Daniel Kurtz-Phelan discusses the January/February 2019 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine with contributors Oriana Skylar Mastro and Gideon Rose. With the potential shifting global balance of power from the United States to China, the latest issue of Foreign Affairs focuses on how the troubled hegemon and the confident challenger are trying to determine what comes next for the world order.
KURTZ-PHELAN: I’m Dan Kurtz-Phelan. I’m the executive editor of Foreign Affairs. I’ll be presiding over tonight’s discussion, which is on the occasion of our January/February issue, “Who Will Run the World?” We have two authors from a fantastic package here tonight. I would also highly recommend pieces by our own Richard Haass, who contributed one of the lead pieces; and then Yan Xuetong, who is a really fascinating Chinese scholar who lays out his explanation of China’s worldview as part of the package.
But we have here tonight with me Oriana Skylar Mastro and Gideon Rose. Gideon Rose, all of you probably know, he is the editor of Foreign Affairs, a really good boss. Not a great author, I have to say; didn’t really follow deadlines, but—(laughter)—wrote a very good piece nonetheless. And then Oriana Skylar Mastro, whose piece is called The Stealth Superpower: How China Hid Its Global Ambitions; is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a professor at Georgetown, and also has her first book coming out—is it a couple weeks?
KURTZ-PHELAN: Tomorrow. Tomorrow.
MASTRO: Yeah. Yeah. Definitely, yeah.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Say the title. I’ve forgotten—
MASTRO: The Costs of Conversation. Yeah.
KURTZ-PHELAN: All right. So buy her book promptly.
But I will—I will talk for a bit about the two pieces that they have written, as well as the package a little bit more broadly, and then we’ll open it up to members for questions.
What’s really good about these two pieces, as well as the package as a whole, is that it really kind of steps back and provides context and grounding for, I think, some of the primary debates we’re having in the United States right now and globally about both the future of U.S. foreign policy and American leadership and what it’s going to mean on the global stage, but also about all the tension we’ve seen in the U.S.-China relationship. So if you look at the back and forth over Huawei right now, or the trade war and tariffs, the fights over the South China Sea, all of that is really part of a much broader clash of visions, a kind of debate about how the world should work, and what set of rules and norms and institutions and arrangements should really set the stage for the international system.
In the U.S. we talk about the liberal international order, which Gideon will explain to us in a bit, but it really is a question about who leads and what set of arrangements govern the way countries and people interact with one another. So a lot of what we’re seeing day to day in foreign policy really reflects these much broader disagreements and tensions about what’s going to happen going forward and who’s really going to set the—set the tone of how these things work. And, obviously, the United States and China are the two key players here.
So to start I actually want to—want to go to Gideon and Oriana to talk about a little of the history that grounds their pieces. I think what’s really great about all the pieces in the package is that they start with a really rich understanding of history and a slightly different understanding of history in each case as a way of getting to their analysis about what’s going on in U.S. foreign policy and the international system more broadly, and what we should do going forward. So I’m going to ask for very, very condensed histories from both of you.
Gideon, in three minutes or less, how did the U.S. handle the post-Cold War period? And what did it get wrong? (Laughter.) How did we get here?
ROSE: The Bush administration and Clinton administrations essentially recognized, I think correctly, that the Cold War had been a challenge by the Soviets to the American and Western vision of postwar order. And so the end of the Cold War didn’t usher in a fundamentally new era of some kind, but it simply allowed the Western order to expand. And so what they did was, recognizing that that was the reality, they continued the policy of liberal international order building into the post-Cold War era, extending it from the Western alliance to the globe more generally, or at least opening it up. And so you had everything from the provision of collective security in the Persian Gulf with the reversal of the invasion of Kuwait and the containment of Saddam. You had continuing containment of North Korea, and therefore the provision of collective security in East Asia. You had the extension of the NATO to Eastern Europe and of Europe to Eastern Europe, and you essentially brought in many of the nations that had been left out. And you opened up much of the developing world to come into not just the WTO and the order more generally, but the American alliance system. And things seemed to be going well.
But, first of all, there was a failure to remember that capitalism brings a lot of bad things as well as a lot of good things; and that capitalists, when they get some steam under them, tend to behave very badly. And so all the kind of classic vicissitudes of and downsides of capitalism—concentration of wealth, egregious behavior by predatory elites at the top, lack of—sort of periodicity rather than, you know, steady growth, and inequality rather than—rather than broad distribution of wealth—all that was accompanied. And so the globalization era that occurred brought a lot of wonderful stuff, but it got a bad name because a lot of people didn’t feel like they were getting a good thing going from it.
And there were—in classic ways, power led to unchecked power led to stupid actions and folly like poorly planned wars, the financial crisis. And essentially, we tarnished our own great accomplishment and allowed nationalism, the attraction to local and communal and tribal and smaller groups, to eat out the liberal project. And essentially, many of the populations of the advanced industrial world felt that at the end of the day they were not benefiting as much from this era as either their leaders or the great unwashed masses—unwashed masses elsewhere. And to a certain extent, in some respects, they had a case—not completely, but in some respects—and that has undermined the domestic political foundations of current American foreign policy.
So, essentially, the policy that the United States has followed for the last seventy years plus is one that the elites are fairly comfortable with, and think can and should be reformed and tweaked rather than fundamentally disbanded or thrown away or abolished, but which there is very little support now in the public for in the absence of an immediate threat. And the, of course, big, looming question is whether China will recreate a neo-Cold War threat which would pose both the dangers of the Cold War, but also possibly end up reviving a domestic Cold War coalition in favor of an internationalist policy now that there’s a new threat.
KURTZ-PHELAN: All right. That was very concise.
Oriana, also in three minutes or less, let’s go back to China at the end of the Cold War and how China has approached its own power building over this period, and why from your perspective it played its hand pretty well.
MASTRO: So I think the main motivation for my piece was the fact that I thought we were asking the wrong questions and we were looking at the wrong indicators broadly to understand China’s strategy and what they wanted in the world.
So, at the end of the Cold War, you know, China, since its reform and opening up, had focused mainly on its domestic economic development and had started to build economic power, and then in the ’90s decided it was ready to go out in the world and it started joining international institutions. And it was at this point—once in the 2000s it started to engage, you know, in the WTO and more broadly with the world—that strategists in the United States started to ask, you know, what should our relationship be with China?
