Lowy Institute

For a long time American (and Australian) thinking about China has been dominated by a broad consensus that, despite many signs of growing assertiveness, Beijing does not pose a fundamental challenge to US leadership in Asia. The argument goes that, whatever they might say, China's leaders know that its economic future is too uncertain, its political system too fragile, its military too weak and its friends too few to allow it to contest American primacy. They also know that China's own stability and prosperity depend on the regional order that only America can uphold.

Therefore, the consensus has concluded, America doesn't have to do much in response except remind everyone that it intends to stick around. Hence the 'pivot', which has emphasised declaratory statements rather than substantive actions.

But that consensus may be unravelling, at least in America. Washington's AIIB debacle seems to have sounded a wake-up call and now, in just the past week, two major reports from the heart of the US foreign policy establishment have chimed in too. Both reports argue that China's challenge to US primacy in Asia is for real, and that America's policy in Asia needs to shift radically to respond.

At first glance they offer diametrically opposed views of what that response should be, in ways that might appear to frame the debate Washington is now having about how to respond to Beijing's challenge.

In fact, as we shall see, they share a reluctance to address the real issue, and to acknowledge the real risks.

Read More

One of these reports is by our own Kevin Rudd (US-China 21: The Future of US-China Relations Under Xi Jinping). It is the product of his stint at Harvard's Belfer Centre, and is now being showcased by his new home at the Asia Society. The other, from the Council on Foreign Relations, is by two well-known policy heavyweights, Robert Blackwill and Ashley Tellis (Revising US Grand Strategy Toward China).

Both reports argue that China's economic rise marks a fundamental shift in the distribution of power in Asia, and that China's leaders, especially under Xi Jinping, are determined to use their newfound strength to transform the Asian order in their favour. Rudd's argument on this is particularly strong, in part because he draws on a deeper understanding of China. It reminds us that, at his best, Rudd can be a very good analyst indeed.

So what should America do? Rudd says America and China can resolve the tensions caused by China's ambitions through diplomacy. The two powers can and should negotiate in a spirit of 'constructive realism', deepening cooperation where their interests coincide while quarantining and managing the issues on which they disagree.

It's a nice idea, but Rudd's account of it evades the hard question: is America willing to deal with China in the way he proposes? His model implies a complete transformation in the nature of US-China relations so that they become true partners in regional leadership. But his prescription will only work if America is willing to deal with China as an equal, which is of course incompatible with the old model of US regional leadership in Asia.

Yet Rudd does not acknowledge this in his report. No doubt he understands that it is something his American audience will not want to hear, but until this issue is squarely addressed, America's debate about China will keep on missing the mark.

Blackwill and Tellis do not make this mistake. They say upfront that perpetuating US primacy is America's primary strategic objective, and they urge America to build up its economic, military and diplomatic position in Asia to preserve it from China's challenge. This is, in effect, a policy of containment.  Any accommodation of China's ambitions is ruled out.

They are rather glibly optimistic about what this policy would require. They call for the strengthening of America's economy, military power and diplomacy to counter China's rise, and a 'geo-economic' counter-offensive against China's growing economic sphere of influence, without saying how all this might be done. This suggests they do not really understand how radically China's rise has shifted the distribution of power.

But more importantly, Blackwill and Tellis are optimistic about how China would respond. They say America could continue cooperating with China where that suits US interests, while relentlessly resisting China's ambitions to build a new regional order. Their policy prescription assumes that China will be happy to continue working with the US on these terms. In other words, their prescriptions assume what their analysis disproves: that China is not really serious about challenging US primacy after all. If that was true, America could follow Blackwill and Tellis' prescription to resist China's challenge and preserve its primacy without running the risk of disrupting its relationship with China, which is what Americans want to hear.

This brings us to point where Blackwill and Tellis converge with Rudd. Both reports evade the fact that strategic rivalry between America and China is ultimately caused by their fundamentally incompatible aims in Asia. America's primary aim is to retain leadership in Asia, and China's is to displace it.

Rudd assumes America will abandon its aim, while Blackwill and Tellis assume it will be China that steps back. Rudd at least assumes that China will also be willing to compromise, whereas Blackwill and Tellis seem to think that America need make no substantial concessions to enjoy a peaceful relationship with China.

The big risk, of course, is that neither side will be willing to make concessions, because each expects the other to blink first. That leads straight to escalating rivalry and an ever-higher risk of war. Both these reports downplay that risk, because they seem to assume China does not want to change the regional order enough to risk a military confrontation with the US.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Department of Defense.


Jim Molan is dismayed by my suggestion that strategic-level policy is not the ADF's strong suit. The offending line — in an article by Sophie Morris in last week's Saturday Paper — accurately reflects my remarks to her. Jim's robust response peppers a rather larger target, however.

Among other things, he attributes to me the view that Defence civilians are much better at strategy than their uniformed colleagues. So to be clear, I do not believe that civilians are any better at providing strategic policy advice than military officers. On the contrary, had I been asked, I would have said that the depth and breadth of strategic policy expertise among civilians in the Defence Department is just as inadequate as it is among their military colleagues. This is a major problem for our defence policy which, to be fair, I believe the senior leadership of the organisation understands.

My primary point to Sophie was simply that serving in the ADF, perhaps at quite a junior level, does not in itself guarantee that a parliamentarian will have special expertise in the defence and strategic policy decisions discussed and made at the political level.

But the broader point remains true too: the ADF as an institution does not generally (with some notable exceptions) excel at the strategic-level tasks of advising governments about when and how they should use force to achieve policy objectives, and about what capabilities Australia needs.

I would offer as evidence the flawed advice that led to Australia's costly strategic failure in Afghanistan (and yes, I have no doubt that it was a failure), and the advice to acquire the amphibious assault ships (pictured), which I believe are now becoming widely recognised as the white elephants they are. I think the ADF's strategic-level advisers, along with their civilian counterparts, must take some share of the responsibility for these decisions, if indeed they spoke in favour of them or failed to speak to robustly against them.

Photo by Flickr user Crouchy69.


Alan Dupont concludes his thoughtful response to my comments on his Lowy Analysis paper, Full-Spectrum Defence: Re-thinking the Fundamentals of Australian Defence Strategy, by posing some good questions.

First, he asks, should we see irregular warfare as the dominant form of future conflict, both between and within states? The answer depends on what we mean by 'dominant'. Do we mean 'most common' or 'most serious'? Irregular warfare is likely to be the most common form of conflict in future, as it always has been in the past. What I suppose we must call 'regular warfare' – large-scale conflict between the armed forces of states – has always been much rarer, and I expect this will remain true too.

