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HomeAsiaPanel Summary Report: U.S. Perspectives on China and the Nature of the Chinese Challenge to U.S. National Interests

Panel Summary Report: U.S. Perspectives on China and the Nature of the Chinese Challenge to U.S. National Interests

By Johnsen Romero

On June 24, 2021 the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy (IPD) hosted a panel discussion on ‘U.S. Perspectives on China and the Nature of the Chinese Challenge to U.S. National Interests’. The first in a series of discussions exploring the current landscape of U.S.-China relations, this panel explored American threat perceptions of Beijing, the hawkish attitudes of Washington’s foreign policy establishment, and how a changing definition of national interest can shape the likelihood of unwanted escalation in Asia.

Arta Moeini, IPD’s Research Director, shared opening remarks to begin the discussion.

The panel convened four distinguished guests, including:

  • Doug Bandow, Senior Fellow, Cato Institute
  • Douglas Macgregor, Retired U.S. Army Colonel and Senior Fellow, The American Conservative
  • Lawrence Wilkerson, Retired U.S. Army Colonel and Distinguished Adjunct Professor, College of William and Mary
  • Adam K. Webb, American Co-Director, Hopkins-Nanjing Center

Kelley Vlahos, Senior Advisor to the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, led the moderation of the panel.

Doug Bandow opened his remarks by dismissing the narrative that bilateral engagement since President Nixon had been a failure. Bandow reiterated that engagement facilitated economic transformation for China’s population, bringing many out of poverty. He observed that this fact is often obscured in debates over China’s challenge today. He cautioned against the tendency to overestimate China’s global footprint and was skeptical about the notion that Beijing is maliciously exporting its governance model. On this basis, Bandow encouraged the U.S. to ground its perceptions in China’s genuine strengths and weaknesses.

While current impressions of Beijing cast it as an adversary (anywhere from a strategic rival to an economic competitor), Bandow pushed back on the false equivalence between China and the Soviet Union’s security challenge. A reality check would limit the salience of this kind of projection on East Asia. Bandow offered that the real question facing U.S. policymakers is “how much we are willing to spend and what risks we are willing to take to impose our will on China in its neighbourhood.” Bandow contended that there is a need to consider strategic empathy when confronting the costs of U.S. power projection. More provocatively, he suggested that emphasizing security as such actually detracts from Washington’s ability to advance economic competition. In closing, Bandow warned against framing every friction point in East Asia and beyond into the spurious narrative of a systemic Chinese threat.

Douglas Macgregor began his statement by echoing Bandow, questioning the idea of Chinese expansionism. At the same time, Macgregor noted that the proper way to view the Chinese model is to focus less on how it is exported and more on why it is attractive to the world outside of the trans-Atlantic community. He suggested that the West needs to “accept the fact that for much of the world, the notion that liberal democracy and a free-willing marketplace is hardly the answer to their needs and problems.”

Returning to the security question, Macgregor observed that China’s force structure is largely defensive – barring red lines on Taiwan. The concentration of China’s resources and military capacity on coastal and missile defense is, in his view, indicative. Building on this observation, Macgregor noted that it is, in fact, the U.S. and Russia that have not followed in China’s footsteps in pledging no-first-use nuclear doctrines. Given this backdrop, he remarked that the only way for China to become a genuine threat to U.S. security interests is through deliberate, if unhelpful, U.S. policies that have the aggregate effect of making that nation into an enemy. Macgregor also pointed out that Washington habitually underappreciates Japan’s potential as a balancing force in Asia.

Lawrence Wilkerson shed light on forces in the U.S. foreign policy establishment that have propagated current views on China owing to their vested interests. Wilkerson stressed that the Beltway needs Beijing to inherit the banner of “existential threat”. He suggested that the military-industrial-congressional complex has mushroomed into an ecosystem of think tanks, universities, and other sympathetic organizations that feed off the inclination toward war. Given these incentives, Wilkerson said the establishment “has to have an enemy now, and it’s found China.” Wilkerson reflected on his encounters with China since his time in military service. He characterized much of the relationship during this period as cooperative. He recalled the candidness of Wang Yi, a Chinese diplomat and foreign minister since 2013, who had said that China was ‘content’ with the U.S. Seventh Fleet as a stabilizing force that had a positive role in China’s economic development.

Fast-forwarding to the China of today, Wilkerson observed that Beijing has developed its own military-industrial complex. That complex, however, is focused on the defense of China, not overseas adventurism. In an Asia where Chinese hegemony is near-inevitable, Wilkerson advised that the U.S. would have to learn “accommodation”. He did not foreclose security measures, but pointed out that Washington would need to get used to relying on its diplomatic toolkit if it hopes to respond to the new power equation. The current culture in Washington, in Wilkerson’s view, is not open to this shift. Wilkerson held “no doubt” in his mind “that the Chinese do not want war.” He expressed his belief that it is primarily the U.S. national security state, not China, that is raising the possibility of conflict.

