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Carnegie’s Vision of a Tense China-U.S.-Japan Security Standoff Is Not Inevitable

May 10 , 2013

On January 4 of this year the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations blogsite “Asia Unbound” carried an approving interview by CFR’s Elizabeth C. Economy of one of the two authors of a book on U.S.-China relations titled An Awkward Embrace. They are former U.S. government foreign policy makers Dan Blumenthal and Phillip Swagel, now affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute. 

According to these authors, the U.S. has two “key and enduring” strategic objectives: “preventing the ‘domination of Asia by a hostile power or coalition,’ and ‘nurturing a prosperous, peaceful and free Asia.’”  

Asked what “two or three most important steps” the U.S. should take to achieve its goals, Blumenthal replied that the U.S. should “first, do what it can to ensure the strength of its allies and the durability of its alliances. Second, … continue to engage in intense diplomacy with China, particularly on clear mutual interests such as structural reform of both economies.”  

Last week, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace released what can be seen as an extended extrapolation of this U.S. strategy misleadingly titled China’s Military & The U.S.-Japan Alliance in 2030: A Strategic Net Assessment.    

The title is misleading because, as much as about the growth of Chinese military power, the massive 400-page study augurs a U.S. military layering on over the next 15 years strategic resources to maintain unchallengeable military “primacy” in the region. 

Looking at the scenarios it is hard not to be struck by the gap between America’s stated second “key and enduring” goal–essentially a harmonious Asia–and Carnegie’s “most likely” prospective future, which is a tense, economy-sapping arms race and intermittent low-level conflict carrying risks of sharp escalation. 

There is something very wrong with this picture. The defect, pointed out brilliantly by Australian National University professor Hugh White in his book The China Choice:  Why America Should Share Power, can be presented as a rhetorical question:  If it is reasonable and in the U.S.’s interest to prevent “domination of Asia by a [potentially] hostile power or coalition,” would this not be an even more vital objective for China?    

For the U.S., such a threat exists potentially in the future. For China, looking at U.S. military domination of the region, both on a stand-alone basis and through its alliances–most importantly, the U.S.-Japan alliance–it is today’s reality.  

 The U.S. wants better, constructive relations with China, and has launched many initiatives to “engage” Beijing, but continues to be disappointed with China’s reluctant response. White points out that the U.S. seems unable to comprehend that its terms for “engagement” are acceptance of a status quo that would be unacceptable to any country of China’s present position and power its home region and that certainly also would be unacceptable to the U.S. were the roles reversed.   

White’s prescription–congruent in many ways with the “new power relationship” concept being adumbrated in Beijing–is for the U.S. and China to construct a new regional security framework of shared power.  

How much more rational, positive, and “likely” is White’s prescription than the doleful and alarming scenarios in the Carnegie study. Extrapolating China’s response to today’s U.S.-dominated Asian security order, that study’s “two roughly equally likely scenarios” for the next 15 to 20 years are “eroding balance” and “limited conflict.” In the former, continued U.S.-orchestrated upgrading and augmenting of armaments ensures continued “allied superiority in most domains,” China would achieve absolute gains in all domains. The situation would be fraught with “greater likelihood of tensions and incidents, especially over territorial and resource issues—assuming, as would be likely, a continued absence of credible mutual security assurances or crisis management mechanisms.” 

In the “limited conflict” scenario “the security environment would likely witness intensifying patterns of military competition and rivalry as China’s capabilities increase relative to the alliance … involving a significant weakening of allied deterrence capabilities and the unnerving of other Asian nations.” 

We may be thankful that the Carnegie study authors allow that a more constructive future of “mitigated threat” for U.S.-China-Japan and regional relations is “possible,” but judge this scenario much less likely than the foregoing two. The main feature of this scenario “high levels of cooperative engagement between China and Japan and between China and the alliance … reinforced by deepening levels of Sino-Japanese economic interdependence and an emphasis by all sides on stability-inducing, positive-sum interactions in dealing with common problems.” 

Against its future scenarios, what, according to the study’s authors, should the U.S. and its allies do? For the “most likely” futures, they offer two responses:  “robust forward presence” and  “conditional offense/defence.” The first would aim “to retain unambiguous allied regional primacy through extensions of existing or new muscular operational doctrines such as Air-Sea Battle or Offshore Control, would signal a clear and convincing commitment to a continued strong—indeed, superior—U.S. military capability and close set of alliance relationships as the basis for security in the Western Pacific well into the future.” The second would stress “both deterrence and reassurance in a more equal manner, would seek to maintain a commitment to military primacy in key areas through the use of less offensive-oriented and (in some cases) preemptive operational concepts than would be seen in the robust forward presence approach.” 

Is this the tense, arms race future anyone in the region could desire? I think not. What is needed is a change in paradigm, which is to say concepts and attitudes, that recognizes the defects and dangers in the U.S. dominated post-WWII Asian security order.  

The study diffidently offers a response called “defensive balancing” to the less likely “mitigated threat” scenario. Defensive balancing “would involve a very significant change in current U.S. defense doctrine, force posture, and possibly political arrangements in the Western Pacific. It would entail a shift away from efforts to sustain existing military advantages and freedom of action throughout the first island chain via offense-oriented, forward-presence-based military strategies and alliance-centered political strategies. The emphasis would be on a more genuinely balanced regional power structure based on more defense-oriented, asymmetric strategies and greater efforts to defuse the likely sources of future crises through mutual accommodation and meaningful multilateral security structures.” 

Precisely, Carnegie is probably correct in saying that the “mitigated threat” scenario and this “balanced” response is considered unrealistic and unlikely in Washington. They are, however, exactly the scenario and response that should become strategic goals of U.S. policy. To achieve them and a new, stable Asian order, Washington is going to have to change. 

Stephen M. Harner, a former U.S. Foreign Service Officer and international banker in China and Japan, is a graduate of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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