I think the first misconception is more our fault and less China’s fault, which is for some reason—and I think many people still believe this today in the United States—we wanted to believe that we could convince China that they would be better off with us in charge; that somehow, with more interaction and engagement, the Chinese would come to realize, you know what, I like to be told what to do by the United States. And we had—every time I would talk about Chinese goals you would hear some of these kind of tropes like, for example: Isn’t it better that we’re there because it prevents Japanese militarization? Isn’t it better that the U.S. military is patrolling the waters surrounding China because, you know, the U.S. military guarantees free trade?
And so, for me as an American, I obviously see the U.S. military as a force of good in the world. But—surprise, surprise—not everyone sees it that way. And the Chinese, since, you know, the—since, you know, the ’70s, ’80s, they’ve always had this position that they didn’t feel safe surrounded by the United States military, and that their aspiration if they could at some point would be to reduce the U.S. military presence in their periphery.
So throughout the—as they start to build economic and political power, they realize they’re—they looked at history too, and the number one obstacle to a rising power achieving great power status is the incumbent great power. Somewhere along the line that great power wakes up to the potential threat to its position and takes action against the rising power. This is how China sees history. Here we see history as maybe a rising power starts to get revisionist and dangerous, and, you know, we have to protect, you know, peace and security. But from China’s perspective it’s the opposite.
The idea is, you know, will the United States let China rise peacefully? Now, our official government policy has always been as long as China doesn’t use force we are open to the rise of China. A couple years ago what ended up happening is we realized, wow, they’re a lot better at building influence without using their military than we thought they would be, and they are—they are able to, you know, push the United States out in some places, veto U.S. policies, take control of some, you know, U.S.-designed institutions through political and economic means.
And so I think then a debate happened in the U.S. of: Does it matter how China does it? We just don’t like that they’re becoming more powerful. And at this stage China has now switched to the sort of more focus on their military might.
So, I mean, the bottom line is we like to say that history repeats itself, but actually it’s different every time. And so I just want to leave you with this, which is every great power actually sets up an international system in a completely different way. And so the fact that we’re trying to understand China by how they interact with the liberal international order, right, whether or not their military is going to have bases overseas, these are tools that the United States used. It’s like if in Great Britain strategists were sitting around a table and they said, oh, the United States doesn’t have any ambitions because it’s not seeking colonies, so we have nothing to worry about. So the whole point of the piece was basically to say maybe we have to start rethinking how we understand how China is building power, but also how they’re going to project power in the future.
KURTZ-PHELAN: When you’re talking to counterparts in China and you use the phrase “liberal international order,” what do they hear? What is in their—what goes through their mind when you—when you offer that as a kind of frame for U.S. foreign policy?
MASTRO: So the first thing is that’s not a term that’s used in China, right? So it’s sort of the U.S. dominant or U.S. hegemonic behavior is the more useful—the term that they would use, that I wouldn’t mimic. But I would say something like the international system.
For them, the international system is primarily designed to promote U.S. power. And so the United States is using these institutions to promote its own vision of the world. And my personal view is that vision is one that benefits many countries. And that is the strength of the United States, is that U.S. leadership is not only about what benefits us, but for others. But for China, there’s many aspects of that order that does not benefit them.
So on one hand, you know, the fact that we can debate whether they’re supportive of the order, or whether they’re trying to undermine it, and I can actually give you examples in both camps, really suggests this strategy of them trying to create ambiguity about their intentions.
KURTZ-PHELAN: So, Gideon, when you turn to the present and your recommendations for foreign policy going forward, the formulation you used, which is very powerful, is that we need to—we, the United States—need to commit to leading rather than winning. The new frame, that I think people across the political spectrum here increasingly use to describe this world, is this new era of great power competition against Russia, China, sometimes throw in Iran as a piece, as our forthcoming issue does. Do you think that’s the wrong frame? And what do you mean when you say lead rather than win?
ROSE: Yes. I think it’s a fundamentally wrong frame, and completely ignores the sea change in global history that occurred in ’45, which was not just the emergence of U.S. dominance, but U.S. dominance in a particular way which the Roosevelt administration decided to instantiate and institutionalize through a rules-based international system that essentially was open to anybody who would be willing to play nicely with each other. So essentially American history, I argue in the piece, from the start the United States was a special country. It knew from when it was a little country it wasn’t like the other countries, and it wouldn’t play nicely with them in their world.
And it essentially retreated from its—the general world into—or stayed within its continental bounds and concentrated on continental expansion and internal development throughout much of its history, until it became too large to do that because the things it had been allowing—that that strategy had served American interests when it was small, and it was protected by Britain and geography. And by the 20th century, it became strong, Britain became weak. And suddenly, American interests could no longer be well-served by the old strategy. And there was a period of experimentation and several different things.
And finally in—by World War II, after a couple of times being dragged into wars because we were just too big to be allowed to sit on the sidelines—which is exactly what happened in both wars—and a global depression in the middle which occurred from a lack of cooperation, the Roosevelt administration decided: Look, this time we’re actually strong enough to be able to put our order in place. And that order is going to be different than any order that’s ever before, and even from our own past. It’s going to be foreign policy played as a team, rather than as an individual sport.
Just like we played our wars as coalition wars, even though we didn’t think we’d want to. And in the first one, we didn’t. We played it as an associated power. But by World War II we had gotten used to playing with allies. We created the United Nations. And essentially, they said: We are so strong and so confident that our system can benefit others, that we are going to set a very small set of minimal rules. You have to behave nicely. No aggression. Relatively free trading, but not necessarily in your domestic arrangements. We’re going to let you have your own domestic arrangements as you wish, for now. But just don’t aggress. Take our aid. Be part of our economic system and be part of the general world order.
Anybody who plays by those rules can be part of it. And that essentially enabled a whole coalition to emerge that meant that the U.S. was no longer just playing by itself, for itself, but as the leader of a team that was playing, at least at times, as a team. And that meant that in times of systemic crisis—for example, like wars—you could call on other countries to come in, your allies, to help you out.
