[Viewpoint] American hegemony on the edge

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[Viewpoint] American hegemony on the edge

“How China can defeat America” was the title of a daring column contributed by Yan Xuetong, a professor at Tsinghua University, to the New York Times. The notable realist hawk finds an answer from Xunzi, the Chinese Confucian philosopher from the Warring States Period. According to Xunzi, there are three types of foreign policy strategies: humane authority, hegemony and tyranny. Humane authority wins over the world with moral leadership. Taking over a part of the world through competitive military power is hegemony. Tyranny is ruling over neighbors using forcible measures.

Yan claims that China’s triumph over America would not occur through military or economic might, but rather, he said it would only be possible with humane authority, displaying model leadership based on certain morals and norms. The Chinese need to move away from widespread mammonism and restore traditional morals, creating a harmonious society by overcoming economic polarization and corruption. Externally, China should establish itself as a respectable country that defends peace.

The paradox begins here. The United States, which pursued humane authority since World War II, is about to pursue the way of hegemony, while China, which has barely entered the gateway to hegemony, is seeking humane authority.

No country in modern history has established universal standards for the international community or provided public goods as the United States has. The U.S. initiated the creation of the United Nations, spearheaded the establishment of the free trade system and the Bretton Woods system, and has played the role of world policeman. The United States has displayed moral leadership in establishing worldwide standards with new ideas and agendas.

But regrettably, the aura of the past is nowhere to be found in U.S. actions today. During a visit to Korea in October, John Mearsheimer, a professor at the University of Chicago, illustrated this reality with a simple analogy. He said that the emergence of China puts Korea in danger, and Korea has no option other than to rely on the United States. Stephen Walt, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, demanded that Korea choose between the United States and China. The two argued that Korea’s geopolitical location is similar to that of Poland’s in Europe, essentially urging Korea to side with the United States.

This point of view represents the perspective of Republican hawks in large part. But more surprisingly, U.S. President Barack Obama’s plan for Asia is not much different. It is a positive development that Obama has deviated from a Eurocentric mindset and now calls Asia the central axis of American diplomacy. However, we cannot help but worry that the series of policies implemented by the Obama administration may simply be designed to compete for hegemony with China. Obama and his staff declared in unison that the United States would augment its military strength as it gets more involved in the Asia-Pacific region. For instance, the U.S. recently announced that it will station 2,500 Marines in Darwin, Australia, along with naval vessels and fighter jets.

That is not all. In the name of “freedom of navigation,” Washington has taken great interest in the South China Sea - an area of importance to China - and has strengthened military cooperation with Vietnam and the Philippines, which border the sea. At the same time, the U.S. is seeking improved relations with Myanmar, a traditional ally of China, while also reinforcing its relationship with India by providing nuclear fuel technology.

Washington also sees itself as checking China by signing a free trade agreement with Korea and establishing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which includes Japan and other Pacific Rim nations.

These actions do not mesh with the humane authority that the U.S. has pursued in the past and are instead typical of a nation seeking hegemony. Is this the way the United States should go ahead? These interventions are mere tactics to take advantage of divisions among countries in the region, and they go against the flow of history.

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said at a Seoul forum on Nov. 30, “China is our competitor and partner - not an enemy unless we treat it like one.” We should be reminded of the prescription of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that the United States and China should work together as partners in the Asia-Pacific community. Rather than pursuing hard-line realism, the White House needs to listen to the seasoned wisdom of policy experts who have spent decades in the field.

*The writer is a professor of political science at Yonsei University.

By Moon Chung-in
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