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Debate: What is the US consensus on China?

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...then hold on for a bumpy ride, Australia.

The US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney has now made available audio and video of its recent 9/11 Summit, which took place a couple of weeks ago. In the context of our ongoing discussion about Australia's approach to China, it's worth highlighting some comments from former US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns. Here's how he described the view from Washington (emphasis added):

In the security realm, I think there is a consensus that China is a potential threat — and particularly, not the Hu Jintao generation but the more nationalistic generation coming to power in China — and that if China should rise, with its extraordinarily big military modernisation, and find disarray in Asia and find a declining or receding United States, and finding an alliance system that was withering, then China might be tempted to seek military domination. I don't mean of a colonial sort, at all, but just the ability to intimidate, the kind of Chinese behaviour we saw at the ASEAN last summer on the South China Sea, the China that reaches too far.

If, on the other hand, the United States is able to maintain its position in Asia, retains its predominant military power, through its alliance system, and also includes India in a new strategic partnership in the Indian Ocean and western Pacific, it is much more likely that, when China rises into a democratic sea filled with democratic powers, that will be peaceful. The surest way to peace with China is through military strength and the maintenance of our alliance. That is a bipartisan view, firmly held in the United States of America.

These comments were preceded by another claim: that there is bipartisan consensus in America that it would be 'catastrophic' for the US to engage in a cold war or hot war with China, and that the economic relationship is so vital and so integrated that the two countries must work together constructively.

So, to summarise the US consensus, according to Nicholas Burns: (1) the US and China must engage constructively, and (2) the US must maintain military dominance over China.

My question to Nicholas Burns? Which is more likely: that the US gets its way on both these propositions, or that proposition 2 increasingly clashes with proposition 1?

My secondary question: how likely is it that India will want any part of this 'democratic sea' arrayed against China?


Last week I asked whether former US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns' recent characterisation of the US consensus on China was accurate. Burns said:

If, on the other hand, the United States is able to maintain its position in Asia, retains its predominant military power, through its alliance system, and also includes India in a new strategic partnership in the Indian Ocean and western Pacific, it is much more likely that, when China rises into a democratic sea filled with democratic powers, that will be peaceful. The surest way to peace with China is through military strength and the maintenance of our alliance. That is a bipartisan view, firmly held in the United States of America.

Overnight, Mike Green from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington has responded that, yes, Burns' observations were 'basically on target'. But he's done it in a way that leaves me wondering if there might be more daylight among America's Asia strategists than both Green and Burns imply.

As Green describes it, the American consensus on China is a mixture of engagement and hedging (though read Green's post at CogitASIA to get the full flavour). That's superficially similar to Nicholas Burns' two-part prescription. But crucially, on the military-strategic aspect of America's China posture, Green gives weight to balancing, whereas Burns, speaking at a recent US Studies Centre conference in Sydney, referred explicitly to US military predominance.

That's what surprised me about Burns' remarks, and judging from the recording, it gave Gareth Evans, who was sharing the stage with Burns, a mild shock too. Burns even implied that a league of Asian democracies would be needed to stare China down; I see no reference to that in Green's formulation of Washington's China consensus.

Burns' comments about predominance are alarming because, for predominance to be realised, the US would need to substantially increase its military presence in Asia, and keep increasing it. That's because, close to China's shores, America has already lost its predominance, thanks to a rapid Chinese military build-up that makes it impossible for the US to control those waters. It's a trend that can realistically only go in one direction, because China has the easier and cheaper job — it doesn't need to wrest sea control for itself; it can merely erode American sea control.

As a rising power, it's hard to see how China could accept a continuation of US military predominance in Asia. Putting predominance at the centre of US China policy is a recipe for arms racing, with its attendant instability and distrust.

Photo by Flickr user The Brit_2.


Peter Layton responds to Sam Roggeveen:

In line with CSIS's Mike Green I am a little surprised at your surprise. While Nicolas Burns may be a little more hard line than Mike's formulation, US thinking on China has for several years (at least) been to favor a mixture of balancing and engaging. Whether this is wise, or is the optimum policy, or may have unintended consequences is another argument entirely but it certainly seems a consensus view in official and think-tank Washington DC. In this there are some mild variations, Republicans hanker after primacy, while democrats seek to 'enhance..global leadership', but the gap between the two is more apparent than real. Two points:

Firstly: Mike Green notes 'between American and Australian policymakers and scholars...we still do not completely understand each other's strategic outlooks.'  An American Under-Secretary once remarked that Australians seem to have a lot of trouble with cognitive dissonance. Australians, unlike Americans, find it difficult to hold two mutually contradictory ideas at once. Your surprise and related blog comments on combining predominance with engagement may be another proof of that observation on our respective national differences.