But regular warfare is more serious than irregular warfare, at least for a country like Australia. If we were Yemen or the Congo or (for much of its history) Indonesia, then irregular warfare would pose a more serious threat than regular warfare, and it would make perfect sense to design our armed forces primarily for that kind of conflict.

But we face no credible or even conceivable risk of internal insurrection, and no risk of insurrections spilling onto our territory from elsewhere on anything but the smallest scale, a scale for which police are more relevant than armed forces. And the risk of state-sponsored irregular warfare against Australia by a neighbouring state was tested at length by the 'low-level contingency' concept which was so central to our defence policy in the 1980s. I think Alan would agree with me that the closer one looked at that concept, the more improbable it seemed.

Of course the risk of Australia being involved in a regular conflict is pretty low too. But I would argue that changes in the regional strategic order mean it is not as low over coming decades as it has been since the early 1970s, and that this risk is much more serious for Australia than risks of irregular warfare. And that is why I think it should predominate in our force planning.

Read More

Second, Alan asks whether the 'force structure determinants' used in previous White Papers 'have any redeeming value'. By 'force structure determinants' Alan means the core strategic objectives which the Government decides the ADF should be built to achieve, and which therefore determine what kinds of forces we need and how much money we should spend.

I think setting these strategic objectives for the ADF does have value. Indeed I think deciding what we want our armed forces to be able to do is absolutely essential to making sensible decisions about what capabilities we need. In his paper, Alan says they are no use because governments sometimes ignore them in choosing capabilities, and often use the ADF for tasks different from the ones they identify as force structure determinants.

He is quite right about both of these, but that does not mean the idea of setting core objectives has no value. Governments do sometimes violate their own policy principles (the Howard Government did when it ordered the C-17s that Alan mentions), but the fault here might lie with government decisions rather than the principles they sometimes ignore.

More importantly, the fact that governments use the ADF for purposes other than that for which it was designed does not mean it has been designed for the wrong purposes. It often makes sense to use something for a purpose for which one would not buy it.

There is a separate question, of course, about whether the strategic objectives that have been laid down as force structure determinants in recent white papers are the right ones for Australia over coming decades. I do not think they are, because they assume that Australia's strategic risks will remain much the same in the next few decades as they have been in the last few. What objectives we should adopt instead is a question for another time.

Third, Alan asks whether I still think we should have a primarily maritime military strategy, and if so how space and cyber fit into it? The short answer to the first part is 'yes'. Most of the core strategic objectives I would set for the ADF can be achieved most cost-effectively by maritime operations, and I would focus most of our capability there.

What about cyber and space? Let's clear up a muddle here: when we talk about cyber and space as new domains of warfare, are we talking about the impact of cyber- and space-based actions on the systems that support and enable the conduct of conventional military operations in the other three domains, or are we talking about the impact of such operations on society more broadly, to achieve a direct strategic effect?

If it is the former, then clearly we need to develop our maritime forces to operate in a contested cyber and space environment, based on a sober assessment of the risks involved. This might be hard technically, but it poses no conceptual challenges to policy.

If it is the latter, the issue is much less clear. Cyber attack on national information systems is a serious potential threat, but armed force is little or no use in responding to it, so it need not shape our defence planning. Space-based attack directly on civilian populations or systems? Unless we mean such familiar problems as ballistic missiles, I'm not sure what we are talking about here. Denial of satellite services, perhaps? Whatever it is, I doubt that armed forces are going to be the answer.

Photo by Flickr user DVIDSHUB.


The first thing to say about Alan Dupont's recent paper is that he is absolutely correct about the dire condition of Australian strategic policy.

As he suggests, we lack a coherent answer to the most basic question of all: 'What do we want our armed forces to be able to do?' Until that question is answered, there is no way we can make sensible choices about the kinds of armed forces we need, nor about how much we should spend on them.

Moreover, Alan is right about many of the reasons why our strategic policy is so bad. However, I'm not completely sold on all of his suggestions about how to do things better. Here are a few points that I think deserve fuller debate.

What is armed force good for?

Clearly we cannot decide what we want our armed forces to be able to do until we have decided what kinds of things armed forces can usefully do. Alan casts the net pretty wide. He identifies a broad range of security threats which he thinks our forces should be designed to deal with, and criticises the idea that we should focus narrowly on building them to respond to threats from other countries' armed forces.

I'm not so sure.

Read More

For example, Alan clearly believes that stabilisation operations in the Middle East are an important role for our forces and should influence our force development decisions. This presupposes that not just our interests in the Middle East are important enough to us to warrant giving them such a central place in our national security policy, but that military operations are a cost-effective way of promoting those interests. The experience of the past decade does not support that view.

To take the most obvious case, it seems likely that a serious analysis of our experience in Afghanistan would conclude that sustained military operations there failed to achieve our strategic objectives, not because of any faults in the conduct of the operation itself, but because the aims we set ourselves could not be achieved with military means. Those are lessons we need to learn.

What kinds of threats will we face in the future?

Alan's ideas about the kind of threats that Australia's forces should be designed to address, reflect a judgement that our future threat environment will look much like the one we see have seen in recent decades. That means he emphasises lower-level contingencies and coalition operations over higher-level conventional conflicts and independent operations.

But the future does not always resemble the past, so it is important to test this judgement.

Alan rightly observes that the strategic order in Asia is changing as power shifts to China, and that America's role in Asia will change too, and he criticises our defence policymakers for not thinking carefully enough about what this will mean. But he himself, perhaps, underestimates just how big the implications of these changes might be – especially if we look out a few decades.

Alan deprecates any attempt to think this far ahead, but one wonders how decisions about capabilities that will not even enter service for 20 years can be made without doing so. This is not the place to explore what kinds of risks we might face in the very different Asia of the Asian Century: suffice to say here that it would be unwise to base our strategic policy on the assumption that they will look much like those of the past 30 years.

That is the context in which issues like the geographic focus on our defence posture and the place of maritime operations in our defence planning come into focus. The more the future resembles the recent past, the more sense there is in Alan's arguments for a wider geographic and operational focus. The more we contemplate our security needs in a very different and more contested Asia, the more questionable Alan's arguments become.

How much to spend?

Alan's paper doesn't focus much on money. That is a pity, because money is of course central to any serious discussion about strategic policy. One gets the impression that Alan thinks we should be spending a good deal more on defence than we are, but even with a much bigger budget there would be hard choices to be made between competing priorities.

