The Australia Test
The strategists Down Under see errors in America’s moves in Asia. They will not commit to anything in the event of war with China
Australia is not America’s most important ally in Asia, but it is America’s oldest and closest ally on this side of the Pacific – the one with which it shares the deepest bonds of history, culture, values and institutions. So Australia is a good market in which to test American policies in this part of the world. If they will not sell in Australia, then they will not sell in Asia. Today, the policy that needs testing is America’s approach to China’s power.
America has never really decided how to respond to China’s growing power in Asia. Instead, it has drifted into what is certainly the most consequential foreign policy decision since the end of the Cold War, and what could well prove to be the most important – and costly – foreign policy decision that it has ever made.
The policy that has emerged – without much reflection, analysis or explanation – is to push back against Beijing’s challenge to Washington’s leadership in order to preserve the primacy in Asia that America has enjoyed and exercised for so long.
Until very recently, this has seemed easy enough to do. It has been an article of faith that China, for all its growth, could never match American power. China’s economy might stop growing. Even if it kept growing, China’s military would remain weak. And even if its military grew strong, Beijing would not choose to unsettle the regional order upon which its growth depends. And even if China were dumb enough to take on America, America would win. A lot of Asians and most Australians have agreed.
However, this reassuring syllogism has become steadily less credible over the past few years, as China’s economy, its military and its strategic ambitions have all continued to expand. America has therefore begun – again, without much reflection or analysis – to rely more and more heavily on support from China’s neighbours in Asia to help it to resist China’s challenge. It has set out to build a coalition – including old allies like Australia and many newer friends – to swing the power balance back America’s way, and prevent China from reshaping the Asian order in its favour.
The big question, naturally, is whether this will work. Can America build a coalition in Asia to help it to resist China’s challenge, and preserve its leadership in Asia? The best reason to think that it can work is that China’s neighbours – including Australia – so obviously want America to stay in the region. None of them wants to live under China’s shadow, and they all understand that a strong American strategic presence in Asia is the best – and perhaps only – guarantee against Chinese hegemony. China’s own assertive behaviour has helped to strengthen this understanding.
Still, there are several reasons for which it might very well not work – or at least not work the way that Washington hopes and assumes. First, while no one in Asia wants to be dominated by China, everyone does want to get on well with it. China’s economy is central to every Asian’s (and Australian’s) future prosperity, so all of the region’s parties and players have a huge stake in preserving manageable relations with Beijing. All of these parties and players also understand that China would be a very formidable and dangerous adversary. All of its neighbours have both a lot to gain from good relations with China, and a great deal to lose from bad relations. Again, this is certainly true of Australia, whose economy has become more and more dependent on China’s demand for its minerals.
Evidently, the same is also true on the other side of the Pacific. As China’s power grows, the costs and risks to America of confrontation with the Middle Kingdom grow too. It is not so much China’s holdings of American debt as its central place in the entire global economy that would make any serious confrontation so economically catastrophic for Washington. And no one in America can now assume that US forces could face the People’s Liberation Army in the Western Pacific with impunity, nor can they be quite sure about the point at which, in an escalating crisis, the threshold to nuclear conflict might be crossed.
The more that these costs and risks of confrontation with China rise – for Asians and Americans alike – the more that it matters that their interests in Asia are not so closely aligned. This is the second reason for which America’s new coalition to preserve its primacy in Asia might not work. Clearly, countries like Singapore and Vietnam want America to stay engaged in Asia, but are they sufficiently committed to support America in a confrontation with China in which their own interests are not directly engaged?
Which of America’s new friends would provide real support to the country in a conflict with China over Taiwan, for example? Indeed, which among even its old allies in Asia could really be relied upon to take up arms at America’s side against China in the Taiwan Strait, when the stakes for all of them in their relations with China are so high?
Certainly, no one should assume that Australia would offer more than rhetorical support. Canberra has never shared Washington’s conviction that preserving Taiwan’s current anomalous status is critical to the future of the regional order – especially not when weighed against the immense significance to Australia of its trade with China. Quite simply, a regime of ever-expanding mineral exports to China is the only model that Australians have of their economic future. They will not sacrifice that future and go to war with a nuclear power for any cause that is not absolutely fundamental to their own future security.
So America must ask itself: of what use are these friends and allies in supporting American primacy against China’s challenge if they cannot be relied upon when the crunch comes? Conversely, how sure can America’s friends and allies in Asia be that America would support them against China when they face a crisis? For all that Washington has encouraged Vietnam to stand up to China over these two countries’ claims in the South China Sea, would America really be willing to send the Seventh Fleet into action against the People’s Liberation Army Navy over a disputed rock – with all of the strategic and economic risks and costs that this would entail? And if not, of what use to Vietnam are Washington’s fine words?
The third reason for which America’s bid to preserve its primacy in Asia might not work is that there is – or at least there may be – a better alternative. America has drifted into a policy of safeguarding primacy by assuming that the only strategic alternative is to abandon Asia to Chinese hegemony. But there is a third option. America could stay engaged in Asia – not as the sole primary power, but as one among a number of equal great powers. It could help to build a concert of Asia’s great powers. This concert would have to include not just itself and China, but also India and Japan – all of the powers that will be strong enough to disrupt a new order if it does not suit them. Japan, despite all of its problems, will remain an Asian great power in this sense for decades to come. India, if it continues to grow, will soon become one. Russia, on the other hand, probably will not be essential to this mix: while clearly a great power in Europe, it will not be strong enough to veto anything to which the other four agree.
But America’s role – to be sure – would be key. Working within a new ‘Concert of Asia,’ Washington could balance and constrain Chinese power, and prevent Chinese hegemony without seeking to retain strategic primacy in Asia itself. This would not be easy, and would require unwelcome compromises with China – compromises that many would find unappealing. However, these costs and risks, though real, are small compared with the costs and risks of escalating strategic competition with China. At a minimum, it is worth a try.
No country in Asia has more reason than Australia to want America to remain the region’s dominant power, but even for Australia, China looms so large – both as a current partner and as a potential adversary – that this third strategic option looks quite attractive. The debate in Australia about these issues has only just begun, but it has indeed begun, and it is by no means clear that, once Australians understand the choices that they face, they will be willing to assume that preserving American primacy is the best way by which to keep Asia stable and Australia secure. If Australians are not willing to make this assumption, then neither will their neighbours to the north. And all of this suggests that America needs to seriously redefine its objectives in Asia.
Hugh White is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University, and a Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute. He is a former Australian deputy secretary of defence.