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Yes, there is a US consensus on China

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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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30 June 2011 13:46


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

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.

The two-track approach conveys an agreeable impression that American policy is flexible and accommodating — allowing China scope to grow, as well as imposing limits. But to my mind, that impression is false, because the policy clearly envisages a switch from engagement to containment as soon as China challenges American primacy. 

In other words, the US policy consensus does not encompass any significant accommodation of China's growing power. China will only be engaged as long as it submits to American primacy. So there is really no difference between Nic Burns' talk of predominance and Mike Green's talk of hedging. They amount to the same thing.

The big question, then, is whether our American friends have got this right. Is primacy in Asia the right aim for America? 

For me, the issue is not whether American primacy is desirable in itself: as I've often said, I would like nothing better than for the US to sustain primacy in Asia indefinitely, because this would be by far the best outcome for the region and for Australia. The issue is how much it would cost, and how those costs weigh against the costs and risks of other options.

The real problem with today's debate about China in the American foreign-policy community is the failure to address these two issues with the care they require. On the first issue, it is too easily assumed that America can sustain primacy in the face of China's power at a cost and risk that is acceptable to the US. 

Those people who believe that the US will be able to sustain military predominance need to explain in detail how that will be done against China's growing sea-denial forces, and what the cost and risks will be. Those who believe that America can count on the support of allies and friends in Asia against China need to explain precisely how and why those allies will be willing to oppose China to support American primacy.

Which brings us to the second issue. How far other countries in Asia will be willing to support America in preserving primacy against China, and what price America itself should be willing to pay for primacy in future, depends on the alternatives. Mike Green, Nic Burns and many other Americans seem to assume that the only alternative to US primacy is Chinese primacy. If that was true, most of Asia would be right behind them supporting US primacy at almost any cost. But that cost would be very high indeed, so we need to be very sure that there is no third option. And of course there is.   

Photo by Flickr user nsjmetzger.

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