28 July, 2009

Every day is a good day for a ground war in Asia

You may have heard that the Senate recently voted to discontinue funding for the F-22 fighter jet. The outrageously expensive plane was deemed unnecessary by the Air Force, and killing it became a personal cause for Bob Gates, who, after all, the Defense Secretary. A straightforward policy issue, you say? Well, actually, the influence of defense contractors, particularly with a certain subset of senators, made it a hard-fought vote, and a bit of a symbolic cause for those seeking a more rational defense policy.

Well, no one ever accused John Cornyn (R-Texas) of rationality. See Ackerman for the news that Cornyn said first that we needed the F-22 to fight, um, India, and then clarified that he actually meant China. Ah, the world is so big with so many lines drawn on it, and all those brown people look too much the same. But actually for all his buffoonery, Cornyn fits right in with a lot of the right wing/ neo-con thinking on China, articulated most prominently by Bob Kagan. They see international relations as a zero-sum game and massive wars between great powers as an inevitable outcome of international competition. And, much like was the case with Iraq, there is a significant contingent of non-cynical human rights crusaders making common cause with them to seek an aggressive line against China for the purpose of disincentivizing abuses.

As for the first argument, it is simply untrue that we somehow don't have any agency over whether there will be conflict or not. Declaring preemptively that conflict is inevitable is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it prevents us from cooperating on extremely important issues like climate change and negotiations with North Korea. Cooperating doesn't only address the specific issue being cooperated on; the very act of cooperating - of communicating regularly, pooling resources and efforts, engaging in respectful disagreements and debates over tactics - inherently improves relations and makes peaceful relationships more likely. That is the foundation of liberal internationalism: relations can be positive-sum if both sides work to make it so, and thus the goal should be to set up institutions that maximize positive-sum interaction (i.e. joint peacekeeping missions instead of endless proxy wars, freer trade instead of escalating trade wars, joint anti-piracy actions instead of bucaneering, treaties regulating nuclear materials rather than nuclear holocaust).

As for those motivated by human rights (Eremita and I had a spirited discussion on this subject after seeing Star Trek, itself a liberal internationalist treatise of sorts) I think the hard truth is that increasing tensions with China through threats, public snubs, or punishments like revoking Most Favored Nation status will only make the situation worse, while punishing lots of innocent people. It is not a good thing that China's treatment of Tibetan peoples is probably tantamount to genocide, that its ethnic minorities such as the Uighurs undergo Jim Crow-like treatment, and that the government does not rule with the consent of the governed. But none of that will be helped by snubbing its leaders at the Olympic games, building awesomer fighter jets, or ostracizing it by excluding it from a League of Democracies. Beyond that, war with China, over Taiwan or anything else, would be a humanitarian disaster that would certainly result in much worse rights abuses.

As for US-China relations in real time, see this Tim Fernholtz post on the Strategic and Economic Dialogue going on as we speak. The top three issues being discussed are economic coordination, an agreement on a climate change framework, and cooperation on North Korea.

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