Secondly, the last time I recall Americans making the point as Mike Green does that 'the United States...can walk and chew gum at the same time' was in 2002 and early 2003 when doubters were advised that unipolar America could easily handle remaking Afghanistan and invading Iraq simultaneously. Maybe concerns over cognitive dissonance have a place in international relations after all.


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? 

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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.


Stephan Fruehling is a lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Program, ANU.

The Interpreter has carried an informative debate on US policy in Asia in recent days, which Hugh White links to his earlier arguments about regional order and the rise of China. Hugh's post highlights how central to his argument is the concept of US 'primacy'. 

He uses the term 'primacy' in several different ways: as a US policy goal in its own right, as a description of the distribution of power in East Asia, as a means for the US to constrain China, and as a description of regional order. His unspoken assumption is that all of these are facets of one, more fundamental issue of US 'primacy'.

This assumption underlies his policy recommendations, and also the way in which he interprets Burns' and Green's statements and the wider US debate on the rise of China. 

This assumption needs to be questioned, because the concept of 'primacy' obscures, rather than elucidates, what is going on in East Asia. A core concern of Hugh's is to establish as the central policy question for regional countries whether, or how far, they are willing to support US 'primacy' based on US military preponderance. 

But this is a false question — US military preponderance does not exist independent of allies' choices. It is a consequence of their choices. The US military position in the western Pacific — as that in Europe during the Cold War — depends on the support of strong regional forces, especially the JSDF, and basing provided by regional countries. 

US military preponderance is a regional, rather than a unilateral US project. The question is less whether the US can preserve abstract 'primacy' than whether it can preserve leadership among its traditional allies and partners in (maritime) Asia. Shifting the focus from 'primacy' to leadership breaks the equation of political influence and military preponderance that underlies Hugh's argument.

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Living within kilometres of the Warsaw Pact armies did not make western Europeans particularly deferential towards the Soviet Union. Nor is there any a priori reason why an increase in the Chinese Navy should make East Asians any more deferential to China than they are now. Primacy, whatever it was, may fade, and yet the Asia of the future may still look much like that of the present — as long as both China and other countries abide by accepted rules of international behaviour. 

But again, Hugh equates established rules of behaviour and international law with US 'primacy'. In a 25 June op-ed in the Financial Review (not online), he wrote that China becoming 'bellicose over disputed maritime issues such as the South China Sea' was a response 'in kind' to a US 'campaign to push back against China's growing power', including by possibly basing US forces in Australia.

But it is one thing, and perfectly legitimate, for China to vie for economic and political influence in other countries and thereby seek to loosen their ties with the US. It is a very different thing to use military force to become a law unto its own in any area it declares its 'core interest', such as the South China Sea.

By excusing China's behaviour, Hugh's concept of 'primacy' becomes rather dangerously similar to the idea that social norms, by restricting individual behaviour, exercise 'structural violence', and that physical violence is a legitimate reaction 'in kind'.

Nick Burns' 'predominance' and Michael Green's 'hedging' are not the same thing, and neither equates to 'primacy'. 'Predominance' is a condition of the (military) balance of power, based on US leadership in maritime East Asia. 'Hedging' is a way (or strategy) in which the US military position can be used, and which acknowledges that the consequences of the rise of China are still far from clear. 

Finally, US concern with encouraging China's obedience to international law is far less sinister (or naive) than an analysis focused on US 'primacy' suggests, and it is much more relevant for the choices of countries in China's neighbourhood than an abstract concept of US 'primacy'.

Photo by Flickr user Meneer Zjeroen.


Geoffrey Garrett is CEO of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

Nick Burns certainly rattled some cages on his recent visit to Australia as a guest of the US Studies Centre for our conference on the 9/11 Decade. I was surprised by how strident he was on US primacy as the key to stability in the Asia Pacific, mostly because I remember him as the consummate sensible centrist when he was at the State Department.

But I think Nick was provoked by what he perceived as the consensus position among the Australian chattering classes: Australia can no longer rely on the US so, for better or worse, it must come to terms with a China-dominated region. 

Not surprisingly, many Americans think, to paraphrase Mark Twain, that talk of the America's demise is exaggerated. But what I don't get about the whole China-US international security debate, particularly in Australia and reflected in The Interpreter's debate thread, is how much it discounts the positive geopolitical consequences of the massive ties between the world's two top economies.

