While America Slept

How the United States botched China's rise.

Since the dawn of geopolitics, there has always been tension between the world's greatest power and the world's greatest emerging power. No great power likes to cede its No. 1 spot. One of the few times the top power ceded its position to the No. 2 power peacefully was when Great Britain allowed the United States to surge ahead in the late 19th century. Many books have been written on why this transition happened peacefully. But the basic reason seems cultural: One Anglo-Saxon power was giving way to another.

Today, the situation is different. The No. 1 power is the United States, the standard-bearer of the West. The No. 2 power rapidly catching up is China, an Asian power. If China passes America in the next decade or two, it will be the first time in two centuries that a non-Western power has emerged as No. 1. (According to economic historian Angus Maddison's calculations, China was the world's No. 1 economy until 1890.)

The logic of history tells us that such power transitions do not happen peacefully. Indeed, we should expect to see a rising level of tension as America worries more and more about losing its primacy. Yet it has done little to act on these fears thus far. It would have been quite natural for America to carry out various moves to thwart China's rise. That's what great powers have done throughout history. That's how America faced the Soviet Union. So why isn't this happening? Why are we seeing an unnatural degree of geopolitical calm between the world's greatest power and the world's greatest emerging power?

It would be virtually impossible to get Beijing and Washington to agree on the answers to these natural questions, as there are two distinct and sometimes competing narratives in the two capitals.

The view in Beijing is that the calm in Sino-American relations is a result of the extraordinary patience and forbearance shown by China. Chinese leaders believe they have followed the wise advice of Deng Xiaoping, the late reformist leader, and decided not to challenge American leadership in any way or in any area. And when China has felt that it was directly provoked, it has also followed Deng's advice and swallowed its humiliation. Few Americans remember any such instances of provocation. Chinese leaders remember many. In May 1999, during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, a U.S. plane bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. America apologized, but no Chinese leader believed it was a mistake. Similarly, a Chinese fighter jet was downed when it crashed into a U.S. spy plane near Hainan Island, China, in April 2001. Here, too, China felt humiliated. Few Americans will recall the humiliation Premier Zhu Rongji suffered in April 1999 when he went to Washington to negotiate China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO); Chinese elites haven't forgotten. In their minds, China has been responsible for the low levels of tension in U.S.-China relations because China has swallowed such bitter pills time and again.

The view in Washington is almost exactly the opposite. Few Americans believe that China has been able to rise peacefully because of China's geopolitical acumen or America's geopolitical mistakes. Instead, the prevailing view is that America has been remarkably generous to China and allowed it to emerge peacefully because the United States is an inherently virtuous and generous country. There can be no denying that the United States has been generous to China in many real ways: allowing China's accession to the WTO (under stiff conditions, it must be emphasized, but stiff conditions that ironically benefited China); allowing China to enjoy massive trade surpluses; allowing China to join multilateral bodies like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum; and perhaps most importantly of all, allowing hundreds of thousands of Chinese students to study in American universities. These are generous acts.

But it is also true that the United States allowed China to rise because it was so supremely self-confident that it would always remain on top. China's benign rise was a result of American neglect, not a result of any long-term strategy. China acted strategically; America did not. After the 9/11 attacks, for instance, the United States focused on the Middle East instead of the rise of China, leading Hong Kong journalist Frank Ching to write, "The fact is, it's not going too far to say that China owes a huge debt of gratitude to Osama bin Laden."

America has been sensitive to criticisms about its lack of a long-term strategy. I can speak about this from personal experience. In February 2009, Hillary Clinton visited China on her first overseas visit as U.S. secretary of state. I wrote at the time:

[T]here's little evidence Clinton has engaged in any serious strategic thinking about U.S.-China relations. If she had, she would have asked some big questions. Traditionally, relations between dominant powers and emerging powers have been tense. This should have been the norm with China and the United States. Yet China has emerged without alarming Americans. That's close to a geopolitical miracle. Who deserves credit for it? Beijing or Washington? China seems to have a clear, comprehensive strategy. The United States has none.

Officials in Washington reacted angrily to this column. A senior official at the National Security Council called up the Singaporean Embassy in Washington to complain about a Singaporean criticizing U.S. foreign policy -- even though, in theory, America welcomes debate and a free marketplace of ideas.

