Friday 20 Apr 2018 | 13:09 | SYDNEY
Friday 20 Apr 2018 | 13:09 | SYDNEY
Debates

US leadership in Asia

26 Jun 2017 10:30

Earlier this month, in his speech at the Shangri La Dialogue, US Defense Secretary James Mattis twice declared that China’s assertive conduct in Asia to be ‘unacceptable’. That is tough language – tougher then Washington has used before -  and it raises the question of what he plans to do about it.

He needs to do something much more effective than anything America has tried so far. Otherwise the gap between bold words and timid action will grow, US credibility in Asia will shrink even further, and Mattis will have handed China another easy win in the contest for regional leadership.

But what can he do? More FONOPs like last month’s won’t help: the legalistic punctilio with which they have been conducted simply emphasises how reluctant Washington has been to risk a confrontation with China that might conceivably escalate into an armed clash. And that just plays into Beijing’s hands, because the underlying strategic purpose of their campaign in the South China Sea is to show that America lacks resolve.

So what might be more effective? Secretary of State Tillerson in his confirmation hearings proposed simply blocking China’s access to its island bases, but he backed down fast when he realised this would lead straight to war.

Now Ely Ratner, writing for Foreign Affairs, has offered a more thoughtful and nuanced suggestion. He proposes a three-step process aimed to prevent Chinese domination of the South China Sea and demonstrate US resolve. First, America should encourage and support the other countries with rival claims in the South China Sea to confront China by developing military bases on the islands and features which they occupy, just as China has done.

Second, it should enlist other regional countries like Australia and Japan to support the other claimant states much more directly against China. And finally, it should quite unambiguously commit to help defend other claimants’ island bases militarily if China decides to respond with force.

This approach has two major advantages over what’s been tried so far. First, it recognises that America must show quite plainly that is willing to go to war with China in the South China Sea, if Washington is to resist the salami-slicing tactics that China is using so effectively there to undermine US leadership in Asia.

Second, it puts China’s neighbours in the front line, where they belong. It makes little sense for the US to be more committed to containing China’s challenge to regional order than China’s neighbours are, which is how things have looked so far.

But would it work? Does it offer both a high chance of compelling China to back off, and a low risk of starting a war? Alas there are three reasons to think that it won’t.

First, it is very unlikely that the Southeast Asian claimants would accept American help to fortify their islands, or that other regional allies like Australia or Japan would be willing to play their part. China’s neighbours are worried about its growing assertiveness, but none of them so far have been willing seriously to damage their relationship with China, let alone risk a conflict, by standing up to Beijing. Ratner’s proposal would pose a test for their resolve which they would most likely fail.

Second, it is far from clear that the Trump Administration would in fact be willing to go to war with China in the South China Sea, any more than the Obama Administration was. It would of course be disastrous if America, having pushed China’s neighbours into a confrontation with promises of support, then pulled back. And that is not unlikely. Notwithstanding plenty of mixed signals, the new administration has so far taken a notably accommodating and cooperative approach to China.

And thirdly, the risk that China would indeed test US resolve by pushing back hard is very high. Washington’s big talk/small stick conduct in the South China Sea over recent years means that Beijing would be unlikely to believe that America was really willing to go to war there, so it wouldn’t be deterred from a confrontation with the other claimants. Washington would then face a no-win choice between humiliating retreat and major war. That risk is too high to be worth running for America, even if its Asian partners were game.

But this third point does offer a clue about what might be worth doing instead. The reality is that there is now no way to push back effectively against China in the South China Sea itself without a high risk of war. The big talk/small stick policy has undermined US credibility, emboldened China, weakened deterrence, and increased the risk that China would respond to any attempted display of US resolve in the South China Sea by doubling down rather than backing off.

So Washington should forget about the South China Sea for a while. Instead it should focus on rebuilding the credibility of America’s strategic commitment to Asia where it matters most – at home in America. As I have argued before, America will not be able to persuade the Chinese, or anyone else in Asia, that it is really resolved to bear the costs and risks required to remain a leading regional power unless and until they see and hear American leaders explain to American voters why that is necessary, not with boilerplate clichés but with brutally realistic analysis.

