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Foreign Policy

Rising Asian Instability through America’s Pursuit of Deterrence and Primacy

Apr 25, 2024
  • Warwick Powell

    Adjunct Professor at Queensland University of Technology, Senior Fellow at Beijing Taihe Institute

The United States has intensified its efforts to assert or reclaim American Primacy in Asia. Assert if one holds the view that it still holds military preponderance; reclaim if one believes that it doesn’t. Through a series of so-called mini-lateral arrangements, the US has in recent years sought to enlist its Asia Pacific client states, former colonies and subimperial allies to anchor a 21st Century bulwark on the western edge of America’s Lake. The Quad, AUKUS and now the trilateral involving Japan and the Philippines form part of a lattice-like network, in all practical intents and purposes, aimed squarely at the containment of China. The rationalisation is the preservation of regional stability and a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ and the deterrence of Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and across the Taiwan Straits are the two immediate focal points. 

The rhetoric is one thing, but the practical implications are another. Contrary to the claims, I suggest that the pursuit of American Primacy in the name of deterrence doctrine is actually aggravating regional insecurities and increasing risks of conflict. Put plainly, the pursuit of US Primacy in Asia is anathema to stability and peace in the region. If the US and its assorted regional allies are seriously interested in regional stability and peace, a strategic policy framed by deterrence doctrine would be abandoned and a greater commitment to engaging in regional multilateralism would be made. But regional multilateralism, anchored by ASEAN Centrality, would be anathema to American Primacy.

American Primacy in Global Context

The dynamics in Asia aren’t detached from the broader issues confronting American hegemony globally. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US has occupied an unchallenged position as Global Hegemon. In that period, the US embarked on more military interventions on average per year than it had in the period between the end of WW2 and 1991. As Duffy Toft and Kushi have documented, between 1946-91, the US initiated on average 2.4 military interventions per year. This increased to 3.7 per year between 1991-2019. 

The unipolar moment was not, however, to last forever. History barely rested let alone end. By the late 2010s, American primacy was over. Some form of Multipolarity had emerged. In the European context, this manifested as the reemergence of Russia as a great power, and in Asia the consolidation of China’s rise. Mearsheimer argues that a tripolar world emerged around 2018. Whatever the precise date, and indeed whatever the precise characterisation of these powers, the point is this: uncontested American military preponderance had come to an end. This is, doubtless, a bitter pill to swallow for some and a cause of alarm for others. 

The unfolding defeat of US proxy Ukraine at the hands of Russia, despite years of NATO support and training,  has exposed the collective west’s systemic fragilities. The pursuit of NATO expansion into Ukraine not only provoked Russia’s ultimate response, but also served to drive Russia and China closer. For Mearsheimer this epitomised the folly of provoking Russia. As for frailties, the war in Ukraine has been a “system on system” contest: doctrine, equipment, personnel and critically the capacity of industrial supply chains. Having lulled itself into a false sense of confidence, the collective west’s system has been exposed. Russia was more than a “gas station masquerading as a country”. Russia’s army was not run by drunks, and it certainly was not running out of capacity. Full scale economic sanctions, aimed at bringing Russia’s economy to its knees and instigating regime change in the Kremlin, have backfired. Von der Leyen claimed Russia’s economy was “in tatters” and that it was raiding washing machines for chips. Neither were true. 

Conversely, the collective west’s field doctrine has been found wanting; but perhaps more poignant is the fact that its much-vaunted leadership in weaponry has been exposed. Its productive capacity is no match for the Russian’s industrial machine. The US army is running out of weapons, reports Jack Detsch in Foreign Policy. Its Wunderwaffe, one after another, have been destroyed in the theatre of battle.

Asian Primacy?

In Asia, for over 70 years the US has embarked on an ongoing military build-up and permanent troop presence. It has over 80,000 permanent military personnel stationed on over 240 military bases across North East Asia and the Pacific. The American blue water navy is supposedly the most feared array of capability ever amassed. Since 2000, its overall defence budget has been an accumulated $16.05T. This is not trivial. 

Yet, despite decades of head start and insuperable defence spending leadership, the US has reached a point where many now doubt its primacy in Asia. Analysts such as Elbridge Colby sound the alarm that the US is no longer able to pursue detente from a “position of strength”. For Colby, and many others amongst Washington’s policy elite, the U.S.’ immediate challenge is to regain some semblance of “balance in its favour”. 