Alan mentions lots of things he thinks the ADF should be able to do, but doesn't give any basis for setting priorities between them. That leaves the hard work of building a coherent strategic policy still to be done.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library.


In his latest contribution to our debate, Shashank Joshi raised some excellent points against my sceptical view of the emerging India-US strategic partnership. But I'm still unpersuaded.

To explain why, it helps to step back and clarify the question we are debating here. It is not whether strategic relations between Delhi and Washington have grown closer in recent years, because clearly they have. It is what these closer relations mean for the geo-political contest between America and China.

India's position is clearly important to this contest. Many Americans, and many of America's friends in Asia, have long believed that India's growing wealth and power will be vital in helping America counterbalance China's growing strategic weight, and resist China's challenge to US regional leadership.

Indeed, the belief many people have that India will play this role is central to their confidence that America can and will preserve the status quo against China's challenge. It is therefore important to decide whether the progress we have seen in US-India relations justifies that confidence.

I have argued that in a geopolitical contest of the kind we see unfolding between America and China today, India's relations with America will only make a difference to the extent that India is seen to be willing to support America in a US-China conflict.

Read More

That is because who wins the contest between the American and Chinese visions of Asia's future order ultimately depends on which is seen to be more willing to fight for their vision. Each power wants the other to believe that it will go to war to impose its vision, and hopes that, if all else fails, this will persuade the other to back off.

This way of describing what is happening will surprise those who think that this kind of old-fashioned power politics disappeared after 1989, but it seems to me the only way to understand events in Asia today. In fact power politics never went away; people simply started to think that America was the only power that was indulging in it. It has been taken for granted that America will fight to support its vision of regional order, but that no one would be willing to oppose them. Now China is proving that false. We can no longer assume that China is any more determined to change the current order than America is to preserve it. 

That is why India's role in this contest depends on how far it appears willing and able to materially support the US in a conflict with China. In a game played for these stakes, nothing less counts for much. 

As I read him, Shashank makes two key points about this question.

One is that, while India might not be willing to send combat forces to fight alongside America's in a coalition against China, it would provide other, non-combat support such as basing and refuelling facilities. That sounds like what the diplomats call 'all support short of actual help'. It would do very little either practically or symbolically to bolster America's position against China, and certainly much less than American boosters of the relationship expect. 

His second key point is that perhaps India would be willing to provide America with more substantial support if it saw really fundamental issues of regional order at stake in a US-China conflict. He cites the example of the wide support given to America in opposing Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 by countries who saw basic questions of international order being tested there.

I agree with Shashank that very important issues for India would be at stake in a US-China clash. But deciding to support America against China would be much harder than joining the coalition against Iraq. In every way China is both a much more valuable partner and a much more dangerous adversary. The key question for India, and for America's other friends in Asia, is what would have to be at stake for them to make that decision? 

So it boils down to this: would India go to war with China to help America preserve the current order based on US primacy? If the answer is no, then I don't think the new warmth between America and India matters much to the future of Asia, and America's position in Asia is rather weaker than most people assume.

Photo courtesy of White House/Lawrence Jackson.


Shashank Joshi makes a good case for the importance of Obama's visit to India last month, and against my view that there is much less to the US-India alignment than meets the eye.

My argument is that their underlying strategic objectives remain too different for real strategic alignment. Shashank says that sets the bar too high. Without fully sharing America's aim of preserving its primacy in Asia, he says, India 'can take a range of other steps, from aligning itself to US allies to strengthening a diplomatic consensus against China, that together contribute to (US) primacy in a more diffuse, politically acceptable manner.'

It's a reasonable point, but I don't buy it.

We differ on this because we seem to see what is happening in Asia today differently. I think Asia's international order faces a fundamental challenge, whereas Shashank's argument suggests that he believes it remains essentially intact.

If Shashank is right, we can safely expect that issues in dispute between the region's major powers will be resolved by diplomacy operating within the status quo; business as usual, in other words. If so, the kind of low-stakes diplomatic alignment that Shashank describes might indeed make a real difference. The kind of low key, low cost diplomatic support India might offer the US will be enough to help the US preserve primacy, because its primacy would not face any serious challenge.

But what is happening in Asia today is not business as usual.

Read More

The regional order based on US primacy is under direct and fundamental challenge from China. It wants to change the framework of norms and expectations within which regional diplomacy takes place. That is why we cannot assume that the issues raised by China's challenge will be resolved by routine diplomacy. China is aiming to change the way diplomacy in Asia works by changing the regional order.

That has big implications. The prevailing order in any international system is defined ultimately by what the major powers in the system are prepared to go to war with one another over. As that changes, the order changes. Rising countries challenge a prevailing order by showing they are willing to go to war over issues that they previously would not have. 

In 1972 China transformed the Asian order when it decided that it was not willing to risk war with America over anything except Taiwan. Now China is showing that it wants to change the order again. By undermining the credibility of Washington's alliances, Beijing shows its willingness to risk war to degrade America's position in Asia.

India's new alignment with the US will only make a real difference if it is credibly willing to support America militarily against China if and when US primacy is at stake. Diffuse and politically acceptable diplomatic support won't cut it at a time like this. So the test of the US-India alignment is simple: does anyone think India would send forces to help America defend Japan's claim to the Senkakus, or the Philippines' claims in the South China Sea, or Taiwan? If not, how does India's support help America deter China from challenging US primacy in these flashpoints? And if it doesn't do that, what use is it to Obama?  

That's why Obama's bid for India's support shows the weakness in America's position, without doing anything to strengthen it. The deeper problem is that lining up countries like India against China, even if it worked, would not help America find a stable, sustainable relationship with the country which is both its most important partner and its most serious rival. The only way to do that is to start talking to China in a new way.

Photo courtesy of the White House/Pete Souza


One of the many ways in which Malcolm Turnbull is not your average Australian politician is that he has thought quite deeply about foreign policy and strategic issues. Among aspirants to the Lodge in recent years, only Kevin Rudd has comparably developed views about Australia's place in the world. But of course that was Rudd's day job for much of his career. For Turnbull it has been, one suspects, more a sign of his wide-ranging natural curiosity, and perhaps also prudent preparation for the post which seems now for the first time to be within his reach.

He has set out his views in a series of speeches and essays over the past few years. This post draws on just three of those, including the one he gave in the US late last month as the Liberal Party's leadership crisis flared. They present a consistent and coherent set of ideas which suggest that, if he becomes prime minister, he would pursue a rather different policy from his predecessors, including and perhaps especially from Tony Abbott, on the central question of positioning Australia between America and China.

