For the United States and its allies and partners, China is the common thread linking most of today’s challenges to the rules-based international order in what used to be called the “free world.” This is true whether the challenge is cyber security, maritime security, or the commons of space. China is implicated for intervening in other countries’ domestic politics and for not intervening enough into the affairs of at least one state—North Korea. China spurns international economic protocols concerning intellectual property rights and labor and environmental standards, and has attempted to expand its political influence through a mixture of economic threats and incentives. Its government lacks respect for a rules-based order and for international law as a whole on the grounds that it was not present at the creation of a Western-inflected set of arrangements. The sum is that in multiple locations and domains, China is exerting considerable pressure on commonly held values, practices, and interests in the international system.
The United States has neither the desire nor the ability to contain China, given the open system it has supported and the deeply intertwined natures of their two economies. What it does have is a deep, abiding, and persistent interest in ensuring that Asia remains as open, rules-based, liberal, and democratic as possible. And yet, instead of discussing how the United States and its allies can achieve an open, rules-based, liberal, and maximally democratic Asia, the mainstream debate over U.S.-China policy is framed around a false dichotomy premised on the assumption that China and the United States are “destined for war,” and that the rest of the world must make a “China choice.” This “debate” assumes on both sides that China’s desire to dominate the Asia-Pacific region is inevitable, treats the future of the region as a matter of binary decisions, and encourages the false belief that China cannot be deterred. The only decision left in such a framing is whether to accommodate the supposedly inevitable or to court disaster by opposing it.
For the past several decades, U.S. policy has focused on reducing tensions and narrowing areas of disagreement. According to this logic, maintaining bilateral Sino-American stability would aid China’s integration into the global economy, promote liberal democratic values, and elicit greater Chinese collaboration on common global challenges. Such well-intentioned impulses were not entirely misguided, were appropriate responses at the time, and yielded some important results in areas ranging from curbing nuclear proliferation to combatting terrorism to addressing climate change. But, by privileging cooperation and stability above all else, they also ceded the strategic initiative to Beijing. And in doing so, it has allowed Beijing to engage in “probes,” seeing which activities elicit responses, and which are only met with some combination of consternation, anguish, and ultimately resignation. Because these probes are specifically designed not to cross the threshold of military intervention, many have not been met with counter-pressure, enabling China to gradually erode the existing order.
This has been as unfortunate as it has been unnecessary, because a range of potentially effective options are being overlooked. With the release of the U.S. National Security Strategy in December 2017, and the National Defense Strategy in January 2018, the Trump Administration did brand China (and Russia) as long-term strategic competitors. While this does bring the challenge into sharper focus, the Administration has not yet articulated the details of how it plans to counter China’s efforts. Furthermore, in the broader public debate, there remain a number of key misconceptions and misunderstandings that continue to limit the range of options being discussed.
Within the NSS and the NDS, elements of a new, more synoptic approach are now discernible, but a comprehensive strategy based on them has not formed. Such an approach is not without risk, but it is less risky than continuing on the current glidepath, which is likely to result in a China-dominated Asia-Pacific. The sum of such actions would amount to a multilateral and sustained—though not overly or even necessarily aggressive—endeavor to apply counter-pressure against Beijing’s efforts to create its own sphere of influence. Ultimately, a strategy of counter-pressure is more likely to stabilize the region than destabilize it, helping to provide the continued basis for the sustained economic growth that has transformed the region, including China.
To grasp that future, five strategic fallacies currently distorting the public debate need correcting. The first strategic fallacy is that America is at some point likely to pack up and go home. While America’s regional allies have long expressed a fear of abandonment, and while the current unpredictable nature of Trump’s White House likely exacerbates such concerns, a brief familiarization with American history should underscore just how unlikely this outcome is. Second is the problem of linear extrapolation, which assumes that China’s rise and America’s decline—relative to each other and to the other countries in the region—will continue unabated. A third strategic fallacy of the current debate is that it reduces the challenge to one that is bilateral in nature. Doing so ignores both the interests and the capabilities of allies and partners, while stripping them of any independent agency. A fourth fallacy paints policy choices as black or white, appeasement or war, ignoring the reality that there are about a million shades of gray in between, and that it is far more likely that this competition will be waged in this gray zone between peace and war over the next several decades. Finally, because the United States and its allies have not figured out the formula for deterring the Chinese at an acceptable price, some have assumed that China is incapable of being deterred and is, sooner or later, bound to dominate the region. But imagining a future of inevitable, and undesirable, outcomes assumes that China is undeterrable, rather than undeterred thus far.