And before that can happen, American policy makers and analysts have to conduct what has been missing hitherto - a serious debate that plainly acknowledges the seriousness of China's basic strategic challenge, identifies the essential US interests at stake, and recognises the costs and risks of preserving a strong role in Asia that protects those interests in the face of that challenge. Only then can broadly-based consensus emerge about America’s future regional role, and only then can a truly credible commitment be made to do what’s needed to maintain it.

Of course this is all a tall order, especially as things stand in DC right now. But America won’t be able to respond to China's challenge effectively until it does all this. That's the lesson to be drawn from the failures of the Pivot and the South China Sea policy of the past few years.

Read Ely Ratner's response to this article here.

COMMENTS

30 Jun 2017 10:49

I appreciate Hugh White taking the time to critique my essay in the current edition of Foreign Affairs, which recommends a course correction in US strategy to deter and, if necessary, deny Chinese control of the South China Sea. In fact, I agree with core elements of Hugh's perspective. He's right that the United States has yet to take seriously the severity of the China challenge, that there has been inadequate debate among America's leaders and its public about the very real stakes, and that current trends, including deficient US policy, portend a China-dominated region.

But Hugh and I diverge significantly on the question of whether the United States can and should do anything to arrest the slide toward a Chinese sphere of influence in Asia. He offers three reasons why my recommendations for a more robust US policy in the South China Sea would pose little chance for success, while likely risking war.

First, he argues that 'it is very unlikely that the Southeast Asian claimants would accept American help to fortify their islands, or that other regional allies like Australia or Japan would be willing to play their part'. But US and allied support for rival claimants is not, as Hugh describes, the 'first' and 'second' steps in my recommended strategy. Rather, I readily acknowledge that regional concerns about economic retribution for standing up to Chinese revisionism is a major obstacle for the United States. That is precisely why I argue that additional non-military measures would be necessary at the outset, including a return of US participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, or some equally ambitious initiative on trade and investment that offers regional states an alternative to growing economic dependence on China. I also recommend an informational campaign aimed at shining a brighter light on China's illegal activities in the South China Sea, creating political space (if not domestic pressure) for governments to push back.

Moreover, this is a deterrence strategy – I argue the United States should move forward with proactively supporting regional states only if China reclaims Scarborough Reef or deploys advanced military capabilities to its new bases in the Spratly Islands. China taking these extraordinary steps would likely be provocative enough to alter political dynamics in Southeast Asia, heightening concerns and opening new opportunities for cooperation. Taken together, the execution of the proposed strategy would occur, as compared to today, in an environment much more conducive to attracting regional support.

Hugh's second critique is that the only choice for the United States is accommodation or war, and that Washington isn't willing to risk the latter. Hugh's characterisation of my argument that the United States should 'unambiguously commit to help defend other claimants' island bases' is simply a misreading – nowhere do I suggest such a commitment. Regardless, here's the line that I really disagree with: 'The reality is that there is now no way to push back effectively against China in the South China Sea itself without a high risk of war.' This view overlooks a number of important political, diplomatic, and institutional brakes on armed conflict between the United States and China, as demonstrated by the fact that we haven't see anything remotely approaching the brink of war (much less a major military crisis) even as the relationship has grown significantly more competitive. In fact, the current glide path toward Chinese hegemony in Southeast Asia poses a much more serious risk to US security and prosperity. In other words, uncontested Chinese dominance, not major power war, is the biggest threat facing the United States (and Australia, for that matter) in Asia today.

Besides, China is itself deeply risk-averse and has backed down in almost every instance in which the United States has stood firm on interest and principle. President Xi Jinping is likely aware that a war with the United States would severely damage both China's economic development and its aspirations for national reunification. Despite loose talk about China's 'core interests', recent experience suggests that China could certainly be compelled into a more moderate approach in the South China Sea, if only the United States and its partners were willing to make a serious go of it. Promoting the misperception of China as ready to run up the escalation ladder is both wrong and counterproductive: China has instead been pushing on an open door, surprised at its ability to do so cost-free. As a more general comment, I tend to think Hugh's analyses would benefit from less certainty about the futility of deterrence, and greater scepticism of China's own willingness to fight.