Turnbull's starting point is the magnitude of the shift in the distribution of wealth and power occurring with the rise of Asia, led by China, which he sees as 'the great geopolitical transformation of our time'. He believes this will inevitably drive major changes in the way the world works. Last month he posed the question: 'How ready are Western nations and Western-dominated multilateral institutions to adapt to a very different distribution of global power than that which they've been used to?' So unlike Tony Abbott, he does not believe that, thanks to the Anglosphere, the world will continue to be run in English.

Second, Turnbull does not assume that America has necessarily worked out how best to respond to this challenge. Though he has praised the Pivot as 'a vitally important stabilising reassuring factor in the peaceful development of our region', Turnbull has at times observed that the US is struggling to find an effective response to China's rise. Back in 2011 he said they seemed 'utterly flummoxed'.

On the other hand, he has also criticised Beijing's approach, saying in 2011 that 'China needs to be more transparent about its goals in the region', and more recently that 'there seems little doubt that the tough line taken (by China) on the disputed islands and reefs has been quite counter-productive'.

Read More

Third, Turnbull thinks that responding to China's rise and its implications for our place in Asia requires rather more sophisticated diplomacy from Australia than we have seen so far. A few days after Obama's big Pivot speech to the Australian parliament in 2011, he delivered this thinly veiled rebuke to Julia Gillard's gushing response:

An Australian Government needs to be careful not to allow a doe-eyed fascination with the leader of the free world to distract from the reality that our national interest requires us to truly (and not just rhetorically) to maintain both an ally in Washington and a good friend in Beijing.

He suggested that this requires a careful balance in our positioning with both powers, warning against 'extravagant professions of loyalty and devotion to the United States' and also against 'equally extravagant compliments paid to Beijing.' 

And he certainly doesn't buy Kevin Rudd's idea of muscling up to China militarily:

I disagree with the underlying premise of the 2009 Australian White Paper that we should base our defence planning and procurement on the contingency of a naval war with China in the South China Sea.

Above all, Turnbull has warned about complacently, assuming that:

...the strategic and diplomatic posture that served us in the past can and will serve us unchanged in the future: or that it doesn't matter if our strategic and economic messages to our region are somewhat contradictory.

Of course it is anyone's guess how these ideas would translate into policy if Turnbull should become prime minster. We can assume he would tread carefully and pay due respect to the patterns and precedents of Australian diplomacy, at least up to a point. But it is worth reflecting that Turnbull, if he wins the Lodge, might have more scope to really explore Australia's place in the world of the Asian Century than any of his predecessors, or any of the current alternatives.

Politically he has less to fear from an open discussion of the future role of America in Asia than anyone on the Labor side of politics, because he will not suffer from Labor's deeply ingrained terror of being attacked by the Liberals as disloyal and irresponsible.

And intellectually he has more to offer than anyone on his own side of politics, simply because he has thought about it more, and more openly than his colleagues. One reason for that is his obviously deep curiosity about China, especially, simply because he seems to see it as the most interesting, as well as perhaps the most important, place in the world today. That's not a bad starting point for Australian foreign policy.


Ian Hall is right to doubt that President Obama's recent trip to India did much to build a really substantial US-India strategic partnership. But there is bit to learn from it anyway about how Obama and Prime Minister Modi are approaching the big strategic questions in Asia today – and that makes the visit worth a second look.

The first thing to see is Modi's attempt to revive a proposal for strategic consultations between America, India, Japan and Australia. This 'Quad' idea first emerged almost decade ago from the trilateral US-Japan-Australia strategic consultations but it was scuppered by Kevin Rudd soon after he won office. He worried that it would look like the beginnings of a coalition to contain China, which of course it was.

One would expect Mr Abbott to be much more enthusiastic about it. The Quad seems to fit perfectly his ideas for Australia to build closer strategic links with each of the other parties to defend the existing regional order against China's challenge. Indeed it is noteworthy that Canberra has not yet (as far as I have seen) come out with a statement welcoming Mr Modi's proposal. Perhaps following President Xi's visit last November, Mr Abbott is starting to think more carefully about whether this kind of coalition-building is the best way respond to China's growing power and ambition. Or perhaps he just has other things on his mind.

Second, Mr Modi's willingness to refloat the Quad idea reinforces a lot of other evidence that he is keenly looking for partners to help balance China's rise. He is keen for closer links with Japan (he's even considering buying Japanese submarines), and seems willing to take the strategic relationship with America into new territory. The joint statement issued with Obama during last week's visit was low on specifics, but it did explicitly align US and Indian strategic aims in the Western Pacific, which is an important symbol of India's willingness to identify itself with US efforts to counter China's rise. That was certainly how it was read, and welcomed, in both the US and Indian press.

Read More

However, it is probably a bit soon to declare that Mr Modi is now a fully committed supporter of America's efforts to resist China's challenge in Asia. Like Abbott, Modi tends to send mixed messages. Just this week, as Brendan Thomas-Noone has mentioned, India's foreign minister joined his Chinese and Russian counterparts in what seemed a very pally meeting in which they declared their shared commitment on a new international order based on multipolarity. Not quite what Washington has in mind.

Like other new and relatively inexperienced leaders, Mr Modi might think that walking both sides of the street with America and China is smart diplomacy. Alas, it is not that easy. India has wide range of interests at stake in its relationship with China, and India cannot afford to subordinate those interests to the concerns of America or Japan, or Australia.

Third, and perhaps most interestingly, Mr Obama's visit to India tells us something about the evolution of his policies towards Asia. Whether or not he gets India's unflinching support against China, this is clearly what he wanted, and what the visit was designed to deliver. The scale of the visit itself shows how serious he is about this.

It was planned as a visit to India alone, not just a stop on a regional tour. The program – including long hours watching India's Republic Day parade – sent strong messages about Obama's commitment to building a substantive strategic relationship with India, directed against China. The US press was clearly briefed to read the whole visit this way, as they did.

We can draw three conclusions from this. The first is that, despite dramas in the Middle East and Europe, Obama still sees China as America's major strategic challenge, and he sees that challenge growing sharply. This reinforces the message on China in his Brisbane speech last November, which received much less attention than it deserved. He described the dangers posed by China, and the choices faced by Asia in response to it, in far starker terms than he had ever done before.