And so the argument that I would make is this supposed new great power competition that’s emerging only is valid as a frame if you think of the major powers of the contemporary order in some kind of simplistic, neo-realist framework, as just defined by their material power. And the answer is Germany, and France, and the United Kingdom, if it’s still a power, are—these are not power blocs the way anybody would have recognize in any previous system. And they’re not just sort of client states of the United States. They are the other members of the U.S. team. As is Japan. As is South Korea. As is increasingly other players of the order.
And so what the U.S. can do and needs to do, especially because its own relative power in the system is declining, what it can do is marshal, and organize, and lead its team, which collectively is vastly stronger than the other local players around it. And therefore, by doing that, it has the strength to be able to confront, and deal with, and handle these other powers. Not necessarily defeat them, but to deal with the challenge because Washington versus Beijing is—OK, it’s starting increasingly almost to look like some kind of potential transition coming. But team Washington versus team Beijing—because there ain’t much more to team Beijing besides Beijing—OK, you get Pyongyang too—that becomes very big. And that was much point.
We are not just—we don’t do alliances for altruism. We do alliances because that’s how we extend our power. And here’s where the Chinese are absolutely right. We created a system that embedded our power in the system, and got other major powers to have buy-in and lock-in. And that’s such a good, strong system that it’s very hard for the Chinese to both fight their way in in an alternate way and disrupt it from the outside entirely. And that’s—so they’re right about that. But we should value that system and use it and offer the Chinese a welcoming way in if they play by the rules, but not if they won’t.
KURTZ-PHELAN: So if it’s so benign, why would a Chinese strategist be threatened by any of that?
MASTRO: You know, I would say if the world was the way that Gideon laid it out, I mean, I could sleep a lot better at night. I think there’s this—there’s this confidence—and I see this all the time. You know, I spend a lot of my time looking at contingency planning and the prospect for conflict between China and the United States. And we can have a whole separate discussion, but I would say that the likelihood of a limited war between China and the United States is increasing, and a lot higher than most people realize.
KURTZ-PHELAN: How high?
MASTRO: I mean, I would give it in the next—by 2025 minimal, because they haven’t finished their military reforms—2025 to 2035, given these trends, over 30 percent.
ROSE: Wow. Seriously?
MASTRO: Yeah. I think—
ROSE: That’s a huge—no, that’s actually a great, great point.
KURTZ-PHELAN: That’s—yeah, that’s a scary—yeah, a scary—
ROSE: You know, at a previous event—I’m just want to do a two-finger on this—at a previous event down in D.C. about the nuclear package, we were talking about exactly this issue. And Bridge Colby said to Nina Tannenwald and me: And fundamental difference is you guys don’t think nuclear war is a real possibility, and I do. And because I do, I therefore have to plan for it, and that—(inaudible). And in effect I hear you saying: You can do all this because you don’t actually think we might fight these guys. But I think we will. Interesting.
MASTRO: Well, and Bridge is a—is a brilliant nuclear strategist, but he doesn’t understand Chinese nuclear doctrine if he thinks nuclear weapons is going to play a role. But we can get into—we can get into that in the Q&A.
I mean, the bottom line is that if we really knew that our allies and partners were going to stand by us, then we wouldn’t be having—we wouldn’t have to put in the National Security Strategy that we’re in a competition to begin with, because the problem is our European allies—and you hear it all the time—don’t have security problems with China. So they’re not particular interested in engaging in the security environment with the United States and risky behavior. And a lot of countries in the region, while they might want to be supportive of the United States, they’re not particularly reassured by a lot of our policies that we’re actually going to stand up to China. And in many cases we don’t.
And if you—if the United States is not willing to take risks to stand up to China, then how can we possibly expect some of our smaller allies to do so? So one of the things I do see a lot when we’re thinking about the prospect of conflict is this assumption, you know, war breaks out and everyone rallies to the support of the United States. I don’t think we—I don’t think we can take that support for granted. I think China has been working very hard. Their whole strategy is to neutralize that kind of support. Not to say that, you know, they’re going to come to China’s aid. Of course not. They’re going to be rooting or the United States, you know, from behind somewhere. But they might not be as supportive as we want them to be, again, because of China’s economic power in the short term, and because they’re so close.
And so if the U.S. military doesn’t show its ability to stand up to Chinese aggression, then I think countries in the region, you know, it’s going to be—
ROSE: How do you define “show its ability to stand up to Chinese aggression”?
MASTRO: Be able to prevail in an armed conflict against China, in contingencies like in the South China Sea, East China Sea, or Taiwan contingency. And our ability to prevail is actually—the likelihood of us prevailing is decreasing rapidly.
ROSE: So you’re saying the local regional partners are looking carefully at the changing military balance and adjusting their potential future alliance calculations based on what they see as the dropping degree of U.S. military superiority.
MASTRO: Yeah, who will win, right? You’re going to—sure, you’re going to stand on the sidelines, but a lot of your messaging comes with who will win.
ROSE: That’s scary because she has, like, clearances and knows this stuff.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Yeah. (Laughter.)
MASTRO: Though I am speaking, obviously, in my capacity as a professor at Georgetown.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Of course. Let me press on the policy disagreement a little bit. (Laughter.) One thing that’s interesting about these two pieces is that despite the somewhat different analyses of where we are, they converge on a lot of the policy recommendations around reinforcing alliances and doubling down on certain approaches to international order building. But I do think there’s a really fundamental difference in how they see the possibility of integrating China into a U.S.-led system. And I think Gideon is relatively sanguine about the prospects of bringing China into the rule-building process. You are much more skeptical that that can be done in a way that will serve U.S. interests, while not undermining—or, threatening Chinese interests in some way. Let’s look at something like the debate over Huawei right now. I assume you see reason to be pretty skeptical of Huawei’s intentions in helping build 5G around the world.
MASTRO: Yes. Now, I’m not an economist, so I can’t make independent assessments on some of these things. So there’s certain individuals that I trust. But it’s my understanding that, you know, private companies, and especially in the technology space, have very close connections to the party. There’s an official doctrine in China, and in the defense industry in particular, it’s been the case for decades, about stealing foreign technologies for military purposes. So I know a lot of people are very concerned about the economic competitiveness angle, and that’s important.
