(This interview with Dr Robert Sutter, visiting professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University, was published in DNA edition dated July 17, 2010.)
China’s economic rise, the increasing instances of its muscle-flexing in Asian and global affairs, and perceptions that the US is economically enfeebled have inspired theories that China will inevitably “rule the world” soon. But Dr Robert Sutter, who has worked in the US government for many years – including in the State Department, the CIA and the Congressional Research Service – points to China’s “encumbrances” at home and in Asia to argue that China cannot and will not lead Asia, much less the world. In an interview to Venky Vembu, the visiting professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University also highlights the risks of India’s misreading strategic motives into China’s commercial relations with countries in South Asia. Excerpts:
Strategists believe US influence on Asian and global affairs is waning, and China is filling the void and will “rule the world” soon. Is that inevitable?
China is a big economy and is growing in importance, but it has its limitations. I don’t think China will ‘rule the world’ – the world is too complicated – or even just Asia. Asia is full of independent-minded governments that don’t want to be ‘ruled’ by China. China’s legacy in Asia is quite poor; this makes governments of countries around China wary. China is also very encumbered: it has a lot of complications – domestic as well as foreign – which limit its ability to lead. A country’s preparedness to lead involves commitments, risks and costs. And the record says China isn’t ready and can’t do it.
As for US decline, you can point to various US shortcomings. But in areas that matter to governments in Asia, you don’t see much signs of decline. The two key ones are the ability and the willingness of the US to undertake security commitments and the willingness of the US to keep its market open. If those two things change, the US will be in decline in Asia. Thus far, I haven’t seen the change.
Why does China’s shadow on the world stage seem larger than it really is?
First of all, the data is incorrect. Some opinion polls show that Americans believe China is a larger economy than the US; it isn’t. It’s also wrong to extrapolate from recent trends and straight-line them and say ‘that’s what will happen in the future’. It’s been done in the past, and as far as the Asian order is concerned, it’s proven to be wrong. We thought the Soviet Union or Japan would be the leading power of Asia. In both cases, the US was supposed to be in decline. This is also why I’m sceptical about China’s rise.
Are there risks in exaggerating China’s ascent?
There are. I was in government for long, and I’ve seen that Americans make bad policy on China when they get excited about China in either a positive or a negative way. So I don’t want them to think that China is a big threat – or that it is a giant opportunity either. It’s much more mixed. Keeping that in mind helps make realistic policy. There’s a danger in a country’s government making its judgement on China ‘having a shadow’ on world affairs.
From an Indian perspective, China appears to have made strategic inroads into South Asia, at India’s expense. Has it really?
The balance of forces in South Asia still heavily tilts in India’s favour. India has tremendous influence, except perhaps in Pakistan – and even there, India’s influence is overwhelming, even if it isn’t positive. Also, India’s relations with Russia and the US give it strategic importance.
Whatever China is doing in South Asia is emblematic of what China does all over the world. That Chinese construction companies are building projects in these countries only tells you that China has competitive construction companies. They want the business, they do it cheaply, and they finance it.
Does China have a strategic concern about India: yes, it does. And would these things be of some use in China’s strategic interests: perhaps. But to see this as the advance of a wave of China’s strategic influence is overstating it. It may be that to an extent, but mostly it’s business. Discerning the commercial from the strategic is sometimes difficult to do.
Is there a risk in India overreacting to what you say are largely commercial relationships?
There certainly is. Take the Gwadar port: Pakistanis need it for their own interests. China is a friend of Pakistan, and can make money developing it. Is it designed to be a port of use by China against India at some point: that seems to be a big jump. In the US, a similar mindset led to a misguided view that the Chinese were taking over the Panama Canal. It was seen in hindsight as ridiculous.
Does the US have an interest in hedging against China by cultivating India?
It’s unstated, but pretty clear, that the US views its relationship with India as helpful in dealing with a more assertive China. (Former Secretary of State) Condoleeza Rice said as much in 2005, and that’s probably still the case. The US interest in India is partly viewed as a way of creating an atmosphere in Asia – and the world – that can allow for dealing with contingencies in China that may be negative.
Should India ally with the US and risk antagonising China further?
Posture is important. None of this should be done by way of overtly competing with China. Your policy should be to improve your interests in the world and expand your relationships for the sake of those relationships. An improvement of relations between India and the US has a series of concrete reasons that are beneficial to both sides, and you must do it for those reasons. This is not going to hurt you in dealing with China, it will probably help you. The Indian government is pursuing a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional foreign policy in India’s interest. From the American perspective, that’s just fine. What America wants is for different countries to pursue their development in a way that’s peaceful and benefits the region and where nobody dominates the region.