Hugh White’s essay demonstrates that even a flawed argument can garner international attention if it uses the right dramatic device. For White, that device is a fictional meeting of the US National Security Council (NSC). In this vignette, the President chooses not to risk war, potentially nuclear war, with China over the South China Sea; in doing so, according to White, the United States effectively retreats from Asia and hands it to China. This is exciting stuff indeed and we look forward to the movie.
However, the reality of national security policy-making is seldom so dramatic and simplistic. We have heard the binary “China Choice” argument for nearly a decade now, but this particular vignette and newest version of White’s argument caught our attention not only due to its colour and flair but also its factual inaccuracy and analytic weakness. Given our collective participation in over a decade of actual meetings on China in the White House Situation Room for Presidents Bush and Obama, we have a very different view about this fictional NSC meeting, as well as the broader geopolitical dynamics at play in the Asia-Pacific.
White’s argument is built on a rolling series of inflated assumptions about Chinese power, and deflated assumptions about the United States. His argument also displays the core analytic flaw of generalisation: it assumes the specific case of the South China Sea is the best and only way to measure US resolve more broadly (and that US resolve is best tested by a willingness to escalate to nuclear war with China). White also selectively interprets the events in the South China Sea to make the case for a US retreat from Asia, which we see as an overly sweeping conclusion. In addition, there is almost no extended discussion of economic issues, as if economic interdependence is irrelevant to Asian nations’ strategic orientation. (White just asserts widespread economic dependence on China by everyone in Asia.)
To be clear, we do not question White’s motives in trying to foster a serious debate about the implications of China’s growing clout and ambition; indeed we applaud his efforts. We do, however, question his analytic judgments about the capabilities, motives, possible scenarios and likely outcomes. Such a debate needs to be well informed and well reasoned. We would like to see less polemics and more analytics.
Let us begin with China. White’s ledger sheet on China’s power lists only profits and potential profits – no losses or potential losses. He does a great job of measuring China’s strengths and juxtaposing them against America’s weaknesses. Neither of us has any illusions about China’s economic, diplomatic or military capabilities and potential; Xi Jinping is clearly a formidable leader with substantial ambitions. However, China’s limitations and weaknesses are substantial as well: an economy saddled with a large and growing debt burden, a bloated and inefficient state sector, endemic corruption, a highly inefficient system for allocating resources, pervasive and extreme air and water pollution, and a leadership that is, at best, ambivalent about market reforms. China desperately wants to avoid the middle-income trap but, if history is a guide, it only has only about five years left before demographic trends and related macro-economic imbalances become structural constraints to doing so.
Externally, China’s dependence on foreign energy sources is only growing, creating major vulnerabilities. Its military capabilities are untested in conflict, and few of China’s top military leaders have any real combat experience aside from a costly ground campaign with Vietnam in 1979. Diplomatically, China enjoys very little attractive soft power, and its coercive use of its economic, military and paramilitary capabilities in recent years has fostered enduring anxiety in Asia. The US Pivot was premised on the correct assumption that no one in Asia wants China to dominate the region, and that remains the case today – perhaps more so as Xi Jinping shows his stripes.
In contrast, White’s ledger sheet on the United States is presented as all losses or projected losses. There is no mention of American energy dominance; the United States’ broad and increasingly strong economic recovery (projected to continue, absent an exogenous shock); the strengthening of American alliances in Asia, America’s technological innovation, higher education institutions, military capabilities; or the fact that direct foreign investment into the United States from Asian sources dwarfs that going into China in both stock and flow.
More to the point, White’s essay assumes that the United States is incapable of learning and adjusting to the new reality, whereas China is capable of flawlessly mastering every strategic twist and turn, and incapable of error or overreach. For example, he argues that many American policy-makers and experts think the best way to deal with China is to wait for it to collapse politically, economically and diplomatically, and that US policy has been based on such assumptions. White should name one such policy-maker, because we are not aware of anyone on either side of the aisle who has made that argument. Such arguments certainly never came up in the NSC meetings we have attended since 2001. This is a classic straw-man argument about US policy.
On the same theme of blissful American complacency, Hugh argues that China’s coercive actions on maritime issues have worked well for Beijing because Washington has made no effective response; he then concludes that China has won by default. We have each noted, as have many of our American colleagues in and out of government, that Beijing gained a strategic advantage in its rapid and unexpected construction and partial militarisation of island bases in the South China Sea. The United States, Australia and our partners then suffered further setbacks when Beijing was able to use proxies within both ASEAN and the European Union to block consensus in those groupings and blunt diplomatic pressure on China. A goal scored for China perhaps, but White would have us throw in the towel and go back to the bus for a depressing ride home in the first minutes of the game.
White’s accounts of Chinese behaviour in the East and South China Seas are inaccurate in their characterisation of the events and their outcomes (that is, China always winning). He claims that China’s moves against Scarborough Shoal and the Senkaku Islands were deliberate and carefully planned and executed attempts to test US resolve – and that the US failed in both instances. His account does not accord with the facts.