But I focus a lot on, you know, what are the types of technologies and things that China could gain from the United States that would improve the lethality of the People’s Liberation Army? And so while Huawei first came, you know, to the United States, a lot of people would say the U.S. approach to allowing China to enter our markets in critical national security areas was too restrictive, I think a lot of our friends and allies around the world that did allow Huawei to have more of a position are now looking at how we responded and thinking, you know, maybe that was the right way to go. It’s very hard to have a real disconnect between the party and aspects of the research development, especially when it comes on sort of the dual use technology side.
ROSE: And what exactly is your fear?
MASTRO: So I don’t—so let me tell you what most people’s—
ROSE: So, what, that the party was involved in the development of the technology? So what?
MASTRO: So let me tell you what other people’s fears are, and that’s my fear, and what my fear is. Because for most people, they will say in a time of crisis if China has any control over, you know, power grids, or 5G, or whatever, they can use that as a coercive tool They can say, you know, we’re going to shut down all your financial transactions, or something like that. Now, I think that is very unlikely because, at least my reading of Chinese military strategy, is they understand the way to win a war against the United States is to make it short. They don’t believe they can win a protracted war. And to really make sure the U.S. doesn’t have the resolve to fight. And so hurting the American people is kind of the first way to ensure that the United States is willing to fight hard and fight forever.
And so I am less concerned about the kind of strategic coercion during wartime. I’m more concerned about what I laid out before, about balance of power issues, and our military’s access to technology. So a lot of the 5G, AI type of debates are about, you know, platform versus platform. The Chinese military, their biggest weakness is they don’t have good personnel. What if they can get over that issue by just having technology help them with decision-making and with targeting and all these things, and so it doesn’t matter that they don’t have, you know, people like with the same training we have. So I’m much more concerned about how it actually plays out in a conflict, and less concerned that they’ll use it as a coercive tool.
KURTZ-PHELAN: And how does, you know, whether Huawei has a role in developing 5G networks in Western Europe play into that concern?
MASTRO: So my understanding—and, again, this isn’t my area of expertise—is that by allowing them to do that what’s happening is Huawei and Chinese companies in general are getting monopolies over certain technologies. And so it’s also kind of voluntary. What that means is that in the private sector there aren’t the incentives there for U.S. companies to continue to develop certain technologies. And so we won’t have access to those technologies for other purposes moving forward.
KURTZ-PHELAN: OK. And let me press you on the Huawei question, but also the bigger question of how you bring China into this order if those fears are not in fact valid?
ROSE: It’s like I can’t believe I’m actually going to say what I’m going to say, but the older I get—I don’t know where I’m going—
KURTZ-PHELAN: Should we stop you now, or? (Laughter.)
ROSE: No, the—I said before that in ’45 then after we decided to play as the leader of a team. And we obviously still had our own interests, and we still had bilateral interests vis-à-vis other members of our own team, jockeying with other players in the team. We did some terrible things in support of the broader goals. And we had some very sort of private and selfish kind of interests as well. But we also fought for the team and the broader kind of stuff. So there’s this weird mixture in history. We weren’t perfect altruists.
But the more I hear our discussion about China, not too much about Russia but certainly about China, and the more I look back on the last generation of imperial dominance which I took part in, and many of us took part in, in a kind of unthinking way, the more I’m struck by the colossal arrogance and presumption of the U.S. And the—we need to check our privilege, to use a contemporary term. And the notion that we can and will be able to micromanage security arrangements, economic arrangements, power arrangements, freeze, them exactly where they are, and keep them right now forever in ways that benefit us, even as the rest of the world develops, is insane, and madness.
And an attempt to do that is going to be like the attempt of an adult parent to latch on and micromanage their kid’s lives when the kids have become themselves adults. We have to understand that our great creation was not our relative power, but the system that we gave birth to that allowed us, and everybody else to do so. Bob Keohane—I was never a Keohane student. I was a Huntington student, and I laughed at the liberal internationalists, frankly. But the whole point of After Hegemony was we set up regimes and institutions so that when our relative power diminishes we’re not at the mercy of the other new powers, the way all the other powers in history used to be when they declined, because we had passed our power on to the system of other good, liberal, normal powers.
And that essentially is what we need to recapture. And given that, we need to do two things. One, we need to be a hell of a lot more humble, and a hell of a lot more patch up the relations—one of the reasons that the allies feel the way you said is because we have not necessarily been as good an ally as we should have been and could have been. And so we could address the question you had of will they be there when we call by being nicer to them and by doing what used to be called when I was in government relationship management, right? That’s what they’d actually call it, right? Go over to Europe and do relationship management to make sure that when they’re there, they actually are there. We clearly need to do more of that in Asia.
But the other factor is that essentially—I forgot what the other point was going to be. No, I just—
KURTZ-PHELAN: What—like where would you—
ROSE: Oh, we have to give China some space. China is growing rapidly. Has gotten amazing amounts of power. And has earned the right to something. Because we in the liberal Westphalian order post-’45 have said borders can no longer be changed, because that’s now a fixed rule of the system, if differential growth and power within states creates a maladjustment between the power here and the power there, in the old days that was simple. Big country here would conquer that one there and readjust the power, so everything would be fine. Now we say, you can’t do that. What does China get from its growth and power? It gets influence.
We need to define a legitimate sphere of influence for China in the 21st century that it feels is the legitimate return on its national efforts to develop in a way that the rest of the world can live with. And I think that means, yes, a large degree of Suzerainty informally and de facto rather than de jure in their immediate neighborhood, certainly their own domestic political arrangements, and maybe even a significant degree of influence in certain parts of the world that are theirs, like the BRI area, and maybe a share in standard setting. And I think if we think we can manage to avoid a future fight with China over world dominance without giving up that, we’re kidding ourselves. But if we do give up that, maybe we could, indeed, bring them into the system.
MASTRO: But that’s too much. I can tell you right now that China would love that. They’re very clear. And as I write in my article, they don’t—they don’t want to dominate the world. They don’t want to displace the United States everywhere. But they do want the United States out of their immediate environs. They want control over the South China Sea and the East China Sea. And I think their goals are limited, in that if we tomorrow granted them, you know, yes, go ahead, reunify with Taiwan by force if you’d like, and you have the East China Sea and South China Sea, their goals would end there. I think they have limited aims. But I think that it’s too much, and that the United States, we—that would require us to us not to maintain our alliances in the region, because operationally we would be incapable of defending our allies from—because we’d basically be operating from the continental United States in that case.