While arguing assumptions might seem like an academic exercise, it has real policy implications and points the way toward a completely different set of policy outcomes. If America and other like-minded nations get their multilateral and sustained strategy right, Asia’s future isn’t locked into any particular outcome. Rather than imagining a future of undesirable outcomes, a counter-pressure strategy offers a future in which all the nations of the Asia-Pacific region can collectively envision and shape their common destiny.
A Pacific Nation
The first strategic fallacy regarding Asia is that at some point America will just pack up and go home. America’s regional allies have long expressed a fear of abandonment, and the current unpredictable nature of the Trump Administration is exacerbating these concerns. But abandonment is highly unlikely. Since the Empress of China set sail from New England in 1783, America has pushed its boundaries westward. That interest has manifested itself in a desire for access to Asia for American commerce and ideas, and in efforts to neutralize threats in the region before they threaten the American homeland. Debate over where the furthest outward line of America’s defensive perimeter should lie has been a near constant, but the question has always been about how far it should be extended, not whether it should be extended. And even when the United States hinted at a retreat from Asia, such as the period after Nixon’s Guam Doctrine or Carter’s flirtation with a retreat from the Korean peninsula in 1977, Washington proved unable to stay away for long.
For economic, geographic, strategic, and ultimately political reasons, America is unlikely to withdraw from Asia or abandon its allies and partners. From an economic perspective, Asia is already the fastest growing region in the world and most projections suggest that future global economic growth is likely to come largely from Asia with American businesses now seeing India and Southeast Asia at the forefront of that growth. Moreover, much of Asia—particularly East Asia and Australia—stand at the forefront of the digital economy and are driving research, development, and innovation in several advanced fields. From an investment, commercial, and financial perspective, American businessmen and investors are more likely to double-down on their investments in Asia than to withdraw them. Most Americans understand and support that trend. Despite President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and despite the prominence of trade as a problematic issue in the 2016 American election, recent polling shows that 72 percent of Americans say that international trade is beneficial to the U.S. economy overall, 78 percent believe it has benefitted U.S. consumers, and a majority now agrees that trade is good for American job creation.
Furthermore, America is strategically invested in the region to a strong degree. America has operated a naval squadron in the Pacific since the early 19th century, and since World War II American troops have been permanently forward deployed in the region. In order to contain the spread of communism in Asia, the United States developed a hub and spoke model of bilateral security relationships with two main purposes in mind: to deter aggression against allies and partners and to suppress security competitions among allies and partners. This provision of common security goods served American and allied interests well during the Cold War, and had the additional benefit of setting the conditions for the Asian economic miracle.
Perhaps most importantly, despite President Trump’s antipathy to the liberal rules-based order, critiques of American allies, and rejection of an internationalist foreign policy for a more zero-sum and nationalistic set of policies, the American public has hardly rejected America’s historic commitment to its allies. During the 2016 presidential campaign, polling showed that the public thought that maintaining existing alliances was very or somewhat effective at achieving American foreign policy goals, and indeed such support seemed to be increasing, with more Americans convinced that alliances are very effective. While Trump has continued to claim that many allies are free riders who drain U.S. resources and provide no discernible benefits, 2017 polling concluded that “the U.S. public is not buying this argument.” When the focus narrows to the Asia-Pacific region, the numbers overwhelmingly support a robust American military presence in Asia, with 78 percent of respondents saying that the U.S. government should maintain or increase that presence.
The Limits of Linear Extrapolation
The second fallacy in the U.S.-China policy debate derives from the problem of linear extrapolation, which assumes that China’s rise and America’s decline will remain consistent and uninterrupted. This is highly unlikely.
