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Is Webb Missing the Main Point on China?

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In this video, Jim Webb talks about what he sees as “the need to reinvigorate U.S. relations with ASEAN countries and other allies in the region to maintain balance and stability” vis-a-vis China. According to Webb, the “second-tier countries” in the Asia-Pacific region see “any failure by the United States to take firm action when the Chinese manifest aggressive behavior is viewed in this region as a sign of a permeating weakness in the United States.”  In Webb’s view, we need to “stay with our friends” and let China know that “the wrong type of behavior is not going to be rewarded with a weak form of behavior by the United States.”

In my view, that’s fine as far as it goes; there’s nothing wrong with strengthening relations with our allies in the region, and there’s nothing wrong with being strong in our response to outright aggressive behavior by China. However, I believe that Webb largely misses the larger point, of what Anne Applebaum correctly describes as “China’s quiet power grab”. For more on that, see after the “fold.”

Writing the Washington Post yesterday, Applebaum made a few important points.

*”Over the past decade, China has kept silent, lain low and behaved more like a multinational company than a global superpower — and garnered enormous political influence as a result.”

*”America fights, in other words, while China does business, and not only in Afghanistan.”

*Chinese is busy setting up free-trade zones, “investing heavily in energy and ports,” acquiring large stakes in Iraqi oil fields, and generally spreading its economic influence around the world.

*China also has “quietly…cornered the market in rare-earth metals, unusual minerals that have lovely names (promethium, ytterbium) and are vital for the production of cellphones, lasers and computers — not to mention hybrid cars, solar panels and wind turbines.”

All of this is why, according to Applebaum, China has no real need to be belligerent or aggressive militarily, as it’s winning the broader game in a much quieter fashion. Thus, Applebaum concludes, “the scariest thing about China is not the size of its navy or the arrogance of its diplomats…[but] the power China has already accumulated without ever deploying its military or its diplomats at all.”  Meanwhile, as China rises as a great power, the United States remains overextended militarily around the world, while burdened by debt, rapidly rising health care costs, an aging infrastructure, heavy dependence on foreign oil, and many other problems at home. This is the classic recipe for relative decline in national power, and right now we’re following that recipe to the letter.  In the end, I’d argue, until we figure out a way to get our domestic house in order, while reining in our “imperial overstretch,” all the rest of our maneuvers will be for naught.

  • Elaine in Roanoke

    It seems to me that China at present is a bit analogous to the United States as we were rapidly industrializing. Meanwhile, we remind me of Britain as it slowly began to bankrupt itself by trying to hold onto its empire. I realize that making that analogy is a real stretch, but after all, powers come and powers go. I agree that China does not see the need to spend its wealth right now on some sort of arms race with the United States. Ironically, those “commies” have learned to play the capitalist game better than we are right now. The biggest drag on their growth as a power, it seems to me, is the fact that their huge population contains 40 percent or so citizens who are still very poor and unskilled. That won’t be the situation forever, however.

    Yes. You’re right. We will either get our domestic house in order at the same time as we ratchet down our military adventures, or we will ultimately not be the world’s greatest power.

    Jim Webb has for a long time thought the biggest threat to our status as the leading world power comes from China. There, he’s right, but there are more ways to get power than simply using arms. China know that quite well.

  • China is also putting a huge amount of effort into understanding (and by understanding, that includes hacking) into the internet.  Let’s say you use a certain technology to power something like a nuclear reactor.  If you can hack into that technology, you can potentially turn that entire system off.  The military, as we’ve understood it in the past, may not even be necessary in the fights to come.

  • richmonder

    As a former foreign correspondent based in Taipei and Beijing for more than 10 years, I read Anne Applebaum’s column with skepticism. She’s right that China has been trying to stay under the radar as it builds power by marrying market economics and aggressive state-controlled corporate expansion to a single-party state. And they have succeeded in convincing some Asia ‘experts’ that China poses no threat to its neighbors, but needs peaceful development to achieve its economic goals. It’s true too that Deng Xiaoping (who saved the Chinese Communist Party from the catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution by introducing economic reforms) advocated keeping a low profile internationally as China built itself up. But this policy is coming apart now, as astonishingly rapid economic growth requires more resources and unleashed ultra-nationalistic sentiments, with the assertion of old claims to territory, and so on.

    It’s not an either/or situation, as Chinese military power has been building rapidly along with the economy. Double-digit increases in defense spending for more than two decades (when there are no serious external threats) suggest something more than a merely defensive security policy. As Jim Webb knows, China’s neighbors on all sides want the US to reassure them, and that will require more robust diplomatic, commercial, and military policies and much more engagement that has happened so far.