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'The Pivot': Three profound misunderstandings about Asia

'The Pivot': Three profound misunderstandings about Asia
Published 12 Jul 2016 

I thank Hugh White for his most recent rebuttal, which addresses my response to his book review of The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia. I have known Hugh White since working together in the 1990s, when we labored side-by-side in our respective defense agencies, ironically seeking to strengthen the security connectivity between Australia and the United States and to embed America more fundamentally in Asia. It should be clear then that despite the spirited back and forth, I value his engagement and argument even as I disagree strongly with his conclusions.

As I stated in my previous piece, White's prescriptions for American policy in Asia are stark and lack nuance. Essentially, to avoid what White sees as a nearly inevitable war with China, Washington should abandon the Pivot, generally withdraw from its longstanding leadership role in Asia, and grant China a substantial sphere of influence across the region through an ill-defined grand bargain — which he apparently believes will be durable (he eludes the issue of why China would abide by any vague or unenforceable agreements with the US if China were itself bent on its own domination of Asia). According to White's dark reading of Asia's future, Washington's failure to follow these prescriptions will likely lead to war.

White's worldview originates from three profound misunderstandings he has about Asia. The first misunderstanding is about the nature of US aims in Asia, which in his view are to sustain a vaguely imperial American primacy but which in reality are about reinforcing Asia's widely-supported and time-tested, rules-based operating system in which the US plays but a part. The second misunderstanding is about the nature of Sino-American relations, which he sees as fundamentally conflictual but which in reality are a highly nuanced mix of cooperation, competition, and interdependence. The third misunderstanding is about Asia's future. White sees a Sino-American 'grand bargain' as the only alternative to American withdrawal or violent conflict, but in actuality such a bargain is neither wise nor feasible, and White discounts a more plausible and prudent future: careful and complex coexistence — incrementally negotiated — with a rising China that is embedded in Asia's rules and indigenous institutions.

We now turn to each of these misconceptions respectively. [fold]

Misconception 1: US aims in Asia

First, White's advocacy of what is effectively American disengagement rests on the mistaken assumption that the US is pursuing 'primacy' in Asia, and that this effort risks war with China. 'Primacy' is clearly at the very center of White's apocalyptic prophecies and, while the term does much of his analytical legwork and is invoked 10 times in his latest response, it is surprising that it is defined neither there nor in his book even once. 'Primacy' appears to be more a rhetorical device for White than an analytic concept, one with zero-sum implications and imperial connotations, and using it makes it that much easier to dismiss American policy as dangerously irresponsible without engaging seriously with the subtleties and substance of American efforts.

Any review of American policy demonstrates that White is wrong to argue that the US is pursuing primacy, whatever its precise definition. If primacy is taken to be the maintenance of preponderant power, then the US is not pursuing it, because it is championing a system that brings Asian states – especially China but also India and Vietnam – rapid economic growth. Indeed, the US has done more than any other country to assist China's rise by sharing its market, technology, and capital with China; by forsaking containment; and by welcoming close ties between China and US allies and partners, including Australia. Primacy this is not.

White then suggests that perhaps the American effort to sustain Asia's operating system — which I discuss in my book and in my recent response, and which I claim is the core American objective in Asia — is itself primacy.

If primacy is taken to be an effort to set rules that others will follow, it should be clear that Washington is not setting Asia's rules on its own, nor is it forcing others to acquiesce to them; rather, principles such as peaceful dispute resolution, free trade, and freedom of navigation are already a part of Asia's 'operating system'. Admittedly past US power played a role in institutionalizing these values (e.g., through the UN and GATT), but their endurance into the present is not really a function of American threats and inducements but of their manifest utility. These principles are valued in the present by the vast majority of Asian states, enshrined in organizations like ASEAN, acceded to by countries like China in UN conventions (including the Convention on the Law of the Seas), and adjudicated in bodies like the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Again, a simple American primacy this is not.

