WASHINGTON: Randy Forbes pretty much looks like a hawk. The House seapower subcommittee chairman has fought for a bigger battle fleet with long-range drone bombers, called for China to be kicked out of the international RIMPAC wargames and blasted the Obama administration for its lack of a tough Pacific strategy.
But does that mean China must be opposed at every turn? Is China our enemy? Forbes made it clear today that he doesn’t see China as an adversary, just a competitor — and the competition isn’t zero-sum. In political circles where Xi Jinping sometimes gets compared to Hitler, that’s a big distinction with big implications for how you do strategy.
“We always think there’s…. somebody in the Chinese government that’s plotting how to overthrow the United States,” Forbes said today at the American Enterprise Institute. “That’s not happening, because what they get up every day and worry about is… ‘how do I keep things from imploding at home?'”
China has huge internal problems, from jobs to pollution to the banking system, Forbes said. Nationalist saber-ratting over the Senkaku Islands, Taiwan, or the South China Sea is a useful distraction from domestic discontents, he said, but it’s not the primary focus of Chinese policymakers.
What’s more, Forbes said, China has a limited “window” of economic ascendancy before domestic problems catch up with it — and Chinese leaders know that. It was “actually a little surprising to us,” Forbes said, but the consensus of expert testimony before Congress has been that there’s “not an infinity of the kind of growth we’ve been seeing.” Instead, China will slow down, if not hit the wall, in about 10 years.
So part of China’s current aggressive policy may be gathering rosebuds — or “islands” — while ye may, before the Pacific balance of power shifts against Beijing. Chinese leaders also see what Forbes considers the tempting weakness of the Obama administration worldwide and the successful example of Putin’s aggression in Crimea.
This combination of time pressure and opportunity leads the Chinese to push on multiple fronts. They purposefully escalate tensions and then step back — but when the crisis ebbs, their position is always a little stronger than before. It’s “just like a check valve on a pump,” Forbes said. “They overplay their hand sometimes but they have a strategy.”
“That doesn’t mean they’re adversaries. It just simply means that they’re competitors,” Forbes said. We want to win, of course, he went on, but “winning is not a zero-sum game. Winning is not where China loses and we win. Winning is when both of them do well.”
Indeed, in the decades that American power has underwritten peace, order, and trade in the Pacific, Forbes said, “the No. 1 winner has been China.”
Now we just have to convince the Chinese of that.