Put simply, China and the US are so important to each other economically that they can't afford to allow their political-military relations to blow up.

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Last week I argued in The Age that we are not on the verge of a second Cold War because, whereas the USSR was literally not part to the global capitalist economy and had virtually no economic ties with the US, China today is pivotal to the global economy, of which its relationship with the US is the single most important part.

Kant, Keynes, Monnet, George Bush Snr, Bill Clinton, even George W Bush, all thought that international economic connections are a win-win-win — good for the economy, good for peace and stability, and good for democracy promotion. But apparently a lot of people don't buy this when it comes to China-US, for two reasons.

First, as I showed in a chapter of a new ANU e-book, Rising China, published last week, Sino-American economic relations today are probably more imbalanced than any other bilateral relationship in history. Despite the promise of more Chinese consumption and more American savings following the GFC, the US trade deficit with China is now bigger than ever, as are Chinese holdings of US Treasury bonds. Second, Britain and Germany had intense trade ties in the 1910s, but that didn't stop World War I.

I don't buy either objection. China-US economic relations are massively imbalanced, but that doesn't detract from the reality that both sides benefit enormously from them. China lends the US money so that Americans will continue to buy Chinese exports. The US uses China as an assembly platform today and salivates over it as a market tomorrow. China likes US multinationals operating in China because, by hook or crook, this helps bring home-grown businesses up to global speed. 

And the dominance of multinational firms, slicing up the value chain by developing, making, and selling products in different places around the globe, is the big difference between globalisation pre WWI (and Britain-Germany ties then) and today's globalisation (and Sino-American relations now).
Every Apple i-device has a label on the back saying 'designed in California by Apple, assembled in China'. It doesn't add the other parts of the story: 'from parts made in Germany, Japan and Korea, and generating massive profits for Apple shareholders in the US'. GM came out of bankruptcy last year more on the back of its skyrocketing sales in China from cars made in China than its slumping sales in the US from cars made in Detroit. Having Apple and GM operating in China increases the chances that China will develop its own global champions to take them on. 

All this probably sounds like just too much naive liberalism and business school jargon to hard-nosed national security types. But I think it is important that the positive sides of China-US relations are talked up. Otherwise all the doom and gloom about the (real) downside risks could become a self-fulfilling prophesy that would be very bad for everybody.

Photo by Flickr user geographyalltheway.com.


Geoff Garrett is quite right that economic interdependence between the US and China provides major incentives for both sides to avoid strategic rivalry and conflict. But I'm not as confident as he seems to be that these incentives will be strong enough to counteract the pressures the other way.

Of course it would not be in either side's interest for rivalry to escalate. But this doesn't make it impossible or even very unlikely. People and countries do things against their own best interests all the time. That happens because people do not always see where their actions might lead. And that is why I think Geoff is wrong to say that people who warn about the risks of rivalry between China and America make it more likely.

In fact I think Geoff's optimism is more likely to lead us into trouble than my pessimism, because it encourages the agreeable illusion that nothing needs to be done, and no sacrifices need to be made, to create a stable and peaceful relationship between the US and China in future. 

To see why, we need to consider how economic interdependence reduces the risk of escalating rivalry. 

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I think economic interdependence makes it more likely that Washington and Beijing will make the compromises necessary to negotiate a stable relationship reflecting their changed power relativities. Optimists like Geoff seem to think it makes negotiation and compromise unnecessary. Their confidence in Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant provides an agreeable illusion that the invisible hand will keep the peace, so politicians do not have to bother. And that makes it less likely that they will make the compromises necessary to avoid escalating rivalry, and hence more likely that the rivalry will indeed escalate.

Or perhaps optimists like Geoff believe that no compromises are necessary because peace and order between the US and China can be maintained indefinitely on the basis of the old understandings that were reached in 1972. So either they think that relative power plays no very great part in shaping such relationships, or they do not think that power has shifted much in the past 40 years.

I think Geoff is in the second camp. The giveaway is his reference to American decline and Mark Twain. Of course he is right, American decline is greatly exaggerated. But the story of shifting power is not about America, it is about China. America's decline has been exaggerated, but China's rise has not. Or perhaps Geoff thinks it has? I’d be interested to know.

Finally, if Nicholas Burns perceived a consensus among Australia’s 'chattering classes' that Australia must 'come to terms with a China-dominated region', he was deeply mistaken. Very few people in Australia think that. Some people think we have to come to terms with a region which is no longer dominated by the US, but that is not by any means the same thing.

