Over the Indo-Pacific, do not give Xi Jinping more credit than he deserves
One of the basic intellectual errors political risk analysts make is to assume strategic foes are infallible. While everyone who has ever seriously worked in the public policy world is confronted daily by the basic fact that Hamlet (well-meaning stupidity) more often explains the world than Macbeth (systematized, if evil, plotting), often policymakers forget the fundamental reality that human mistakes explain our rivals as well as ourselves. As Eleanor Roosevelt wisely suggested, “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”
This first principle analytical flaw is presently being played out over Western assessments of China in the Indo-Pacific. At last awake to the fact that the US has a genuine superpower rival in the world, most of the present analysis assumes Beijing has a lofty mastery of geopolitics, a strategic understanding that stands in marked contrast to the West’s fecklessness.
Yet any actual reading of the record of these past critical years – even as the new Sino-American Cold War in the Indo-Pacific has sprung to life – would come to the entirely opposite conclusion. It is America that finds itself in the far more geostrategically advantageous position, a fact due almost entirely to the colossal foreign policy mistakes of Xi Jinping and his regime.
As realists would predict, the new foreign and strategic policy aggressiveness that has been the hallmark of Xi’s tenure has been incredibly counterproductive, scaring the horses in the Indo-Pacific and proving to be the single most important factor in the region in the development of a countervailing alliance system, focused on blunting Chinese expansionism.
These new anti-Chinese networks are centered on the Quadrilateral Security Initiative (comprised of the US, India, Australia, and Japan), the Five Eyes Intelligence Consortium (the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the UK), and the 11-nation, Pacific Rim free trading regime, the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), shepherded into being by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan after, in his greatest act of foreign policy self-harm, Donald Trump walked away from the deal.
The coalescing together of this alphabet soup of opposition to Beijing was not predestined. Rather, it came about directly as a result of Xi abandoning the “softly, softly” foreign policy approach of his impressive predecessor, Chinese Paramount Leader, Deng Xiaoping.
As I wrote in my latest book, To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk, Deng Xiaoping is the most important person of the 20th Century the average Westerner has absolutely no knowledge of. Deng almost single-handedly changed the course of Chinese and world history by (after December 1978) rationally opening up the Chinese system, thereby laying the groundwork for Beijing’s astounding economic rise.
Deng understood that foreign and domestic policy are about limits, and that China’s overall foreign policy strategy must be indelibly tied to its specific domestic circumstances. For Deng, this meant that just as China was taking off – albeit from a very low economic base – Beijing’s foreign policy had to be characterized by caution, almost quietism; nothing could be allowed to get in the way of economic growth, which Deng knew would at last bring China back to the top table of the world’s great powers within a generation. As he put it in the 1990s, “Keep a cool head and maintain a low profile. Never take the lead – but aim to do something big.” This geopolitical strategy made China the unquestioned success story of the latter part of the 20th Century.
Over questions of the geostrategic strategy accompanying China’s wondrous economic rise, Deng’s immediate heirs continued to counsel caution. The feeling was that thorny long-term problems like reclaiming Taiwan and coming to dominate East Asia would be naturally answered in a couple of generations, as China’s growth continued to outpace that of the West. Then, like ripe fruit, East Asian dominance would naturally fall into China’s lap, after decades of experiencing three times the economic growth of the United States. Until then, strategic prudence was the order of the day. Then, organically, and hopefully without major strategic conflict, Deng and his successors believed China would come to dominate the Indo-Pacific.
Suffice it to say, this doctrine of geopolitical patience has been entirely overturned by President Xi Jinping, who has instead (in true Communist fashion) tried to hurry history along. Championing China’s resilient rebound from the coronavirus pandemic it loosened on the world, Xi has become ever more triumphalist in his public statements even as he has massively blundered, in seeming to take on the whole of the Indo-Pacific region at once.
The laundry list of China’s aggressive moves on the region has grown startlingly long: the brutal suppression of the Uighurs in its western Xinjiang province; the crackdown on Hong Kong’s democracy movement; the constant jockeying for position (and militarizing of islands) in the South China Sea; the economic bullying of Australia for having the temerity to call for an international conference, looking into the original causes of the coronavirus dispersal; the armed conflict with India over Chinese territorial expansion in the Himalayas; the constant overflights and general increased pressure on Taiwan. Throwing caution to the wind – as well as Deng’s astute geostrategic policy – Xi has made it clear that China intends to call the tune for the whole of the Indo-Pacific, not at some future date, but right now.
Xi’s new, aggressive strategic policy amounts to the greatest geostrategic mistake of the 21st Century so far. Rather than living in the over-complacent region that Deng had largely lulled to sleep, Xi has scared the horses, alerting major regional great powers Japan, India and the United States that an expansionistic China is an immediate, existential threat to the long-term security of the region. It is almost impossible to overestimate what an immense strategic error this amounts to.
Because of Xi’s folly, presently US ties to India are better than they have ever been, as is the case for US-Vietnamese relations. Long-term allies Japan and Australia are clamoring to enhance their already highly integrated strategic partnerships with America. The ASEAN states also want to drift closer to the US, if only to follow the basic realist precept of small countries playing the superpowers of the day off one another. As a result of all this, the US finds itself in a very favorable geostrategic position in the Indo-Pacific, not because of any particularly brilliant Bismarckean diplomatic moves on its part, but merely because it is the recipient of Xi’s strategically disastrous impatience. This basic Chinese strategic blunder has put America in the geopolitical driver’s seat.
Historically, this is not to say that the US cannot find a way to ruin this overwhelming geostrategic good fortune. In both US political parties’ protectionist withdrawal from the world (and here, if anything, Biden’s Democrats are even worse than the Republicans), America is in turn committing a gigantic geo-economic blunder, closing off economically from the Indo-Pacific, the most important future region in the world, even as China continues (presently through the guise of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) free trade deal) to further integrate with the region.
So yes, while Xi’s blunders have presented the US with a highly favorable overall strategic situation in the Indo-Pacific, America’s blunders in turn are keeping the Chinese in the game. The superpower that can limit its mistakes, while taking advantage of those of its rival, will win the great game for domination of the 21st Century.