ROSE: What about BRI?
MASTRO: Central Asia? I mean, sure.
ROSE: OK, so let them have BRI, OK.
MASTRO: I spent a month driving around Central Asia.
ROSE: So what about 5G? What about 5G?
KURTZ-PHELAN: What about the global stuff?
MASTRO: So the big point here is that war is easy to avoid if you give the other side everything they want, all right?
KURTZ-PHELAN: Why is that a bad deal?
MASTRO: Because if China dominates Asia, Asia—and this is South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia—the United States for a long time has considered our prosperity is dependent on our interaction with this region. And we know how China does business, right? They prefer weaker partners. They prefer to rely on coercion to get what they want. If we don’t have the power to hold China at risk, then we cannot protect the United States, and we cannot protect the continental United States.
So I’ll just conclude with this, by saying I think we focus too much on the likelihood of conflict. And people always say, for example, Great Britain and the United States—Great Britain transferred power peacefully to the United States. To me, that is not a success story for the U.S. and China. We could easily accommodate—you know, transfer power, allow China to have their sphere of influence. But I think that would be a huge loss. And the—and the liberal international order would die along with that.
ROSE: To be clear, on your recommendation, is it more forces in being or is it do things different with what you have, or both?
MASTRO: In terms of what the United States—
ROSE: For us. What we need to respond to the Chinese military challenge in the periphery regions you were talking about. More stuff?
MASTRO: We need—we need—no. We need new friends. It’s just the geography and operational environment, I can’t do much with the bases that we have. I want—
ROSE: Which friends do you want?
MASTRO: I want Indonesia. I want more bases south of the Philippines. I want more operational bases in Australia. And then I want technological breakthroughs that allow me to not refuel so much in air when I’m conducting operations over the South China Sea.
ROSE: Even in this era of missiles? Does that—do the bases still matter as much?
MASTRO: Oh, because China can’t reach those yet. That’s why those matter. And because you can have land-based systems. So you got—you have to make sure China doesn’t put anything on those islands. If they start putting radars and air defense systems on those islands—
KURTZ-PHELAN: In the South China Sea.
MASTRO: In the South China Sea, then we’ll have—
ROSE: Should we take out a radar if they build it? (Laughter.) If they build a radar, should we take it out?
MASTRO: I would prefer a lighter blockade so they can’t replenish and they have to leave versus taking it out kinetically by air. I think that would be more provocative. But we have to make a decision. If we allow them to militarize the South China Sea, then the United States’ ability to prevail in a conflict going to decrease.
KURTZ-PHELAN: We’re going to go members in just a second. I want to ask very quickly each of you a question about the domestic debate in each of the respective countries. Gideon, there was a piece by Jake Sullivan in this issue as well. Jake tells a story about going to Ohio and talking about the liberal international order and someone in a crowd responding with something like: I don’t know what you mean by that, but I don’t like any of those three words. (Laughter.) One of—one of the variables here is domestic support in the U.S. what makes you think we can really build a base for this?
ROSE: So there’s two—there’s two points for the domestic question. One is, what do you do? Is it possible to build a base of support for a positive program without the negative force behind it? During the Cold War people went along with a lot of engaged foreign policy and order building because they thought it was necessary, and were told it was necessary, to beat off the Soviet Union. If we end up in the cold war with China, a new one, then that presumably could be mobilized in the same way. But that would be a bad thing which we would—which may be necessary, but we should hope that doesn’t happen and try to avoid it.
And so the question becomes if you are not in a cold war, can you still maintain support for an internationalist foreign policy? It’s proven to be a much tougher question than I thought, but I’m not convinced that the answer is no, because it’s clear the public isn’t demanding it. And it’s clear that whatever they say in polls about wanting to like this or that, they are so disconnected, frankly, from the reality of what happens, then they respond retrospectively to the immediate experiences that happen. Oh, we had a war that screwed up, bad. Which is all legit, but they can’t factor in, oh, we avoided major wars at the same time. So essentially the public is not going to be supportive of this order building, it’s clear to me now, but I don’t think there’s a giant wellspring of isolationist sentiment and anti-order sentiment.
And one of the things we’ve seen in this administration that’s fascinating is the ability of the president or the leadership to change opinions among followers, almost at will. And instead of seeing the giant upsurge of nationalism, and xenophobia, and all these other things just as deep expressions of what was always there and just now being revealed, it’s true that was there, but you could also see it as, gee, this is what now is being echoed, and this is what’s being brought out. If the next person comes on and is a benign, nice, Mr. Rogers character, then you could see a whole wellspring of, you know, Jon Meachams popping up everywhere and everybody being very nice to each other. And in that context, the domestic support for our foreign policy would be OK, and you could throw it doesn’t really cost that much to do good alliance maintenance. The amount—the actual amount we spend on foreign aid is trivial.
And so the—if you had a White House that actually cared about doing something serious about order building, which we haven’t had in twenty years, then you actually would be able to test the proposition of could you rebuild it after Trump? It’ll be a difficult task, but I think it’s still doable.
KURTZ-PHELAN: We just got through thirty-five minutes of conversation without mentioning Donald Trump, which I think is the first time that’s happened to me in about two years. Oriana, in Beijing do you see a rethinking of some of the more assertive postures of the last couple of years?
MASTRO: They have analyzed their position, and they have decided it’s working. So if that’s what you mean by rethinking, I mean, they’re not going to change it, because basically—and this logic might seem a little convoluted. But the main idea is this: In the 1990s, China was pursuing—and the 2000s, early 2000s—China was pursuing a policy of promoting positive relations with great powers and reassuring smaller countries. This was kind of, like, the heyday for U.S.-China specialists. Everything seemed to be going really well. That’s when China would say that people started talking about the threat of China. And so during this period, when China is being nice to everyone, that’s when China threat theory came into being, and nobody did anything China wanted. And everyone was meeting with the Dalai Lama left and right. Nobody cared, you know, what was important to China.