In May 2012, the dispute over Scarborough Shoal near the Philippines came about because a Philippine naval vessel (on the way back from monitoring a North Korean missile test) stumbled by chance upon a Chinese fisherman fishing within the shoal. The navy arrested the fisherman and thus began the dispute with China. Beijing and Manila spent several weeks trying to resolve this privately – which Beijing clearly preferred. The situation escalated when the Philippines unwisely went public and sought to shame China into cooperating. China then escalated further by deploying coastguard vessels in and around the disputed shoal. Keep in mind that China’s position on the South China Sea at that time was heavily influenced by Hu Jintao and State Councillor Dai Bingguo, who were both known to prefer diplomacy and were still committed to a low-profile foreign policy (“hide and bide”). Thus, the notion that the 2012 Scarborough Shoal incident was a grand strategic play by Hu Jintao is a bit rich. To be sure, China outmanoeuvred Washington and Manila, albeit mendaciously, by keeping its vessels around Scarborough and thus securing de facto control of the area, but this lesson was not lost on other countries in the region.
That is not the end of the story. China threatened many times to take similar action in and around another disputed feature, Thomas Shoal (where a very old, rusting Philippine naval vessel is grounded), but never made a move to do so. The US and Philippine militaries worked together to keep the naval vessel and its occupants well supplied, and deterred Chinese efforts to seize the shoal.
Even more dramatically, in 2016 the United States very specifically deterred China from conducting land reclamation in Scarborough Shoal. According to press reports, in early March 2016 US intelligence agencies gained information that China was preparing to send dredgers to Scarborough to begin reclamation; by some accounts, a few ships had already left Chinese ports. With this information, and after a few NSC meetings (okay, sometimes these meetings can involve drama), Washington decided to intervene at the highest levels. During a 31 March meeting with Xi Jinping at the Nuclear Security Summit, President Obama made clear that if China started reclamation work at Scarborough it would have major consequences, implying US military action; he linked this to the credibility of US alliance commitments. Xi Jinping clearly got the message, because Chinese ships turned around and the Scarborough reclamation was halted. In other words, China backed down.
A similar course of events played out in the East China Sea. In this case, Chinese actions were not a well-planned effort to test US and Japanese resolve, but a gradual evolution of events precipitated by Japanese actions. China deployed its coastguard around the disputed islands because the islands had been effectively nationalised by the Japanese government. Tokyo thought it had successfully managed this issue with Beijing between the announcement in July and its implementation in September, but once the decision took effect, Beijing reacted with anger and numerous deployments.
The US and Japanese response was not the unmitigated failure that White purports it to be in his essay. On the contrary, from autumn 2012, the United States and Japan countered Chinese coercion in the East China Sea. US diplomacy, military deployments and coordination with Japan prevented China from escalating its presence around the disputed islands, after multiple Chinese attempts to do so. Washington and Tokyo outflanked Xi diplomatically in the region and prevented him from demonising Prime Minister Abe and isolating Japan. Tokyo stepped up Japanese capabilities around the Senkakus, and Chinese actions produced the dramatic revision of the US–Japan defence cooperation guidelines. Far from “winning,” Xi abandoned his original conditions for concessions on the Senkakus and agreed to a summit with Abe in November 2014.
This evolution of US commitment towards Asia continues under the Trump administration. We have each criticised this president from opposite sides of the aisle for abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership, hobbling the State Department, questioning US alliances and damaging America’s brand in many parts of the world. There are strategic consequences to these actions, to be sure. But the Trump administration has also made the response to China a central organising tenet of its new National Security Strategy, imperfect though that strategy may still be. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has made more trips to meet with friends and allies in Asia than any of his predecessors in their first year, and has accelerated the Pentagon’s rebalance to Asia, despite Trump’s ridiculous campaign pledges threatening to abandon allies who did not pay more for their defence (though we would be quick to add that allies, including Australia, should spend more on defence).
Moreover, while Trump’s statements and actions (and the frequent disconnect between them) make for an irresistible target for White, polls show that support among the American public for global engagement and free trade actually increased in 2017. Indeed, a majority of Americans now identify Asia as the most important region in the world to our nation’s future. That percentage skyrockets among millennials. This is equally true for the Congress, where internationalists are winning seats in both parties and a growing cadre of new members is making Asia, rather than Europe or the Middle East, the focus of their legislative careers.
White’s fantastical scenario of an Asia without America ignores all of this. It also ignores two centuries of American engagement in the region. The American foreign policy intellectual Walter Lippman argued just before World War II that American isolationism applied to Europe, but never really applied to the Pacific. After France fell in 1940, Gallup polls showed that Americans still wanted to sit out the war in Europe, but were willing to put more pressure on Japan to back off in the Pacific, “even at the risk of war.” The United States bled in the Pacific during the Cold War, not in Europe. White argues that Americans will not be willing to risk nuclear war to defend allies in Asia, but the American people and Congress were willing to do so to defend NATO and Japan during the Cold War, and polls today show the highest level of public support for the defence of Japan or Korea, if needed, than we have ever seen. The “tripwire” that will guarantee American deterrence in Asia is not just American bases, but the hundreds of thousands of Americans who live in the region. The American territory of Guam is closer to mainland China than any point in Australia.