Even discounting the unreliability of Chinese economic data, and the opaqueness of its true military capacity, China’s extraordinary economic growth since 1979 has significantly affected the Asia-Pacific regional balance of power. China has undoubtedly increased its military spending during this period, and its overt military modernization efforts are impressive. However, as most economists agree, future Chinese economic growth is likely to be less dynamic than it has been up to this point. China will grow old before it becomes rich, and it faces other challenges such as debt bubbles in multiple markets and chronic, if currently low-level, forms of social instability. These could lead to slower economic growth in the near-term and suggest significant structural challenges. This is not to say that China’s economy won’t outperform many others in and beyond the region, but it does suggest that that projecting future growth based on the recent past provides an unreliable forecast.
Linear extrapolation also minimizes the structural strengths underlying American growth. As a result of many decades of immigration, the United States has a relatively healthy demographic profile. In addition, the United States also has a strong culture of innovation, repeated resilience in the face of macroeconomic shifts, and an ongoing energy revolution that is upending the energy markets and bolstering America’s economic heft. Overall, the longer-term drivers of American growth look healthier than those of most other countries.
While it is generally true that defense spending correlates with the overall economic position of a country, budgets also tend to grow with the perception of increasing threats. It might be hard to imagine a future where nations in the Asia-Pacific region are willing to contribute more than 2 percent of their GDP on defense. But if multiple states in Asia became willing to spend in the range of 3-5 percent, it would presage a significant alteration in the regional balance of power, and it would create pressures where today there are none.
The Challenge Isn’t Bilateral
A third strategic fallacy is the tendency to view the Sino-American future as a bilateral issue. This construct assumes that war or peace are the exclusive prerogatives of leaders in Beijing and Washington, and they alone have the ability to work out deals without the buy-in of other regional powers. China has deliberately framed the challenge this way, seeking to advance a “New Model of Great Power Relations” that avoids the so-called Thucydides trap by characterizing America and China as the only great powers. Beijing’s approach is deeply troubling to U.S. allies for suggesting that they must subordinate their interests to China. Buying that frame would also harm U.S. interests by enabling a flip of the traditional approach, which has embedded China within Asia rather than the other way around. This “G-2” model appeals to some to U.S. policymakers because it seems to hold out the promise of one-stop shopping for stability. But it is a false promise, for other major Asian states—most notably Japan, Australia, and India—would never accede to an order that placed their independence, sovereignty, and ultimately security in a subservient position, and these states would justifiably resent the United States for seeming to suggest that they should. Hence, even tacit acceptance of such a model would weaken U.S. leverage over China and decrease the potential to align regional counter-pressure on Beijing during a crisis.
A second and related problem of the bilateral construct is that it posits that any actions taken by nations other than China or the United States, alone or in concert, have negligible importance. But judging by the enormous lengths Beijing has gone to scuttle collective responses to its actions, this is not at all how Chinese policymakers see things. They merely want foreign observers to believe otherwise, as is manifest in Beijing’s persistent attempts to keep ASEAN member states divided (alas, not very difficult), in their diplomatic push to obviate strong statements supporting the Hague’s rebuke of China’s illegal behavior in the South China Sea, and in their hostility to any quadrilateral arrangement between Washington, Delhi, Tokyo, and Canberra. Chinese policymakers seek to smother any narratives that portray China as acting in contravention to its preferred narrative of a “peaceful rise.” It also suggests a deep-seated fear that concerted and collective action might actually force a change in Chinese behavior.
Such a construct also discounts the reality that allies and partners possess both independent agency and significant capabilities. Analysts who portray the competition over who gets to define the rules, norms, and institutions of Asia as divided between China and the United States fall into several traps, including, most prominently, a counting problem. Pitting China’s growing naval capabilities against only America’s fails to take into account the surface, sub-surface, air, strike, and automated systems its allies and partners collectively bring to bear. For instance, adding in Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force alone substantially changes the naval balance. The JMSDF has three light carriers, more than 30 destroyers, and 19 submarines, all modern. Even this rudimentary count excludes the frigates, fast-attack craft, and amphibious assault vessels that are in Tokyo’s inventory. Adding in the navies of South Korea, Taiwan, and Australia changes the calculation still further. South Korea deploys Aegis-equipped destroyers. Taiwan has the predecessors to the Aegis, Kidd-class destroyers. Australia is putting to sea three state-of-the-art air warfare destroyers and is embarking on an ambitious program to build 12 new submarines. Add in the anti-access/area-denial systems of Japan and Taiwan on the first island chain and the balance shifts further still. One could do a similar calculation for airpower, with Japanese and South Korean F-15s regularly training and exercising with the U.S. Air Force. And if one adds in partners like Singapore and India, who are likely to side with America and its allies in a conflict, the balance shifts again. In essence, the Chinese prefer excluding the capabilities of the U.S. Asian alliance system and partners taken together; the Chinese frame it this way to negate the advantages that the United States and its partners hold collectively. To fall for that would be quite stupid for, with it, a look at a map shows that China is de facto contained as a maritime power.