Now that they’re more aggressive, sure, countries think they’re a threat, but the Chinese would say that’s just before they’re more powerful. That threat existed before. So no change there. But now everyone knows what China wants. And so from that perspective, it seems to be a pretty solid strategy. And just from the domestic politics perspective, you know, I think a lot of Americans underestimate the degree to which the Communist Party has the support of the Chinese people when it comes to these foreign policies. They’re very popular domestically, this idea that, you know, China is becoming more powerful. And, you know, people maybe don’t say it loudly, but I remember when Xi Jinping came into power my friends would be like, oh, Hu Jintao was the worst, right? He was too cautious, and he never stood up for us. Now Xi Jinping is standing up for us all the time.
So if I had to guess, I think we have to deal with a Communist Party that feels like they’re confident and have the support of the Chinese people when they’re making moves in the international system, versus doing it from some sort of insecurity about weak support at home.
KURTZ-PHELAN: I have a dozen more questions, but I’m instead going to go to members to join the conversation. Remember that this meeting is on the record. Please wait for a microphone. Stand, state your name and affiliation, and limit yourself to one question.
Questions to start?
ROSE: Jerry, you, go. I was going to call on you if you didn’t have a question anyway. You’ve been watching this longer than we have, so.
Q: Thank you. I was glad to hear the reference to Taiwan.
ROSE: Can you identify yourself?
Q: Pardon? Oh.
ROSE: Can you identify yourself.
Q: Jerry Cohen, U.S.-Asia Law Institute at NYU. And I’m a part-time Council on Foreign Relations adjunct on Asia.
I was glad to hear the reference to Taiwan, because I think that’s kind of what it will come down to. And the question is when. If the U.S. starts to pull up its stocks with a new president in 2020, and it takes us four to eight years to resurrect benefits that Gideon referred to, it begs the question how will China use this opportunity? I don’t think we should underestimate the domestic problems that Xi Jinping confronts. While it’s true most people would support an active foreign policy even in a crisis, they don’t really care that much about Taiwan intrinsically.
If the economy declines, the feeling of social unrest increases—that it, it appears to be. We don’t know which way that cuts, but if you listen to the rhetoric, Xi Jinping may have some serious intentions towards Taiwan. And there are people in Taiwan, very sophisticated, who think we will not come to their aid, even if they don’t provoke a crisis. There are people in this country who don’t think we will go to their aid. But I’m not sure I understood Gideon, but he seemed to be advocating—
ROSE: I was not advocating giving Taiwan. I was advocating everything but Taiwan. I didn’t mean to give them Taiwan.
Q: Well, tell us then, Gideon, how would the defense of Taiwan by the United States square with your overall view that we should yield to China with respect to the Asian region?
ROSE: So I—the short answer to that would be I don’t think we should yield to China in the Asian region. I think we can accord them—I think we can accord them more breathing room and set our red lines further out in far-off ways, rather than short-term conflictual ways. But the question that I’m now actually very curious to investigate further after this discussion is the extent to which that would interfere with the real mechanics of defending Taiwan. If what you guys are saying is completely—if what you guys are saying is fully accurate, then we need to do more Taiwan Straits pieces, because we haven’t done those in a while because who the hell cares about Taiwan Straits, because it’s always the same and it’s always stable. But if your point is it’s not stable anymore, that’s really interesting.
MASTRO: So let me just make a few quick points about the Taiwan issue. The first, just because you mention it, I mean, Xi Jinping’s new year’s speech to me was a signal that he is really doubling down on this Taiwan issue, right? He mentioned reunification forty-six times. He said, you know, we don’t promise not to use force, which we all know is the Chinese position, but this is the first time he’s really stated that publicly. So I think Taiwan is definitely now a key issue for Xi Jinping.
Am I worried in the short term? No. And let me tell you why. China is undergoing the most extensive military modernization and reform program in its history. Xi Jinping wants to finish that, and then he wants to test his military, before he’s going to try for the most important prize against potentially the strongest military in the world. So I think we have some time and some indicators. I think China’s going to engage in some smaller skirmishes against Vietnam, for example. Maybe mess with the Philippines a bit in the South China Sea. They have to see if their military can perform first, before they make any moves against Taiwan.
ROSE: Wouldn’t that, just like a decade ago when they started to be obstreperous, wouldn’t those things that you just described with any of those players drive the rest of the allies into our things because they’re now scared of the big dragon who’s showing his teeth?
MASTRO: So Vietnam is not a U.S. ally. That’s why they’re first. And then because the United States will do nothing in response, that will weaken the U.S. credibility. And then if China starts engaging in more aggressive activities—so just this year the Chinese told the Indonesians, oh, remember when we said we didn’t have overlapping claims? We’ve changed our mind. Now we do claim part of your territory. So I think they’re going to start with non-U.S. allies. And by the time the United States doesn’t respond to that, it’s going to weaken our credibility overall.
But I would—
ROSE: First they came from the Vietnamese.
MASTRO: Exactly. And my personal view on Taiwan is I’m confident the United States would defend Taiwan if China, you know, attacked Taiwan. That’s why I think China’s trying to rely primarily on political/economic coercion, things that are more ambiguous. Like I talk about in my article, more of an entrepreneurial focus to force Taiwan on a path of reunification in a way that makes how the United States should respond more uncertain. But in my view, if China attacks Taiwan unprovoked, that sends a clear signal the type of country we’re dealing with. And my hope would be, and I believe, that the United States would respond strongly to that.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Other questions? People are totally unphased by the 30 percent prospect of U.S.-China war in their lifetimes. On the aisle here and then we’ll go here.
Q: The cybersecurity—oh, I’m sorry. I’m Joan Kaufman from the Schwartzman Scholars Program at Harvard Medical School.
So what do you make of the cybersecurity threat, which is a large part of the sort of threat-based view of China these days? And, you know, also the Soviet Union. And is that real? I mean, where—I mean, how does that play out over time? And secondly, if you look at the—not a second question, just a point—if you look at the umbrella movement and what happened in—you know, in Hong Kong, you know, there’s reason for Taiwan to be worried. And what about the rules-based system that—you know, I wouldn’t want to live in a rules-based system that was not set by the international order as we know it today. You know, if you see what’s going on in China domestically, you know, it’s not a pretty picture for the world. So how do you square that with, you know, China’s, you know, expansion in the world? And I agree, they’re right to expand in some way, you know, and take their space in the world these days.
