What is China’s endgame?

Authors: Robert A. Manning, Atlantic Council, and James J. Przystup, NDU

Hugh White’s recent post appears to question the premise of my recent East Asia Forum piece arguing that counterbalancing China is not containment, implying that it is a distinction without a difference. He argues that the US strategic goal in Asia is to maintain its primacy, something that China’s rise is overtaking. It is the merits of this aim, White argues, which need to be debated before arguing over distinctions between counterbalancing and containing, what he sees as the means of maintaining the ends: US primacy in Asia.

This argument confuses the means with the ends. Strategies are means not ends, and US primacy in Asia is better seen as a means Ends are what President George H. W. Bush referred to as ‘the vision thing’. At the end of the Cold War, it was ‘Europe whole and Free.’ The United States’ vision for Asia is to achieve an open international order, marked by freedom of navigation and unimpeded access for commerce and the new global commons, cyber and space.

US leadership and its security presence in Asia has and continues to support and sustain this vision of regional order, one that is shared broadly across the Asia Pacific region — indeed, East Asia has prospered to an unprecedented extent over the past four decades as a result of the United States’ commitment to this vision. Of course, the diffusion of global power as a consequence of the success of East Asian and other G20 economies requires adjusting the distribution of power in the international system to more accurately reflect political realities. For the US, this is increasingly reflected in a more primus inter pares, or ‘first among equals’, policy approach, as is evident in its embrace of Asia’s evolving multilateral political, economic and security structures.

The United States’ security presence in East Asia, exercised through its bilateral alliances and security partnerships, is widely recognised across the region as an essential public good underpinning stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific. The US security presence reassures allies, helps secure maritime freedom on which the regional economy depends, and tends to constrain historic military competition and rivalry among actors in the region. This is evident in the United States’ current reinforcing of relations with allies and growing security partnerships in the region.

Social science is fixated on putting reality into categories, but in the real world things are often more complex. The notion of a binary reality — US primacy or not — misses the dynamic unfolding in East Asia. China has carved out a larger role as it has integrated itself into the global and regional economy — it has grown from a US$200 billion economy to one that is now more than US$7 trillion, and its defence spending has now reached some US$120 billion. The US, as one of China’s largest export markets, has facilitated this evolution with its foreign direct investment and its support for China’s entry into the WTO, as have China’s neighbours throughout Asia.

The US counterbalancing role has been aimed at shaping the parameters of China’s growing role so as to achieve the ends of an open international order. This was obvious in the 1996 Taiwan Strait missile crisis when the US used a show of force to make the point that disputes are to be resolved peacefully and not through intimidation or use of force. In the decade that followed, Beijing gave every indication that it had learned from the crisis as it moved to assure its neighbours of China’s peaceful rise.

But in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, Beijing appeared to think the US was in terminal decline and its moment of re-emergence had arrived. How else to explain the stark comment of then Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi in 2010, (reminiscent of Thucydides) in regards to China’s behaviour in the South China Sea disputes, who said bluntly: ‘China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact’.

In effect, China’s intimidating demeanour has been an exercise in self-containment, and has pushed nations from India to Vietnam to increasingly bandwagon with the US and, increasingly, with each other to seek, and indeed facilitate, the US to sustain its historic role in the region.

To turn Hugh White’s argument on its head, China’s aspirations are not just about displacing US primacy. It is one thing for China and other emerging economies to want a larger role in shaping rules commensurate with its new economic and strategic weight. But it is quite another to rewrite the rules unilaterally as many fear may be the outcome of China’s ambitions. The difference is one between a rising power accommodating the existing order and working from within to reshape it rather than disrupting it from without.

The argument that there are options other than choosing between competing against China for primacy or abandoning Asia to China is correct. The US has increasingly moved from primacy to primus inter pares in its approach to the region, as seen by its engagement with Asia’s multilateral political and economic structures. The other options do require a combination of accommodation and constraint, as Hugh White suggested.

But accommodation is a two-way street. If Beijing views the US role in East Asia as a historic aberration, it is incumbent on China to define how a more prominent China would accommodate US interests. Beijing must define an approach to the region that reflects a balance of interests with other actors in the Asia Pacific rather than pursue a narrow nationalistic approach centred on redressing historic grievances. Otherwise, its sought-after ‘new great power relationship’ remains an empty shell.

Robert A. Manning is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.

James J.Przystup is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University (NDU). The views expresses are his alone and do not necessarily represent the views of the NDU, the Department of Defense or the US Government.


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  • Faizullah Khilji

    1. The issues warranting analysis as set out by Mr Hugh White in his piece are as follows:

    “The key questions are pretty simple: what is the aim of the current US policy towards China? What are its likely costs? Will it succeed? What if it fails? And what are the alternatives?”

    2. With respect, I would say that Mr Manning’s response seems to skirt these issues. The “answers” that Mr Manning offers tend to describe a past rather than address the future: US has done much good in East Asia, countries like to bandwagon with the US vis a vis China, and that China misbehaves, etc, etc. These are really “non-answers” and could be easily read as both “self-serving” and “feel good”, rather than an exercise in objective analysis.

    3. Hence Mr Hugh White’s basic proposition goes unexplored: “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.”

    • Ken Ward

      The two authors of this post, distinguished policy intellectuals who are currently outside government in the ‘primus inter pares’ country, gently explain to a counterpart in one of the ‘pares’ countries that strategy is a means, and not an end. This lesson may, however, have been unnecessary, since Mr Hugh White began his earlier post by quoting Coral Bell to the effect that to define a strategy was to define a means, not an end. Mr White presumably agrees with her view, otherwise why the quotation? The authors then rightly point out that “social science is fixated on putting reality into categories, but in the real world things are often more complex. The notion of a binary reality…misses the dynamic unfolding in East Asia”. Ignoring their own insight into the illusion of a binary reality, the authors put US primacy in Asia into the category of means and the creation of an “open international order” into the category of ends. But what if this is but another example of the binary illusion? What if America’s leaders and the majority of its policy intellectuals, in or out of government, see US primacy in Asia as the sine qua non for the creation of that order? Every time Hillary Clinton, for example, to whom we will undoubtedly have ample, renewed opportunity to listen in the coming years, talks about the rest of the world craving US leadership, one senses how overpowering this conviction is, and what little difference there is between the alleged means of US primacy and its alleged end.

      • Faizullah Khilji

        Thank you for that clarification.

  • Axel Berkofsky

    Robert Manning and James J. Przystup write:

    “The US has increasingly moved from primacy to primus inter pares in its approach to the region, as seen by its engagement with Asia’s multilateral political and economic structures.”

    I fail to see the connection between the first and second part of that sentence: why and how is US engagement in multilateral fora evidence that Washington has moved from primus to primus inter pares? Just because Washington is seeking to be part of all regional fora does not mean that it does longer seek to maintain primacy and remain the unchallenged dominant power in the region. In fact, I think the opposite could the case: The US-and there is probably nothing surprising or wrong about that-is using its engagement in multilateral regional fora as a means to sustain and promote its dominant position.

    Axel Berkofsky