I also tell this story to illustrate how sensitive the establishment in Washington has become to any discussion on the nature of Sino-American relations. The real truth about this relationship is that, while there is a lot of calm on the surface, tension is brewing below. I am convinced that there is great simmering anger in Beijing about being pushed around callously by Washington. The Chinese resent, for instance, allegations of Chinese cyberspying that make no mention of America's own activities in this area. The Chinese do not believe that they are the only ones playing this game.

Given the many simmering tensions, it would be unwise to assume smooth sailing ahead for the United States and China. The need to cooperate is rising each day, as is the potential for a major U.S.-China misunderstanding. In November 2011, then-Secretary Clinton announced loudly and boldly a "pivot" to Asia, signifying a turning point in U.S. foreign policy that would reduce the focus on the Middle East. Barack Obama's administration took pains to avoid saying that this was America's response to a rising China, but nobody, including China, was fooled. Other countries saw it as a clear signal that Sino-American geopolitical competition was heating up. The logical consequence is therefore not difficult to figure out: We should be prepared for global turbulence if the U.S.-China relationship follows the millennial old patterns and no longer remains on an even keel.

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Democracy Lab

There is no Indonesia Model for the Arab Spring

Yes, Muslim-majority Indonesia has made a successful transition to democracy. But no, that doesn’t make it an example for the Arab Spring.

Many analysts of the Arab Spring have observed that the recent democratic transitions in Egypt and Tunisia echo what happened in Indonesia, another Muslim-majority country, in the late 1990s. These observers cite Indonesia's transition as a model or template for the countries of the Arab Spring. But the similarities between the three countries are deceptive.

Beginning with Suharto's resignation in May 1998 and ending with multiparty parliamentary elections held in June 1999, Indonesia -- like Egypt and Tunisia -- witnessed the dismantling of many of the institutional and political legacies of decades of authoritarian rule. As in Egypt and Tunisia, Indonesia's authoritarian New Order had also previously clamped down on Islamist opposition groups. When the New Order collapsed, Indonesia's Islamists were among the first to articulate a new vision for what Indonesian politics should become. Yet Indonesian Islamists have failed to capture either the mobilizational energy or the electoral following that Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood have enjoyed overwhelmingly in North Africa. Whereas the first democratic elections in Egypt and Tunisia brought Islamists to office, Indonesia has had three democratic elections since 1999, and Islamists have failed to make an electoral breakthrough in any of them.

The different trajectories of political Islam in post-authoritarian Indonesia, Egypt, and Tunisia show why there can't be an "Indonesian model" of democratic transitions in Muslim-majority countries. To be sure, new Muslim democracies in Egypt and Tunisia face similar challenges as Indonesia did when it emerged from authoritarianism. These include histories of rigged elections and managed oppositions, delicate relations with Western allies, large and visible non-Muslim minority populations (in Egypt), weak rule of law coupled with large and inefficient state bureaucracies, activist militaries with histories of political action, and many others.

But one major difference between Indonesia and its North African counterparts exists. Whatever the excesses of the brutal and corrupt New Order regime, Suharto presided over remarkable increases in the material well-being of the Indonesian people. By contrast, Ben Ali and Mubarak oversaw developmental debacles in Tunisia and Egypt: economic stagnation, ineffective development policymaking, and state decay. In such environments, Islamists thrive because their ideas resonate with a natural constituency of disenfranchised, disempowered, and frustrated citizens who expect more from their governments.

This is not a new argument. Three decades ago, Philip Khoury identified the "crisis of the secular state" as the root cause of what he termed "Islamic revivalism" in the Arab Middle East. The crisis of the secular state was fundamentally about the inability of nationalist and socialist governments in places like Egypt and Tunisia to deliver the development, material prosperity, and economic performance which they, as modernizing states, had implicitly promised their citizens. Islamic revivalism was a spiritual, social, and eventually political response to "state exhaustion." Islamist political thought contained both an explanation for the failure of secular development models (for they ignored or even betrayed classical religious principles) and a template for future political action. In various ways, Islamists around the world today use this vision for Islam as a political tool to promise a better life.