Further, as all military analysts know, capabilities are not based on numbers alone, but on the strategy and competence of the forces that wield them—net assessment, in other words. (The basic point holds outside the military realm, for example in assessing the size, strength, and resilience of various Asian economies.) This is necessarily a subjective business since it must factor in variables that cannot be readily counted, such as professional education, training and simulations, deployments in stressful conditions, coordination with multiple actors in military exercises, and active warfighting. None of this is to say that China’s military isn’t modernizing and becoming more professional—it is. The point here is evaluating the regional balances of power requires more than just counting military hardware.
To suggest that only Beijing and Washington have a real choice in shaping the future is also to willfully ignore history. In 1967 Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand originally formed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has now grown to encompass the ten states of Southeast Asia. Australia’s call for more coordinated economic cooperation across the region led to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in 1989, and the concept of an East Asia grouping, first promoted by Malaysia in the early 1990s, grew into the East Asia Summit (EAS) and expanded to include the United States in 2011 at Japan and India’s urging. Even the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was initiated by Brunei, Singapore, New Zealand, and Chile in 2005, before broadening into a larger trade deal between 12 Pacific countries. Indeed, with America’s withdrawal from TPP in January 2017, the other Asia-Pacific signatories, the so-called TPP-11, are left to build its future—but there is no reason to think they are not up to the task. None of these countries or entities by themselves can shape Asia’s future, but taken together they have shown more initiative, ability, and effectiveness than some imagined they could.
The Missing Middle Path
The fourth way that a “China choice” framing leads to a false policy logic is that it suggests an either/or dichotomy in which any American response to Chinese actions is inherently escalatory. For those who see a stark choice between China and the United States, between war and peace, there are no shades of gray. Painting the dynamics in this way suggests that any American response to Chinese actions will catapult a crisis straight up the escalation ladder and into nuclear war. According to this logic, Beijing would supposedly be willing to raise the stakes faster, higher, and with greater local capabilities than its rivals, and the United States would find itself having to either back down or run the risk of fighting a war with China over issues peripheral to U.S. national interests.
It is true that the balance of interests often trumps the balance of power when it comes to regional competitions. But it is foolish to entertain a two-dimensional caricature of this point. Any major war would greatly stunt Chinese economic development, dependent as it is on myriad international connections. A war involving the United States could threaten the survival of the Chinese regime, which is far more fragile than that of the United States in many respects. China would risk war over certain discrete issues, such as the prospect of Taiwanese independence, but to assume that China’s Communist Party would risk its own grip on power by going to war over the future of the South or East China Seas is unwarranted.
From the U.S. perspective, multiple middle paths exist between waging a preemptive war with China and a U.S. retreat from the region. Sino-American competition will most likely be conducted along these middle paths over the next several decades. After all, the American experience with the Soviet Union during the Cold War illustrated clearly that Washington has the capacity to take a strong line against destabilizing activities while working together with other powers on areas of mutual concern such as nuclear nonproliferation. What is true for America also applies to less powerful states. As Southeast Asia observers have long pointed out, the preferred method of dealing with more powerful states has been to hedge; neither fighting nor surrendering to a stronger power’s ambitions.
Finally and most critically, it is simply not true that China cannot be deterred and is, sooner or later, bound to dominate the region. The size and capability of the American military still deter outright military conflict between China and the United States and its treaty allies in the Asia-Pacific region. Everyone knows that, so the present situation is not the issue. The issue is the path to the future, and it is here that Beijing has chosen an asymmetrical approach to achieving its aims—specifically by working to develop “gray zone” operations.