Finally, Hugh suggests that a more robust US policy won't work because Beijing currently doubts Washington's resolve. Now again we agree: that this is a serious problem, but also that it could be resolved by US leaders being clear at home and abroad about the intensity of the China challenge and the commensurate importance of America's enduring commitment to Asia. There's no question that, as Hugh says, 'this is a tall order, especially as things stand in DC right now.' It was never going to be easy, and it's only getting harder by the day. But now at least there's a viable plan on the shelf if and when US policymakers are willing to admit that US efforts are faltering, and to commit for real to preventing Chinese dominance of the South China Sea.

Read Hugh White's response to this article here.

COMMENTS

21 Jul 2017 15:11

It seems to be widely agreed that Washington’s current policy of well-worn talking points and low-key FONOPS in the South China Sea [SCS] isn’t working. Ely Ratner and I have been debating how to do better. Ely has proposed a more robust approach. He suggests that Washington could deter China from further provocations by warning that it would respond by encouraging and supporting the other claimants among China’s neighbours to develop, fortify and if necessary defend the islands and features which they occupy.

I have argued that this would not work, because Beijing is unlikely to believe that its smaller neighbours would risk provoking it in that way, nor that America would really support them if they did. Beijing would therefore view America’s warning as a bluff, and would be seriously tempted to call it, which would leave Washington with a choice between confrontation and probable conflict, or back-down and humiliation.

Ely has responded with two cogent points that go to the heart of the SCS issue, and of the much wider and more momentous questions of regional order which underlie it.  First, he argues that China’s neighbours would be willing to stand up to China if America helps to reduce their economic dependence on China. And second, he argues that America can easily convince China not to test its resolve by calling its bluff.

But I remain unconvinced. First, Ely’s argument that America can encourage other Asian countries to stand up to China in the SCS by offering them alternative economic opportunities via a revived TPP or something like it underestimates the depth and strength of China’s economic position in Asia, and overstates the power of US economic statecraft.

Neither the TPP nor anything like it could ever offer China’s neighbours economic opportunities comparable to those provided by China’s still-rapid economic growth and the huge initiatives like BRI and AIIB that promise them a share in it. The reality is that whatever Washington does, China is going to be seen by all its East Asian neighbours as the principal driver of their economic prospects. And Beijing knows that. Any US policy towards China which wishes that away will fail.  

Second, Ely’s confidence that China wouldn’t test US resolve overlooks the way US policy in Asia over recent years has emboldened Beijing. Certainly the Chinese do not want a war with America, but their recent conduct suggests they are increasingly confident that they do not need to fear one, because America can be relied upon to back off first from any confrontation.

As long as China believes this, then it is very likely that they would try to call the bluff if Washington tried to implement Ely’s proposals. And why wouldn’t they believe it? Ely himself does not envisage that his proposal would include clear US commitments to defend other claimants’ SCS possessions from any Chinese military response.

He quite fairly chastises me for wrongly assuming that it did, but I think my assumption was understandable. If America didn’t make such a commitment, how could his proposal possibly work? Why would the other claimants risk provoking China, and why would China refrain from hitting back?

This brings us to the heart of America’s policy problem in the SCS. To understand that problem we have to be clear about nature of the contest there. Beijing is not just trying to take control of an important body of water. It is trying to take control of East Asia. It hopes to use the SCS dispute to do that by demonstrating there that America is no longer willing to risk a military confrontation with China to sustain its own leading position in the Asian strategic order, and thereby concede that leadership to China.

It has done that with a series of overt military moves which directly challenge the interests of US friends and allies, to which Washington has made no effective response. So far that has worked very well for Beijing, and that has reinforced their confidence in America’s loss of resolve.

And that in turn has increased the risk that Beijing would respond to any more robust US policy – like the one Ely proposes - by pushing back rather than backing down.  And that in turn increases the risk that a policy like Ely’s would lead straight to a confrontation in which Washington could avoid humiliation only by running a really grave danger of a major war.
 
This does not mean that America has no alternative but to acquiesce in China’s take-over. But it means that the effective reassertion of America’s strategic role in Asia requires a clear reaffirmation of America’s willingness to use force to defend it. And that is a process which must happen at home in America. Ely and I agree about the need for this, but we differ over what must come first.

