Westerners may believe that the growing integration and interdependence of China with the regional and international economy makes armed conflict too costly to contemplate and that the Pacific military balance is so heavily in US favour that China would not be foolish enough to challenge Washington. But what if Beijing believes that the costs to Washington would be so high that the US would back down? Along many such misperceptions and miscalculations do the bloody rivers of human history flow into the ocean of oblivion for once-great powers.
The challenge for the US, note James Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon, is to demonstrate resolve to deter China and reassure nervous regional allies, but without provoking a confrontation with China. The strategy they recommend is ‘engage but hedge’ in which the US gives China incentives to rise peacefully but maintains robust military capabilities in case engagement is unsuccessful.
To many Chinese, the US has been pursuing a China containment strategy. Minghao Zhao argues the US system of hub-and-spokes alliances is morphing into a ‘networked security system across the Indo–Pacific’ that allows for greater autonomy for Japan in security contributions, anticipates the deployment of a US-led missile defence system in South Korea, and draws India and Vietnam into the network. Nor did China fail to notice US opposition to the China created Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and efforts, albeit futile, to stop US allies from joining. Consequently China has little choice, Minghao concludes, but to develop what President Xi called the ‘bottom-line concept’ of the worst-case scenario.
The US is still the single most powerful and influential actor and will remain so well into the foreseeable future. But US primacy – military, economic, normative – is waning and global institutions will serve its power and purpose less and less, producing a decline in the American order. There is considerable scepticism about President Donald Trump’s commitment to uphold the post-1945 liberal international order crafted under American leadership and underwritten by US military power, economic heft and geopolitical clout. Trump’s pre-election statements on trade, immigration, alliances and nuclear policy in particular seemed to question these four critical pillars of established US policy and his policy decisions as president have only reinforced doubts about the US commitment.
This immediately raises a host of critical questions for the existing regional and global orders, not the least because of two further underlying realities. On the one hand, unlike the historical European great powers, China has no historical, philosophical or literary tradition of behaving as a major power in a system of great powers. Rather, its inheritance is that of the Middle Kingdom to which vassal states pay tribute. On the other hand, the US for its part lacks the experience of dealing with a multidimensional major power as a peer. For all its show, even at its height the former Soviet Union was essentially a one-dimensional military superpower, and hence an incomplete superpower. By contrast China is re-emerging as a comprehensive and multidimensional national power.
Ramesh Thakur FAIIA is Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University and co-convenor of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. He is a Fellow of the AIIA.