February 13, 2014

Pushing back on China: a rational approach

By Elbridge Colby

I appreciated Jake Douglas’ response to the article Ely Ratner and I co-authored, ‘Roiling the Waters‘, in the January/February edition of Foreign Policy. Douglas’ constructive engagement helps to focus and clarify arguments within this important debate.

His basic argument is that the kind of firmer response Ratner and I (among others) are advocating to Chinese assertiveness is misguided because it is pointless. According to his assessment, Beijing is both unswervingly resolute in pursuing its ambitions in the Asia-Pacific and will inevitably be the stronger party as it grows economically. As Douglas writes:

First, China’s resolve is at least as strong as America’s…Backing down now…would be absolutely humiliating for Beijing…Second, China is rapidly acquiring the edge in operational capability in Asia, and there’s little the United States can or is willing to do about it.

So he argues that we must acknowledge this apparent reality and ‘accept [our] increasingly vulnerable position,’ avoiding ‘escalation’ and, presumably, anything that would be likely to provoke it.

This prescription should be rejected. Part of the reason is that the current order is preferable to the alternative. Chinese revisionism presents real challenges to American and Asian interests in the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful commerce, and the peaceful resolution of disputes without coercion. Douglas seems at one point to hint that such concerns are overblown, referring to ‘the belief that China is utterly threatening to America’s position in Asia’ as part of his ‘paper tiger myth,’ but then seems to drop it.

Does Douglas think that China’s behavior is not dangerous or even troubling? If so, he should make the case. The evident as well as discreet disquiet, if not fear, shared by many Asian countries suggests that the problem is real.

But the point Douglas really emphasises is that resisting Chinese assertiveness is futile. He pegs his counsels of despair regarding US military planning and accommodation regarding Washington’s diplomatic policy for the region on his judgments that China is unerringly resolute in the pursuit of its ambitions in Asia and that it will be militarily and politically stronger than the United States in the near to medium-term.

This is wrong for two main reasons: China’s resolve is more plastic than Douglas suggests and the future balance of strength between the PRC on the one side and the United States and its allies on the others is far more uncertain than he contends—and in point of fact there are substantial reasons for optimism for the latter.

Let’s look first at the question of China’s resolve. Douglas posits that China’s options are essentially binary—between continuing strong assertiveness on the one hand and humiliating retreat on the other. But this is the wrong way of looking at China’s calculus. Rather, Beijing’s options—like those of any other country—fall along a spectrum. Yes, China has important interests in the key territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas that it won’t simply jettison. But that is not what Ratner and I called for. Rather, we argued that Beijing’s provocative behaviour has not resulted in serious penalties for the PRC. So our concerns are about the implications of a China that sees itself as pushing on an open door in basically risk and cost-free ways. We ventured that the United States could materially and productive alter China’s decision calculus by injecting a greater degree of risk and cost into its considerations of further assertiveness. Properly and sensibly implemented, this policy could to lead to greater restraint on the part of Beijing and a truer stability in the region.

Second, let’s examine Douglas’ analysis of the military balance between the United States and China. Douglas’ central argument is that the United States has effectively already lost the military upper hand in the region and thus that accommodation of the PRC is the only responsible policy. But he gives away far too much here. A firmer policy is tenable and responsible because, while it is clear that China is taking serious steps to modernise the PLA, the United States and its allies retain considerable and possibly decisive military advantages in plausible contingencies about which we care.

No doubt the military balance over the medium- to long-term is uncertain, and Douglas is right to emphasise how impressive China’s military buildup is. But he extrapolates an equally rosy future from China’s successes in modernising its military over the last thirty years. But that assumes far too much. First off, Douglas’ forecast assumes an unstoppable Chinese juggernaut continuing to achieve galloping rates of economic growth, enabling ever-rising expenditures on the PLA, and an America turning inward and/or obsessed with the Middle East. This is doubly exaggerated. First, China faces enormous challenges to sustaining its growth model, such that most market analystsnow seem to think the country faces major hurdles even to maintaining something like the minimum 7% level of growth the Party leadership says is its floor. And, despite much talk to the contrary, the United States remains firmly committed to an internationalist orientation, with an economy expected to recover over the course of the decade.

Moreover, while we certainly should expect China to continue to make significant military strides, it’s one thing to turn a mass ‘people’s army’ into today’s PLA; it’s another thing to catch up to a United States military that, despite all its drawbacks, continues to adapt and modernise. Indeed, itis not at all clear that the PLA will be able to transform effectively into the kind of military force that can fully take on the US military and its allies well beyond Chinese shores. The PLA’s potential task is truly daunting: squaring off against the world’s most sophisticated and well-funded military and a cadre of very capable allied militaries, like Japan’s and Australia’s, all of whom are paying increasing attention to modernising their forces in the face of China’s buildup. Thus, while the future military environment will indubitably be a nearer-run thing and far more uncertain than it has been in the past, there is very good reason to think that the United States and its allies can maintain, if not the military upper hand, then at least substantial advantages in the contingencies and for the scenarios we really care about—and certainly enough to avoid being forced to cave in totally in the way Douglas recommends. If this is the case, why give up the military competition now, just as it has begun?

Perhaps Douglas will ultimately be proved right. Perhaps Beijing will ultimately be able to field a stronger military over the longer term and will evince an abiding resolve about gaining what it believes is its proper due in the region. But a firm but reasonable line on political disputes, backed by serious and focused investment in maintaining a strong military deterrent, makes sense even—and in some ways especially—in this case. The United States has an abiding interest in a regional order in Asia characterised by peaceful and uncoerced resolution of differences and which avoids the region’s dominance by a single power. But pleading these interests to a dominant China from a position of weakness and anticipatory concession won’t help. Why should Beijing concede anything to a United States that is neither strong nor resolute? Rather, a strong and resolute China will need to be balanced by a strong and resolute United States working with like-minded states to show Beijing that attempts at coercion—or worse—simply are not worth the candle.

Douglas is absolutely right to remind us of Bismarck’s phrase that policy is the art of the possible. But we should also remember another lesson from Bismarck—that it’s essential to read the balances of strength and resolve correctly, and to know not only when to back off and accommodate, but also when to hold firm and when to push. Fundamentally, China has been the better Bismarckian in recent years, perceiving an opportunity to exploit a perceived unwillingness on the part of the United States to risk confrontation in order to gain substantial political mileage in the East and South China Seas disputes. Because Beijing gives solid indication of being a savvy calculator and because the United States and its allies continue to enjoy major political and military advantages, pushing back on Beijing makes sense and is responsible—and, whatever the future holds, is ultimately likely to lead to a more genuine stability.

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