Author: Peter Drysdale, Editor, East Asia Forum
How the relationship between China and the United States is managed will undoubtedly be fundamental to the peace and prosperity of Asia and the Pacific and the world in the decades ahead.
Other relationships also obviously matter. The uncertainties in the Middle East and West Asia represent higher-than-usual threats to global stability. But the relationship between China and the United States, it could be argued — both in its scale and its complexity — has the potential to re-shape the whole global order for better or for worse whereas the others, however difficult and potentially system-damaging, are more one-sided affairs.
Hugh White, whose lead essay this week draws attention to the confusion in thinking about policy instruments and policy objectives in discussion of the notion of ‘the containment of China’, did a service to us all in focusing debate on the criticality of the China–US relationship. White says that Robert Manning’s recent description of US policy as ‘counterbalancing’ rather than ‘containing’ China ‘misses the point. By debating the strategy before we get clear on the policy, we put the means before the ends. What we need to do first is clarify the policy that lies behind these strategies’.
White has been forthright in his argument that ‘America’s primary aim in relation to China today is to preserve its position as the primary strategic power in Asia. This aim is seldom scrutinised or even acknowledged. It is taken for granted because it assumes that primacy is the only conceivable strategic role for America in Asia, that perpetuating US primacy is thus the only alternative to strategic withdrawal, and that US primacy therefore provides the only possible basis for a stable and secure future for Asia, as it has done for so many years past. And it assumes that everyone else wants Asia to remain peaceful, and that they all agree that continued US primacy is the only way to ensure that’, White argues.
White appears in these writings to rate the risk of a collision between the two largest Asia Pacific powers as high because of their tendencies to fail to accept, or even acknowledge, each the other’s legitimate and independent interests and objectives, and to allow reasonable space for those differences. He makes clear that this is not just an American problem; it is also a Chinese problem. Whether he’s right or wrong in that judgment is not the point. Whatever the level of risk, the China–US relationship and how it is conducted requires priority, intense interest and our active attention. We are only reluctantly coming to accept this. And arguably, we are yet to put in place the institutions and strategies that will make it a routine consideration, for example in the way in which countries like Australia, Indonesia or South Korea conduct their day-to-day relations with the United States or China.
Obviously their bilateral relationship is an increasing priority for both the United States and China — which is why the idea of the G2 partnership as one notion of how they should handle their relationship gained some favour. But it is important that both powers manage their relationships with their partners in the region and globally in mind too — which is a reason why the idea of the G2 is a less-than-satisfactory arrangement and the G20 and other groupings like APEC and the East Asia Summit in the region have attraction as alternative frameworks for managing many dimensions of the relationship which spill over onto other countries.
White does not argue that a conflict between China and America is inevitable, but he fears it is likely unless the two develop a clearer understanding and a greater mutual acceptance and respect. China is not developing, nor is it likely to develop, a capacity to project force anywhere in the world as the US has done for some time to come. It is first and foremost an Asian power and above all a continental power.
China has already acquired the capacity to deny the US navy freedom to operate in the ocean between China and what they call the first island chain consisting of Japan, the Philippines and Malaysia. Taiwan is within this chain, not marking its perimeter. This is a consequence not only of China’s economic growth but also and mainly of advances in military technology that have made the US navy’s carrier groups more vulnerable to missile attack. This does not mean China has gained the ability to control the seas offshore. Each side can deny access to the other, with the proviso that it is generally accepted today that if China sought forcibly to incorporate Taiwan within the People’s Republic, the US would not be able to prevent it other than by a full-scale, probably nuclear, war.
This is the context within which White argues that, as China seeks to play a role in the region commensurate with its regained status as a great (though not yet super) power, the US faces three choices. First, it can pack up and pull out, which he considers neither desirable nor likely. Second, it can seek to confront and contain China, which he considers is likely to lead to conflict. Third, the US and China can come to a modus vivendi that ensures competition between them is peaceful.
White’s conclusion that the third choice and a happy and peaceful outcome requires China and America to forge an agreement (analogous, if not formally similar, to that which kept peace in Europe after 1815) — a formal set of understandings that would recognise each other’s legitimate roles in the region — is one aspect of what is controversial about his position. Many analysts are not persuaded that the US and China need formally to recognise each other’s equality in this way. Rather, that might evolve gradually and naturally. Both nations are putting huge effort into it, through leadership meetings, the bilateral Strategic and Economic Dialogues, and at every level of operational dealings, although military-to-military level dialogues are clearly underdone. It can be reasonably argued that a gradualist evolution to an ‘implicit concert of power’ is more likely and achievable than White’s notion of a formal understanding. At the same time, the concession of equality that that demands riles powerful instincts in the political psychology of both nations.
Meanwhile, analysts and commentators might usefully be encouraged to give more clarity to Chinese and American global policy objectives, and how they intersect positively in the pursuit of common ends, as well as negatively, rather than focus on the instruments of containment or counterbalancing directed towards ends that have not yet been well defined. That would genuinely help to define a constructive, new era in great power relations.
Peter Drysdale is Editor of the East Asia Forum.