The consolidation of an American Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at managing the rise of China has occurred alongside a renewed emphasis on US foreign policy focused on values and democracy. I’ve been working on a possible future book project on the domestic politics of foreign policy in South/SE Asia (where posts like this come from), so this has been a particularly interesting development. Some important recent arguments suggest the two can/should work in complement: for instance, pieces by Zack Cooper and Laura Rosenberger, Tom Wright, and Dan Twining come to mind as suggesting ways in which competition with China and a values-based foreign policy can together generate virtuous circles. Some version of this is at least rhetorically what Matt Pottinger claims to have been advancing (though Cooper’s “Tale of Two Asia Strategies” nicely gets at Trump-induced challenges on that front, in addition to a set of deeper issues that Ankit Panda points to).
Given that this appears to be where the policy action under a Biden administration will be, it’s worth taking the arguments very seriously. I want to suggest some potential wrinkles in that approach, with a focus on tensions between containment/balancing China vs. advancing the kinds of liberal democratic values that are so central to this line of work. But this isn’t intended to be a hard-line critique or whatever – the rise of China generates incredibly complex questions that have lots of probably-wrong answers but few clearly-right ones. I also appreciate a genuine effort to try to advance rights and democracy, even (especially?) in a world of limited American credibility and leverage. My starting biases are 1) very skeptical of happy talk about the history of US foreign policy, while also 2) very skeptical about Chinese domestic and foreign security policy (I guess that puts me in some kind of lukewarm “offshore balancer” camp – I don’t find Goldstein-style Asia-restraint/goodbye Taiwan policy very compelling even while intense Cold War 2.0 competition with China is unappealing).
This combination is bad for offering clear policy recommendations, so I’m taking the prerogative of an irrelevant flyover-country professor to pose some problems without straightforward solutions. There are some tensions in the emerging strategy that I think need to be foregrounded and discussed more than they have been thus far.
First, many of the countries that are looked to as either partners or arenas in which the US/”like-minded partners”* compete against China are not interested in a coalition of techno-democracies against authoritarianism, nor do they necessarily fit in any clean way into a “contest of systems” (in Twining’s words).
Let’s take Bangladesh: recently visited by Stephen Biegun, economically growing quite fast, home to approximately 200 million citizens, and able to maintain decent relations with both India and China. It’s generally coded as some flavor of electoral autocracy, and there is not much to suggest that Sheikh Hasina is convinced of the essential competitive advantages of liberal democracy, free speech, a thriving university sector, etc. Similarly, in Burma/Myanmar I don’t think Aung San Suu Kyi these days celebrates Western visions of liberal democracy. Where exactly do these cases fit? Thailand is a US treaty ally. . . de facto run by a praetorian/monarchist military. The case of Vietnam is too obvious to dwell on here – being worried about China does not require holding elections. Wright suggests that a commitment to democracy “should also mean imposing a cost on U.S. allies that undermine democracy—for instance, banning their leaders from visiting Washington, or even reducing cooperation with them” but I suspect advocates of the Indo-Pacific strategy would not be especially on board with that. There aren’t a lot of free lunches here.
Other countries don’t seem especially likely to fall into CCP-style autocracy regardless of their international alignment choices; the fear that is most often expressed about Indonesia, the Philippines, and India is not the imposition of a hardened bureaucratic-authoritarian Leninist dictatorship, but instead illiberal majoritarianism, state-committed and -tolerated violence, and the lack of equal protections under rule of law, even as elections chug along as scheduled. We get into murky territory in perceptions of regimes here – on how to think about India, for instance, just from the last couple weeks compare Nisha Biswal’s effusive speech with Madhav Khosla and Milan Vaishnav’s distinctly more skeptical take – but the broader point remains that these massive, hugely important countries don’t seem to be either sprinting toward convergence with the liberal democratic models heralded in US strategy writings, nor falling prey to the grim lures of the Bolshevik party-state. Most places are neither China nor Japan.
Put differently, I’m not sure that the clash of regime-types captures all of the important action here, and you can easily imagine cases in which competing with China lands the US in rather normatively unpleasant situations (some Burma activists are not thrilled with Kurt Campbell). For a different way of thinking about the politics of the region, especially its heterogeneity across multiple directions, I am partial to my Carnegie colleague Evan Feigenbaum’s interview with Vaishnav here (and the linked articles).