Note, for example, Chinese actions in the South China Sea. Advances have been taken slowly and in disparate locations. They are usually first probed not by visible state-forces, but by seemingly private actors; and they are justified in shifting and ambiguous language. The result is a complicated incremental assault on the status quo. Meanwhile, if the United States and its allies act first to blunt such “precedent creep,” they open themselves to the charge of needlessly provoking the revisionist power. But if they wait too long, they will confront a degraded security environment, increased questions about their commitment and credibility, and concerns that they have surrendered the initiative.
But for all the questions that Chinese probes have raised, the proposition that China is undeterrable, rather than undeterred to date, stands badly in need of testing. This assumption is based on a highly selective version of recent history that minimizes effective counter-pressure efforts, exaggerates Chinese strengths and resolve, and fails to note Beijing’s weaknesses. Finally, to assume that concerted counter-pressure, discriminately applied, will have no discernible effect on Beijing’s calculations is preemptively to concede not only the initiative on policy, but also an ever-enlarging Chinese sphere of influence in the region—for absent U.S, leadership, the other regional powers, their collective clout notwithstanding, will have a hard time concerting their efforts.
Far from being undeterrable, recent history suggests a much more varied picture of China. When Beijing perceives that its actions are unlikely to cause pushback or counter-pressure, it has continued pushing. But when Chinese activities have been met with concentrated counter-pressure, the response has not been predictably escalatory. Just note: Japan’s response to the PRC’s ham-handed rollout of an ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) in the ECS in 2013; South Korea’s refusal to bow to Chinese economic pressure over the deployment of THAAD as a defense against DPRK ballistic missiles; President Obama’s 2015 threat to impose sanctions in response to Chinese state-sponsored cyber activities; and Obama’s purported drawing of a redline around the reclamation of Scarborough Shoal to Xi Jinping in March 2016. While it’s unclear who saved face and who lost face in Doklam, India’s response to Chinese activities in Bhutan caused neither war nor acquiescence to Chinese probes. Similarly, Vietnam’s 2014 response to the Chinese oil rig operating in its waters, and China’s withdrawal of the rig, demonstrate that Beijing was willing to recalibrate, if not withdraw, its activities when met with a resolute response. Finally, for all the hand-wringing that accompanied the debate about a quadrilateral arrangement between India, Japan, Australia, and the United States, Beijing’s actual reaction has been muted.
The same goes in the economic realm. In 2012, Washington imposed sanction on the China-based Bank of Kunlun for its dealings with Iran. Yet despite Chinese warnings that such a move would sour bilateral relations and undercut Beijing’s support for curbing Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, Beijing offered merely a formulaic protest, directed the bank to cease its activities, and continued cooperation with the United States. With respect to secondary sanctions at least, a high-ranking Obama official who was in charge of implementing such sanctions concluded that, despite the fears of a furious Chinese reaction and calls for caution, “history teaches that we should not worry too much about an adverse Chinese reaction.”
The actual, as opposed to the imagined, record of Chinese responses suggests that Beijing’s reaction is as dependent on how others respond as it is on what they wish to achieve. It also implies that Chinese pressure is carefully calibrated to fit, but not necessarily exceed, any given situation. China will not always roll over and play dead when confronted with counter-pressure; it depends on what it thinks is at stake and what counter-pressure indicates about the intentions of others. Note, however, what happens no counter-push exists. China has not only manufactured features in the South China Sea, but has continued its push to build out its infrastructure and rotate military assets on them. Faced with the menace of increased activity around Scarborough Shoal, while being dangled the promise of Chinese economic largesse, the Philippines, under Rodrigo Duterte, has ceased protesting Chinese activities. And by using Cambodia and Laos and now the Philippines to undermine any unanimity in ASEAN, ASEAN has not even been able to condemn Chinese bullying by name.