White’s essay is also ahistorical in arguing that the correct metric of American power is the retention of primacy in Asia. Even if one posits a more precipitous shift in power in the region – and there are many reasons not to believe we are on the eve of a shift to Chinese primacy as White claims – the reality is that since 1783 American leaders have focused first and foremost on preventing rival hegemons from denying the United States access to the Pacific. After 1945, primacy was, for a time, arguably a means to that end – not a historic end in itself. When Nixon opened to China in 1971 to counterbalance Soviet hegemony after Vietnam, he was acting in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt, who had understood how to play a multipolar power dynamic to maintain American access and advantage. The conditions for this strategy are no less ripe in Asia today. With the exception of Russia, the most powerful states in the region are moving closer to the United States because of uncertainty about China.
Furthermore, according to Hugh White, the fundamental test of primacy (as bad a metric as it may be) is not just US willingness to go to war with China over the South China Sea, but willingness to engage in nuclear war. Such a standard for measuring US resolve says more about White’s anxieties about the United States than the strategic realities of the Asia-Pacific. As former staff of the National Security Council, we are confident in asserting that it is essentially unknowable what the conditions might be for the United States to escalate to nuclear war with China, over the South China Sea, Taiwan or any issue. The specific evolution of such a crisis matters enormously. In our collective eleven years of service on the NSC staff, and after countless hours of meetings with allies and partners alike, we were never asked if the United States was willing to escalate to nuclear war with China as a signal of US resolve to back its security commitments in Asia. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a phony test.
White’s dismissal of the other powers in Asia is perhaps the flimsiest assumption of all. In his imagined post-American world, India would have insufficient reach into the Pacific, and Japan would be too isolated within East Asia to lead without America – ipso facto, the other major powers are irrelevant to this contest, now and in the future. But wait a minute: what if we look at the real world we know about first, instead of the post-American world Hugh posits? The fact that Japan, Australia and India all quickly agreed to participate in a “Quad” strategic dialogue with the United States that each had avoided earlier demonstrates an important shift in those countries’ strategic preferences for balancing Chinese power. The defence, intelligence and diplomatic relationships the United States has with Japan, India and Australia are unprecedented and slated to grow further. In terms of strategic alignment, we agree that China has had success wooing or intimidating some Southeast Asian countries. Beijing might also think it is winning in Korea under President Moon Jae-in, though polls there show deepening mistrust of China and strong support for the US alliance. Meanwhile, the most successful and powerful states in the region are aligning more closely with the United States, as we noted. That dynamic, as much as any, is what precludes the post-American world that Hugh posits.
In our view, Asia is emerging as a very dynamic multipolar security system in which major powers will bob and weave for influence across the arenas of economic, diplomatic and military affairs, cooperating in some and competing in others. No one in Asia wants China to dominate, but all want to benefit from China’s economy; conversely, no one in Asia wants to choose between the United States and China, but most are happy to play them off against each other. The strategic dynamics in Asia in the coming decades will be the space between these realities.
We are neither complacent about the challenges posed by China’s rise and its assertions in Asia, nor are we panicked about what it means for the United States’ relative position in the region – and regional politics more broadly. Australians shouldn’t be either. To be sure, the United States has much to do to improve its position, but that has always been the case (regardless of the China challenge), given the substantial US economic and security interests in the region. The core functions of US alliances – reassurance, deterrence and restraint – are a full-time job in the era of North Korean nuclear weapons and the myriad transitional challenges to Asian stability. Thus, the demand for the United States in Asia remains robust and in ways and on issues that China simply lacks the capabilities and expertise to provide.
Therefore, we believe it is highly premature for Australia or any country in Asia to jump into a post-American world based on the narrative of a binary choice built on an inflated assumption of China’s capabilities and deflated assumptions about US capabilities and resolve. Accordingly, we do not think that the current government of Australia is remotely close to accepting such arguments. If the latest foreign policy white paper is an accurate indication of Canberra’s strategic orientation, Australian policy-makers are as clear-eyed and determined as we are about the need to address the challenges emanating from China and Xi Jinping, which means securing opportunities and cooperation with Beijing where possible. As this picture takes shape, both the United States and Australia need to have public debates about these issues, and we applaud Hugh White’s effort to provoke such debate. These debates, however, need to be as well informed as they are engaging and entertaining; it is on that front which we believe White’s essay could have done better.
Michael Green served on the staff of the US National Security Council from 2001 to 2005, first as director for Asian affairs with responsibility for Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand, and then as special assistant to the president for national security affairs and senior director for Asia. He is a senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, director of Asian studies at Georgetown University and a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute.
Evan S. Medeiros served on the staff of the US National Security Council from 2009 to 2015, first as a director with responsibility for China, Taiwan and Mongolia affairs and then as special assistant to the president and senior director for Asian affairs. He is currently the managing director for Asia at Eurasia Group, a global political risk consultancy.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 69, Moment of Truth.
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