Adam K. Webb conceded that while there are ideological dimensions to the U.S.-China competition, they are often misrepresented. He suggested it would be simplistic to reduce the rivalry to that of Western universalism pitted against Chinese civilization. Webb linked the rise of China to the ebbing of certain core human values in other countries. This phenomenon of faded moral clarity is, in his view, often lacking in discussions that tout the benefits of engagement. Webb clarified, however, that “the new hardline against Beijing is not because Beijing threatens Western values, but because it threatens Western dominance.” Webb also echoed Macgregor in observing that the West is unwilling to ponder an international order with genuine political and cultural pluralism. Yet, he predicted that structural trends would seem to point to precisely such a pluralistic future.

Given this trajectory, Webb critiqued the West’s approach to China. He also noted that the very manner in which the narrative of “competition” is framed at the state level superimposes a Westphalian bias that neglects how the people of China would themselves contribute to their country’s role in the world. Webb also suggested that the West’s inattention to the Global South leaves it ignorant of the fact that most other world regions are “neither the West nor China” and would simply want to chart their own paths. It is the majority of the world’s population outside this rivalry that will, in Webb’s view, ultimately determine the future course of the international order. In this sense, Webb argued that it is necessary to escape this false binary.

The panel then moved into a question-and-answer period. The segment also allowed speakers to respond to one another’s opening statements. Vlahos posed the issue of Taiwan, cross-Strait relations, and the U.S. response to any contingency. Macgregor noted that a defining fissure likely lies in Taiwanese politics. He differentiated the Kuomintang from the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party – with the latter, in his view, a group of pro-Japanese sovereigntists.

On the matter of U.S. policy, Macgregor was categorical. He outright rejected any proposals that would have American boots in Taiwan. Bandow agreed, stressing that military simulations and the power discrepancy should dampen any ideas of what the U.S. could achieve. Bandow went on to argue that although Beijing is impatient, Chinese military intervention in Taiwan would not occur “as long as they don’t feel forced into making a decision.” He suggested that the greatest danger to international security would be for Washington to underestimate the severity of Chinese nationalism and Beijing’s red lines. On this point, Bandow dispelled establishment voices that “have the illusion” the U.S. could force Chinese acceptance of Taiwan as an American sanctuary with threats and willpower alone.

Bandow recommended that the U.S. deescalate the situation and officially reject the possibility of a Taiwan independence declaration. Webb countered by inquiring about the standards according to which the international community would hold China accountable in the event of mobilization over Taiwan. In response, Wilkerson criticized the growing push for “strategic clarity” on Taiwan that aims to do away with the “One China Policy” as misguided. Wilkerson recalled Beijing’s agitation during his tenure under the Bush administration, particularly when it came to mixed American signals around Taiwanese independence. In this light, he voiced caution over disturbing the status quo in the Strait.

Macgregor articulated the need for the U.S. to focus on renewal at home. To his disapproval, he said “the bipartisan swamp is not really interested in that” and would rather remain “committed almost perpetually to whatever keeps us engaged overseas.” Bandow recentered Beijing by suggesting that it is possible to “make moral critiques of China but also recognize that doesn’t necessarily mean it is an existential threat.” It is more important, in his view, to strategically respond on a case-by-case basis. Macgregor was skeptical whether U.S. foreign policy is capable of this. He rooted U.S. behaviour in an ‘altruistic imperialism’ that goes back to its entry into Asia and its annexation of the Philippines. Wilkerson agreed on the urge to recalibrate, whereas Webb and Bandow reflected on the importance of redistributing defense burdens among U.S. allies in the region.

Towards the end of the discussion, the panel revisited the logic of several U.S. policy tropes. Macgregor disabused the notion that any of China’s neighbors are intent on joining an alliance of “containment”. Bandow questioned the results of an American pressure campaign using sanctions. Both he and Wilkerson agreed that the U.S. tendency to employ them ignored how they did not produce the intended outcomes or change the behaviors of adversaries in any meaningful way.

Regardless of the outlook on U.S.-China relations, the panel came to agree on the areas of mutual interest where cooperation was necessary. Climate change, international shipping, and the depoliticization of people-to-people exchanges were among the major concrete examples raised. However, the panelists concurred that these channels required deliberate commitments in Beijing as well as Washington.

Johnsen Romero is a Policy Research Assistant for the Asia Program at IPD.

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Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  

Panelists:

Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security

 

Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.

Panelists:

Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.

 

Panelists:

Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 

Panelists:

Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 

 

Panelists:

Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.

 

Panelists:

Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor