There is a certain perverse joy at watching an academic try to be a policy wonk, mostly because they are so bad at it. Professors, by their very profession, are analytical; they use theory and empiricism to reveal the world as it is. When they attempt to be normative – that is, when they try to suggest ways to remake the world as they think it ought to be – that is when they show themselves to be just as inept as the rest of us.
Never is this ineptitude more self-evident than in a recent New York Times interview with Yan Xuetong, the director of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. The article was to plug his latest book, The Transition of World Power: Political Leadership and Strategic Competition. Yan calls for a new “moral realism” on the part of China, entailing, among other things, Beijing establishing a system of military alliances, backed up by a more assertive foreign policy and a more competitive relationship with the United States.
For a man with a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley and whom Foreign Policy magazine once ranked among the world’s top 100 public intellectuals, one would think that Yan would know better. Rarely does such a smart man get so many things so wrong.
In the first place, Yan calls on Beijing to abandon its traditional “non-alliance” policy and begin to build a network of militarily linked friendly states. Fair enough, but with whom? Pakistan and North Korea are China’s only real allies at the moment (in fact, Yan actually denies that North Korea is an ally, but the two countries have had a “Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty” since 1961).
Who else would want to be a military ally of China, anyway? Weaker nations align with stronger ones to “buy” security, but what kind of security can China provide? Its capacities to come to the defense of an endangered ally are few. Chinese military aid would be negligible and it would probably require buying inferior Chinese-made weaponry.
Moreover, alliances are usually formed in opposition to some kind of threat, in China’s case (according to Yan), the United States. So a Chinese-centric military alliance would essentially be to require states to join in a rivalry with the USA. That presumes, however, that currently nonaligned countries, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, or even Myanmar or Laos, would want to openly ally with Beijing in a “healthy competition” with the United States, or that US allies such as Pakistan and Thailand would switch sides and back Beijing.
This argument is wrong on so many levels. In the first place, most countries in Asia would prefer to stay out of formal alliances and instead play the game of tactical, ad hoc coalitions that advance their individual security. This is fine with Washington, so it generally benefits from these arrangements.
Secondly, China is increasingly viewed by other countries in the Asia-Pacific as the cause of regional tensions and insecurities. Rather than join it, most nations in the region are actively hedging or balancing against it. Yan particularly exposes his Chinese blinkers when he argues that China’s activities in the South China Sea are not “overly assertive” and are “only intended to safeguard its own interests.” He totally misunderstands how much China’s recent behavior has alienated so many of its neighbors.
Finally, rather than creating a “healthy competition” with the United States, the division of the Asia-Pacific into Chinese and American alliances would more likely devolve into a new Cold War, based on two mutually hostile camps – in other words, a re-creation of the post-World War II division of Europe. The result would be a sharper bilateral competition, increased mutual suspicions, and fewer mechanisms for third-party resolution of disputes.
In fact, Yan’s recommendations could be worse than a Sino-American condominium, that is, a power-sharing relationship in Asia. A Chinese-led military alliance might make Beijing feel more like an equal to the United States, but that would be a fallacy. It would add nothing to regional security, even for China. Yan should see his policy prescriptions for the trainwreck that they are.
Richard A. Bitzinger is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Military Transformations Program at the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. The opinions expressed here are his own.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.