I think this is the essential first step.  Nothing Washington can do in Asia will convince Beijing – or others – that America is really serious about preserving its leadership, or indeed any significant strategic role in Asia, unless American political leaders first clearly articulate to Americans at home why that is necessary in America’s interests, and why America should be willing if necessary to fight a war with China to do so.  

That may sound melodramatic, but it simply reflects the harsh logic of the kind of power politics that is now underway in Asia today as the regional order adjusts to the new distribution of wealth and power. The roles of the major powers in Asia in future will be determined by the issues that they can convince one another they are willing to go to war with one another over. That is how power politics works.   

If US leaders cannot convince Americans that its leading role in Asia is worth going to war with China to defend, then they cannot convince the Chinese. And if they cannot convince the Chinese, then the Chinese will not be deterred from the assertive behaviour which is so effectively undermining US leadership in Asia today.           

And of course there is no chance of this happening under Donald Trump. That must weigh in the strategic calculations being made in every capital in Asia today.

Read Ely Ratner's response to this article here.

COMMENTS

3 Aug 2017 06:59

I'd like to thank Hugh White for his continued thoughtfulness and collegiality in our ongoing exchange on the South China Sea. I thought it might be interesting to pivot from debating strategic dynamics in the region to a dialogue about what our divergent assessments mean for the making of US policy.

I'll start by fully endorsing Hugh's point that US leaders, including the president, need to start leveling with the American people about the stakes in Asia and the China challenge therein. A year before returning to government, I wrote in Foreign Policy in 2014 that the Obama administration was:

…partially to blame for the shoddy public discourse on US Asia policy. The president still hasn't spoken to the American people about the importance of Asia, and the White House has been overly reliant on speeches and magazine articles rather than offering an official document on what the rebalancing policy actually entails.

Despite my continued protestations inside the White House Situation Room in subsequent years, this deficiency was never really addressed; strategies were kept classified, high-level speeches on Asia tended to occur only in Hawaii or the region, and, despite the president's advisors seeing the rebalance to Asia as a signature feature of Obama's foreign policy strategy and legacy, he never appeared in prime time to speak directly to America about the region; notably in sharp contrast to copious televised statements on Afghanistan and the Middle East. The best we got was a White House Fact Sheet in November 2015 on 'Advancing the Rebalance to Asia and the Pacific'. There have been exceptions to this strategic silence: Senator Cory Gardner recently delivered a thoughtful speech on Asia policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. Nevertheless, these public proclamations by our elected officials remain few and far between.

But what of the underlying areas of disagreement between me and Hugh? The central argument of his latest piece is that a more robust US policy in the South China Sea, along the lines that I proposed here in Foreign Affairs, would be unwise because Beijing would call Washington's bluff, after which the United States 'could avoid humiliation only by running a really grave danger of a major war'.

At least two features of this assessment warrant further scrutiny. First, clearly Hugh and I have differing perceptions of China's risk tolerance. Hugh thinks China is ready to wage war in its quest to dominate East Asia. I think China could be made more cautious in the face of stronger US resistance, as evidenced by its pattern of repeated capitulation in instances in which the United States has stood firm. But as interesting as these debates are (or not), neither of us, nor anyone reading this, nor Xi Jinping himself knows for sure the exact circumstances under which China would or would not use force against the United States in the South China Sea.

For some, that uncertainty has been an excuse for inaction: If we can't be sure of China's response to US counter-pressure, then it's safer to lean back than risk war. I've always found this conclusion premature. As I wrote in War on the Rocks in 2014:

…there's a big difference between determining that China is presently undeterred versus determining that it is patently undeterrable. Before definitively drawing the latter conclusion, the immediate task for US policymakers is to test the elasticity of Chinese decision-making.

I stand by that view, particularly given the fluid dynamics and prevailing uncertainties in the South China Sea. Even setting aside the bolder proposals I put forth in Foreign Affairs, we ought to be regularly experimenting with diplomatic, economic, and military policy innovations in the South China Sea, not deciding a priori that we're doomed to fail. The United States should be testing, probing, and seizing the initiative, rather than negotiating ourselves into a state of policy paralysis. And surely we can so without tripping into unintended conflict. If so, this will lead to better policy as we gain more clarity on the vital question of whether China is undeterred (the Ratner position) versus undeterrable (the White position).

