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'The Pivot': Yes, it is all about China

'The Pivot': Yes, it is all about China
Published 7 Jul 2016 

Thanks to Kurt Campbell for his prompt and thoughtful response to my review of his recent book The Pivot. Kurt’s post helps to clarify the key areas of difference between our views on the nature of America’s policy challenge in Asia today, and the adequacy of the Pivot policy as a response to that challenge.

First, Kurt is right that I do think that it is all about China. Of course, as he says, Asia must manage many other issues to ensure its future prosperity and security, but history tells us plainly that none of these other issues can be successfully addressed without a stable regional order based on a robust agreement between major powers about their respective roles in that order.

There is no such agreement in Asia today between America and China. China no longer accepts US primacy, and seeks instead to establish a primacy of its own, while America remains determined to preserve its regional leadership. Until this fundamental clash of objectives is resolved, our chances of addressing any of these other problems are poor. One need only note as an example how trade and investment issues like the TPP and the AIIB have become hostage to strategic rivalry.

Moreover, as long as US-China rivalry in Asia is unresolved, the risk of war — including a major and even nuclear war — will remain high and perhaps continue to grow. This is by far the most serious risk that Asia faces, and Kurt is quite right to say that I take it very seriously. I believe that minimising this risk must be a first-order priority for everyone engaged in debating, deciding and executing strategic policy in Asia. And frankly, for all the talk of the Thucydides Trap, I do not think enough people in the US policy community recognise the scale of the risk or the imperative to avoid it.

Kurt is not right, however, to say that I see the only way to avoid a US-China war is for America to withdraw, leaving Asia under Chinese hegemony. I have repeatedly argued [for example in The China Choice] that the key to understanding Asia’s strategic future is to recognise that there are not just two possible futures, but three. It is perfectly possible, and highly desirable, for the US to continue to play a major strategic role in Asia on a basis that China is willing to accept, and which therefore avoids escalating strategic rivalry and reduces the risk of war.

Kurt agrees with this, but his ideas about how it can be done seem to differ from mine. [fold] He argues that the Pivot, by promoting his model of an Asian ‘Operating System’ for the 21st Century, will provide the basis for a stable US-China relationship. But what does this mean? The ‘Operating System’ label is perhaps supposed to make it sound new. But from what Kurt actually tells us, there seems no difference between it and the old status quo based on US primacy.

If that is not right, the Kurt needs to explain how it is different. If it is right, and his ‘Operating System’ is just US primacy under a new name, then it only works to promote a stable US-China relationship if China changes its mind and decides to accept US primacy after all. This hope has been the essence of the Pivot policy has all along — 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. But nothing that has happened since the Pivot was launched five years ago suggests that this going to happen.

And why should we expect it to? Kurt suggests, as many others do, that China should and will acquiesce to US primacy in future because it has accepted and benefited from US primacy in the past. But China has changed a lot from the country that accepted US primacy in 1972. It has more power, bigger ambitions and a very different sense of its interests and opportunities than it had back then.

Kurt concludes his post by saying that I hold ‘a subtly disguised view that the US is simply not up to the task of managing relations with China’. That’s not quite right. I do think that America no longer has the power to sustain primacy in Asia if China is determined to resist. But I do think America is perfectly capable of negotiating 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 — as I have explained in some detail in The China Choice.

I do however think that the US policy community has, with few exceptions, failed so far to understand the nature or the scale of the challenge it faces in negotiating that kind of relationship with China. In part I think that is because many of them seem, like Kurt, to see the question as a test of national character: a question of whether America will show that it’s tough by ‘persevering’, or show weakness by ‘punting’.

But is this the right way to see it? Wouldn’t we be wiser to see the issue as a test of judgement; whether America can intelligently assess its options, weigh the costs and risks, and prudently choose a course of action that serves its best long term interests — and those of Asia as well? That’s the kind of judgement Walter Lippman was talking about when he said that good foreign policy ‘consists in bringing into balance, with a comfortable surplus of power in reserve, a nation’s commitments and a nation’s power.’

The alternative — the ‘punt or persevere’ way of seeing things — risks propelling America into a situation in which it does face a catastrophic and avoidable choice between a military clash with China or a humiliating back-down. That’s the risk that current US policy runs right now in the South China Sea.

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