Other Countries as Ends-in-Themselves

Here in Babylon on the Potomac, most foreign policy discussions begin and end with the United States: How can we extend our control of the world?  Who is challenging us?  What problems might, say, a rising China, pose to American primacy?  We are, as Madeleine Albright asserted, the “indispensable nation.”  One popular scholar recently advanced the theory that the U.S. government is, and should be, the world’s government.  There’s a real refusal to recognize that we are, as a simple matter of fact, isolated by the blessings of geography and power.  We’re just not a 19th century continental European power, no matter how much we threat-inflate and conceive of ourselves as the only source of order in a disorderly world.

You’d think we’d be inclined to recognize the luxury that our isolation affords us, but you’d be wrong.  Consequently, in discussions about the rise of China, for example, U.S. analysts generally pose the question as a simple U.S. vs. China confrontation: How quickly can they challenge us?  Where should our “red lines” be?  Which allies will support us?  If our strategists were smart, they’d be thinking more creatively about offloading responsibility to countries that live more closely to China, and waiting to see how things progress.  While the ChiCom menace tends to get represented as ten feet tall in these discussions, the Chinese have a host of significant problems, including the internal unrest that has been on display recently, among others.

china-india-exerciseHigh on the list of “other problems” is China’s relationship with countries like India.  Much more so than the United States, countries like India and Japan have a lot to lose, potentially, from China’s rise.  Liberal international relations thinkers are right to point out the positive-sumness of economic relations between potential adversaries.  Economic ties between China and Taiwan, China and the U.S., China and Japan, are also positive forces that can help to moderate security competition.  That said, security itself is zero-sum.  Either you control your sea lines of communication or else another country does.  If another country does, bad things can happen to you, as, for example, Japan remembers all too well.

All of which is a long-winded way of introducing this excellent article by James Lamont and Amy Kazmin in the Financial Times.  Lamont and Kazmin highlight the growing unease in New Delhi about China.  Unease tends to crop up when a big powerful neighbor does things like claim whole provinces of your country as its own territory, as China does with the Indian province of Arunachal Pradesh.  (For more on this subject, see my talk on Capitol Hill from May 2008: video here.)

In fairness, the Bush administration did some smart things on this front, like trying to improve ties with India.  For years, U.S.-India relations had been tainted by a cold war mindset where we resented their association with the Non-aligned Movement.  (I think the India nuclear deal has a lot of downsides, but the intentions underpinning it were smart ones.)  Similarly, the Bush administration signed a joint agreement with Japan stating that a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan dispute is a “common strategic objective.”

But the important part will be beyond getting other countries to accept our goodies (the India nuclear deal) or sign a statement of interest (the joint Japan-US statement on Taiwan).  Those countries would rather, ceteris paribus, stand tall against China from over the shoulder of the United States.  The only way that we will get to a point where the countries with the most to lose pay the most for a hedge against China is for the United States to credibly commit to do less.  And on that front, there is a lot more work to be done.