Chinese policymakers have demonstrated a logical aversion to conflict. They do not want to put the regime’s stranglehold on Chinese society at risk or do things that harden the existing American alliance structure into something more multilateral and more offensively directed against Beijing. As a result, Chinese actions are less reckless gambles than premeditated probes. When the reaction has been formidable, Chinese activities have been recalibrated.
For more than thirty years, American policy rested on the assumption that a stable relationship with China was the best way of integrating it into the existing U.S.-led liberal order. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick captured the aspirations of this approach in the “responsible stakeholder” model, which assumed that as China became richer it would become more liberal economically and politically. It also expected that, as it did so, China would become a stabilizing force in and beyond its region.
These might have been reasonable assumptions in the past, but neither has proven correct—at least not yet. Not only has China become more authoritarian as it has grown wealthier, it has also grown more eager to destabilize the regional order by intimidating its neighbors, buying political compliance, and undermining longstanding U.S. alliances. Nevertheless, the legacy of this mindset has resulted in placing stable bilateral relations ahead of stable regional order, resulting in a broad failure to see the cumulative damage of China’s behavior on the international rules-based order.
Chinese activities in the South China Sea, for example, were generally dismissed as narrowly military in nature and tactical in effect; the problem was usually framed as one of “rocks and reefs,” meaning that Chinese activity, while negative, was but peripheral to the national interest and not worth fighting over. The proper historical analogy here comes from Winston Churchill, who reportedly replied to a woman at a 1935 summer gathering in the English countryside questioning why any Britain should care about the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, “It’s not the thing, it’s the kind of thing.” The liberal international order does not reside on any map, but that does not mean it doesn’t exist. And it is challenged not in abstractions, but by specific events in geographical realities; Abyssinia and Manchuria in the 1930s; and in the South China Sea today. Failing to fight for them has real—and not merely theoretical—consequences.
The Obama Administration took meaningful steps to bolster U.S. presence in and commitment to the Asia-Pacific region. On the security front, efforts were made to strengthen the U.S. military presence and capabilities by rotating more than a thousand U.S. Marines through Darwin, Australia, shifting up to 60% of the U.S. Navy’s fleet to the Pacific by 2020, signing a deal to allow the long-term rotational deployment of troops and the building of military facilities in the Philippines, and funding Southeast Asian nations’ efforts to deal with common maritime challenges. On the diplomatic front, Obama elevated the importance of regional institutions by being the first U.S. president to attend the East Asia Summit, sending the first U.S. resident Ambassador to ASEAN, actively supporting Burma’s halting transition to democracy, and fostering unprecedented trilateral cooperation between the U.S., Japan, and South Korea. Economically, the administration promoted stronger trade and investment through the TPP, and signed the bilateral trade deal with South Korea started by George W. Bush. And legally, the United States advocated for the peaceful resolution of disputes by supporting the Philippines’ case in an international tribunal against China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea.
All were useful and well-received efforts, but they did not halt Beijing’s drive to dominate the South China Sea. Whether due to a desire to maintain constructive relations with China in other areas such as climate change or nuclear proliferation, or concern that the American public would not support a more assertive policy, the Administration’s reflexive position was to reduce tensions and avoid conflicts.
The Trump Administration appears to be no more engaged on the South China Sea than was its predecessor. North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have dominated White House attention instead, and while it has resumed freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, Trump has had very little of substance to say about the South China Sea. As President, he has largely ignored the issue, and the Administration’s focus on maritime security has been intermittent. This inconsistency has confused American allies and partners who were expecting more assertive counter-pressure to Chinese advances in the South China Sea.
Because the United States has failed to lead its allies and partners in an effort to consistently check Chinese assertiveness, some have concluded that the United States has ceded the South China Sea. But there remain several potentially viable options to deter China in this area that have not yet been attempted.
A Strategy of Counter-Pressure
Lenin, the inspiration for the Chinese Communist Party, is quoted as saying “probe with a bayonet: if you meet steel, stop. If you meet mush, then push.” Evidence suggests that when Beijing meets steel, it backs down, despite overheated rhetoric and vague threats. However, when it meets mush, it keeps pushing.
If true, a range of policy options opens up bilaterally, trilaterally, and regionally. The first set is in the military operational realm and could include military maneuvers similar to those being used in the Persian Gulf region by the United States. Conducting such operations would require a greater willingness to tolerate risk, incur friction, and adapt tactics and procedures.
