It’s tempting to caricature Hugh White. When you’re mapping the contours of the China debate, who better to hold up as an exemplar of accommodation? And yet, having read his analyses closely, and having had the privilege of discussing Asia’s future with him in person, I’ll say again what I’ve said before: Hugh is right.
He’s right that the United States and China are in an epochal competition for the heart and soul of the twenty-first century. He’s right that Washington and the American people have yet to grapple with this reality in any meaningful way, much less respond accordingly. He’s right that the United States is losing badly right now. And he’s right that, if current trends continue, the result will be a whitewash in China’s favour, leaving Australia with exceedingly difficult decisions about the direction of its foreign alignments and policies in a China-dominated Asia.
But this is where Hugh and I diverge, because I just don’t think the contest is over. Nor is China’s victory as inevitable as Hugh portrays. With a smart, focused strategy, the United States can staunch Beijing’s momentum towards a China-led order in the region – and it can do so in ways that don’t do violence to the US–Australia alliance or Australia’s foreign-policy fundamentals.
If Hugh and I are fellow travellers in our depictions of current trends in Asia, what accounts for our starkly differing conclusions about where this all ends up? I see three core issues upon which Hugh and I disagree.
First, Hugh describes the purpose of the Obama administration’s Pivot, or Rebalance, to Asia as an attempt to “deter Beijing from challenging US leadership by affirming America’s determination to remain Asia’s primary power.” Later, he describes Obama’s policy as a failed effort to “resist and contain China’s challenge.” Here, I have to say, Hugh is wrong. Having spent countless hours in the White House Situation Room in National Security Council meetings with President Obama and his national security team, I can safely say that the Obama administration’s Asia policy was not focused on containing China’s rise or deterring a challenge to US leadership. Geopolitical competition in Asia was not a central focus. Instead, US policy was based on the notion that China’s expanding power and influence were natural, manageable and, on balance, beneficial to enhancing cooperation on global issues. (I’ll admit the messaging wasn’t great – another thing on which Hugh and I agree.)
This matters a great deal because it determines whether the story of the last decade is that the United States intended, attempted, but ultimately failed to resist China’s rise; or, alternatively, that the United States hasn’t actually tried in any meaningful way yet to apply significant counterpressure on Beijing’s burgeoning influence. Hugh argues the former, I’d argue the latter. He thinks the gig is up; I think we haven’t tested the proposition.
I also take issue with Hugh’s characterisation that “disappointment” with Australia’s approach to China was a critical factor shaping Washington’s attitude towards Canberra. This is a significant misreading insofar as China was a distant priority in the Obama administration’s Australia policy – certainly compared to the importance of working with Canberra on climate change, refugees and counter-ISIS campaigns in Syria and Iraq. Bottom line: Hugh overstates Washington’s focus on resisting the China challenge, which leads him to see decisive failure where I still see latent potential.
Second, and relatedly, Hugh bases much of his argument on what he perceives to be an imbalance of resolve: China cares more, is more willing to go to war, and will therefore prevail in any game of chicken or brinksmanship. I agree with Hugh that Washington has been unduly risk-averse, thereby creating a permissive environment for Chinese assertiveness. But that can surely change; the United States could take a firmer line in defending its interests in Asia. In fact, I think this is more likely than not.
What would happen then? In Hugh’s telling, China will stand firm and Washington will blink. Good as a theory, but also inaccurate as a depiction of recent events. It’s true that Washington has exhibited significant risk aversion – but so has Beijing. Look at the record: in instances where the Obama (and now Trump) administration outlined clear and credible consequences for China’s bad behaviour – including on cyber-espionage, UN sanctions on North Korea, and its Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea – Beijing quickly folded and reversed course. In fact, it’s hard to think of a single case where China escalated in the face of concentrated, principled American power. Contrary to Hugh’s predictions, this suggests that when the United States chooses to push back, Beijing isn’t quite so willing after all to lower its shoulder at the risk of confrontation.
Third, Hugh ascribes limited and minimal aims to China’s leaders, noting that “they will seek no more influence in East Asia, and over Australia, than they need to achieve their key objectives.” This sounds fairly benign, and it is a point often made by those in Washington who argue that US policy in Asia is basically on the right course. I’m less confident, and further troubled by descriptions of geopolitics in Asia suggesting that all that’s really happening is one balloon is getting bigger and one balloon is getting smaller. For me, this kind of normative relativism – or at least normative agnosticism – elides just how different China’s control of Asia could be. It’s worth thinking critically about an illiberal world in which the Chinese Communist Party has dominant sway over the norms, rules and institutions that govern international relations. Admittedly, neither politicians nor experts in Washington have made this case clearly or effectively, but that doesn’t mean the consequences will be small and acceptable if Beijing consolidates a China-led order. I see sky-high stakes for the United States.
In the final analysis, Hugh’s essay is exceedingly important as a clarion call – I wish every senior US policy-maker would take the time not only to read it, but to internalise the profundity of the challenge facing the United States. That said, the United States is not as weak nor is China as strong as Hugh’s readers might be led to believe. To friends in Australia, let me conclude with this: America is down but not out. Stick with us. Ride out Donald Trump. Our alliance can still help preserve a future for Asia that is open and free. It’s not yet time, as Hugh suggests, to submit to a region without America.
Ely Ratner is the Maurice R. Greenberg senior fellow in China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He most recently served as deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 69, Moment of Truth.
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