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Complacency Is the Danger in Asia’s Power Games

John Lee

In an interview given to the University of Central Florida’s Global Perspectives Office in late 2010, Paul Wolfowitz summed up his response to China’s rise as “hoping for the best, but preparing for the worse.”

Even if one disagrees with Wolfowitz’s thinking on the Middle East, this viewpoint on China policy cannot be easily dismissed. The assistant secretary of state for east Asia and the Pacific when Ferdinand Marcos was eased from power in the Philippines in 1986, and then the widely respected US ambassador to Indonesia from 1986 to 1989, Wolfowitz was arguably the senior official with the greatest Asia expertise in the George W. Bush administration. In the early days of the previous administration and before the September 11 attacks, Wolfowitz stated in an interview with The Washington Post on August 29, 2001, that while China need not necessarily become a threat, US complacency could actually lead to an opposite and disastrous effect. These sentiments were criticised by China-watchers as unnecessarily provocative.

In light of increasingly assertive Chinese behaviour during the past decade, views such as this are now gaining respect and currency, even among leading Asia hands within the Barack Obama administration.
The crude caricature of the China debate is between panda hugging or bashing. In reality, even so-called China bashers take genuine heart from the hundreds of millions of Chinese lifted out of poverty over the past three decades, embrace the economic opportunities provided by its rise, and hope for the best when it comes to how the potential superpower might evolve.

If there is little difference in the aspirations for China and its people, there are fundamental differences with respect to how the US and allies such as Australia, Japan and South Korea should respond to China’s rise.

On the one end, there are those hoping that by determining the nature and circumstances of its rise, the US and its allies can play a decisive role in shaping or taming future Chinese ambitions in Asia. Advocates of this approach stress the importance of reassuring China, focusing on areas that deepen common interests, such as trade, and removing misunderstanding through intensifying diplomatic, cultural and people-to-people links. The tag-line here is that “To treat China as a strategic competitor is to create the self-fulfilling prophecy that it will become one”.

At the other end, the primary approach is to deter China from engaging in behaviour that might harm our interests. Although supportive of greater economic, diplomatic and cultural engagement, they warn that comprehensive engagement is not itself a strategy.

In particular, the fact of deepening economic ties is no strong guarantee of peaceful relations in the future. As Wolfowitz alluded to in the interview with the Global Perspectives Office, trade between the major European powers before World War II was far more extensive as a proportion of GDP than contemporary trade between China, other Asian states and the US. By 1913, Britain had become the leading market for German exports. The mingling of cultures and people-to-people links between these European countries was more mature than that between China and the region today.

Then there are the suspected flaws in any enterprise to shape and tame Chinese ambitions from the outside. After all, such an enterprise assumes an inherent passivity about a government ruling over a civilisation that has been the dominant power in Asia for all but 200 of the past 2000 years—something the Chinese Communist Party is continually repeating to its people and the world. As an authoritarian outsider in a US-led order with democratic community as one of its pillars, it is questionable whether Beijing’s forbearance of American (and allied) strategic and military dominance in the region will be permanent. Indeed, there is a strong case to be made that China already views the US as a strategic competitor.

China’s military build-up is designed to negate American advantages, and much of its strategy is intended to dilute the robustness of US alliances and influence in Asia. Even as China’s importance as a trading partner to the US grows, strategic and military competition with China has intensified rather than softened. As China rises, Beijing becomes more assertive and disruptive rather than less so.

That China is seeking an influence and military capability commensurate with its economic size is undoubtedly true but irrelevant. The more important observation is that the prospect of shaping China’s future ambitions, or taming such a vast country and civilisation, is failing or is a flawed project to begin with.

If one cannot mould China’s future ambitions, we can at least try to deter Beijing from using force to get its way in disagreements over issues such as Taiwan or the South China Sea. For the foreseeable future, China is only able to decisively intimidate—let alone dominate—the rest of Asia through an act of US strategic cession. Even if China continues its rise, acquiring proportionate strategic leverage and military reach is not always a straightforward and linear process. This is where beefing up US military capabilities, as well as strengthening existing and emerging relationships with regional allies and partners, is seen as the primary strategy to deter Chinese adventurism.

The Obama administration has belatedly caught on to this game-plan after flirting with nascent doctrines such as the new order of a Group-of-Two comprising the US and China, or ambiguous doctrines of strategic reassurance. There is still an ongoing debate in Washington and regional capitals about how much to spend on defence and on what. But when it comes to China, there is growing appreciation that hoping for the best now means preparing for the worse.

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