Will America’s “Power Play” in Asia Backfire?

In an address to the Australian parliament on November 17, President Obama declared "The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay."

Political psychologists define mirror imaging as the common human tendency to assume that other actors share one’s own values, perceptions, and calculations.  When this assumption is incorrect, as it frequently is in dealings with foreign actors, it can lead to intelligence failures such as Pearl Harbor and flawed strategies such as America’s approach to the Vietnam War.  Simply put, a failure to understand how a foreign actor is viewing your country’s actions, interpreting your motives, and weighing costs and benefits greatly increases the likelihood that you will make costly errors in predicting that actor’s behavior.

The United States has just achieved what several foreign policy experts have described as a stunning diplomatic victory in Asia.  It has isolated China, strengthened military, economic, and political ties with China’s neighbors, and reasserted American dominance in the Pacific.  But is America badly miscalculating the likely response from China by projecting its own calculations about the irrationality of challenging America into the minds of the Chinese?  Walter Russell Mead suggests as much in a recent blog post:

“An intense debate in China will now turn even more pointed. There will be some who counsel patience, saying that China cannot win an open contest with the US and that its only hope is to stick with the concept of ‘peaceful rise’…others will argue that the international system as it now exists, and American power in it, are weapons in the hands of a country which is deeply hostile to China and its government and that the US will not rest until China, like Russia, has been reduced to impotence. They think (they really do) that our aim is to overthrow the Communist government, replace it with something weak and ineffective — as in Yeltsin’s Russia — and then break up its territory the way the Soviet Union broke up. Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, perhaps more will be split off until China is left as a weak and helpless member of an ever more ruthless American order. To act like a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the international system would be to tie the knot in the noose intended to hang you; China must resist now, and ally itself with everyone willing to fight this power: Iran, Russia, Syria, Venezuela, Pakistan, perhaps even Al-Qaeda. And rather than trying to prop up the international capitalist system, China should do what it can to deepen crises and aggravate tensions.”

What do you think?  Is America’s challenge to Beijing on its “home turf” a wise approach or has the Obama Administration badly miscalculated by assuming that all of the powerful actors in China recognize the futility of challenging American dominance?  What will be China’s response to America’s first move in this new “great game,” as Mead calls it?

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