Before Paul Wolfowitz became famous (or infamous, depending on your politics) for his views on the Middle East, he was a highly regarded expert on Asia.
When George W. Bush became President in 2001, the administration looked to Wolfowitz and his State Department counterpart Richard Armitage to guide Asia policy. A former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, and then Ambassador to Indonesia, Wolfowitz’s stance on China was consistent from the time he joined the Bush administration: the best way to secure peace and stability in Asia was to deter potential Chinese adventurism through a strong American military presence and system of alliances.
We know that Asia policy took a back seat after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Even so, Wolfowitz’s views on China were dismissed as too hardline and provocative by many experts – and more likely to cause disruption in the region than secure continued peace. Barack Obama certainly tried treating China as a partner but received little reciprocity or respect from Beijing in return. From 2009–10, China appeared emboldened rather than appeased and became a more disruptive presence in the process.
In response, the Obama administration has taken the harder, dare we say it, Wolfowitz-like line: We can’t control what China wants or how it thinks, but we can try to deter any aggression and limit its options. This may not be a comforting policy but it is a prudent one. It also appears to be what most countries in the region want even as they enjoy booming trade relations with China.
Wolfowitz concluded a decade ago that ‘hoping for the best’ when it comes to China means ‘preparing for the worst.’
Once scathingly dismissed as warmongering, this approach is now widely accepted as the most prudent. Even if one disagrees with the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, Wolfowitz’s views on China are worth heeding.
Dr John Lee is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney and a Visiting Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC. Hear Dr Paul Wolfowitz speak about China’s rise at a lunch address on Tuesday, 2 August at The Westin Hotel. Register here.