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What is the US consensus on China?

24 Jun 2011 11:19

...then hold on for a bumpy ride, Australia.

The US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney has now made available audio and video of its recent 9/11 Summit, which took place a couple of weeks ago. In the context of our ongoing discussion about Australia's approach to China, it's worth highlighting some comments from former US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns. Here's how he described the view from Washington (emphasis added):

In the security realm, I think there is a consensus that China is a potential threat — and particularly, not the Hu Jintao generation but the more nationalistic generation coming to power in China — and that if China should rise, with its extraordinarily big military modernisation, and find disarray in Asia and find a declining or receding United States, and finding an alliance system that was withering, then China might be tempted to seek military domination. I don't mean of a colonial sort, at all, but just the ability to intimidate, the kind of Chinese behaviour we saw at the ASEAN last summer on the South China Sea, the China that reaches too far.


28 Jun 2011 14:12

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.


29 Jun 2011 09:24

Peter Layton responds to Sam Roggeveen:

In line with CSIS's Mike Green I am a little surprised at your surprise. While Nicolas Burns may be a little more hard line than Mike's formulation, US thinking on China has for several years (at least) been to favor a mixture of balancing and engaging. Whether this is wise, or is the optimum policy, or may have unintended consequences is another argument entirely but it certainly seems a consensus view in official and think-tank Washington DC. In this there are some mild variations, Republicans hanker after primacy, while democrats seek to 'enhance..global leadership', but the gap between the two is more apparent than real. Two points:

Firstly: Mike Green notes 'between American and Australian policymakers and scholars...we still do not completely understand each other's strategic outlooks.'  An American Under-Secretary once remarked that Australians seem to have a lot of trouble with cognitive dissonance. Australians, unlike Americans, find it difficult to hold two mutually contradictory ideas at once. Your surprise and related blog comments on combining predominance with engagement may be another proof of that observation on our respective national differences.


30 Jun 2011 13:46

Sam is right to see some tension between the different ways that influential Americans like Nicholas Burns and Mike Green describe their county's strategic objectives in Asia. But for what it's worth, I think Nic and Mike really do see America's purpose in Asia the same way. Both of them, and the vast majority of their colleagues in the US foreign policy community, believe America's overriding aim should be to preserve the regional primacy that it has exercised in Asia for the past four decades.

This consensus is seldom clearly spelled out in American debates, because it is simply taken for granted by everyone. Instead, discussion moves straight to the question of how primacy is to be preserved. Here too a ready consensus prevails: America should follow a two-track 'hedging' policy of engaging China as long as it accepts US primacy, and opposing it if it doesn't.


1 Jul 2011 11:39

Stephan Fruehling is a lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Program, ANU.

The Interpreter has carried an informative debate on US policy in Asia in recent days, which Hugh White links to his earlier arguments about regional order and the rise of China. Hugh's post highlights how central to his argument is the concept of US 'primacy'. 

He uses the term 'primacy' in several different ways: as a US policy goal in its own right, as a description of the distribution of power in East Asia, as a means for the US to constrain China, and as a description of regional order. His unspoken assumption is that all of these are facets of one, more fundamental issue of US 'primacy'.


19 Jul 2011 10:57

Geoffrey Garrett is CEO of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

Nick Burns certainly rattled some cages on his recent visit to Australia as a guest of the US Studies Centre for our conference on the 9/11 Decade. I was surprised by how strident he was on US primacy as the key to stability in the Asia Pacific, mostly because I remember him as the consummate sensible centrist when he was at the State Department.

But I think Nick was provoked by what he perceived as the consensus position among the Australian chattering classes: Australia can no longer rely on the US so, for better or worse, it must come to terms with a China-dominated region. 


21 Jul 2011 10:32

Geoff Garrett is quite right that economic interdependence between the US and China provides major incentives for both sides to avoid strategic rivalry and conflict. But I'm not as confident as he seems to be that these incentives will be strong enough to counteract the pressures the other way.

Of course it would not be in either side's interest for rivalry to escalate. But this doesn't make it impossible or even very unlikely. People and countries do things against their own best interests all the time. That happens because people do not always see where their actions might lead. And that is why I think Geoff is wrong to say that people who warn about the risks of rivalry between China and America make it more likely.

In fact I think Geoff's optimism is more likely to lead us into trouble than my pessimism, because it encourages the agreeable illusion that nothing needs to be done, and no sacrifices need to be made, to create a stable and peaceful relationship between the US and China in future. 

To see why, we need to consider how economic interdependence reduces the risk of escalating rivalry. 


25 Jul 2011 12:24

Geoffrey Garrett is CEO of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

Hugh White's reaction to my 'It's the economy, stupid' corrective to the national security-dominated debate about China-US relations and what they mean for Australia was predictable. He concedes that deep economic ties between the world's top two powers are an important source of stability, but he cautions that this doesn't mean bad things won't happen. 


27 Jul 2011 13:27

Jeffrey Wilson argues that the China market, while big, is not that big, so our economy would get by OK without it. He concludes that we need not worry too much about having to choose between the America and China. He suggests, therefore, that we need not be too anxious about the risk that US-China relations will dive to the point where that choice has to be made.

Well, I'll leave it to the economists to debate how serious the loss of bilateral China trade would be to Australia's economy. I suspect it would be more serious than Jeffrey's numbers suggest. But the stakes for Australia of US-China hostility are way bigger than bilateral trade.

Economically, the kind of US-China rift that would force Australia to choose would force a lot of other countries to do the same. Workable US-China relations are vital to Australia's economy because they are vital to the whole global economy, not just to Australia's bilateral trade with China. So Jeffrey's numbers don’t really capture what's at stake for our economy.