In fact trying to understand and explore the difference between a region no longer dominated by America, and one dominated by China, is what the debate in Australia should be all about. Australia's future security and prosperity depends on the evolution of a new order in Asia which is dominated neither by the US nor by China, but by peaceful coexistence between them. I'm afraid Nicholas Burns didn't have much to offer on this, except to remind us how hard and urgent the task is, and how likely it is to fail. 

Photo by Flickr user monojussi.


Geoffrey Garrett is CEO of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

Hugh White's reaction to my 'It's the economy, stupid' corrective to the national security-dominated debate about China-US relations and what they mean for Australia was predictable. He concedes that deep economic ties between the world's top two powers are an important source of stability, but he cautions that this doesn't mean bad things won't happen. 

I, and I suspect most people who read The Interpreter, agree. The question is how to balance the revealed upside against the downside risk. Hugh's position is that Australia should tell the US it is time to acknowledge China's legitimate sphere of influence in the western Pacific, including accepting that Taiwan is a part of China. His latest rendering of his argument was set off by Nick Burns' remarks at the US Studies Centre's June conference on the 9/11 Decade, saying that the best response to China's rise is continuing US military dominance in the Asia Pacific, and imploring Australia to double down on its long standing ally.

I don't want to weigh in on this national security debate. Rather, I simply wanted to point out two things. First, the depth and breadth of China-US economic ties today goes a long way to explaining why none of the recent brushfires in Sino-American relations — both in the South China Sea and in terms of trade and currency — has flamed out of control.

Second, obsessing about the potential for geopolitical conflict with China in forums like The Interpreter is bad public diplomacy. Behind-the-scenes military planning in Beijing, Canberra and Washington to insure against the downside risks of bad outcomes from China's rise is no doubt intense and on-going. But it should be married in public with win-win talk about China-US economic relations, and I would add win-win-win talk about the Australia-China-US economic triangle.

The benefits of this economic triangle beyond raw material sales to China are not well understood in Australia, just as the benefits of China-US ties are poorly understood and devalued in America, and I suspect China as well. Leavening the geopolitical agonising over China's rise with a real understanding of the economic benefits — not only in terms of dollars and jobs today but also in terms of peace and stability and the prospect for political change in China tomorrow — strikes me as in everyone's interests.

Photo by Flickr user Caro Wallis.


Jeffrey Wilson argues that the China market, while big, is not that big, so our economy would get by OK without it. He concludes that we need not worry too much about having to choose between the America and China. He suggests, therefore, that we need not be too anxious about the risk that US-China relations will dive to the point where that choice has to be made.

Well, I'll leave it to the economists to debate how serious the loss of bilateral China trade would be to Australia's economy. I suspect it would be more serious than Jeffrey's numbers suggest. But the stakes for Australia of US-China hostility are way bigger than bilateral trade.

Economically, the kind of US-China rift that would force Australia to choose would force a lot of other countries to do the same. Workable US-China relations are vital to Australia's economy because they are vital to the whole global economy, not just to Australia's bilateral trade with China. So Jeffrey's numbers don’t really capture what's at stake for our economy. 

And of course the stakes go well beyond economics. If the US-China relationship goes bad, Australia would not just have to choose whether to keep selling to China, but whether to line up against China strategically – and possibly whether to join America in a war with China. That would be a very big decision indeed, with no good choices.

So despite Jeffrey's numbers, I think we do need to worry a lot about the future of the US-China relationship. The big issue for Australia is not to decide whether we would side with the US or China if forced to choose, but what we can do to help avoid facing such a choice. 

Finally, a follow-up to Geoff Garrett's latest

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Clearly we disagree about whether it helps to talk publicly about the risks of strategic rivalry between the US and China and the need to reconfigure the Asian order to minimise these risks. He thinks it doesn't help, I think it does. Fine. 

But I'm still unclear what Geoff thinks about the underlying issue: does he believe that American primacy can continue to provide the foundation of Asia's order if China keeps growing? Does he think China will accept it? Does he think America can impose it if China doesn't? What kind of Asia would that lead to, and what would it mean for Australia?

Lastly, does he think there might be any alternative to American primacy other than Chinese primacy? I ask this particularly because, in his latest post, Geoff attributes to me the idea that we should accept a Chinese 'sphere of influence' in Asia. But as I said in my previous post, 'trying to understand and explore the difference between a region no longer dominated by America, and one dominated by China, is what the debate in Australia should be all about.'

Photo, of US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen visiting a Chinese airbase, by Flickr user Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.