By James Ferencsik.
On July 15th, 1971, President Nixon stepped up to the podium and delivered one of the most bizarre and consequential announcements in American history. After a secret meeting between Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, the Chinese government had extended Nixon an invitation to visit the Communist nation. Speaking in third person, Nixon declared “President Nixon has accepted the invitation with pleasure” and “seeks a normalization of relations with China.” This announcement marked an abrupt change in U.S.-China relations. A textbook example of realpolitik, Nixon’s visit to China furthered U.S. policy objectives at the price of ignoring the two countries’ vast ideological differences. Today, the U.S. is faced with a similar dilemma, but the U.S. cannot make the same old calculation and must confront today’s challenges with a new style of realpolitik.
The rise of China does not present a direct, existential threat to the United States, and the Chinese government has consistently stated their wish for “peaceful development.” Nonetheless, the rise of China hurts U.S. strategic goals at home and around the world. China’s protectionist economic policies, such as substantial industrial subsidies and intentional devaluation of its currency, the yuan, have kept American unemployment stubbornly high. Additionally, China has selfishly guarded its dominative relationships with its Asian neighbors and sought to prevent nations like Burma from dealing with other powers directly. Before recent democratic overtures by the ruling junta, Burma relied solely on China. China wanted this relationship, because it made them the primary beneficiary of Burma’s newfound oil and natural gas reserves. Furthermore, China’s economic incentive to maintain these relationships has led to the perpetuation of authoritarian governance.
Why are democracies close allies with democracies and dictatorships with dictatorships? Look no further than the biological principle of kin selection. These nations often share similar identities, values, and policy objectives – i.e., the same geopolitical genes. Thus, China has a clear interest in maintaining more authoritarian neighbors. Moreover, democracy in Burma or Cambodia could have an Arab Spring-like effect and make Chinese citizens less willing to cede significant power to their government. China’s strong support for authoritarian regimes has both strategic and moral significance. Strategically, this means the U.S. has fewer natural allies in the area. Morally, this means more Asian governments violate their citizens’ human rights. In Asia, the geopolitical interests of the United States and of China come into clear conflict.
To date, the U.S. has not developed a very coherent strategy in response. President Obama’s Administration claims they have made an “Asian pivot” to focus on East Asia more and the Middle East less. Some, including CATO Institute fellow Ben Friedman, have claimed the pivot “does not really exist.” Aid to the region is down nearly twenty percent since 2010 and there is no major overt initiatives pushing democracy in East Asia. The U.S.’s reach in the region is predominantly economic and not diplomatic or geopolitical. The U.S. needs to realize China is not working to further U.S. interests in Asia and must guard itself against China, which could easily become more antagonistic in the future. The United States needs to recapture a little of the realpolitik spirit – but ensure it is grounded on sound principles and goals.
One way to do so is for the U.S. to improve its relations with Asian nations in order to limit the geopolitical influence of China and thereby strengthen its own influence and create an environment more conducive to democracy. This means working not only with natural partners such as Japan, South Korea, and India but also unlikely allies such as Burma and Vietnam. The means of pursuing this policy will vary, and the United States should not actively seek to inflame its relations with China. Nonetheless, it should broadly seek to strengthen economic and diplomatic ties in the area, especially with Vietnam.
Vietnam, on a superficial level, appears to be the furthest thing from a potential American ally. A Communist nation that won a long and bitter war with the United States – and China’s neighbor – it seems to be China’s perfect bedfellow. However, there is some deep historical and economic friction between China and Vietnam. Few remember that Vietnam and China went to war for a month in 1979 or that the two nations frequently argue over territorial rights in the South China Sea, including over the Spratly islands. Furthermore, the wages of Chinese workers have steadily increased over the last decade, leading some manufacturers to shift their production to nations like Vietnam. This development has not settled well with China’s political leadership. The U.S. can further its own policy objectives by exploiting this tension.
This rapprochement could take the shape of increased economic aid, more visas for Vietnamese students, more bilateral diplomatic discussions, among numerous other potential actions. This will not only strengthen the U.S.’s hand in Southeast Asia but it will also create an environment more conducive to democracy in Vietnam and other nations. Western ideas and modes of production are contagious and some exposure to them could lead to significant political changes. Yes, this does come at the price of legitimizing an authoritarian government in the short-run; however, the potential benefits outweigh the potential problems.
Realpolitik is not always a sound geopolitical strategy, and it indubitably has its pitfalls. It too often justifies human rights violations and naked power politics. However, in this context, it furthers American moral and strategic goals in the long-run. The U.S. needs not only a geopolitical focus on East Asia but also a strategy to hone and guide that focus. The U.S. needs more allies in Asia to influence the region and prevent excessive aggression from a burgeoning China. It is time for Obama to take a page out of Richard Nixon’s playbook.