The second is that he has understood that his response to it so far — the pivot/rebalance – has not worked. His trip to India was his big effort to re-boot the pivot and re-energise America's efforts to resist China's assault on US primacy in Asia.

Third, despite the hugs, it didn't work, because India is not willing to make the preservation of US primacy its principal strategic aim in Asia.

Photo courtesy of White House.


Malcolm Cook and I have been debating why China has been willing to bless Tony Abbott with an FTA when Mr Abbott has so strongly opposed Beijing's political and strategic interests and aspirations in Asia.

Why has President Xi met Mr Abbott's stick with such a juicy carrot, especially when Beijing has been so quick to use the stick itself on other neighbours? (Sam raised the related and important question of why China uses the stick at all when it has so many carrots to offer, to which I have offered an answer separately.)

Malcolm's explanation is that the economic benefits to China of the FTA simply outweigh the costs to China of Australia's position on strategic questions. He does not dispute that those strategic costs are significant, because he concedes both that China is serious about creating a new order in Asia, and that Australia's attitude to this is important to Beijing. He just thinks the economic advantages to China of a FTA with Australia are big enough to counterbalance them.

I'm not so sure. I think it is more likely that Xi and his colleagues believe that wider economic opportunities and kind words will seduce Australia away from its alignment with China's strategic rivals, and encourage us to be more willing to accommodate China's ambitions for regional leadership.

Of course it may be that we are both right to some degree. But it remains important to judge the relative weight of each factor in China's approach to Australia, because the implications for our position in Asia and our future policy depend a lot on which of them predominates.

Read More

Malcolm's argument that economic factors predominate in Beijing's decision rests on judgments about the scale of the perceived economic benefits of the new FTA to China. That is hard to judge at this stage, of course, but we need to be careful not to take last week's euphoria at face value.

The evidence suggests that FTAs actually make very little difference to trade flows or GDP growth. Our Government's only word on this is a 2005 DFAT-sponsored study, which was the source of the much-cited figure of US$18 billion boost to Australia's GDP from an FTA with China. Here is what that study said about the impact, had there been an FTA between Australia and China over the past decade:  

In terms of average annual growth rates between 2005 and 2015, the FTA is estimated to increase Australia's real-GDP growth by 0.039 percentage points; and increase China's real-GDP growth by 0.042 percentage points.

Yes, that's right – four hundredths of a percentage point. In other words, the impact on GDP for China, as for Australia, was estimated to be utterly negligible, and there is no reason to believe that the deal that has now been done will have a significantly greater effect. Indeed the Productivity Commission's 2010 report on FTAs strongly suggests that it won't. It concludes that FTAs in general do nothing at all to boost trade or growth.  

But are there other economic benefits? One view is that China values an FTA with Australia to drive reform within China, which might indirectly boost growth. One cannot dismiss this out of hand, but it does seem on the face of it very improbable. The CCP seems to have no trouble driving reform on its own, and if it needs help from outside, why Australia? China has already signed FTAs with many advanced and prosperous countries which pose it no strategic problems. How does adding Australia to the list help?

So from the available evidence there doesn't seem much reason to think that economic motives have been uppermost in Beijing's decision to cuddle up to Tony Abbott. The fact is that this FTA, like others, is much more about politics than economics, in Beijing as well as in Canberra.

And one cannot help but notice that Beijing seems to have secured precisely the political outcome I think they were aiming at. Tony Abbott did, at least while Xi was here, show himself much more open to China's vision of Asia's future than he has ever been before, and he did so in direct defiance of Barack Obama's very plain and stern warnings just two days before Xi spoke in Canberra.

Time will tell whether this proves to be anything more than a passing blip. Tony Abbott may well revert to his previous strategic alignment against China at the next opportunity. If so, it will be instructive to see how China responds. That would perhaps tell us more about its motives and purposes.

In the meantime, it is easy to understand the attractions of Malcolm's interpretation of events. It would be nice to think that Australia's economic weight and sophistication is such an irresistible magnet for China that we can dictate the terms of the relationship and compel it to accept without demur whatever strategic positions we choose to adopt.

Be we would be unwise to assume that this is what is happening. It is at least as likely that the boot is on the other foot, and that China's economy is so important to Australia's future that Beijing can set the terms of the relationship — either by carrot or stick or both — and persuade us to look more kindly on China's aspirations for regional leadership.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.


Sam Roggeveen raises an important question when, apropos my debate with Malcolm Cook about China's use of diplomatic carrots and sticks towards Australia, he asks why China bothers to use sticks at all when it has so many carrots. Like many others, Sam thinks China is making a mistake by acting so threateningly to so many of its nearer neighbours when it could so easily seduce them with economic opportunities.

We explored some aspects of this issue on The Interpreter back in May, specifically in relation to China's conduct in its maritime disputes with Japan and its Southeast Asian neighbours. I argued then that China uses these disputes specifically to weaken US regional leadership and strengthen its own by showing that America cannot or will not any longer support its friends and allies in Asia militarily as it used to do.

Sam's post however raises the deeper question of why China should think that this will help build its new model of great power relations in Asia. One simple answer is that everyone else does it. Most models of leadership at all levels of human interaction – even America's — involve a mix of both carrot and stick, and there is no reason to expect China's be to any different.

But I think there may be a more specific answer: the main target of China's sticks in the East and South China Seas is not its neighbours themselves, but Washington. It wants to convince America to step back from leadership in Asia by convincing Washington that it will have to confront China militarily to preserve its regional primacy, and that the costs and risk of doing so would be immense. It is trying to intimidate America, in other words. There is a good chance that it is working.

Read More

Most people are surprised that China would think in these terms. It does not fit our model of how the world works these days. But my whole point is that the world is working differently now from what we have known, because for the first time in decades we are seeing real strategic rivalry between great powers. China is deadly serious about its 'new model', and will run real, if carefully calculated, risks to create it.

Moreover, viewed from Beijing, such measures might seem justified, and indeed required, by America's stubborn refusal so far even to contemplate any accommodation of China's aspirations. That refusal was restated more bluntly than ever by President Obama in Brisbane just last Saturday week. For Beijing, if carrots won't work on America, sticks must be applied, even if indirectly.

Photo courtesy of the White House.


As Malcolm Cook says, this week's events show that Tony Abbott's strategic policies in Asia have not got in the way of his economic agenda. Mr Abbott has won his free trade agreement with China despite his enthusiastic alignment with Japan and America to resist China's regional ambitions.