So if American aims are not primacy, what are they? As I have argued in the book and my previous response, rather than some kind of simplistic anti-China effort to preserve American power, US policy in the region has generally been a nuanced effort to ensure the region is peaceful and prosperous by strengthening the region's rules-based operating system. This system has underwritten four decades of development and peace, liberating hundreds of millions from poverty while bringing prosperity to America's distant shores. At its core are widely-held principles like freedom of navigation, sovereign equality, transparency, peaceful dispute resolution, sanctity of contracts, free trade, and cooperation on transnational challenges. This system has served all of us remarkably well and it should not be controversial for us to work together to preserve it.

Allow me to make this abstract effort more concrete for readers. Strengthening Asia's operating system has involved negotiating TPP to modernize the region's free trade complex; supporting transitional states like Myanmar on their road to democracy; bolstering Asia's nascent multilateral institutions like the East Asian Summit; negotiating solutions to transnational problems like climate change, and yes, improving strategic ties with allies and partners.

White suggests that all of this demonstrates that 'America remains determined to preserve its regional leadership,' which in turn invites conflict. While the US does wish to influence Asian affairs through a leading role, this does not deny the role of other important states, nor does it demand their acquiescence. Asia's operating system will naturally evolve as China and other big states like India and Japan seek to amend it, and the purpose of the US Pivot is not to sustain primacy but to maintain a seat at the table and shape that evolutionary process in ways that maintain the order's essential 21st – rather than 19th – century characteristics. In short, we wish for an Asia that elevates principle over strength, consent over coercion, and the global commons over protected spheres.  This cannot be achieved through conflict, withdrawal, or an ill-defined and elusive grand bargain.

Finally, White suggests American policy in Asia is actually motivated not by rational consideration of US interests, but a shortsighted emphasis on toughness. In his view, Americans see Asia as "a test of national character: a question of whether America will show that it's tough by 'persevering', or show weakness by 'punting'". The preceding discussion, however, should reveal that American policymakers support Asia policy because Asia is a region of immense promise and peril. Yes, American policymakers do unsurprisingly mention (as I did in my response) that American engagement requires perseverance and resolve, but it is facile to suggest that these are the exclusive or guiding motivations for such a monumental national endeavor. 'Wouldn't we be wiser to see [Asia policy] as a test of judgement' rather than one of toughness, White asks in his conclusion? Indeed we would, and in fact, that is precisely how American policymakers see the issue; my book is meant to enumerate and illuminate an American policy based on good judgments rather than ill-considered muscle flexing.

Misconception 2: Sino-American relations

White's advocacy for US retrenchment rests not only on the flawed assumption that the United States is pursuing primacy, but also on the misguided belief that Sino-American ties are irredeemably conflictual, and that only American acquiescence can avoid devastating conflict.

A core reason White suggests ties are conflictual is that he sees the Pivot to Asia as predominantly about competition with China. 'The essence of the Pivot policy,' he goes on to argue, 'is the hope that China, confronted with a display of US resolve, will drop its challenge and things will go back to the way they used to be.' As should be clear from the preceding discussion, continuing American support for Chinese economic growth is in tension with White's adversarial reading of the Pivot.

Moreover, the Pivot to Asia is actually about engaging Asia in all its breadth, not China alone. Asia is a region blessed with the promise of the world's largest middle class and three of the world's largest economies, but one also facing the pitfalls of climate change, protectionism, and proliferation. Efforts like the TPP, support for transitional states, and cooperation on climate change are in fact core aspects of the Pivot, yet they are not fundamentally about China, nor are they demonstrations of resolve. White's advocacy for abandoning the Pivot flows from the unyielding belief that it is anti-China, but this prescription makes little sense if one recognizes the multidimensionality of American policy and of what is at stake in Asia today.

White eventually acknowledges the range of challenges in Asia but then argues that 'none of these other issues can be successfully addressed' without a Sino-American grand bargain. Of course Sino-American relations play a role in resolving Asian challenges, but that does not mean we should hold off on the Pivot or postpone problem-solving until we first strike an elusive bargain with China. White points to TPP and AIIB as examples of how policymaking in Asia will 'become hostage to strategic rivalry' with China, but these examples do not support his case. China has expressed interest in TPP and Western states have joined AIIB. In fact, these examples better demonstrate the operating system's capacity for peaceful evolution than for all-consuming conflict.

