China and the World

Clash of the titans?

New book looks at America’s dwindling ability to ‘contain’ China militarily

China owes its seat on the UN Security Council to one man: Franklin D Roosevelt. According to David Woolner, an historian with the Roosevelt Institute, FDR saw China’s potential as a ‘great power’ and envisioned it serving as one of the “five policemen” that would keep world peace.

In fact, the US president had a fascination with the Chinese as did many other Americans in the 1940s. As David Halberstam observes in his book The Best and the Brightest: “To America, China was a special country, different from other countries… The Chinese were puritanical, clean, hard-working, reverent, cheerful, all the virtues Americans most admired. And so a myth had grown up, a myth not necessarily supported by the facts, of the very special US-China relationship.”

This relationship soon soured when Mao Zedong’s Red Army triggered a civil war with the pro-American ruling party, the KMT.

Debate then raged about whether the US should become militarily involved on the Chinese mainland. In 1947 Secretary of State George Marshall – a former general – gave his own verdict: “We must not get sucked in. We would need five hundred thousand men to begin with, and it would be just the beginning. And how would I extricate them?”

His successor, John Foster Dulles returned to the same question in the mid-fifties. Dulles was supremely confident of America’s superior military technology, so much so that his undersecretary Walter Beddel Smith would tell friends that his boss was “still dreaming his fancy about reactivating the civil war in China”.

Nearly six decades later, FDR’s prediction of China’s potential to become a global power has proved accurate. But any chance of a special relationship looks more distant, with President Obama even describing Beijing as an “adversary” in one of the presidential debates. Disputes over territory in the East and South China Sea are also casting doubt over whether the American ‘policeman’ can work with its Chinese counterpart to keep the regional peace. Indeed, as Washington ‘pivots’ (i.e. refocuses more of its attention) back to Asia, defence experts are analysing the potential for a coming conflict with China, weighing up the cold logic of military superiority much as Marshall and Dulles once did.

So Hugh White’s book is well-timed. Titled The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power, the author is a Fellow at the Lowy Institute and a former senior defence department official in Australia. White’s nationality is important: perhaps no country is as delicately poised between Chinese and American influence as Australia.

The book came out just weeks before China launched its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. Although China’s naval power is still dwarfed by the American fleet, the Liaoning is a statement of intent. Similarly, Chinese media carried news this month of the test flight of a new model of stealth fighter, the Shenyang J-31. The aircraft is said to be under consideration for use on the Liaoning.

China’s military modernisation worries most of its neighbours, in no small part because they’ve grown accustomed to decades of stability thanks to the ‘Pax Americana’. For most of the last 30 years, China has acquiesced in this status quo. Former leader Deng Xiaoping instigated a policy of putting the economy first, deliberately playing a low-key role in foreign policy (“hide brightness, nourish obscurity; bide our time and build our capabilities” was the refrain).

But White points out this changed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis when China realised it had become an economic superpower and needed to take on a more assertive role politically too, particularly in Asia. The timing was opportune for another reason: US attention had drifted over the preceding decade, seemingly losing interest in Asian affairs as it prioritised the Middle East and Afghanistan.

And while no specific event or treaty signified it, it became evident to strategists that China was fast becoming the leading regional player.

Now – despite the talk of the US pivot back to Asia – White believes that China’s leaders are far from willing to revert to a second-tier role. Why? “China fears that if America remains the leader in Asia, it will use its power and position to limit China’s growth, constrain its influence and undermine its political system,” he posits.

“In 1972, China tacitly relinquished its claim to great power status in Asia. Today China is strong enough to claim it back, and nothing is more important to China than that claim. If necessary, it will fight for it.”

There are two reasons why White believes the US will not be able to regain its former dominance. The first is military: “The development of China’s air and naval forces over the past two decades poses by far the most serious challenge to American sea control in the Western Pacific by an Asian power since the defeat of Japan in 1945.”

In 1996, the US could send its aircraft carriers into the Taiwan Strait and compel Beijing to back down. No more, says White. China has invested heavily in a so-called ‘area denial’ strategy, incorporating submarines and a new class of ballistic missiles that would make it much more dangerous for US aircraft carriers to sail close to shore (i.e. through the Taiwan Strait).

