The American Legion, in partnership with the Harriet Fulbright Institute and the Institute of Technology, Economics and Diplomacy, hosted a foreign policy summit on Feb. 28 to discuss global issues that affect the United States’ relations with China and Japan, as well as Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East.
The summit, held in conjunction with the Legion’s 58th Annual Washington Conference in Washington, D.C., featured two expert panels moderated by American Australian Association President John Berry and Joshua Walker, head of Global Strategic Initiatives at Office of the President at the Eurasia Group.
U.S., China and Japan: Trilateral competition or cooperation?
The first panel examined China’s economic and political trajectory, with a focus on the key dimensions of the U.S.-China-Japan relations among the world’s largest economies – including what implications it might have for peace and security in Asia. Speakers included Oriana Mastro, assistant professor of security studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University; Center for a New American Security President Richard Fontaine; and Walker.
Berry said the U.S., China and Japan are the most important powers in Asia, and the relationships among them are the foundation of international relations, peace and stability in East Asia. However, it may also become the major source of strategic conflict in the region.
What Asia is now and will become in future decades, according to Berry, depends very much on the three countries and their relationships.
Fontaine said the U.S. is in a fundamentally competitive relationship with China and Russia. One of the interesting things about China is the increasingly broad definition of its national interests and its ability to project power in a way that it wasn’t able to do before.
“China pursues an economic and political power first,” Mastro said. “Now it’s getting to the point to which it has accumulated so much power that it can build so much on the military side and the United States is left with very few options.”
In addition to addressing its expectations and strategies, Mastro said the U.S. needs to think about whether it wants to be close to China, and whether China’s involvement decreases the costs or increases the likelihood of success of a particular U.S. policy.
“The United States spends so much time making assumptions. We fail to see very clear what China wants and how it’s going to accomplish it,” said Mastro, a political military affairs strategist. “They’ve been telling us for a very long time what they want.
“China wants to be number one. The United States want to be number one. Cooperation is not good for exposing. It has to be a means of accomplishing specific policy goals.”
According to an article from the Huffington Post, the U.S. and China are neither allies nor enemies as “the impact of competition and the imperative for cooperation are both growing.” The author claimed that both countries play a global leading role when it comes partnering on issues like climate change and nuclear security, including engaging in “more exchanges and dialogues than ever before” despite their militaries having unfavorable tensions.
Moreover, China’s concern has to do with “America’s open involvement in the disputes between China and its neighbors,” and that the U.S. may be seeking to “sow the seeds of a self-fulfilling prophecy” with its “imagined contention” about the second-largest economy in the world, the article noted.
“It’s not solely competitive. It’s about aspects of cooperation as well,” Fontaine said. “It has manifest itself in things like … the use of economic tools to coerce political outcomes in places like Taiwan and Japan, the Philippines and South Korea and so forth. And its investment in soft power … around the world that allow it to project its power in ways before where it really didn’t do so very much.”
China’s perspective about its relations with the U.S. can be summed up in three main points. According to the article, it stated that:
• “China’s policy objective for relations with the U.S. is in line with that of its general foreign policy, namely, to improve its international environment in order to develop and raise the living standards of its population;
• The China-U.S. economic relationship has reached a higher level as Chinese businesses and direct investment are entering the U.S. market. But they are often constrained by the lack of political confidence; and
• Many see the status of the relationship no longer as one between the weak and the strong, not do they yet see the relationship as one between two strong powers.”
From America’s perspective, Mastro said there is nervousness regarding what global role China is going to play, based on the assumption that the U.S. would see political changes with the constructive engagement policy. But since those changes are not happening, America’s confidence in China’s economic prospects is fading away as cooperation declines.
“It’s true that cooperation will be beneficial,” Mastro said. “But currently, we also have to look at and consider Chinese capabilities, tactics and preferences.”
The bottom line, according to Mastro, is that cooperation is difficult because the U.S. and China both want to do things differently in terms of finding a balance with their competing policy objectives.
“The U.S. and China are not operating in a vacuum, even within our own countries,” Walker said. “I think the challenge that we have, from a Japanese perspective when we think about the similarities between the U.S.-China friction and the U.S.-Japan friction, is we always had an alliance in place with Japan. We always knew that when push came to shove, there was going to be mechanisms in place and that we have to resolve our differences.
