Monday, July 13, 2020

Douthat and the only-two-countries-in-the-world model of Grand Strategy

Mahjong tiles revealing that China has words for "north", "east", "south", and "west".

Monsignor Ross Douthat, apostolic nuncio to 42nd Street, takes his Grand Strategy chops out for a spin ("The Chinese Decade"):

richer-but-not-freer China proved that it was possible for an authoritarian power to tame the internet, to make its citizens hardworking capitalists without granting them substantial political freedoms, to buy allies across the developing world, and to establish beachheads of influence — in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, American academia, the NBA, Washington, D.C. — in the power centers of its superpower rival....

So China has won twice over: First rising with the active collaboration of naïve American centrists, and then consolidating its gains with the de facto collaboration of a feckless American populist. Four months into the coronavirus era, Xi Jinping’s government is throttling Hong Kong, taking tiny bites out of India, saber-rattling with its other neighbors, and perpetrating a near-genocide in its Muslim West. Meanwhile America is rudderless and leaderless, consumed by protests and elite psychodrama and a moral crusade whose zeal seems turned entirely inward, with no time to spare for a rival power’s crimes.

Furthermore, Trump’s likely successor is a figure whose record and instincts and family connections all belong to the recent period of American illusions about China. 

One of those naïve American centrists, he means, Joe Biden, and of course sneaking in the reference to the familiar smear for the cognoscenti, because that's how Ross rolls—Biden's "family connections" meaning the bogus story from Peter Schweitzer's fabrication factory according to which Hunter Biden took some kind of illicit profit from associations with the Chinese government (I dealt with it briefly here in the form of a Radio Yerevan joke).

Also in yesterday's Times, coincidentally, a report demonstrating with some clarity why Ross is wrong:

Iran and China have quietly drafted a sweeping economic and security partnership that would clear the way for billions of dollars of Chinese investments in energy and other sectors, undercutting the Trump administration’s efforts to isolate the Iranian government because of its nuclear and military ambitions.

The partnership, detailed in an 18-page proposed agreement obtained by The New York Times, would vastly expand Chinese presence in banking, telecommunications, ports, railways and dozens of other projects. In exchange, China would receive a regular — and, according to an Iranian official and an oil trader, heavily discounted — supply of Iranian oil over the next 25 years.

The document also describes deepening military cooperation, potentially giving China a foothold in a region that has been a strategic preoccupation of the United States for decades....

And most notably after President Obama took office in 2009 and began working to drag China into a global partnership on things like the Iran nuclear issue:

China’s leaders... recognize the advantages accruing to China from a U.S. invitation to partnership on global issues. Viewed broadly, such a partnership might allow China’s power to continue to grow without collision with the reigning paramount power – rather like the U.S. did in relation to the British Empire circa 1900.

On the other hand, Beijing is loath to forgo opportunities to expand economic and political cooperation with Tehran. Iran is one of the world’s largest oil exporters, has large untapped reserves of oil and gas, and is a reliable supplier of energy for China. Moreover, China’s energy security policies attempt to encapsulate foreign energy supply relations in a warm, political insulation. Iran also has a large demand for infrastructure of all sorts: industrial and transportation machinery and equipment, cheap consumer goods – all of which China is happy to supply. Iran’s conflicts with the West have allowed China to establish itself as Iran’s leading trading partner. (Before Iran’s 1979 revolution, China supplied less than one percent of Iran’s imports.) Beijing also recognizes Iran as a major regional power with no conflicts of interest with China (unlike India, Japan, Russia, or Turkey). Beijing’s political objective is to expand China’s influence with Iran into an all-weather partnership similar to the one China enjoys with Pakistan. (John Garver, China Research Center, August 2009)

Obama's Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,  in which Iran committed to not attempting to build a nuclear weapon for the next 10-15 years, could have been invented just in order to forestall such an outcome. It wasn't; it had a lot of purposes. It really was meant, in the first place, to ensure that Iran wouldn't build a nuclear weapon. Because although, as I kept saying, Ayatollah Khamenei was telling the truth when he said Iran's leadership had no intention of building a nuclear weapon, Iran's government by competing power centers is subject to strange changes, and an ascendant Revolutionary Guard might decide to try, perhaps in the wake of Khamenei's inevitable death (he's 81 and had prostate cancer surgery in 2014). It was also meant to start bringing Iran into the family of nations just because it's a very major country and a needed part of the region, a counterbalance to the equally ill-behaved Saudi Arabia, and to do something to assure the future of Iran as the old 1979 revolutionaries die off and the huge young generation for whom the Shah and Savak are ancient history and America is the most attractive country on earth begins to come into its own—they need the opportunity to visit and study in the US and find out what's wrong with it as well as what's right, and young Americans need the opportunity to learn about Iran. But finally yes, there was a geopolitical angle, and it involved China's ability to turn Iran into a dependent (Russia, with a similar interest, is now a bogus great power, since it doesn't have the financial or military clout).

And Trump's trashing of the deal has indeed effectively forced Iran into this deal instead of the multilateral relationships it was hoping for from the JCPOA, as was pretty much predictable at the time, after the withdrawal in May 2018:

While European firms have explored ways to circumvent American sanctions or seek waivers, the threat of sanctions is likely to scare away many firms from doing business in the country. This will leave a void that China is likely to fill. As a result, Chinese firms will gain a near monopoly on Iranian oil and trade.

While Chinese imports of Iranian oil have initially experienced a slight decline, it is possible that this is one of Beijing’s ploys to see whether deals serving China’s interests are offered by an increasingly isolated Iran. For while Iran has been receptive to Chinese investment in the past, it has equally sought European investment to balance this out and to prevent China from playing too dominant a role in the country. The sanctions have now made China’s dominance all the more likely.

