It’s time to start paying attention. The US–China spat is doubling down. The hardline speeches given by Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe and then acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue revealed that both sides are preparing to fight their corners. In this, the most exposed countries are the Indo-Pacific’s middle powers, which are trapped between the feuding great powers.
Wei helpfully—and forcefully—told ASEAN countries that China’s newly acquired South China Sea islands are now its territory for ever more and it will fight tooth and nail to keep them. Displaying considerable chutzpah, Wei then declared that China has always been peaceful and never used force to capture any territory. The history of China’s armed seizure of Johnson South Reef (now an 11-hectare military facility), in which 64 Vietnamese soldiers died and two ships were sunk, has seemingly been rewritten—just as the history of Tiananmen Square has been.
For Australia and other regional nations that have China as their major trading partner, Shanahan’s speech also raises concerns. He launched the US’s new Indo-Pacific strategy, which advocates defence preparedness, military partnerships and networking to counter a revisionist China, a malign Russia, a rogue North Korea and diverse transnational challenges. In that document, China gets four pages; the others, one each.
The critical issue for the region and its stability and future affluence is that the strategy is one of balancing. The US wants to maintain a favourable balance of power vis-a-vis others: ‘A negative shift in the regional balance of power could encourage competitors to challenge and subvert the free and open order that supports prosperity and security for the United States and its allies and partners’.
This isn’t necessarily a good development. Balancing works through threatening or using violence. Under this grand-strategy approach, war can play a major role and is both acceptable behaviour and a legitimate means of statecraft. Creating a favourable balance of power may require a major war between the great powers. Embracing balancing may be purposefully constructing an uninviting future in which success is either uncertain or ugly.
A future China may overtake the US in economic power and be able to spend more on defence than America, potentially creating a larger military force. On the numbers, China might win a ‘balancing’ relative power game. The other great power of concern, Russia, is in economic and demographic decline but has considerable nuclear forces. That makes using war as a means of statecraft unappealing: a nuclear victory might be a pyrrhic one.
There are other options. While great-power competition is considered in America’s national security strategy, national defense strategy and now the Indo-Pacific strategy as today’s defining strategic issue, this does not in itself mean war. Such competition is understood as remaining below the level of great-power armed conflict, instead ranging across diverse areas including economics, diplomacy, the cybersphere, information campaigns and proxy wars. Such diversity gives much more choice in the grand strategies that could potentially be used, in contrast to last century’s bipolar Cold War confrontation, when balancing ruled.
It’s worth thinking about potential alternatives to balancing. There might be some that are more efficacious and avoid constructing an international environment in which the possibility of great-power war is deliberately built in. War in itself is a gross failure of policy, not a success. While warfare is sometimes necessary to get ourselves to a better future, as it was during World War II, preference should be given to trying to achieve a better tomorrow without shedding any blood.
Some may argue that US grand strategy is an American matter, but it’s an issue that affects all, particularly close US allies that will get swept up into any major war. Others may suggest that we just ignore the problem and leave it to American strategists to decide, but that approach didn’t work so well in Iraq or Afghanistan. The US has devised highly successful strategies in the past, but not always. As we’ll have to live with the results of America’s current grand strategy, it behoves regional strategic thinkers and policymakers to assess it and if necessary argue for change. That is, after all, one of the great virtues of the American ‘empire’: the colonies and dominions get to have a say.
To suggest what’s possible, I’ve written a paper under the US Defense Department’s Strategic Multilayer Assessment program that develops 12 grand-strategy alternatives related to China and 10 for Russia. The paper doesn’t advocate any particular grand strategy but instead quickly sketches alternatives, hoping to provoke creative thinking and innovation.
The alternatives outlined could each create a different future, but they are more than simply possibilities as they’re derived from international relations theoretical perspectives developed, assessed and critiqued over an extended period. The alternatives thus have a common structure useful for cross-comparisons.
Uncritically accepting balancing builds a major war into our possible future. This is an unappealing tomorrow, but the Chinese—and Russian—challenges are real. They require genuine debate, perhaps even strategic innovation. This may all sound intellectually confronting, but it’s vital. Our future may well rest on it.