Walter Russell Mead congratulates President Obama and his team on the real success of their diplomacy in Asia:
The US acted, received strikingly widespread support, and China backed down.
That is in fact what happened, and it was as decisive a diplomatic victory as anyone is likely to see. Congratulations should go to President Obama and his national security team. The State Department, the Department of Defense and the White House have clearly been working effectively together on an intensive and complex strategy. They avoided leaks, they coordinated effectively with half a dozen countries, they deployed a range of instruments of power. In the field of foreign policy, this was a coming of age of the Obama administration and it was conceived and executed about as flawlessly as these things ever can be.
But – and there’s always a but in diplomacy – one move, even a series of well choreographed and expertly timed moves – does not a match make:
Longer term, the conviction in the (Chinese) military and among hard liners in the civilian establishment that the US is China’s enemy and seeks to block China’s natural rise will not only become more entrenched and more powerful; it will have consequences. Very experienced and well informed foreign diplomats and observers already warn that the military is in many respects becoming independent of political authorities and some believe that like the Japanese military in the 1930s, China’s military or factions within it could begin to take steps on critical issues that the political authorities could not reverse. Islands could be occupied, flags raised and shots fired.
Certainly any Chinese arguments against massive military build ups will be difficult to win. The evident weakness of China’s position will make it impossible to resist calls for more military spending and an acceleration of the development of China’s maritime capacity…
The US has won the first round, but the game has just begun. The Obama administration and its successors will now have to deal with a long term contest against the world’s most populous country and the world’s most rapidly developing economy. The Obama administration may not have fully counted the costs of the new Asian hard line; for one thing, it is hard to see significant cuts coming in defense spending after we have challenged China to a contest over the future of Asia. It’s possible that less drama now might have made America’s point as effectively while reducing the chance of Chinese push back, but there is not a lot of point in debating that now.
Given where things now stand, follow through will be as important as the first steps; the US must now try to make it as easy as possible for China to accept a situation that, in the short to medium term at least, it cannot change.
First comes the political succession, then the internal struggle for power and the coalescence of a national strategy. That is, of course, if the Peoples’ Liberation Army has the patience for it.
In the really long term, we’re all dead. The state within a state represented by the PLA gets to ponder its over-reaching, rebuke and subsequent loss of face and decide how long “long” is.
PS: For US diplomats, it’s all pats on the back, champagne toasts and Washington fêtes, for now. A chance to celebrate a coup. An opportunity, even, to treasure an adversary worth tilting against, after a decade of squashing irrational bugs, and making uncomfortable alliances.
Let’s hope we haven’t forgotten how to play this game.