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Can the US Balance Between Its Ambitions and Capabilities?

May 16 , 2014
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

The Financial Times published an article on April 14 titled “Ukrainian lessons can help the US in Asia”. The author, Geoff Dyer in Washington, argues that the US should learn the lessons of maintaining a strong military presence, boosting alliances and deepening economic links with Asia, while also trying to engage China. 

Jin Liangxiang

He is certainly right that the case of Ukraine offers lessons. He is also right with some of the lessons, for instance, engaging China. But that article is also misleading on some substantial issues. The most important lesson for the US should be that it should balance its ambitions and capabilities. Or, to put it another way, it should not have ambitions beyond its capabilities. Diplomacy without that calculation would be doomed to failure. 

It is true that the US will remain the single most powerful country in the world with the biggest role in world affairs in the predictable future. But its advantage over other major powers is declining. And, the rise of new economies including China, India, Russia, Brazil and South Africa have especially weakened the superiority that the US used to have. 

A comparison might be telling. For many years, the US has been able to maintain a military budget of more than ten times that of China. But its advantage had been steadily declining. In 2011, the amount was $725 billion, approximately 8 times that of China. In 2014, though, the US still had the largest military budget of $526.8 billion, yet it was only four times that of China. 

The loss of its economic predominance is even more obvious. In 2001, the US has a GDP of approximately $9 trillion, which was 9 times that of China. But in 2013, China’s GDP reached $9.43 trillion, which was 56% that of the US. And the year 2013 also saw China surpass the US in international trade. China had a total trade volume of $4.13 trillion, while the US was $3.9 trillion. That means China has presented a significant alternative of the US in the international market. That is to say, the sole biggest market power that the US can employ for political purposes has been weakened. 

Realists believe that a nation state should define its interests according to the power it possesses. It can be put in another way, that is, a rational state should have ambition in proportion to its strength. Otherwise, it will not achieve that ambition. Instead, it will encounter diplomatic failures. 

The US was successful in making decisions in line with its own strength in 2013. Regarding the Iran nuclear issue, the US used to hold the position that Iran could have any kind of uranium enrichment capability for about ten years, which was later proved to be beyond its power, as the previous failed negotiations indicated. Without sufficient military resources, the US cannot press for that compliance, though the sanctions do work on Iran. 

It was by tacitly accepting Iran’s capability to enrich uranium with 5 percent purity, which can be used to produce energy, that the US and Iran, together with other negotiating parties, reached an interim agreement on November 24, 2013. That was a major victory for the US on the Iranian nuclear issue. 

US policy on Syria issue provided another example in this case. The US used to harbor the goal to topple Bashar al-Assad, and even proclaimed that if the Syrian regime used chemical weapons, it would intervene militarily. But the US seems to have accepted a deal, at least temporarily, in September 2013 to remove the chemical weapons as a major achievement, and to maintain the status quo of Bashar Assad’s hold on power. Even when Obama believed that it was the government’s forces that used the chemical weapons, the US refrained from using force. The White House is well aware that the US cannot afford another military endeavor in the Middle East. 

But unfortunately, US diplomacy on the Ukraine issue tells a different story. Despite efforts invested, the US failed to reverse Russia’s encroachment on Crimea. The failure of US diplomacy in this regard actually should be attributed to its failure in balancing its ambitions and capabilities. 

On the one hand, the US still maintains a Cold War mentality, to maximize its interests in its geopolitical competition with Russia. That’s why the US and the West-at-large would not like to give up their ambitions to embrace Ukraine and therefore place a further squeeze on Russia’s strategic space. It is certainly not a light ambition.  Russia regards Ukraine as its last buffer zone against the US and the West. Russia does not want to see its troops facing NATO just across its border with Ukraine. 

On the other hand, the US did not have sufficient strategic resources, but had to reduce its military budget in 2014. Quite a significant proportion of this would have to be spent in Asia-Pacific area for its rebalancing strategy. 

The US also lost economic leverage over the issue. The US, together with EU countries, launched sanctions on the overseas assets and travel bans on some relevant Russian individuals, but could not enforce biting sanctions on Russia. It is not only because Russia itself is an economic power, and has a GDP five times that of Iran, but also because Russia can easily turn to other major economies for business opportunities. And energy sanctions could also hurt Europeans.

The US dilemma over the Ukraine issue actually reflected the gap between the ambitions it has and the capabilities it really commands. 

The case of US successful diplomacy over the Iran nuclear issue and the Syrian issue shows a good example of achieving a balance between ambitions and capability, whereas US diplomacy in the Ukraine issue tells a story about how diplomacy could fail when an ambition goes beyond its capabilities. That should be the lesson that the US should learn from the Ukraine issue while dealing with world affairs. 

The US has been enshrining a policy of rebalancing in the Asia Pacific area with the obvious purpose of containing China. But, that will be doomed to fail. The reasons are simple. It is always too ambitious to contain a nation of China’s size. China has a population 4-5 times that of the US and a territory slightly larger than that of the US. Can such a big nation be contained? Not to mention that China’s strength is still growing faster than that of the US. 

The US has the most powerful army in terms of both quantity and quality. But, its advantage in the Asia-Pacific area is not that high. Although its total military budget of 2014 is four times that of China’s, its Asia-Pacific budget is only $300 billion (the US proclaimed to invest 60% of its strategic resources in Asia-Pacific areas by 2020), which will be a little more than twice that of China’s total budget of the same year. Can the US achieve the purpose of containing China with that much capability? And, China will always be ready to invest all the necessary resources to secure an environment so closely relevant to its own survival. 

China has become the world’s second largest economic power with the biggest total volume of international trade. It can hardly be imagined that the US can still mobilize the West to sanction China within the context of seeking business opportunities with China. No other economic measures, such as sanctions, will work on China either. Furthermore, for economic reasons, very few of China’s neighbors will follow the US in containing China. China has become the number one trade partners to almost all its neighbors. Who would sacrifice the potential benefits of being friendly with China? 

All in all, the capabilities that the US currently commands will not allow it to execute a rebalancing strategy focused on the containment of China. The ambitions are far beyond the capabilities. The US is expected to have a cooperative policy featuring mutual respect.

Dr. Jin Liangxiang is a Research Fellow at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.

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