Second, regional sources of pushback against China are both very real and not necessarily in line with broader claims about the nature of US-PRC competition. For instance, the work I’ve been reading on China in Southeast Asia (such as Strangio & Hiebert) makes clear that at least some of the skepticism toward China in Malaysia and Indonesia is the result of deep-seated suspicion of ethnic Chinese in both countries, a source of illiberalism and riots.
More broadly, Raja Mohan has argued (longer, brand-new version here) that the US should “align with Asian nationalism” to provide a powerful counterbalance to Chinese revisionism. But I’m not sure this solves much, and it gets you into other problems. Leaving aside some historical disagreements with Mohan’s interpretation of both anti-colonial and post-colonial nationalism, we run into the challenge that almost every regime/leader/party claims to be nationalist (Suharto and Sukarno were both self-identified nationalists. . .), so the policy prescription basically comes down to “do business with whoever is in power” and doesn’t say much of anything about what those in power want.
The real variation is instead in how governments and their competitors identify boundaries of and hierarchies within “the nation”: Awami League vs. Bangladesh National Party, Bamar nationalism vs. ethnic minorities’ visions of federalism, disputes over the role of the monarchy in Thailand, the INC vs. BJP’s articulations of Indian nationalism, etc. Everything from electoral politics to coups to insurgencies to state mass killing have been linked to the question of which/whose nationalism/s. This means that US approaches to external alignment unavoidably filter down into domestic politics, in some cases quite dramatically and with long-lasting consequences: the US alignment with the Pakistan Army in the 1950s, for instance, put its thumbs on the scale in a particular direction.
Tied into this is the content of at least some of the dominant nationalist projects that sometimes push back on China. Backlash against China can come from Bamar xenophobia represented in part by the tatmadaw (which has its own bloody ways of dealing with allegedly anti-national elements), Malay anti-Chinese bigotry, and/or the repressive political survival project of the Communist Party of Vietnam, among others. If you are worried about human rights and democracy as an integral part of Asia strategy, the challenge then becomes threading the needle in supporting “like-minded partners” without being actively complicit in their domestic projects. And since, by its very nature, nationalism is Janus-faced, simultaneously inward- and outward-looking, this is easier said than done (as US policies during the Cold War grimly showed). Appealing to Asian nationalism doesn’t clarify matters, and embracing at least some of the nationalist projects on display certainly doesn’t do a lot to square the potential circle being faced.
We could add in other dynamics that are hard to line up cleanly with some of these frameworks, whether byzantine coalition politics in Nepal, or what the return of the Rajapaksas means in the context of decades of Sri Lankan efforts to carve out some degree of foreign policy autonomy (self-identified nationalists who have nevertheless historically worried about India and been willing to extensively deal with China, who win elections but also operate a political system described as ethnocracy, etc).
I guess if there are any takeaways here, they would be that the actual politics in a lot of these countries may fit uneasily with influential frameworks that currently seek to inform US strategy. Regional states and political leaders have their own agency and room to maneuver, very often are pursuing domestic projects that are inextricably intertwined with their foreign policies, and may not see the terms of the debate in even remotely similar ways as American thought leaders (nor care what they think). I would also be concerned that Americans not be too credulous about the credibility and appeal of their invocations of values/democracy abroad (as these pieces by Ashford and Goldgeier/Jentleson suggest, as well as, in a very different but fascinating way, Beckley’s “Rogue Superpower“).
A cynic might suspect that the US, trying to have it both ways, in some cases will end up in a “you’re better than China, [choose one of: A) neither of us like China or B) we’re worried you might tilt to China], and so here’s guns and money; plus, we will provide political cover for you by saying glowing things about democracy and your role in the global struggle with authoritarianism even as you throw people in jail and target the press” equilibrium. Since that is not be the desired end-state for the strategic writers in question, I think it’s worth more bluntly and explicitly thinking through ways to manage some of these trade-offs and tensions.
* Tangent: I came up with two potentially-lethal drinking games while writing this blog post. The first would center on the phrase “like-minded partners and allies,” which appears with monotonic regularity. The second is specific to Team India, involving the words “assertive” and “aspirational” as ways to explain/justify/defend basically all behavior, even if assertion and aspiration are only relevant in the most hazily general sense of “this is something we wanted to do because we think it will achieve things we like.”