More fundamentally, the record contradicts White's suggestion that bilateral ties with China are so fraught that cooperation is impossible without a grand bargain. A close look at Sino-American relations reveals that even amidst vexing challenges in the South China and East China Seas, there has been landmark progress on diverse issues: climate change, Iran sanctions, Afghan peace, and maritime piracy, among other issues. In addition, the bilateral agenda remains promising, with negotiations on a Bilateral Investment Treaty ongoing and subtle progress on vexing issues like North Korea.

White's analysis also leaves little appreciation for the complexity and interdependence of the US-China relationship. With China ranking as America's  second-largest trading partner and the United States ranking as China's largest, both sides have good reason to avoid open antagonism. In addition, more than 300,000 Chinese students are studying in the United States and more than 25,000 Americans study in China. There are tens of thousands of US companies actively and intensely engaged in the China market and very substantial tourist flows in each direction. Senior government officials regularly engage with their Chinese counterparts through initiatives like the Strategic and Economic Dialogue; indeed, the breadth and depth of official exchange and dialogue has grown dramatically in recent years. President Obama has formally met his Chinese counterparts dozens of times during his tenure in office. This kind of great power interdependence is unparalleled in the postwar era.

White states that the US policy community has 'failed so far to understand the nature or the scale of the challenge it faces' in China's rise. We underestimate, in his view, the risk of conflict. But it should be clear now that it is White who misreads the relationship, discounts its cooperative successes, overlooks its profound interdependence, and misreads the aims of US Asia policy. White repeatedly raises concerns over nuclear conflict, but by almost any objective measure, the US-China relationship in no way resembles the nuclear edge-of-the-brink dangers of the US Soviet relationship, with its ever-present risk of a massive land-war in Central Europe. The simple truth of Sino-American ties is that despite tensions in the South and East China Seas, both these countries are in the process of learning to work and live together in Asia.

Misconception Three: The Future of Asia

The final piece of White's view of Asia is the notion that the only alternative to American disengagement or violent conflict is a grand bargain with China. At times, he describes this bargain as a clear American retreat, one in which the US would play a role in Asia 'on a basis that China is willing to accept.' This phrasing evokes a Chinese sphere of influence in which the American role would be made subject to Chinese veto. In a later paragraph, White seemingly reverses course, advocating a bargain that involves 'a stable, productive bilateral relationship with China which preserves a strong US role in Asia, constrains China's hegemonic tendencies, and makes a vital contribution to the region's future'. This latter bargain is in substantial tension with White's first bargain. Indeed, his second version is actually much closer to what I expound in The Pivot. If, however, China is animated by the kind of ambition that White expounds upon, then it is unlikely to accept the second bargain he proposes or anything other than the starkest retreat of American power from the ramparts of the South China Sea all the way back 10,000 miles to the beaches of Malibu.

But even beyond the precise content of the grand bargain lie a number of other problems. White would have us elide over vital deals of such a bargain, including Chinese anxieties and the means for dealing with differences. He would put aside legitimate questions about the achievability, credibility, and enforceability of such a bargain — indeed, how would inevitable disagreements be adjudicated? If China is the dominant and striving power that White predicts, every opportunity for negotiation or resolution would be an opportunity for misunderstanding and a chance to drive an American retreat. Finally, White would simply ignore the agency and interests of Australians, Japanese, Koreans, Indians, and others in charting their own course within Asia, leaving the fate of all Asians to shadowy negotiating teams from Beijing and Washington. How would the citizens of Australia feel about their foreign policy prerogatives traded away in some secret US-China condominium designed to ensure stability?

I end with a reminder that Asia's politics is far from as bleak as White suggests. It is not true that the region's future can only be about abrupt American retreat, a destabilising conflict, or ill-defined US-China condominium that would condemn the region to the whims of Washington and Beijing. What is more prudent and plausible is a complex coexistence with China: with parts competition and cooperation, as well as a deeper US engagement across the region. This is both the central theme of my book and a world to aspire to — and work towards — in the 21st century. 

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