Second, I'd like to pull the thread on Hugh's assessment that US resolve is inadequate, which is core to his argument. The 'known unknown' in this regard is whether this is an immutable condition predicated on structural asymmetries of power and interest, or rather something that could be remedied by a more competent, experienced, and focused US government. My suspicion is that Hugh would lean toward the former, whereas I the latter.

I agree with Hugh that Beijing has believed to date that it can achieve its hegemonic aims in the South China Sea at acceptable cost. That's been central to my argument, as well, in calling for a more robust US response to China's revisionism. But I also find it borderline tautological to assert that the United States can't convince Beijing of America's resolve because America hasn't demonstrated resolve; as if the Obama and Trump Administrations represent the limits of US policy in Asia.

At the risk of sending the reader into a counterfactual tailspin, let's imagine that Hillary Clinton is president, Jake Sullivan national security advisor, Michele Flournoy secretary of defense, Kurt Campbell deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage US ambassador to Japan, Mike Green assistant secretary of state for East Asia, and so forth. Imagine that this administration is firing on all cylinders on Asia, implementing for real what the Obama administration set out to do in reconfiguring the United States toward the region. Would that United States, using the full toolkit of American foreign policy, be capable of setting boundaries of behavior that China might be less willing to cross, including in the South China Sea? Folks probably won't be surprised to learn that my answer would be yes.

So while I'm sympathetic intellectually to what I would anticipate as Hugh's retort—that no matter what, it ultimately boils down to a question of willingness to go to war - that strikes me as an overly narrow view of power, influence, and interest in 21st century Asia. There are plenty of reasons—some already extent, others that the United States and its partners could devise and reinforce - for why China shouldn't want to fight the United States or exact violence against smaller regional countries, even if leaders in Beijing were fairly confident in their predominance of political will and local military power.

The task for US policymakers is therefore to devise a set of consequences and incentives for China (at acceptable cost to the United States) such that tactical Chinese military success in the South China Sea would be a Pyrrhic victory for China's economy, security, and standing in the world. That's an entirely different exercise than solving for the problem Hugh highlights of a potential asymmetry of willingness to go to war over who owns the Spratly islands. To be more concrete, you don't have to be willing to blockade Scarborough Reef to stop China from building a military base there.

Hugh may argue that the game is up, and there are simply no viable options aside from direct military confrontation by the United States. I, on the other hand, am still confident that under the right circumstances the United States could devise a sophisticated and multifaceted deterrent that is credible in Beijing's eyes. Am I 100% sure it would work? Of course not. But in the final analysis, given the uncertainties underscored by my and Hugh's rather different assessments, I'll say this: I think it's worth trying, which is something the United States has not done to date.

But enough about our differences. Let me conclude with a point of likely concurrence: Hugh and I can probably agree that the current manifestation of the Trump Administration appears nowhere near capable of designing or implementing the kind of comprehensive deterrence strategy I might envision, meaning this is a debate about what comes after Trump (or at least this version of Trump), rather than what the US government can do today.

Read Hugh White's response to this article here.

COMMENTS

22 Aug 2017 13:23

I am reassured to see from Ely Ratner's most recent post in our exchange on US-China relations and the South China Sea how much he and I agree about, because I have such a high regard for his ideas on these important questions, and for his lucid and gracious way of presenting them.

In fact, we agree on even more than he thinks. I'd like to signal in particular my emphatic agreement with him about something he thinks we disagree about. It is the first of the two main issues he raises in his post: can China be deterred from its provocative pattern of action in the South China Sea. Like Ely, I think the answer is 'yes': I am sure China could be deterred, because like him I think Chinese leaders are very keen to avoid a war with the US, which they know they cannot win.

Where we may differ is over whether, as things stand in Asia today, China would in fact be deterred from an armed response to a new and more assertive US policy of the kind Ely has proposed – one which went beyond previous repertoire of ineffective gestures and really challenged China's assertiveness in the South China Sea.

I think this kind of shift in US policy would pose a very serious problem for Beijing. It seems China's whole approach to the South China Sea in recent years has been premised on the judgment that Washington would not do anything like this. They have assumed instead that America would do exactly what it has done until now: register ineffective protests but stop short of any steps that would risk a confrontation which might disrupt the wider relationship or lead to an armed clash. 

