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United States

US national security strategy reflects flaw in Western thinking: an antagonistic world view

Tian Feilong says America sees China and the rest of the world through a ‘friend or foe’ mentality that squanders opportunities for cooperation. Its wish to remake the world in its own image only promotes feelings of insecurity

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 February, 2018, 5:10pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 February, 2018, 7:12pm

The 19th Communist Party congress put China on the global stage, which has long been dominated by the United States. There’s no denying the two are caught in a Thucydides Trap, which warns that conflict may break out when an established power feels threatened by a rising power.

The problem is that the US does not believe China’s claim of a peaceful rise. After all, the Chinese have a proverb that says “a mountain cannot contain two tigers”. And Western philosophy is built on a history of dualistic contests, so the West views Chinese strategic intent through the lens of its own experience.

After the 19th congress, the US has only ratcheted up its containment strategy towards China. Its latest national security strategy spells it out: to engage with a divided world, especially to deal with the China threat, US foreign policy will be based on the doctrine of “principled realism”.

This doctrine recalls Hans Morgenthau’s theory of realism in international relations. The core logic of that influential theory is that a nation’s interests are maximised and protected by power. Such a perspective contrasts with the lofty aspirations that underline moral universalism.

But why “principled”? This is because the US needs to shore up its soft power and moral leadership, and turn US values into universal values.

Thus, the doctrine of principled realism seeks to find a balance between the Republican establishment’s focus on values and President Donald Trump’s focus on profit.

America’s latest security strategy is based on a new world view, the main characteristic of which is to draw a clear line between friend and foe. Unusually in a US security strategy document, the word “sovereignty” is mentioned several times. The prioritising of sovereignty, alongside its pursuit of liberty, reflects American worry about the weakening of its security and strategic advantages over its rivals.

In the document, the US lists three forces that threaten American interests: the revisionist powers of China and Russia; the authoritarian regimes in Iran and North Korea; and, the terrorist movement led by Islamist jihadists. These forces have little to do with one another. The only reason the US is lumping them together is they are all perceived threats to its global leadership.

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Such a world view is somewhat outdated. Revisionism was a term widely used in ideological battles within the international communist movement. The US is now borrowing the concept to accuse China and Russia of exercising their “sharp power” to disrupt the world order it leads, with its values of freedom and democracy, thus undermining its leadership and national interests.

Coined in a report by a US Congress-funded organisation, “sharp power” describes the information warfare waged by China and Russia. The US itself has a long history of using “sharp power” and is more skilful at doing so. However, when China and Russia use it, the US apparently sees it as infringing on a US privilege. Such thinking reflects America’s “friend or foe” mentality and its unease at the state of affairs.

The US has adopted different strategies to deal with the three forces. It seeks to contain and restrict imminent superpowers like China and Russia in “all-out war”; to deal with North Korea, Iran and other mid-sized threats using “subversive warfare”; and to engage the terrorist groups in a “battle of annihilation”.

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Among these threats, what the US fears most is China, not the terrorist movement or the nuclear weapons of North Korea and Iran. It is worried that the Chinese model may spread and one day replace the US model favouring competition.

America’s new strategy is not just a continuation of its old strategy of containment; it is as much a response to the work report that Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered at the 19th party congress. The US sees China rising, but does not see its peaceful intent and has no wish to explore how it could work with Beijing to build a new global order that furthers peace. Instead, it appears to be bracing itself for a confrontation. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson even likened China to a new imperial power this month, just ahead of a trip to Latin America.

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Perhaps this can be attributed to a fundamental flaw in Western culture: an antagonistic world view. It has been the driving force behind the West’s cultural development and social progress, but it does not encourage inclusiveness or integration with other countries. The flip side of this antagonistic perspective is a strong sense of self-centredness, which in the West has become the basis of its “universal” values.

Such a world view can easily lead to a thirst for “conquests”, that is, a wish in the West to “improve” non-Western civilisations by turning them into its own image. This implies a never-ending cultural war. Francis Fukuyama’s theory of “the end of history”, which privileges Western liberalism and democratic order, is precisely based on such a world view. This is disconcerting to the rest of the world.

Faced with a militarily weaker China during the cold-war years, the US has relied on a “first island chain” strategy, in which a series of islands lying between China and the Pacific Ocean are used by the US as a natural barrier to contain China. Since then, however, China has upgraded its military and showed its determination to defend its sovereignty.

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Thus, the US has replaced its “first island chain” strategy with an Indo-Pacific strategy, which comprises two fulcrums. One supports Japan’s leadership in East Asia, while the other supports India’s leadership in South Asia.

The US is skilfully exploiting the historical enmities between China and Japan, and between China and India. Through Japan, the US has in the past disrupted free trade talks between China, Japan and South Korea. Through India, the US has impeded progress of the development of sea-land routes under the “Belt and Road Initiative”.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of China’s reform and opening up, and development of the strategic blueprint it unveiled at the 19th party congress is set to affect core US interests, not to mention shake up the global order America has dominated since the end of the second world war.

The US has responded with the doctrine of principled realism. China will need more land-sea knowledge and strategies to find breakthroughs that further its development. It will need a doctrine of “rational idealism” to achieve strategic expansion and fulfil its dream of global governance.

Tian Feilong is an associate professor at Beihang University’s Law School in Beijing and a researcher at the think tank of the Central Institute of Socialism. This is translated from Chinese