American Interest, distinguished fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, and dear friend of the Cosmopolitan Globalists—wrote to us over the weekend to tell us we are wrong about the RCEP—or at least, only half-right.
We stopped the presses to publish it. Vivek has replied to Adam.
Best of all, we have cajoled from Adam a promise to discuss this with us in a podcast, which we will record as soon as possible and post immediately. Do please send us any questions you’d like us to ask him.
It’s all so exciting we can hardly bear it.
To the Editors:
Vivek Y. Kelkar’s December 12, 2020 article about the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership RCEP and the American world that might have been is filled with excellent and detailed analysis of the Asia-Pacific’s geoeconomic circumstances as the new Biden Administration prepares to take office. Its reminders of what the the Trans-Pacific Partnership was about—and what a moronic unforced error the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from it was—are particularly useful for those who do not dwell much or often on economic aspects of international politics. The contrast he draws between what might have been and the Chinese version of same—the new RCEP—are also spot-on. More’s the pity that the essay is oversold as strategic analysis.
It’s not clear whose language “Now it’s China’s Pacific” is, Kelkar’s or an editor’s.* But Kelkar is the one who seems to equate economic power with wider strategic power: Kelkar writes, “Xi has presented Biden with a fait accompli: China is now the region’s hegemon,”** and “The trade relationships China has developed in the Asia-Pacific now allow it to be the region’s coercive power. This is a weapon that may be used in strategic competition with the United States, and because it may be, it will be.”
Unless one ascribes to the primitive, materialist, Hobson-Lenin theory of imperialism, in which wealth determines everything, this is a most unfortunate conflation. Politics is always trump—pardon the expression—not lucre. Yes, China’s economic clout presumes some coercive capability, but threatening to manipulate trade, aid, and investment relationships to harm the interests of recalcitrant others is not the only kind of coercion. Kelkar, by the way, also misunderstands the Monroe Doctrine,*** as is common; John Quincy Adams’ aim was to forestall the European imperial re-colonization of the New World, not claim an exclusive economic zone for the United States.
Money and soft power are very nice and generate oceans of talk and ink until someone threatens to start shooting or does it. In peacetime, it is a common form of myopia to experience a failure of imagination by simply ignoring the possibility of war. If one reads the diplomatic archives of the interwar years—British, French, Italian, United States—one is struck that even until 1935 or so, much of it concerns WWI debts, reparations, monetary stability, exchange rates, tariffs and so on. The war that broke out in Europe in 1939 and earlier in Asia was about the last thing on anyone’s mind.
This is not to predict a major war. The Chinese state cannot and probably will not blithely start a major war. But deranging internal regime crises and accidents happen. China will militarize South China Sea islands, despite pledges not to, if US policy permits it, as it did under the Obama Administration did. If it suits China’s interests, it will pick fights with India. It will suborn Hong Kong’s freedoms and treat its own minorities abjectly. But it will not screw with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, or Singapore, to mention just a few of Asia’s economic pearls, because American power, commitment, and resolve make it far too dangerous.
Kelkar writes as if the US 7th Fleet and America’s alliance system in Asia don’t exist, as if US military power and positioning were not, still, far superior to China’s on the high seas and beyond. Asian leaders know this. They try to hedge between the utility China provides them, economically, and the utility America provides them for security and regional stability. Kelkar need not take my word for it; he can go ask them himself.
To conclude based on changes in the economic situation and the Trump Administration’s disastrous handling of nearly everything it has touched that the game is over (“Forget It, Jake”)—or that properly-led US diplomacy has no recourse—is excessively pessimistic and deterministic. US policy prospects are greatly aided by Asian nationalists’ fears of China and by China’s increasingly negative soft power. The new Administration has many tools to mitigate outbreaks of military aggression and violence in the Asia-Pacific. These don’t require renewed US economic dominance the region.
Finally, there is no “game over”—save from the perspective of the deceased in the event of state or regime extinction. That is an error of what Samuel P. Huntington termed endism. Great power politics are “an endless game played for joyless victory,” as the British statesman Robert Gilbert Vansittart wrote in The Mist Procession, published in 1958. Plenty has changed since then. His definition stands.