The key point is that these movements resonate most among communities for whom the secular state has failed: lower-middle classes, university graduates without jobs, new migrants from the countryside to the cities, and others. The electoral success of Islamists in post-authoritarian Egypt and Tunisia simply reflects the failure of these regimes to make people better off than they were before.

Islam and politics in post-authoritarian Indonesia is different because authoritarian Indonesia was different. If Egypt and Tunisia are case studies in state exhaustion and developmental stagnation, New Order Indonesia is a case study in economic transformation and social development. Under Suharto, female literacy rates skyrocketed and birth rates plummeted. Public debt remained chronically high in Egypt and Tunisia, whereas it was manageable in New Order Indonesia. But the Arab regimes' unemployment crises had perhaps the most devastating effects on the daily lives of ordinary citizens. Adult unemployment rates never exceeded 40 percent in Indonesia, even during the depths of the Asian Financial Crisis that ultimately drove Suharto from power. In Egypt and Tunisia, adult unemployment rates have exceeded 55 percent for more than two decades.

None of this denies that Suharto was ironfisted, brutal, venal, spectacularly corrupt...the list goes on. The New Order regime can rightly be charged with plundering Indonesia's economy and eviscerating public trust in state institutions -- although its predecessors (from the Dutch East India Company through to Sukarno's Guided Democracy regime) share part of the blame for the latter as well. Development under the New Order was certainly unequal, with only a fraction of the population able to benefit from gleaming new malls or international airports. Nevertheless, under Suharto, even ordinary Indonesians prospered in ways that they never had before. By the 1990s, when Indonesia joined the ranks of newly industrializing economies, millions of Indonesians could still remember the hyperinflation and polarized political atmosphere of the early 1960s. They could also remember how Suharto brought both to an end, the former through skillful macroeconomic management, the latter through the mass bloodshed that accompanied the extermination of the Indonesian left.

As a consequence, although Islam became increasingly visible in the Indonesian public sphere in the New Order's later years, this was a compliant, state-managed form of Islam. It was an Islam that supported the New Order regime's essentially nationalist (rather than religious or sectarian) foundations. Islamists either joined with the New Order (sacrificing their ability to serve as effective regime critics) or remained in the opposition (and subject to state repression). Groups patterned after the Muslim Brotherhood or drawing on tarbiyah movements made some inroads on university campuses and in urban areas, but that was it.

In turn, when Indonesia's 1997-98 economic meltdown ultimately drove Suharto from power, Islamists in Indonesia -- unlike Ennahda or the Muslim Brotherhood -- had neither a latent constituency hungry for an Islamic alternative to the New Order, nor the mobilizational networks needed to turn out voters at election time. Facing the regional Asian economic crisis rather than slow-moving developmental debacle, there was no particular reason for Indonesians who were angered by the abrupt end to decades of economic growth to think that a turn to Islam would solve their country's problems. It is no accident that even today, the image of the New Order as a period of dynamism, optimism, and material progress remains powerful for many Indonesians.

In sum, we should attend to the differences between the growth of political Islam in Indonesia versus Egypt and Tunisia. The crisis of the Arab secular states that Khoury first identified three decades ago had no counterpart in Indonesia. As a result, Islamists have never found the same mobilizational base there, and today, they struggle to present an alternative to mainstream non-Islamist parties in the democratic era.

The central implication of this argument about developmental debacles and the rise of political Islam is that authoritarian legacies matter. The idea of Indonesia as a template for other post-authoritarian Muslim states, or as a model that can be imported to understand transitions in the rest of the Muslim world, must be combined with an appreciation for the model's limits. In Egypt and Tunisia, priorities such as military professionalization, judicial reform, party system design, and others will usefully draw on Indonesia's experience, which has much to teach us about the likely course of these reforms during democratic consolidation and the various obstacles and challenges along the way.

But observers and practitioners also care about Islam in these new democracies, and understanding ideological cleavages in newly democratic polities requires a more nuanced analysis of the social and economic legacies of authoritarian rule. Islamist messages do not resonate the same way for all Muslims living under corrupt and repressive regimes, and the counter-hegemonic ideas that emerge under authoritarianism shape the movements that mobilize, and subsequently, their post-authoritarian electoral fortunes.

Note: This is an abridged version of a longer essay entitled “The Limits of the Indonesian Model.”