So those, like me, who thought it might be otherwise have been proven wrong. When that happens it is a good idea to ask oneself why. Why has President Xi been so warm and generous to Mr Abbott when Mr Abbott has so deliberately opposed himself to China's interests and ambitions? There seem to be three possible explanations:

  1. Beijing doesn't really care much about these strategic/political issues, and their importance is outweighed by the economic value to China of the FTA and the diplomatic value of a warmer relationship with Australia.
  2. Beijing does care deeply about the strategic/political questions, but doesn't think Australia's views matter, so it is willing to ignore what Mr Abbott says on these subjects.
  3. Beijing does care deeply about these issues and does think Australia's views matter, but it decided carrots will work better than sticks. China's leaders may have calculated that the best way to change Mr Abbott's mind and bring Australia closer to China's views would be to offer soothing words and lavish gifts.

Which of these best explains what has happened this week? The Government probably believes it is option 1, and many others will agree. The consensus in Canberra remains that China is not really serious about challenging the US-led order in Asia, because for Beijing the economy always comes first. Hence Xi has been willing to overlook Abbott's strategic policies in pursuit of an economic win for China.

The problem with this explanation is that everything China has said and done in recent years shows that it is very serious about building a new strategic order in Asia. China's ambitions were absolutely clear from Xi's speech to parliament on Monday. It was equally clear from President Obama's speech in Brisbane that he takes China's challenge to the regional order very seriously indeed. That is exactly what his speech aimed to warn us about, in unusually stark terms.

Others too think the same. Mr Cameron's speech to parliament last week, and Mr Modi's yesterday, made plain their concerns about the strength of China's ambitions, and so did Mr Abe's address back in May. Only in Canberra does a consensus still prevail that China is not strongly committed to driving major change to the Asian order. The weight of evidence is strongly the other way, and that makes option 1 look implausible, especially as the economic benefits to China of the FTA are hardly transformational.

Read More

What about option 2? For all the recent boasting about Australia coming out as a big regional player, it is possible that some people, even in the Government, still half-believe that what we say on these big issues doesn't really matter to the main players. A reflection perhaps of the 'adolescence' in our approach to foreign policy that Peter Hartcher has recently described.

But on this issue, at least, we should be in no doubt: Australia seems to have acquired quite a prominent place in regional power politics, as shown by the way Obama, Xi, Modi and Abe have all come here to deliver big geopolitical speeches. It would be unwise to believe that the Chinese do not care about Australia's position on Asia's great strategic questions.

That leaves option 3 as the most credible explanation for what has happened. If that is right, Mr Xi and his colleagues are very serious about their strategic ambitions, and do care what Australia thinks. But they concluded that it would be easy to bring us around to their point of view by offering an FTA and some reassuring words.

If that is what they thought then they seem to have been proved right – at least for now. To judge from what Mr Abbott said this week, and from the response of many of our leading commentators, Australia has taken a long step away from the policies he and they have articulated until now, and towards accepting and endorsing Mr Xi's vision of Asia's future under Chinese leadership. This is just what Mr Obama seems to have feared would happen.

But do the Chinese imagine that Mr Abbott's new-found enthusiasm for their vision of Asia will last for long? If so, they will be disappointed. He already took a step away from it in his exchanges with Mr Modi yesterday. What will he say next time he goes to Washington or Tokyo?

So where do we go from here? On the basis of this week's performance, Malcolm and others seem to think Mr Abbott has created a clear and sustainable basis for Australia's relations with China and our position in the power politics of Asia. I'm not so sure.


Yesterday in Brisbane US President Barack Obama reaffirmed the Asian Pivot/Rebalance (transcript) which he presented in Canberra three years ago. But in doing so he presented a view of Asia's future, and especially of US-China relations, which was starker and darker than he gave in 2011. This makes the speech rather important. When future historians study the two speeches – and if they also look back to Obama's first big speech in Asia, in Tokyo in November 2009 — they will see clear evidence of how far America's sense of rivalry with China has intensified over the past five years, and especially over the past three years. They will see much less evidence of clear ideas about what America should do about it.

The significance of the President's words about Asia and China were somewhat overshadowed by the remarkable passage in his speech about climate change. I'll leave it to others to say what it might mean for climate policy, but it is worth noting what it means for relations between Canberra and Washington.

It is a very long time since any US president has publicly expressed his policy and political differences with his Australian counterpart as directly and even brusquely as Obama did yesterday, and to do so on that issue, at that time and place, was, well, very pointed. It is hard not to read it as a sign of how the Obama Administration sees Tony Abbott.

However, that matters much less than how the Administration sees Asia and China. Obama spoke more positively than he has done before about China's economic achievement and its significance for the welfare of the people of China, and of course he referred to the deal with Beijing on carbon emission targets. But he more than matched that with a distinctly adversarial tone in describing America's differences with China. These seem to me to be the key points:

Read More
  • He spoke of 'genuine dangers' in Asia that can undermine progress, including 'Disputes over territory, remote islands and rocky shoals that threaten to spiral into confrontation'.
  • He spoke of the need to choose between two visions of Asia's future: 'Do we move towards further integration, more justice, more peace? Or do we move towards disorder and conflict? Those are our choices — conflict or cooperation? Oppression or liberty?'
  • He described America's vision of the regional order this way: 'We believe that nations and peoples have the right to live in security and peace; that an effective security order for Asia must be based — not on spheres of influence, or coercion, or intimidation where big nations bully the small — but on alliances of mutual security, international law and international norms that are upheld, and the peaceful resolution of disputes.'
  • And he left us in no doubt as to whose was the alternative vision. Back in 2011 Obama devoted only one paragraphs of his speech directly to China. Yesterday he devoted four paragraphs to China, in which he indirectly but quite unambiguously implied that China at present is not a responsible international actor and is not good for the region. He said America would cooperate with China where interests overlap, but not where they differ. And he explicitly warned against making too many compromises with China to accommodate its interests and values where they might differ from America's.

All of these points are much starker than any language he has used about China before. Obama's stress on choices seems especially pointed, in view of successive Australian Government's instance that 'we don't have to choose' between America and China.

And just to reinforce the point, a couple of days before Australia's FTA with China is due to be finalised, Obama made two not-so-subtle digs at our economic relationship with China. At one point he spoke disparagingly of trade whose purpose is 'simply to extract resources from the ground', and at another he spoke of building a new economic structure in Asia under the US-led Trans Pacific Partnership in which countries are no longer 'dependent on a single market'.

