Competing with China for primacy in East Asia is by far the most serious strategic commitment America has undertaken since the Cold War. And yet Washington has launched into it with no clear idea of what would count as winning, how it could be won, how much it will cost and why winning really matters. This would seem almost unbelievably foolish and irresponsible if it did not sound so familiar. This is what happened when Washington launched America into Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s, and indeed into Vietnam in the 1960s.
There is a pattern here of US incompetence which we should not overlook. In Canberra, they tend to assume that the American political and policy machine gets things right, and to take what they say at face value. But when the stakes for us are so high – far higher than in those previous debacles – we cannot afford to assume that our allies know what they are doing. We should do our due diligence and decide for ourselves if what Washington is saying or doing really stacks up and makes sense. And the closer we look, the worse things appear.
The problems start with the most fundamental question: what exactly is Washington trying to achieve? Does it aim to preserve the old regional order, with America as the leading power in East Asia, so that things stay essentially as they have been for the past fifty years? Or does it aim lower, seeking instead to retain a major strategic role, but not retaining the primacy that it has enjoyed for so long? Or to put it another way, does it want to remain the dominant power, or does it simply want to stop China becoming the dominant power, by keeping a strong role for itself? Washington has no definite answer to these questions.
Some voices, especially on the Republican side, like to talk of retaining primacy. The Trump administration’s classified US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific, released just before it left office in January 2021, was quite unambiguous. Its very first words posed the question for US policy as “How to maintain US strategic primacy in the Indo-Pacific region.”
The current administration has been less explicit, but the trend of its thinking is becoming clear. Two prominent members of the incoming Biden team wrote – also in January 2021 – that Washington’s policy in Asia should “start by moving away from its singular focus on primacy.” They argued that America should aim to balance China’s power in Asia, and suggested the European strategic order of the nineteenth century as a model for the order that America might seek to foster in Asia. That thinking was reflected in the administration’s curiously low-key Indo-Pacific Strategy, which was very quietly slipped out in February 2022.
This way of seeing the primary US objective in Asia has support among some Republican thinkers too. Michael Green, in his superb recent history of America’s long strategic engagement in Asia, wrote that “the one central theme” has been “that the United States will not tolerate any other power establishing exclusive hegemonic control over Asia or the Pacific.” And Elbridge Colby, who has written the most sophisticated contemporary account of US strategy towards China, argues that America’s primary objective in Asia should be to prevent Chinese hegemony, not perpetuate America’s. That means staying in Asia to balance China, not to dominate it.
Some years ago this made good sense. I argued in my first Quarterly Essay, Power Shift, in 2010, and the subsequent book, The China Choice, that America should look for a way to share power with China in Asia. But there are two problems with that aim today. The first is in Washington, where there remains a deep instinctive attachment to the idea of American primacy as the only possible basis for US strategy in Asia. The alternative of sharing power in any meaningful way with China in a European-style balance-of-power or concert-of-power system must necessarily mean treating China as an equal. When I suggested that a decade ago, this idea was greeted in Washington with polite bewilderment at best, and often with uncomprehending disbelief. While some serious thinkers such as Green and Colby may now have begun to warm to the idea, there is little sign that Washington as a whole has started to think this way. Nor is there any sign that they have begun to think through what it would look like, how it would work, what it would mean for US allies and how it could be sustained. Those who have argued for this approach – including our own Kevin Rudd – have seriously underestimated the concessions that would have to be made to China to make it work. They expect, for example, that China might agree to ease pressure on Taiwan if America abides more strictly by the One China policy. That might work if China’s aim was to preserve the status quo there, but China wants much more than that. It wants Taiwan back, and it will not accept an American strategic presence in Asia if America does not accept that – which no one in Washington is prepared to do, because to do so would be to surrender US primacy. And no one is willing to contemplate that. In short, there is no coherent vision in Washington of any US role in Asia other than primacy.
More broadly, while Rudd’s proposals for “managed strategic competition” suggest measures to reduce the risk of conflict over flashpoints such as Taiwan and the South China Sea, they do not address the underlying differences between America and China over strategic leadership in East Asia. They assume that China might accept America’s strategic presence in Asia in order to reduce the risk of war. But there is no sign of that. On the contrary, China wants to use the risk of war to force America out of the region – just as America hopes the risk of war will compel China to accept US primacy.
The second problem is in Beijing. America might not know what it wants, but China does. It wants America right out of Asia as a strategic power. A decade ago, when China was weaker and America seemed stronger, Beijing might have been persuaded to compromise and allow America to stay in the region as a balancing rather than dominant power. But today it has a better hand, so it has little reason to compromise now and even less reason to do so in the years to come. It has no interest in a deal, so America will find it as hard to keep a balancing role in Asia as it will to preserve primacy. Washington often forgets that the adversary has a vote.
The reality is that America has no clear and settled objective in its contest with China. Slogans such as “a free and open Indo-Pacific” merely try to mask this critical omission. In truth, however, America aims to retain primacy. There is no model of a new role for America in the new Asia of the twenty-first century, because sharing power in the complex quadrilles of traditional power-political diplomacy is just not what America does. Instead it confronts China in a stark and brutal zero-sum contest for power and influence.
This is an extract from Hugh White's Quarterly Essay, Sleepwalk to War: Australia’s Unthinking Alliance with America. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.
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