KURTZ-PHELAN: So maybe, Oriana, you could take the first one, and then Gideon, pick up the second point.
MASTRO: So just on this space, this reminds of something I kind of wanted to see, I don’t know, in agreement, in defense to what Gideon said. If we don’t—what we’re trying to do right now with China is like if we wanted to maintain pace with Russia, but didn’t want them to expand their territory at all to be the Soviet Union, right? It’s like people say, well, we didn’t have a hot war with the Soviet Union. But we did actually concede a sphere of influence to them in a way that we are now unwilling to do with China. So I think that makes it a lot harder, actually, to move forward, you know, in a peaceful fashion, because that’s what China wants.
Taiwan should be very concerned, because in the recent speech—you know, maybe he just forgot, but that’s unlike Xi Jinping—he didn’t mention when he said that after reunification they would protect the legitimate rights of the Taiwan people, including religious beliefs, he did not mention that they would be able to maintain their political institutions and/or their army, which was a part of previous formulations. So I think that is something they should be concerned about.
On the cyber side, again, you know, very reasonable people would say they’re concerned about China engaging in cyber activity that would affect the American people during a time of conflict. I’m less concerned about that, but the United States military relies very heavily on the cyber realm to be able to conduct basic operations. We have to project power long distances. China does not. They’re operating from home. If they don’t have access to satellites, they have fiber optic cables. They can still talk to each other, even though if we don’t have access to satellites we’re going to have a hard time communicating among our services. So cyber is a real problem. And I think China is absolutely going to use it as a tool to disrupt U.S. military activities, if it comes to that.
KURTZ-PHELAN: What about another dimension of the cyber threat, as some people see it, which is hacking into the U.S. private sector, universities? Is that something that concerns you?
MASTRO: Yeah, I mean, cyber-enabled economic espionage, that is of huge concern. I mean, this, again, is a way that China’s been very innovative. You know, they—the way that they deal with intelligence is much broader than how the United States does it, right? They use those cyber tools, but also they use them to benefit some of their companies at home. You know, the United States doesn’t do that. People always say, well, all countries spy, but actually we don’t all spy in the same way. The U.S. government doesn’t steal private information from other companies and then, you know, tell Google about it to give them a leg up. For one, the other companies in that sector would probably sue the United States for doing something like that. But you know—
ROSE: We do use our monetary tools to benefit us and fuck everybody else, so.
MASTRO: Well, there is—we have rules, as you say, of how to use power. And I guess the point of my article is China has different rules. And so we have to be as entrepreneurial and start rethinking how we do things. And say, you know, yes, we’ve done it this way forever, but does that make it the right way to do it?
ROSE: So I’m going to take a slightly different. I—the more I think about this issue, the more it occurs to me that we are really entering terra incognita, just sort of because we have been through eras in our history where we competed with other countries in a very classic mercantilist or visceral way. We’ve been through the Cold War, in which we cooperated with our capitalist friends and glowered and fought our communist enemies. And now—and then we were in a period of dominance, in which we were so strong and so dominant that we could help everybody and had enough surplus and everything to make everything fine, and everyone else was so small and calm that we didn’t—they weren’t real threats.
Now China is emerging as if not a peer competitor, then at least something close to it, and potentially like it. But it’s not—it’s a rival rather than an enemy or a friend. We are in a mixed-motive game of cooperation. We’re economically completely interdependent with it, and it with us. And so we don’t have intellectual tools or policy tools for dealing with this kind of relationship. The entire field of security studies grew up during the Cold War to fight people we had no economic relations with. And the entire field of international—
MASTRO: Well, not all of us were growing up during that time. (Laughter.)
ROSE: And the entire field of international economics, of international political economy, grew up to discuss relations among capitalist powers who were democracies, who were doing well with each other and cooperating. There is absolutely no body of theory or framework for stuff that says: Here’s how you should play a mixed-motive game of cooperation in these regimes, and competition in these regimes, and how you can do it. So what we need is to find some way of compartmentalizing relationship so that the BS that goes on—so that Putin’s regime’s actions, however vile they are, or the Chinese military’s actions or whatever, don’t necessarily get in the way of global technocratic progress because of, you know, cooperation on standards and economic trade treaties, and that kind of stuff. And there’s got to be some way that we need to delink these issues, areas from each other.
MASTRO: So just—so this is why I think confrontation with China is not the way forward. When I think about competition, what I think about is how can the United States make itself a more attractive power to the rest of the world? And this administration, I think, is too focused on trying to undermine China. And instead, we should be thinking about—you know, if countries are trying to choose, do they want to be a part of our order and our system or China’s, we have to make that choice a little bit easier for them to make.
And the other thing, on the ideological, one of the positive things, I think, about the U.S.-China relationship is there is no ideological animosity between the Chinese people and the American people, right? I spend a lot of time in China. I love going to China. I interact with a lot of my Chinese colleagues. And the problem is, we have a conflict of interest. It is kind of very pragmatic. They want the United States military to disengage from the region. And at least today—I don’t know, maybe President Trump will change his mind tomorrow—but today we’re determined to stay.
And so we find ourselves potentially in a conflictual situation. But you don’t get the sense—you know, when I’m in China, people are like, oh, you know, I love you guys. It’s just that they—you know, they want to have more power and exercise their power. That’s what politics is, right? As the Chinese would say, and they have said, some countries and other countries are small. And that is just a fact.
ROSE: And the genius of the American international order was to not see power purely as a zero-sum game, to see it as a positive-sum game in which it should be possible to accommodate some Chinese interests and American interests simultaneously in some kind of framework. And we used to know how to create deals that would do that.
KURTZ-PHELAN: A question right here.
Q: Thank you. Albert Knapp, NYU School of Medicine.
The other player is Russia. And what—Russia and China have become very close in the last ten years, closer than since 1954. What is the utility of that for Russia? I can understand for China, but what is your opinion about Russia’s goals in that?
KURTZ-PHELAN: Do you want to take that?
MASTRO: So I’m very dismissive of Russia. So before I let my biases come out—
ROSE: I’m very dismissive of Russia also, actually, so—
MASTRO: I’m, like, why are we even in a great power competition with both of them? It should just be focused on China.