Finally, although Obama repeated the assurances he has made before about his resolve to use 'all the elements of America's power' to impose America's vision of Asia's future on a reluctant China, he did not explain what more America would or could do, beyond what it has been doing for the last three years, to resist China's challenge to US leadership.

Obama therefore gave us no reason to believe he has an answer to what he himself clearly sees as China's increasingly powerful bid to create a 'new model of great power relations' in Asia.


As power shifts in Asia, Australia faces big new foreign policy challenges. Getting them right is vital to Australia's future security and prosperity. But the way we do foreign policy in Australia these days is not up to the task. We have to do foreign policy better.

This is the central argument of Peter Hartcher's new book, The Adolescent Country, which gives a fresh and well-framed take on the way Australia tries to position itself in the world. Peter is an indefatigable reporter, and he has garnered many interesting and important views from many interesting and important people. He is also an accomplished author who assembles his material into a fluent and accessible story.

It is also, at heart, a distinctly optimistic book, for two reasons.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. (Flickr/CSIS.)

First, although Peter finds much that is wrong with the way Australia approaches foreign policy, he tends not to blame governments for that. Mostly – there are a few exceptions – he argues that successive governments in recent years have got things right and that it is the media, successive oppositions and the wider public who fail to understand how important their work is, and sometimes get in the way. The key message seems to be that all would be well if the media and the public would only take what their governments are doing more seriously.

Second, Peter seems broadly confident that good solutions to Australia's foreign-policy challenges are going to be relatively easy to find. His shares Julie Bishop's conviction that Australia is and will remain a 'top 20' power, and that as such we will be able to shape the international system to preserve our prosperity and security without having to make too many uncomfortable choices.

Alas, I'm not sure it's that easy.

Read More

First, how should we score recent governments' foreign policies? Peter gives high marks for Rudd's G20 initiative and UN Security Council bid, for Gillard's support for Obama's Pivot, and for the Abbott Government's responses to MH17, ISIS and Abe's changes to Japan's defence posture. This is not the place to argue the toss about all these policies, but there are solid arguments that each of them was either largely irrelevant or actually damaging to Australia's core interests. The more of those arguments one accepts, the weaker our governments' recent performances look.

These examples also cast some doubt on Peter's diagnosis of the problem with our foreign policy. The media warmly applauded each of these policies, and those in opposition only overtly criticised one of them. A more critical observer might therefore argue that our media and opposition are too lenient on governments rather that too tough on them. More stringent scrutiny might produce better outcomes.

Second, I think we have to be a little more cautious about the seriousness of the problems we face and the choices they will impose on us. Peter's book discusses the strategic shifts in Asia and the need to respond to them, quoting with approval Michael Thawley's view that Australia has to 'take the lead in creating an agenda'. But he does not discuss in any systematic way what our response should actually be.

In fact Peter seems to accept the widely shared assumption that these responses need not involve any very hard choices for Australia, because US leadership will continue to provide the foundation of regional order. But that is not something we can simply assume, and one might argue that the real weakness in Australian foreign policy is that so few in government, the opposition or the media and commentariat are willing seriously to debate it.


The four excellent responses to my post on China-Japan relations all present important points about Japan's situation and its options in the face of China's growing power. Just to recap, my piece questioned whether Chinese political and military pressure on Japan in the East China Sea is as counter-productive for China's strategic objectives as many people believe.

That depends of course how Japan and the US react to it. I suggested that it would serve China's aim of weakening US leadership in Asia if it undermined Japan's confidence in the US alliance by exposing America's reluctance to support Japan militarily against China. This would be seen as a win in Beijing even if Tokyo responded by building up its own defences, because China would rather face Japan than America as a strategic competitor in Asia.

My old colleague and valued sparring partner Malcolm Cook argues that if Beijing's leaders thinks this way, they are wrong. He says China's pressure on Japan has strengthened the US-Japan alliance, and cites Abe's measures to 'normalise' Japan's military role as evidence.

This is a key issue: if Malcolm is right than the Chinese really are making a big mistake in the East China Sea. That is why it is so important to test our judgments on it quite carefully. I'd offer Malcolm two sets of thoughts about it.

First, how confident is Tokyo that America really would be willing to go to war with China over the Senkakus? This is not at all a hypothetical issue for Japan. Malcolm seems to think Tokyo has complete faith in US military support. I am much less sure. That's partly because of what people in Tokyo say to me. It's partly because of what Americans say, and don't say. The polite word for America's signals over the Senkakus is 'mixed', and they remain so even after Obama's Tokyo statement earlier this year. Above all, it's because of the military realities. When we look at what would happen if the US actually did fight China over the Senkakus, we can see why Japan would be wise to doubt US support. 

Second, what is Abe's motive in strengthening Japan's military posture? Malcolm is sure that it is to reinforce the US-Japan alliance, not to replace it. I think it is aiming to do both. Prime Minister Abe no doubt hopes that by doing more to support America in Asia it will strengthen US capacity and resolve to preserve the status quo. But I have argued before that this won't work, and it seems that Abe sees that as a real risk. So his new policies are also intended to lay the foundation for Japan to look after itself if US support should fail.  

If these thoughts are right, China would be right to think that its assertiveness will weaken the US-Japan alliance, and leave Japan with only the two choices I mentioned.

However Dhruva Jaishankar's elegant post raises a different possibility.

Read More

He suggests that even if Beijing is right to expect a weakening US-Japan alliance, it might be overlooking a third Japanese option. Rather than meekly submitting to Chinese primacy or reconstituting itself as an independent great power confronting China, Japan could join and perhaps lead a coalition of regional powers along the lines recently suggested by Rory Medcalf and C Raja Mohan. This is what Abe himself may well have in mind. 

Rory's and Raja's fine paper deserves a post to itself, but let me just say here that I think the possibility that they and Dhruva raise is less threatening to China's ambitions than one might suppose. That is because, whatever might be its diplomatic attractions, the strategic potential of such a grouping against China is very limited. Ultimately, it depends on how willing its members are to go to war on one another's behalf. In Japan's position, of example, the value of a regional coalition would depend on whether India, Australia, Vietnam and others would be willing to go to war with China to support Japan over the Senkakus. I bet they wouldn't, and I think China would bet that way too. So without America, Japan is on its own.