Budgetary constraints have been exposed as a critical limitation to these ambitions. Industrial capacity is another. It has had no choice but to dragoon its Asian client states, former colonies and subimperial allies into a new mission of primacy reclamation. Colby has argued that the U.S. cannot sustain a two-war strategy and it must reduce its commitments in Europe and the Middle East, otherwise it will not be able to deal with the issues in Asia. The various mini-laterals pulled together over the past few years is as much a reflection of vestigial leverage and loyalties as it is a symptom of American limitations. The unfolding AUKUS nuclear submarines debacle exemplifies all the limitations - financially and industrially. The American blue water navy is powerful, but not omnipotent. Many of its vessels are in dry dock, and the failure to bring the Houthis to heel in the Red Sea exemplifies its combat limitations. The braggadocio isn’t matched by performance.

Deterrence Doctrine & its Dangers

Much of the talk of the need to build up America’s position in Asia hinges on the doctrine of deterrence. The stated object is to deter China from aggression in the South China Sea and / or the Taiwan Straits. In relation to the latter, the balancing act, as recently described by Australia’s ambassador to Washington Kevin Rudd, is how to deter an invasion of Taiwan without provoking unilateral action. 

The doctrinal and practical dilemmas are laid bare in the lacuna of Rudd’s formulation. First, there can be no invasion of one’s own country. This is an unfinished civil war. Second, unilateral Chinese action only comes with de facto or de jure moves towards independence. Support neither, and there’s next to no risk of unilateral Chinese action. So, where do different mini-lateral participants stand on these pivotal issues? Where, for instance, does Australia stand on the question of Taiwanese independence? If it doesn’t support independence there is no basis for contemplating deterrence as a meaningful question, unless it wants to involve itself in a civil war. Third, if there’s any real concern about cross straits violence, then what are third parties doing to promote peace? And with that, enhance the prospects that the unfinished civil war will end without further bloodshed? 

Deterrence doctrine is too limited to assist in creating meaningful peace. Rather, it risks catalysing escalation and further destabilisation. The failure of deterrence to work in Gaza is a recent exemplar of the doctrine’s practical limitations. Hamas weren’t deterred despite the overwhelming asymmetry of forces vis-a-vis Israel. At best, building up arms in the name of deterrence may buy some time, but out-escalating an adversary is risky business particularly when one’s own situation is riddled with limitations as discussed earlier. In any case, the pursuit of arms build-up in the name of deterrence runs the distinct probability of intensifying a regional and possibly a global arms race. That’s not in the interests of stability.

Consequences of Asymmetry

The US either has lost primacy or the balance is no longer sufficiently in its favour to confidently claim primacy in Asia or, indeed, globally. The US has no way of achieving escalation dominance in either Europe or Asia.

Mearsheimer has long argued that provoking Russia into a conflict in Ukraine was foolhardy. Russia was for him a declining power, and China was and remains the real adversary. Pushing Russia and China closer together would be strategically counterproductive. A war in Ukraine would see Ukraine destroyed. That’s precisely what’s happening and the collective west is slowly coming to terms with impending defeat.

If taking on a declining power is foolhardy, why would provoking a rising peer power be any less foolhardy? Much less a situation in which Russia and China are now in de facto alliance? In Mearsheimer’s own terms, the collective west could not and will not beat Russia, and he sees China as a superior adversary than the Russians. Whatever the relativities between Russian and Chinese capabilities, there’s little doubt that neither are walk-overs. In all likelihood, despite the American’s obsessions with trying to hold the so-called first island chain, Chinese hypersonic missiles can already reach well beyond.

In Europe, the U.S. and the collective west have led Ukraine up the Primrose Path. Who in Asia will fulfil the role of patsy? Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida, perhaps, inadvertently belled the cat when he said to the American Congress: “We are on deck, we are on task. And we are ready to do what is necessary.” If the experience of Ukraine is any guide, it’s unlikely to be the Americans leading the charge. Japan, the Republic of China forces on Taiwan or the Philippines; take your pick. Perhaps Australia too.

Concluding Remarks

Those that aren’t interested in detente will undoubtedly continue to pursue a manichean zero-sum objective, bolstered by a zealotry that comes from the millenarianism of American Exceptionalism. Deterrence doctrine is part of the problem, not part of the answer.

I write this not with an expectation let alone an aim of persuading the warmongers in the “greater blob” to desist. They won’t. The point is to alert those in the region, who prefer efforts aimed at crafting and sustaining institutions of stability that buttress economic development, to the dangers of American-led adventures.

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