ROSE: And so am I actually. OK, so that’s actually good. So, wait, so you actually think we should just essentially—I would just essentially—repressive tolerance, you know, Marcuse’s concept. They’re a regional power. They want to be a spoiler. They want to have some things. They’re not a major geopolitical threat. And you know, if we shore up NATO—I actually don’t think Russian—I don’t think Russia is a major geopolitical threat to us in the way that China is.
MASTRO: And militarily. You know, I’m not a Russia expert, but in the few interactions I’ve had thinking about Russia contingencies, I’ve been in situations where I’ve been, like, you know, I suggest some sort of—someone suggests some sort of operation. And I’ll think, well, you can’t do that. Like, don’t they have all these capabilities? And the Russia experts are like, oh, no, they can’t do any of that stuff. And I’m like, well, this is so much easier compared with the Chinese.
ROSE: And to be fair to Russia—to be fair to Russia, I actually also—in Russia’s eyes they are doing absolutely nothing that was not done to them. I was talking with Anders Rasmussen about this just last week. And he was the former head of NATO—secretary-general of NATO. And he was saying: Look, up until 2004-2005, I thought there might actually be a chance where we could incorporate them in the new order, if we were talking this way. And then the color revolution happens, and Putin basically says: OK, these guys are trying to get me. They can never fundamentally accept me. And his whole thing shifts. And my point is not to say that, oh, everything would have been fine, and what have you. It’s just that from Putin’s perspective he is not, you know, doing something nefarious and violent and vicious to a bunch of innocent people. He is simply pushing back what was being pushed onto him. And so that—again, let them do it, and then try to block them from doing it, and not get so head up that you have to go into an entire cold war over the issue.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Oriana, quickly, do you buy the notion of a China-Russia convergence?
MASTRO: No. China says a lot of things because they know it gets us into a tizzy, right? So whenever we do something they don’t like, they’re like, well, maybe we’ll get closer with the Russians. It’s the same thing. You know, they don’t believe inadvertent escalation, but whenever they want us out somewhere they’re like, well, you know, anything could happen, and we could find ourselves at war. So maybe you guys should just go home. So they use a lot of these things. The Chinese don’t respect the Russians. They don’t want to be associated with the Russian agenda. They want Russia for certain advanced military technologies and access to natural resources. And they like the Russians to kind of give the United States a hassle every once in a while. But I’m not very concerned right now.
ROSE: A bonus thing on Russia for that, on the appeasement of Russia, I learned in the similar kind of way were talking about Taiwan, an interesting issue among Russia watchers and U.S. and Europe watchers about Russia question, is what would it take to appease Russia? Could you have a deal appeasing Russia on Ukraine? And the question was, a lot of people feel Crimea you could actually let them keep—not formally, but de facto—but they’d have to give up Donbas. And others are like, no, no, no. We have to make them give up Crimea as well. But it was interesting to me, there was a lot of sentiment in Europe at least for saying, if they would just let go of fucking Donbas we could—we could leave the Crimea question intact.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Let me get one more question in. Right there.
Q: Hi. Good evening. Benjamin Young-Anglim from PricewaterhouseCoopers.
My question, I guess, is mostly oriented towards Ms. Oriana, but both—all three of you maybe. So if China see the grand international institution construct as purely existing—or, largely existing to promote U.S. interests, couldn’t China actually promote its own influential power by just ignoring them, especially in the current day when it seems anyway that our current administration is pulling back from many of them?
MASTRO: So they have kind of, I think, a three-tiered strategy to these institutions. There are some—you know, what Gideon said is correct. A large part of that order is designed to benefit others. And China does benefit greatly from some of those institutions, primarily I would say the economic ones. And so China wants to be a part of those institutions and they want to support those institutions, because it does help China build power. There’s some institutions that go directly against what China wants. And they see it can be useful to be part of those institutions to basically render them ineffective. So, you know, a prime example of this is kind of U.N. Human Rights Commission stuff. They like to have senior position on those commissions to make sure that they actually don’t do anything.
And then there are other institutions outside the U.S. alliance system in Asia that China does actively try to undermine, because they don’t see any benefits to them, and they see it as a threat to what they’re trying to achieve. So I wouldn’t say that—you know, so China doesn’t want to get rid of all the institutions. They’re also building their own institutions to promote power. It’s just that, you know, we think of this liberal international order like it’s some comprehensive, all-encompassing thing. But there’s actually huge gaps in this order. There’s functional gaps, thematic gaps, geographic gaps. And so what China is doing is they’re taking a look around—just like, you know, maybe a small business trying to enter a new market. You take a look around and you say, where are the opportunities? And unless we do what Gideon says, which is do some serious order building and try to plug some of these gaps, China’s going to take advantage. And that’s what makes them very effective in terms of how they’re dealing with these institutions.
ROSE: So I think that’s exactly—I agree, associate myself with everything—with everything Oriana just said. And all I would say is, you know, we see this in the populist sphere as well of domestic politics. Rising outside insurgent forces don’t get to the key prize, they don’t take over the capital, unless the mainstream forces are so weak that they have essentially lost already, or weakened themselves, or so forth, right? If the mainstream parties in Europe and America and the advanced industrial world had grappled with some of the major issues of the day, there wouldn’t be all these populist challenges. And the response to China and its strategy of exactly the way you described is not to be upset about that, to be afraid of that, to be—to try to oppose it at every single way, not to freak out, but to in effect do exactly what Kennan asked us to do in response to containment of the Soviet Union, which is be better versions of ourselves. Do our order better.
We have created the greatest international system in the history of the world, such that other major powers want to join it and even demilitarize. And instead what do we do? We bitch about getting them to militarize more. If we were to actually appreciate what we’ve managed to accomplish and lead it properly at how much we have benefited from the general great power peace and global free-trade system that we’ve accomplished, we’d be willing to do a lot more to maintain the system. And if we maintained the system properly, there’d be no problem—well, there would be less of a problem of the Chinese trying to destabilize it, because it would be so well-grounded and backed by so much of the world’s population.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Let’s end on that note of relative agreement. Oriana Mastro, Gideon Rose, thank you so much. (Applause.)