Written by Brian Benedictus.
Soon after his ascension to the presidency of the PRC in 2012, Xi Jinping stated his desire to establish a “new great power relationship” with the United States. Although Xi’s doctrine remains short on specifics, there is an underlying theme of each side clarifying its interests in order to avoid direct confrontation. Some China-watchers and analysts have suggested that in order for a productive relationship between both countries to succeed, the United States must be willing to prioritize its interests in relation to those of the PRC in order to foster a stronger mutual understanding of interests. These efforts would be taken in the hope that clear lines would be drawn to minimize the possibility of conflict between the two states.
On June 4th, The National Interest published “What Would Push America towards War with China?” written by Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) Analyst Harry White. In the article, White laid out the case for the United States to “identify those issues it would really go to war with China over”, stating his belief that President Obama “needs to decide what he really wants, and what he can live without.” Fair point, considering the stakes in the region. Where I differ in opinion with Mr. White is his listing of what he sees as vital American interests, as well as his belief that if Washington were to eliminate a number of its core interests in Asia it would be willing to combat China militarily over, it could result in fundamentally transforming the U.S.-China “great power relationship” into one in which both sides would see a mutual benefit.
In terms of White’s list of American core interests, he states that “the most painful exclusion will be Taiwan. America cannot prevent China taking control of the island eventually, one way or another.” He later states regarding Taiwan: “if America can’t hope to decide the future of Taiwan anyway, what are we really giving up?” Quite a lot actually. First, White gives no explanation or evidence to support his claim that Taiwan’s annexation is inevitable—he gives his opinion and nothing more. White, however, sees this as a black and white issue, seemingly believing that by Washington simply excluding Taiwan from its list of core interests, it will deal itself a strengthened hand in which to counter the PRC in areas of higher concern. Taiwan is located in a geographically strategic position, has 23 million citizens who transformed the country from a military dictatorship into a democracy, holds vast foreign currency reserves, and remains one of America’s most reliable allies. Regardless of all of the facts on the ground, White sees more value in abandoning the known positives and betting the farm on the great unknown, which is Chinese goodwill. There is also the issue of American resolve towards its current and potential future strategic partners. If the United States were to acquiesce in China’s annexation of Taiwan due to the issue being within China’s sphere of interests, what would become of China’s other core interests (that are constantly shifting and being added to) that involve US allies?
White addresses this conundrum by stating “Beijing’s border disputes with non-U.S. allies would not be Washington’s problem. Hanoi is on its own, Manila and Tokyo are not.” While this approach is plausible under certain conditions, it is reckless if applied to others. Vietnam, for example, is in the midst of a long-standing territorial dispute with China over the Paracel Islands and surrounding waters. While this dispute may be of concern to the United States in terms of regional stability, it does not necessarily constitute an area that could be coined a core interest. Furthermore, unlike Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, Vietnam is not currently an American ally, and has a number of regional interests and territorial disputes that it places much higher in terms of priority than would the United States. White, however, appears to be placing an American security blanket around long standing allies regarding territorial disputes with China. He implies that such disputes would be within core interests in which the United States would confront China militarily. In White’s “yes or no” scenario, Chinese military incursions into Japan’s unoccupied Senkaku islands could warrant an American military response, whereas a Chinese annexation of Taiwan and its 23 million inhabitants would not. America’s newly drawn red lines of core interests would also enter into uncomfortable geographic proximity with China’s newly acquired territory.
Japan, America’s most reliable security ally in the region, would not only see its closest partner in the region fall under Chinese control, but would also face the prospect of the Senkaku islands falling within two hundred and twenty miles of Taiwan proper, and have its southernmost island, Yonaguni, a mere 140 miles from Taiwan’s shores. These hard geographic truths raise the prospect of PLAN and PLAAF incursions into Japanese maritime and airspace by closing the distance that separates the two states. With raised chances of miscalculations that could lead to clashes, White’s suggestions could raise scenarios that White’s American yes or no paper sought to eliminate.
Finally, White maintains that “drawing up that list will now provide the basis for stronger deterrence, and more substantive dialogue with China”. He also writes that “dialogue at that level may help to create an Asia in which China has a greater stake in participating in the system than in remaking it.” While one can wish that the Beijing’s outlook regarding the current international system could be altered, it is unlikely to happen regardless the level of security interests that the United States is willing to concede. The PRC is already well aware of the benefits that the current system has provided. It was the American security presence that stabilized the region following the Second World War, allowing much of the region to rebuild their respective economies without fear of conflict. During this time states also took advantage of secure sea lines of communication. It was also within the current system that China was able to resolve many of its territorial disputes inland without the prospect of securing its vast coastal territory—areas that were vulnerable in centuries past, while enjoying unprecedented economic growth for decades. Only after heeding Deng Xiaoping’s advice to “Hide Your Strength, Bide Your Time” is China now seeking to address territorial ambitions in the Pacific that are based not on the existing global order, but rooted in its sense of historical right. China is not seeking to become a partner in the current global system, it is attempting shake its very foundation in order to mold it into what it sees as preferable to its own means. Former US diplomat David Brown wrote recently regarding the notion of dealing with China as a responsible partner:
“And what of nations with a vested interest in sustaining the international order, particularly the US? When will they give up trying to deal with Beijing as though it were the government of a normal nation (albeit one with “growing pains”) and a prospective partner? When will they recognize that China is so persuaded that it has been victimized and denied its rightful place that it repudiates the “rules” governing international relations whenever it perceives advantage in doing so?”
While Harry White should be applauded for attempting to address potential solutions for conflict scenarios between the United States and China, his solutions would appear to create more areas of concern for the United States than would have existed under the current conditions. If there is ever to truly be a new great-power relationship between the United States and as Xi Jinping has suggested, it will require substantially more “give” by the PRC when it comes to adhering to and respecting the current international system, and require less “take” in terms of expecting the United States to agree to concessions that will destabilize the region.
Brian Benedictus is a Washington D.C.-based foreign policy analyst specializing in East Asian security issues. He is also an Asia-Pacific Desk analyst for Wikistrat. Brian owns the blog Warm Oolong Tea.