A second set of options is in the strategic military realm, and could include augmenting America’s regional force posture, changing the types of military platforms bring used, increasing the U.S. defense budget, and accelerating the capacities of regional states to defend their own interests.
A third set falls in the informational realm. These could include efforts to boost maritime awareness of other South China Sea claimants and put greater public scrutiny on Beijing’s activities there and elsewhere.
A fourth set is in the institutional arena—re-energizing Asian-Pacific regional institutions and global forums to give maritime security and international law pride of place.
A fifth and critically important category comes in the realm of alliances. This would involve rededicating efforts to promote a rules-based order, enhancing interoperability, broadening and networking the security arrangements of like-minded states, and clarifying the extent of U.S. security commitments.
A sixth policy dimension is economic. To have any chance of success for preserving an open order that remains free from coercion, the U.S. government must be an active participant in the shaping of the region’s economic architecture.
A final aspect is bureaucratic. Because so many different parts of the U.S. government touch China policy, and because they all bring different institutional perspectives and priorities, oftentimes U.S. policy toward China is much less than the sum of its parts. The exception is in reaction to a crisis or in advance of particular events. Without consistent attention, coordination, and deconfliction to ongoing lines of effort, such a policy is highly unlikely to succeed.
The sum of increased activity across all levers of allied statecraft has the potential to hold the line and deter further Chinese advances. Such activity would demonstrate that bullying behavior invites a stronger, broader, and more coordinated allied presence in the area, and a greater willingness to build capacity in the region. While disparate in nature, all of these options would require greater political willingness to tolerate risk and incur friction with Beijing.
The same is true at the strategic level. Not all counter-pressure and pushback need be symmetrical, or use the same methods that the Chinese have used to reach their current position. Confronting China through conventional military means is impractical from a budgetary, operational and force structure perspective. Additionally, symmetrical counter pressure would be unlikely to deliver the desired political effects in Beijing alone. A successful counter-pressure strategy should focus not only on defensive measures, but must attain a degree of asymmetry, apply pressure in places and in ways that could force China off-balance and, periodically, even catch Beijing by surprise. Such actions should range across the diplomatic, informational, economic, and military sectors and could include everything from joint statements repudiating Chinese activities, to working with allies and partners to alter the dynamic in some of China’s border regions, to enhancing regional defense relationships, to aiding countries developing their own anti-access area-denial capabilities to penalizing predatory economic policies to mounting information operations exposing the corruption of the CCP to encouraging more legal challenges to Chinese activities.
While undertaking any of these would make for an effective start at countering China’s actions in the region, they are admittedly laden with constraints. In various capitals across the Asia-Pacific region, it still isn’t clear that there is a political appetite for taking on a China that has thus far seen its gains come at virtually no cost. Trump’s volatility may also erode the foundation of regional support for American-led initiatives. And without any indication that the Trump Administration has a Plan B to revive or at least reconceive the TPP, it remains uncertain how enthusiastically the Asia-Pacific region would react to an American response that ignores the element believed most vital to the region.
It is a mistake to frame the problem as a Sino-U.S. competition. Other states have been willing and able to push back. Australia, Japan, India, and the United States are more likely to succeed when China perceives a firm and consistent approach from multiple countries. As Admiral Harry Harris, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, recently stated, doing so does not require rocket science; it simply demands political courage. “We must be willing to take tough decisions and ally with like-minded nations to ensure the Indian Ocean region remains free and prosperous.”
This of course requires grasping the difference between core and peripheral national interests; it is not necessary to push back on all fronts all the time. Doing so would be neither strategic, nor coordinated, nor likely to have the desired effect. But where there is aggression, counter-pressure is a reasonable and likely effective response. The odds of success are heightened when doing so in concert with other nations.
Finally, there is a distinction between cost-imposition strategies and counter-pressure strategies. Whereas the former seeks to punish China for its probes, the latter is non-punitive. This is not to say that the Chinese might not view it as such—especially if they stake CCP legitimacy on a move. However evidence points to the conclusion that the CCP is more a calculating poker, or chess, player than a reckless gambler. Cost-imposition strategies have their place, but they’re not the only game in town.
