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The China consensus that isn't

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This post is part of the What is the US consensus on China? debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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28 June 2011 14:12


This post is part of the What is the US consensus on China? debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Last week I asked whether former US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns' recent characterisation of the US consensus on China was accurate. Burns said:

If, on the other hand, the United States is able to maintain its position in Asia, retains its predominant military power, through its alliance system, and also includes India in a new strategic partnership in the Indian Ocean and western Pacific, it is much more likely that, when China rises into a democratic sea filled with democratic powers, that will be peaceful. The surest way to peace with China is through military strength and the maintenance of our alliance. That is a bipartisan view, firmly held in the United States of America.

Overnight, Mike Green from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington has responded that, yes, Burns' observations were 'basically on target'. But he's done it in a way that leaves me wondering if there might be more daylight among America's Asia strategists than both Green and Burns imply.

As Green describes it, the American consensus on China is a mixture of engagement and hedging (though read Green's post at CogitASIA to get the full flavour). That's superficially similar to Nicholas Burns' two-part prescription. But crucially, on the military-strategic aspect of America's China posture, Green gives weight to balancing, whereas Burns, speaking at a recent US Studies Centre conference in Sydney, referred explicitly to US military predominance.

That's what surprised me about Burns' remarks, and judging from the recording, it gave Gareth Evans, who was sharing the stage with Burns, a mild shock too. Burns even implied that a league of Asian democracies would be needed to stare China down; I see no reference to that in Green's formulation of Washington's China consensus.

Burns' comments about predominance are alarming because, for predominance to be realised, the US would need to substantially increase its military presence in Asia, and keep increasing it. That's because, close to China's shores, America has already lost its predominance, thanks to a rapid Chinese military build-up that makes it impossible for the US to control those waters. It's a trend that can realistically only go in one direction, because China has the easier and cheaper job — it doesn't need to wrest sea control for itself; it can merely erode American sea control.

As a rising power, it's hard to see how China could accept a continuation of US military predominance in Asia. Putting predominance at the centre of US China policy is a recipe for arms racing, with its attendant instability and distrust.

Photo by Flickr user The Brit_2.

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