Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

Realist China, realist Asia [Straits Times]


The zero-sum game that is politics today. This article reflects on the idealist happy vision that Chinese public diplomacy is projecting against the very realist reality that is the political and international relations arena – that self-interest is ‘almost’ always at the fore.

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Realist China, realist Asia
By William Choong, Senior Writer
Source – Straits Times, published December 31, 2010

THERE are two major schools of thought in international relations. One is liberal institutionalism, which argues that an anarchical world – that is, a world with no global government – can be ameliorated by norms, regimes and institutions. The other is neorealism, which argues that states can advance their own interests only at the expense of other states.

In this context, it could be argued that the discourse surrounding China’s rise in recent years has turned increasingly liberal in recent years.

In 2005, China expert David Shambaugh wrote that China is a ‘good neighbour, a constructive partner, a careful listener, and a non-threatening regional power’. Around that time, Mr Robert Zoellick, then the United States deputy secretary of state, offered the vision of China becoming a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in global affairs. Beijing has proffered its own vision of ‘peaceful rise’ and ‘harmonious oceans’ surrounding China’s periphery.

Similarly, Asean countries with China in mind have been developing institutions such as the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus). These bodies stem from what liberal institutionalists call ‘complex interdependence’ – the notion that an intricate web of cooperation between countries can reduce the need for hard power.

Therein stood the neoliberals’ happy vision of China’s rise, at least until this year, when China – with a more forceful stance on the South China Sea, a tough line towards Japan, and strong protests against Korean-US military exercises in the Yellow Sea – decided to strike back in the name of hardcore neorealism.

Reams of newsprint have been devoted to WikiLeaks, the whistle-blowing website that has released thousands of classified American diplomatic cables. As some analysts have pointed out, the released cables did not reveal anything new, apart from some headline-worthy gossip. But the cables underscored one thing: US diplomats and their colleagues around the world evince a neoliberal face in public, but a neorealist strain in private.

In Asia, for example, much has been made about a 75-minute lunch involving Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. According to WikiLeaks, Mr Rudd told Mrs Clinton that he was a ‘brutal realist’ on China, and that the US and its allies should be prepared to deploy force ‘if everything goes wrong’.

This should not be taken to be anything out of the ordinary. It is true that Mr Rudd is a Sinophile who has called Australia China’s zhengyou, or true friend. But the same Mr Rudd was also the prime mover behind the 2009 Defence White Paper, which called for a massive naval build-up in Australia to pre-empt any miscalculations on China’s part.

The same logic applies to Japan. For years, it has sought to build bridges to China. In September, however, Tokyo got into a diplomatic spat with China over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. Recently, it raised Beijing’s ire with a defence paper that expressed concern over China’s defence posture.

Again, neorealism is endemic even in the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government, which – when compared to previous Liberal Democratic Party governments – is perceived to be a relative dove. As Mr Tobias Harris, a prominent blogger on Japanese affairs, noted, the DPJ has actually been ‘far more realist in its foreign and security policies than has been generally recognised’.

There is a straightforward explanation for the neorealist bent in the security philosophies of Australia and Japan. For all their talk about building neoliberal institutions, their security thinking is neorealist because China is neorealist.

In April, The New York Times reported that the Chinese navy was expanding its reach into the Indian Ocean and into the Pacific – a move that would deny other navies from operating freely in waters near China.

Again, this is not surprising. Despite all its rhetoric about ‘peaceful rise’, Chinese strategy is also mired in zero-sum neorealism. As Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago argued, in China’s case, it is better ‘to be Godzilla than Bambi’.

That said, the dominance of neorealist strategies in Asia does not mean that there is no hope for neoliberal institutions such as the EAS and the ADMM-Plus.

It is true that some analysts put little stress on the ADMM-Plus. At a recent security seminar, a British scholar called the organisation ‘curiously half-hearted’, given that it would meet only once in three years to discuss largely non-traditional security issues.

And according to Mr Greg Sheridan, the foreign editor of The Australian newspaper, the Americans finally agreed to join the EAS simply because of the ‘long-term danger of vacating (regional) leadership to the Chinese’.

Still, in the end, the ideal scenario for Asia’s security would be one underpinned by neorealist thinking, but complemented by neoliberal institutions such as the EAS and the ADMM-Plus.

In the short run, Asia’s politicians all talk the talk of liberal institutionalism. In the long run, they are all neorealists at heart. In short, there is nothing new under the sun. And we do not need WikiLeaks to arrive at such a humdrum conclusion.

williamc@sph.com.sg

There is a straightforward explanation for the neorealist bent in the security philosophies of Australia and Japan. For all their talk about building neoliberal institutions, their security thinking is neorealist because China is neorealist.

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Filed under: Beijing Consensus, Charm Offensive, Chinese Model, Communications, Culture, Domestic Growth, Economics, Influence, International Relations, japan, Media, Politics, Public Diplomacy, Soft Power, Straits Times, Strategy, U.S.

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