“The aggressor is always peace-loving,” Clausewitz once remarked. “He would prefer to take over our country unopposed.” The great Prussian strategist was of course referring to Napoleon Bonaparte’s France, and not to Xi Jinping’s China. But he might well have been. Pressure comes in many forms: physical confrontation, economic coercion, political intimidation. But the most corrosive, and by far the most subtle, is psychological pressure, which causes one side to accept the will of its opponent based on fear of an anticipated response. If buckling to such pressure is beneath the dignity of most nations, there is only one question to ask. That question is not whether China and the United States are destined for war, nor is it whether other nations must choose between these two countries. The only question worth asking, rather, is whether the political will exists in Washington, Tokyo, Seoul, Canberra, Delhi, Singapore, Hanoi, and elsewhere to execute a concerted, consistent, and calibrated strategy of counter-pressure.
Policy is most often limited less by some objective reality than it is by the conceptual barriers of a statesman’s imagination. A new vocabulary can help us think about the challenge in a more realistic framework. Doing so is more likely to offer up real policy options.
Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017); Hugh White, The China Choice: Why We Should Share Power (Oxford University Press, 2012).
For an overview of America’s engagement with the region, see Michael J. Green, By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783 (Columbia University Press, 2017).
The Chicago Council, “Pro-Trade Views on the Rise, Partisan Divisions on NAFTA Widen,” August 14, 2017.
On the origins, intent, and continuing relevance of this model see Victor D. Cha, Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia (Princeton University Press, 2016).
Chicago Council Survey, p. 11.
Eliot A. Cohen, “Net Assessment: An American Approach,” memorandum no. 29, (Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, April 1990); Stephen Peter Rosen, “Net Assessment as an Analytical Concept,” in Andrew W. Marshall, J.J. Martin, and Henry Rowen, eds., On Not Confusing Ourselves (Westview Press, 1991).
See Thomas J. Wright, All Measures Short of War: The Contest for the 21st Century & the Future of American Power (Yale University Press, 2017).
For a catalogue of China’s gray zone operations, as well as recommendations to counter them, see Michael Green, Kathleen Hicks, Zachary Cooper, John Schaus, and Jake Douglas, “Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia.”
For a useful analysis of strategic options in the South China Sea, see Hal Brands and Zach Cooper, “Getting Serious about Strategy in the South China Sea,” Naval War College Review (Winter 2018).
James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, “Deterring China in the ‘Gray Zone’: Lessons of the South China Sea for U.S. Alliances,” Orbis (Summer, 2017).
The official quoted is David S. Cohen, who served as Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and Undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence during the Obama Administration.
For more on the nature of “probing behavior,” see Jakub Grygiel and A. Wess Mitchell, The Unquiet Frontier: Rising Rivals, Vulnerable Allies, and the Crisis of American Power (Princeton University Press, 2016).
Ely Ratner, “Course Correction: How to Stop China’s Maritime Advance,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2017. More recently, see Hugh White and Ely Ratner’s thoughtful exchange in The Interpreter, especially Ratner’s “Making Sense of the Known Unknowns in the South China Sea,” August 3, 2017.
This is one of many Lenin quotes that are impossible to pin down. The closest published formulation can be found in Lenin’s “Report on the Polish War, 20 September 1920,” in Richard Pipes, ed., The Unknown Lenin: From the Secret Archive (Yale University Press, 1996), p. 100.
See, for example, Andrew S. Erickson, “The South China Sea’s Third Force: Understanding and Countering China’s Maritime Militia,” Testimony before the House Armed Services Committee Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, Hearing on Seapower and Projection Forces in the South China Sea, Washington, DC, September 21, 2016.
On this point, see Kurt Campbell, The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia (Twelve, 2016), especially p. 310 ff.
For an exhaustive and comprehensive overview of policy and strategy options, see Ross Babbage, “Countering China’s Adventurism in the South China Sea: Strategy Options for the United States and its Allies,” 2017, esp. 59–65.
Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton University Press, 1976, 1984 indexed edition), Book VI, chapter five, p. 444.