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A US strategy that seeks to ‘manage’ China based only on American interests may be a fool’s errand

2019-03-01 10:48:45       source:NISCSS

February 13, 2019

The latest US National Defence Authorisation Act mandates that US President Donald Trump submit to Congress by March 1 a strategy for dealing with China. In an article in The National Interest, Andrew Erickson, a professor at the US Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute, proposes a strategy of “competitive coexistence” for “managing” US-China relations. At first sight, this approach sounds safe and even sensible. But on closer examination, it is unrealistic, misguided, internally inconsistent and even dangerous.


Erickson is an influential expert on China’s military and has testified before various US Congressional committees regarding the China “threat”. His article starts with the assumption that China can be – and should be – “managed”. This may well be a fool’s errand.


His paradigm’s key pillars are “oppose [China’s] harmful behaviours”, “accept risk and friction to recalibrate Chinese actions”, “hold ground in contested areas” and “reduce tensions and pursue shared interests as much as Beijing is willing to do so”.


The last pillar would be rather difficult, if not impossible, to achieve if the first three are implemented. Indeed, pursuing the first three pillars is likely to confirm to China that the US is trying to contain it. China would probably respond accordingly and tensions are bound to rise.


Further, the paradigm essentially rules out negotiation and flexibility by urging the US to be “clear, firm and consistent from the start”. More problematic, it advocates that the US uphold “its vital interests and those of its allies and partners” – a term that encompasses a range of contentious issues across Asia.


Upholding US interests includes maintaining the existing “rules based international order”. The problem is that China views this order as having been built by, and benefiting, the US and its allies.


Offering an example of where the US should “hold its ground”, Erickson points to the overlap of US-China interests in the Yellow, East and South China seas, much of which are “a vital part of the global commons, on which the international system depends to operate effectively and fairly”. This is true.


However, the article alludes to a Chinese threat to sea lanes in the South China Sea. There is no such threat to commercial traffic and there is unlikely to be in peace time.


The real issue is that China considers some US military activities in its exclusive economic zone to be violations of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Conflating the two concerns is disingenuous.


More dangerous, Erickson urges the US to “proactively help allies and partners pursue their legitimate rights and interests”, thus putting “Beijing on the defensive”. This is a recipe for confrontation, primarily at the political, economic and, possibly, military expense of smaller Asian countries caught in between.


With a tinge of hypocrisy, Erickson alleges China uses “economic statecraft against American allies and partners, and directly interferes in the politics of countries across the world.” In fact, this is what the US did in its rise to international power and continues to do.


The article also observes that China tests the US continuously “to determine its tolerance for risk, friction and tension”. This is precisely what China thinks the US is doing with its intelligence probes and freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.


Erickson calls for America to apply “counter-pressure”, based on the rationale that when the US resists, China “often chooses not to escalate”, thus demonstrating “the limits of Beijing’s appetite for risk”.


Such thinking could lead to dangerous miscalculation. As China’s confidence grows, so may its “appetite for risk”.


The article suggests that the US “walk away from engagement that China values more than it does” such as the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement and Joint Staff Dialogue Mechanism meetings.


These are some of the few institutionalised US-China military dialogues and it may not be wise for the militaries to simply stop talking.


Moreover, Erickson urges the US not to “accommodate [China] selectively as a superpower in some contexts and a developing country in others”.


But the reality is that China is a major power in some areas, like military and international economic prowess, but still a developing country in many domestic social and economic areas.


The article concludes that “describing the United States and China as strategic stakeholders that should pursue competitive coexistence realistically is a good place to start.” I agree. But the key word is “realistically”. The details of the proposed “competitive coexistence” strategy make it unrealistic and even dangerous.

Indeed, the thinking behind the proposal for “competitive coexistence” is a good indication of why US policy towards China has “failed” and probably will continue to do so. It is overly US-centric in both tenor and tone.


US policy must address the reality of China’s power, influence and appeal. It will continue to increase these factors and slowly supplant the US as the sole leader and arbiter of “the international order”.


The US must accept this and try to influence the inevitable transition by negotiating the manner, pace and substance of power sharing.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China

Link: https://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/united-states/article/2185794/us-strategy-seeks-manage-china-based-only 


The NISCSS is authorized to re-publish this article on its website.