Of course China is keen to make sure it stays that way. That is why, as Christopher Pokarier quite rightly says, China is going out of its way to stigmatise Japan's defence policy changes as 're-militarisation'. Like him I think this is quite unjustified. Japan has a perfect right to defend itself just as any other country does. It has almost 70 years of good international citizenship behind it, from which the historical revisionism of Prime Minister Abe and his circle does not materially detract. And, above all, Japan today lacks the strategic weight to threaten China or any country that Beijing chooses to support. This is why I don't think we should be too worried about Japan reconstituting itself as an independent strategic power in the new order that is emerging in Asia as the old one passes away.

Which brings me finally to Brad Glosserman's piece. Brad is another favourite sparring partner. As always, he goes straight to the core questions. I absolutely agree with him (and with Malcolm) that the best thing for Japan would be to continue to depend on America. But I do not believe that is possible, because the old regional order in which that posture worked so well for Japan has been overturned by China's new power and ambitions.

The impact on Japan's situation is a simple matter of what we might call Newtonian strategy. As China's wealth and power grows, the costs to the US of conflict with China grow, and the threshold for US support to Japan against China goes up accordingly. It has now gone up far enough that America may no longer be willing to support Japan militarily over issues like the Senkakus which Japan rightly regards as vital. I think perhaps many Americans are in denial about this. I don't think many Japanese are. The Chinese understand it very clearly, and that is the message their actions over the Senkakus are trying to convey.

So what can Japan do? I think it faces a binary choice: accept Chinese primacy or try to preserve its full political and strategic independence. Which path Japan takes will depend, inter alia, on what kind of regional hegemon China might become. If it turned out to be as benign as the US has been in the Western Hemisphere, then a future for Japan as Asia's Canada might not be so bad. But how trusting are the Japanese willing to be? And what have the Chinese done to earn Japan's trust? 

And the alternative? I may have misled Brad by describing Japan's other option as a return to 'great power' status. I do not mean that Japan would need to compete with China for hegemony in Asia, or assert a sphere of influence of its own to match and balance China's. In the right regional setting Japan could establish itself as a great power on equal terms with China, without seeking hegemony or a sphere of influence. For reasons I set out in The China Choice, that regional setting would need to resemble the nineteenth-century European Concert of Powers: a Concert of Asia. Only as an independent great power in that kind of setting can Japan be secure over coming decades, unless it is willing to accept subordination to China.

Image courtesy of the White House.


It has long been an axiom of Asian strategic analysis that the last thing Beijing wants is a rearmed, strategically independent, 'normal' Japan. And yet it seems obvious that Beijing's highly assertive policies are pushing Tokyo in exactly that direction. To many this provides yet another sign that China does not know what it is doing.

This is reassuring to those who think we do not need to take China's challenge to US regional leadership too seriously. As long as China foolishly stokes anxiety and provokes counter-balancing action among its neighbours, America has little to fear.

Well, maybe. But before we assume that China is being foolish, it is worth looking more closely at alternative explanations of what is going on. There is a chance that Beijing might be making a rather different mistake from the one most of us assume, and there is even a chance that they are not making a mistake at all.

One thing is for sure: China's conduct, especially over the Senkakus, is undermining Japan's post-war strategic posture, a posture which has served both Japan and China so well for so long. The foundation of that posture has of course been Japan's confidence that it can rely on America for its security, which in turn has seemed essential to Japan's unique version of 'national pacifism'.

As I have argued before (Explaining China's behaviour in the East and South China Seas), China's actions over the Senkakus seem deliberately designed to undermine Japan's confidence in American support by showing Japan that on a critical issue America is not willing to risk a clash with China on Japan's behalf. And that seems to be working. Despite President Obama's bold affirmation of US support over the disputed islands in Tokyo in April, Japanese confidence in US support against China does seem to have waned. The clearest signs are of course Mr Abe's steps to embrace collective self-defence and start looking for allies in Asia, including Australia.

These are exactly the kinds of steps towards normalisation that we could expect Beijing to want to avoid. So what is going on? There seem two possible alternatives to the conclusion that Beijing is just making a mistake.

Read More

The first and perhaps more probable explanation is that China's leaders believe Japan is incapable of becoming a 'normal' military power again, even if it does lose confidence in US support. Beijing quite possibly assumes that Abe's bid to rebuild Japan as a great power in Asia is doomed to fail. After twenty years of economic stagnation, political drift, demographic decline and natural disasters, Japan is simply too demoralised to remake itself into a serious independent military power again.

My ANU colleague Amy King has recently written an outstanding piece suggesting that this is exactly what Beijing thinks. She shows that Chinese statements and commentaries almost completely omit Japan from discussion of Asia's strategic future. They just don't seem to take Japan seriously as a potential great power. That seems right to me: I've always been struck by how readily Chinese interlocutors dismiss Japan as a possible strategic rival.

This would explain why Beijing doesn't seem to worry about how Japan responds to its assertive tactics in the East China Sea. China's leaders may hope and expect that if their pressure tactics work, Japan will lose confidence in America and yet be unable to reassert an independent role as a great power. In which case, Beijing might think, Japan would have no alternative but to acquiesce in Chinese regional leadership.

But are the Chinese wrong to dismiss Japan as a future strategic rival in this way? I've always tended to believe that they were. Japan has such an intense sense of its own identity, and such an intense fear (thanks in part to China's own conduct) of how it would fare under China's regional leadership.

But many people who know Japan much better than I do say that this may not be right. They argue that Japan might indeed be unable, or at least unwilling, to resist Chinese regional leadership if American leadership falters. Now Brad Glosserman of CSIS has written a fascinating essay in the Summer 2014 issue of Washington Quarterly that sheds a lot of light on Japan's choices at this critical moment. Although Brad does not draw this conclusion specifically, his analysis does lend support to the idea that Japan would accept a subordinate status in a Chinese-led Asia. If that is right, then the current moves to undermine the US-Japan alliance make good strategic sense for Beijing.

The second possibility is that Beijing has got Japan wrong, and instead of sliding gracefully into subordination Japan would respond to any erosion of US leadership by rallying to Abe's call and re-establish itself as a great power in Asia, with nuclear weapons and all. I still think this is a real possibility.

If Beijing sees this as a possibility, or if it comes to see it as such in future, then it will face an interesting choice: would it rather face Japan as a strategic rival in Asia, or America? Either it stops trying to undermine the US-Japan alliance, which leaves US strategic weight in Asia largely intact as the principle limit to Chinese ambitions. Or it undermines the US-Japan alliance, in which case Japan replaces America as the major balancer of Chinese power in Asia. Which would Beijing rather deal with? I think they'd probably prefer Japan.

So either way, China's strategy may not be so dumb after all.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.