So far, their assumption has been correct. But if Ely's proposal was adopted Beijing would have to think again. It would face a very difficult choice. Backing down in the face of a more robust US policy would be a big loss, because much more is at stake in the South China Sea then rocks and reefs.

It is about China's regaining its place as a great power, or indeed the great power, in Asia, and that is a very high priority indeed for Zhongnanhai. Backing down in the face of a more muscular US posture would mean acknowledging that America remained the preponderant power in Asia and abandoning, at least for a time, their ambitions for regional leadership.

I think China's leaders would very reluctantly accept this if they were truly convinced that the alternative was war with America. But would they be convinced of that? That of course depends on their judgements of US resolve. Would the steps Ely proposes really be enough to convince them that America was willing to fight China to defend its leadership in Asia?

If they were not convinced, Beijing would be sorely tempted to call Washington's bluff and push back hard, in the hope of forcing America to back off instead, because that would be an even bigger setback for US credibility in Asia, and an even bigger win for China. Beijing would be taking a risk, of course, but it seems willing to do that. And if China was not deterred, America would face an even tougher choice about how to respond in turn: surrender regional leadership or risk major war? 

From that it follows that Washington should only adopt Ely's proposals if it is very confident that China would in fact be persuaded of US resolve – the resolve not just to remain the leading power in Asia, but its willingness to accept the costs and risk of major war to do so. 

There are two elements to this. One is the question of whether or not America in fact has this resolve. The other is the question of whether China believes it does. These are in theory separable; Washington could try to convince China of a resolve that it actually lacks. But a bluff like this is risky, especially when you are not sure yourself whether you are bluffing or not – as Mr Trump has shown us recently. So I think it would be unwise to try to persuade China of US resolve before Americans have really made their own minds up about whether they are willing to fight a major war to preserve their leadership in Asia.

This brings us to the second of the main points in Ely's post. This is the question of why China has cause to doubt US resolve. Is it the inevitable result of the redistribution of power and interests, or is it simply that the US has not done a good enough job so far of getting the message across? Ely thinks it is the latter, and conjures the beguiling image of a Washington Dream Team that could, he thinks, convince China that America is in Asia to stay, and to lead.

Could they succeed? Much depends on what precisely they were trying to persuade Beijing that America has the resolve to do. It would be very hard for them to convince Beijing that America has the resolve to maintain - or rather, re-establish - its long-held primacy, because America would have to push China very hard indeed if they are to deny it any significant increase in its regional influence, and China would push back very hard in return, so the costs and risks to the US would be very high.

It is easier to imagine that they could persuade Beijing that the US has the resolve to sustain some lower level of strategic engagement in Asia, because, at the risk of making it sound a little mechanical, the smaller the role America claims, the less it will have to push China to sustain it, so the lower the costs and risks to the US, and the easier it will be to persuade China that the US has the resolve to bear them.

I think it is possible that America could persuade China of that, because America could, in theory, genuinely conclude that its interests in Asia are important enough to be worth the costs and risks of imposing some constraints on China's exercise of its power in Asia. 

But I am much less sure that even Ely's Dream Team can do this without much bigger shifts in thinking and attitudes both within and beyond the Beltway than we have yet seen. Within the Beltway, the US policy community needs to conduct back-to-basics debate – so far only just beginning – about what kind of posture in Asia would offer a sustainable balance between America's interests on the one hand, and the costs and risks it is willing to bear on the other, in an era when it faces a rival that is in some ways more formidable than any that America has ever faced before. 

Beyond the Beltway, US political leaders must convince Americans at large that their interests are worth the costs and risks involved in sustaining that posture. It is easy to agree that the Trump Administration will not be able to do that. It is less clear whether we can reasonably expect a future administration to do much better.

Finally, and just to be crystal clear here, I do not think that America has to fight a major war in order to preserve its leadership in Asia. It simply has to convince China that it is willing and able to do so. Just as in the Cold War, America didn't need to fight the Soviets to contain their challenge: it only needed to convince the Soviets that it would. But doing that required both a rock-solid policy based on hard-headed strategic analysis, and the concerted and sustained efforts of several generations of remarkable American leaders. And that is what would be needed to preserve US leadership in Asia now. 

COMMENTS