China increasingly is building its influence in a region that has traditionally been dominated by the US. This may see Tehran become more amenable to Chinese global initiatives, such as the Belt and the Road Initiative (BRI) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). (Tom Harper, The Conversation, November 2018)

But contrary to Douthat's view, not all "naïve centrists" are alike. John McCain was another, in the 2008 campaign, writing,
China and the United States are not destined to be adversaries. We have numerous overlapping interests and hope to see our relationship evolve in a manner that benefits both countries and, in turn, the Asia-Pacific region and the world. But until China moves toward political liberalization, our relationship will be based on periodically shared interests rather than the bedrock of shared values.
—but had diametrically different views on Iran, which McCain thought it could be reduced to the refrain of a Beach Boys song, with no ability to see it in the wider perspective, as related to other issues (Saudi Arabia or China, for instance) that we need to attend to. And obviously Ross doesn't have it either.

The thought reminded me of another case where Obama had a project that annoyed a lot of people blind to its geopolitical importance, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, also meant to constrain Chinese and Russian bad behavior by forming a unified bloc of Pacific countries capable of resisting it. I even started thinking, as some readers may remember, that Russia might have started its collaboration with WikiLeaks over the TPP, back in 2013, stealing the drafts of the agreement and giving them to WikiLeaks to publish as evidence of an evil conspiracy of corporations who were somehow able to bend 12 nations to their will, as if it were the corporations that were inviting the nations to the talks rather than the other way around.

Interestingly enough, a post by Emptywheel pointed me to a New York Times hint at the same hypothesis, from September 2016.

Russia, which was excluded, has been the most vocal opponent of the [TPP and TiSA] pacts, with Mr. Putin portraying them as an effort to give the United States an unfair leg up in the global economy.

The drafts released by WikiLeaks stirred controversy among environmentalists, advocates of internet freedom and privacy, labor leaders and corporate governance watchdogs, among others. They also stoked populist resentment against free trade that has become an important factor in American and European politics....

“It’s not in [Assange's] temperament to be a cat’s paw, and I don’t think he would take anything overtly from the F.S.B.,” said one [former collaborator], referring to the Russian intelligence agency. “He wouldn’t trust them enough. But if someone could plausibly be seen as a hacker group, he’d be fine. He was never too thorough about checking out sources or motivations.”

A hacker group like Fancy Bear or the team calling itself Guccifer 2.0?

One of the "progressive" fears, not exactly unjustified, was over possible abuses in the intellectual property provisions, especially in maintaining drug monopolies and the accompanying extortionate prices; I argued back in June 2015 that what the early WikiLeaks draft showed was the US pressuring the other 11 countries on the issue, and the other countries successfully resisting (or in a subtler interpretation, Obama "leading from behind" to get the other countries to do it for him).

So the other thing I learned is that I was right; in November 2017 the new 11-member TPP suspended all the intellectual property provisions of the agreement. Obama did a good job, for them.

Meanwhile, for the goal of containing China in trade terms, we've just failed completely, as is getting to be widely recognized:

President Trump may have committed his biggest strategic blunder vis a vis China during his first full week in office, when, with a quick signature, he withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, says top China expert Christopher Johnson.

"The TPP was the way to get China to address a lot of what we're now trying to get them to address with tariffs," said Johnson, who was for years a senior China analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, and who now holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"It may be the biggest strategic mistake the United States has ever made," he said.

While the rival trade agreement pushed by China, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) bringing together all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations with Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea, is likely to be signed this year. Without, obviously, the US (or India, which has pulled out).

Douthat suggests with some justification that China won't be able to carry out its broadest ambitions, thanks to the aging population, the greater prosperity of the neighbors, the stinginess and selfishness with which it carries out its "soft power" objectives (e.g. in the One Belt One Road projects), and the falling behind of its military "hard power"—that the Chinese Century may turn out to be a Chinese Decade, if we can ride it out. But the means he suggest for doing it are all about the bilateral relationship in which the US tries to tell China what to do:

it should condition the U.S. policy response, whether under a President Biden or a future Republican with more capabilities than Trump, toward a balance between resolve and caution, hawkishness and restraint.

If we show too much indecision and weakness, or just too obvious a desire for the pre-Trump status quo, then Beijing’s escalation will continue, and the risks of war will rise.

That's pretty scary, and as long as Republicans are exercising power in Washington, Trumpy or (like the Monsignor) anti-Trumpy, the essential multilateral relationships are going to continue to be ignored, as they have been since the days of Caspar Weinberger and Donald Rumsfeld; it's not actually Trump's fault.

While Joe Biden, however radicalized he may be under the tutelage of Warren and Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, continued to regard the TPP as an essential goal through 2019
“I would not rejoin the TPP as it was initially put forward. I would insist that we renegotiate,” Biden said during the Democratic debate in Detroit. “Either China’s going to write the rules of the road for the 21st century on trade or we are. We have to join with the 40 percent of the world that we had with us and this time make sure that there’s no one sitting at that table doing the deal unless environmentalists are there and labor is there.”
and still seems committed to it now
US presidential candidate Joe Biden said that he would consider US participation in the TPP if the terms were revised. In fact, some of the issues that the Democrats objected to, and that led the Obama administration to delay bringing the deal to Congress, have been expunged from the revised CPTPP, including investor-state dispute settlement and data exclusivity for biologic drugs. CPTPP members may warmly welcome the return of the United States and likely would accept further changes, for example, on digital trade and labor and climate issues, to make the deal attractive to a Biden administration.
Another area where we could do a lot worse.

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