“In China, we don’t have that. We don’t have the basic fundamental understanding (about what we back down on) when it gets to very difficult place where tensions have risen to the point of emotions getting the best of our leaders. We’ve seen this play out in a very significant way in North Korea. What we should be paying attention to is not just China’s hard power, but also its soft power.”
In terms of cooperation, the HuffPost article noted that China has not only become one of the U.S.’s biggest trading partners, but also provided new public goods in an effort to help improve the existing international order. Although the U.S. and China were never close, both countries can avoid fighting or imposing worldwide disaster if they work together and recognize their potential to make a difference.
“You have this cooperative diplomacy on issues like the Iran nuclear deal and to some limited degree on North Korea. These (are) global issues that require China at the table (when it comes to) the environment and things like that,” said Fontaine, who served as a former foreign policy advisor to U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona. “The Trump Administration has focused, like a laser beam, on North Korean and Chinese trade. I agree that those two issues have more or less become the core of America’s narrative in Asia.”
In spite of America’s own fear of losing its primacy in the world as China seeks to dominate the Asia-Pacific and replace U.S. leadership, Fontaine said that together, the two countries demonstrate an opportunity for both cooperation and competition.
“The appetite for American engagement – militarily, economically and diplomatically – in the Asia region is extremely high,” he said. “But it’s also matched by a very high degree of uncertainty about what the United States wants to do on those three fronts in Asia, and whether it will be present and engaged in the long run.”
Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East: Waiting for good news
The second panel discussed the many challenges that Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East are struggling to manage and how these collectively increase political volatility and risk for investors. Among the expert speakers included German Marshall Fund of the USA President Karen Donfried; Middle East Institute President Wendy Chamberlin; Luke Coffey, director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation; and Alex Vatanka, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
According to Walker, Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East have been facing new challenges on a daily basis. Today’s environment is characterized by security problems with a series of sequential crises, starting with the debt and financial crisis and continuing with crises over Syria and refugees.
“Despite the enemies to wars, Syria remains the most dangerous place on the planet,” said Chamberlin, a former ambassador to Pakistan who played a key role in securing its cooperation in the U.S.-led campaign against al-Qaeda in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “The big powers that are operating in Syria is very real and, regrettably, possible.”
From the migration crisis to non-state actors to slow growth, Chamberlin said a whole host of problems are helping populist parties and authoritarians shrinking the ground for reasonable consensus.
One of those problems Chamberlin mentioned included Turkey’s attempt to turn Russia and Iran against America in Syria. According to a recent article written by the director of the Middle East Institute’s Turkey program, “the tension between Turkey, Russia and Iran over Syria is mounting. … Frustrated with the U.S.’s cooperation with the Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG, Ankara (Turkey) officials turned to Moscow (Russia) and Tehran (Iran) for help. Turkey set up observation posts in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province – the last stronghold of the anti-Assad opposition – as part of efforts by the three countries to establish de-escalation zones.”
Chamberlin also spoke about the defeat of ISIS, in particular Iran’s militia allies threatening violence against American troops in Iraq and calling for U.S. withdrawal from the country. In addition to making violent threats, she said opposing forces in Iraq are now focusing on undermining U.S. interests and trying to speed up the withdrawal process now that the Islamic State is defeated.
“The potential is great there,” Chamberlin said. “You’ve got Russian forces almost within looking distance of power forces, and you have Turkish forces inside Syria. It’s a whole threat.”
“In terms of the conflict itself, the goal of any counterinsurgency campaign is to give those who have legitimate political grievances the ability to address these grievances through a political process,” said Coffey. “If we are to be successful at the end of this counterinsurgency, we have to be negotiating settlements.”
Despite much speculation about its long-term intentions, Vatanka said the U.S. remains the most powerful political-military actor in the Middle East. Military engagement against anti-American forces, on an operational level, will continue to be required in more sensitive spots within the region including Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
For Coffey, the Iranian threat is unique. He said the U.S. needs to consider other hybrid war mechanisms in order to maximize its influence in the Middle East and beyond.
“If we’re uncomfortable with that or we don’t like that, then we need to fight another type of war,” Coffey said. “We are in a counterinsurgency and this is how counterinsurgencies end.”
“There’s a deeper question here about what role do we as Americans want to be involved in as we go forward,” said Donfried.
The goal for the Middle East, according to Coffey, should focus on creating stability so that internal security forces can be managed by its own people.
“These are very notable objectives and we should aspire to these things,” he said. “Turkey is too important. That relationship is too important. Leaders come and go but the nations will stay. We need to find ways to better deal with some of the challenges.”