“Today China is much more capable of finding and sinking American ships than it was fifteen years ago,” White warns. “That has very sharply raised the risks to the United States of sending aircraft carrier and marines to intervene in any crisis involving China. In many situations, deploying extraordinarily valuable ships like aircraft carriers in the face of Chinese sea-denial forces is no longer a viable strategic option for Washington.”

Last week, China’s outgoing president, Hu Jintao, called for a further build up in Chinese naval strength.

“We should enhance our capacity for exploiting marine resources, resolutely safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests, and build China into a maritime power,” Hu told delegates at the Party Congress in Beijing.

The second reason is economic. In days gone by, Washington could threaten to close its doors to Chinese exports or put a block on investment capital arriving in China from the US. But White says China’s economy is now so large that such containment strategies are an anachronism: “The reality dawned only slowly in Washington. It took the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09 to convince many people of how big and important China’s economy had become, and how unrealistic the threat of economic isolation.”

With American economic health now much more reliant on a smoothly functioning relationship with China, the most prominent fear is that – in the event of a dispute – Beijing might trigger a financial confrontation by dumping its holdings of US government debt.

But that isn’t the only threat: think too of the interdependence of US and Chinese supply chains. For example, how would Apple sell its China-assembled iPhones in the event of an American blockade? That’s created a new calculus for the US leadership, White believes: “America needs China as much as China needs America, and the costs of turmoil and conflict would fall just as hard on Washington as on Beijing.”

Likewise America’s allies in the region are also cautious about upsetting their commerical ties with the Chinese. White reckons old American allies may increasingly prefer ‘neutrality’ rather than risk a loss of business with China.

None of this bodes well for the Pax Americana. White says the best outcome for all concerned is if China and the US can agree to “share the leadership of Asia” although the conclusion to the book makes clear that this solution is complex. “If sharing power is so obviously the best thing to do, America’s China choice might seem rather simple,” White warns. “In fact, it is anything but. Sharing power with China runs counter to America’s vision of itself and its role in the world, and accommodating an ambitious authoritarian rising power runs contrary to many lessons of history, maxims of policy, principles of morality and common prudence. All these concerns weigh against doing a deal with China.”

The strength of White’s book is more in showing how Washington’s power in Asia has ebbed. His suggestions for how power might be shared in future are less convincing (he suggests a ‘Concert of Asia’ similar to that which kept the peace in Europe after Napoleon’s defeat).

Indeed, returning to the present day, it is hard to imagine just how this power-sharing scheme would work. Take the example of the dispute between China and Japan over a set of islands in the East China Sea. What is America’s role in this stand-off – especially in light of Beijing repeatedly stating that it is none of Washington’s business?

Of course, Japan begs to differ, viewing the US as a vital player in the row, and even calling recently for an upgrade to its miltary alliance with the Americans. Defence Minister Morimoto Satoshi said the agreement (which was last revised in 1997) needs overhaul as “there are lots of risks that were not really anticipated 15 years ago, including China’s maritime emergence”.

Gideon Rachman, a columnist for the Financial Times, is concerned that the current tensions could lead to something worse. Citing the example of the treaty commitments that pulled countries into war in 1914, Rachman insists that we should all be worried by a “territorial dispute that involves the world’s three largest economies” and warns that

“the dangers of miscalculation and conflict are increasing”.

Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, professor Pei Minxin agrees, saying Sino-US relations “are in trouble” and the “reset” button needs to be pushed. “Mutual strategic mistrust has escalated in the last two years and is creating a vicious cycle that, if not stopped quickly, could lead to a fierce rivalry, harmful to both countries,” Pei suggests.

Perhaps there is an opportunity for “reset” with the advent of a new leadership team in Beijing. On the positive front Xi Jinping is the first Chinese leader to have spent a reasonable amount of time in the US (briefly living with a family in Iowa). His daughter is also studying at Harvard, signalling that he must have some regard for American values.

But Xi won’t want to look weak in his dealings with the Americans. Knowing this, the US administration will need to tread carefully in its dealings with the new leadership in Beijing. A recognition of as much may explain some of the more soothing words emerging from the Obama camp this week.

Tom Donilon, the president’s national security advisor, sought to strike a more measured tone telling a conference that in respect to China “we seek to manage disagreements and competition in a healthy – not disruptive – manner.” It might be semantics but ‘healthy’ and ‘not disruptive’ are a long way from the anti-Chinese language heard on the campaign trail. A signal possibly that Obama sees an opportunity to create a better personal rapport with China’s new leader?


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