*That was me. —Claire
**I’m afraid that was me, too. —Claire
Vivek Y. Kelkar replies:
Adam Garfinkle’s comments are deeply thought-provoking. At the outset, I must apologize for my mischaracterization of the Monroe Doctrine.* Thank you for pointing out the flaw.
Yes, you are right. There is no “game over” in great power politics. Nor should one conclude definitively that the Biden administration has no options when it comes to the Asia-Pacific. The US 7th Fleet and alliances—with troops on ground, in some cases—and the military disparity between the US and China are hugely significant. Indeed, Asia-Pacific nations do hedge between China for its economic power and the United States for the security it offers them.
My error lies, perhaps, in the colorful language to which journalists are prone. That said, when analyzing China’s behavior and intentions in the Asia-Pacific over the past decade—or perhaps a bit longer—one might consider with profit John Maynard Keynes’ remarks in The Economic Consequences of the Peace:
The great events of history are often due to secular changes in the growth of population and other fundamental economic causes, which, escaping by their gradual character the notice of contemporary observers, are attributed to the follies of statesmen or the fanaticism of atheists. Thus the extraordinary occurrences of the past two years in Russia, that vast upheaval of Society, which has overturned what seemed most stable—religion, the basis of property, the ownership of land, as well as forms of government and the hierarchy of classes—may owe more to the deep influences of expanding numbers than to Lenin or to Nicholas; and the disruptive powers of excessive national fecundity may have played a greater part in bursting the bonds of convention than either the power of ideas or the errors of autocracy.
The context in which Keynes made these observations is not today’s. Less important than the context, though, is the point. The consequences of the acts of an economically powerful nation-state may not be immediately obvious; only in time do they acquire their full significance.
Economic fecundity may be disruptive in international relations—particularly when the stakes involve future economic gain. The world’s underlying global conditions today are not dissimilar to those before the First World War, and while our times are not as febrile as the interwar period, surely they are fertile enough for a major disruption in the balance of the great-power equation. The key differences between then and now are technological—but that is a different discussion. What is too much alike between now and then is the way access to technology shapes military power.
Its 7th Fleet and military power, generally, endow the United States with an unmatched ability to respond to threats by force and thus impose huge costs on any nation-state that dares to upset it. But this does not grant the United States economic clout to match, nor the ability economically to coerce powerful nation-states that challenge it. That power has traditionally come from technology, trade, and the primacy of the US Dollar.
The Cold War did not end because the United States defeated the Soviet Union on the battlefield. It was the American economy that defeated the Soviet system. The Soviet Union collapsed because its economic vitality was an illusion.
Speaking of Samuel Huntington, it was he who argued,
Economic activity ... is, indeed, probably the most important source of power, and in a world in which military conflict between major states is unlikely, economic power will be increasingly important in determining the primacy or subordination of states.
This was my point. China, by drawing into its economic ambit large parts of the Asia-Pacific, will attempt to play hegemon, if not immediately, in the foreseeable future.
Paul Kennedy argued that great powers need a flourishing economic base. China now has one. The interconnected nature of modern industrial supply chains (and more so, the network of information and digital technology chains), along with growing levels of trade dependence among nation-states and within regions, will give some powers the ability to coerce—and compel the rest to bend.
The US ought not unwittingly forsake whatever economic power it has left.
*We did not mischaracterize it. Here is the text of Monroe’s statement, which only became a doctrine, as opposed to a desire, when Napoleon III invaded Mexico in 1862. Adams’ aim may have been to forestall the European imperial re-colonization of the New World, not claim an exclusive economic zone for the United States. But that is not the point. The point is that the United States succeeded in forcing France out of Mexico—Mexican nationalists executed Maximilian—and has since then been so possessive of its hemisphere that it does not ask Europe’s permission before invading Latin American countries. (Sometimes, if we are on exceedingly good terms with our European counterparts, we notify them afterward as a courtesy.) –Claire