How to avoid a war with China

Australian+Prime+Minister+Kevin+Rudd+Calls+ErP9Ex6Ph4IlThere is a very insightful article in Foreign Affairs by former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, whose views on China I have discussed before, headlined “How to Avoid an Avoidable War ~ Ten Questions About the New U.S. China Strategy.

Prime Minister Rudd begins by reminding us that “This November, we will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of what was called “the war to end all wars” between the great powers of the early twentieth century. Of course, the war to end all wars turned out to be anything but. Because of a catastrophic series of unintended consequences, more wars followed in its wake, and the geopolitical map of the world has been redrawn three times since then … [and] … When future generations look back on 2018, it could well be as the year in which the relationship between the two great powers of the twenty-first century—the United States and China—shifted from peaceful coexistence to a new form of confrontation, although its final trajectory remains far from certain.” He notes that recent documents, speeches and statements have made it clear that the Trump administration has “formally declared an end to a 40-year period of U.S. strategic engagement with China, and its replacement with a new period of strategic competition. … [and, he says this rests] … on the assumption that engagement has failed; that China’s domestic market has not opened up sufficiently to foreign export and investment penetration; that, rather than becoming a responsible stakeholder in the global rules-based order, China is now developing an alternative international order with Chinese characteristics; and that instead of becoming more democratic in its domestic politics, Beijing has now decided to double down as a Leninist state.

Kevin Rudd doesn’t think that is the best or even the only course of action open. He asks ten questions:

  • First,” and there are several questions embedded within this one: “what is the United States’ desired endpoint? What does the United States do if China does not acquiesce to the demands outlined in the vice president’s speech—including a “fair and reciprocal” trade deal, and ends to “the theft of American intellectual property” and “the predatory practice of forced technology transfer”—but instead explicitly rejects them? What happens if the new U.S. strategy not only fails to produce the desired objective but instead produces the reverse, namely an increasingly mercantilist, nationalist, and combative China? There are … [he suggests] … two broad possibilities here: either Beijing will concede to the changes that Washington wants, or it will double down on its current policies;”
  • Second,” he asks, and once again there are multiple questions with one, “if we are now in a period of strategic competition, what are the new rules of the game? rtx3amyi-e1510022668857How can Washington reach a common understanding with Beijing as to what these new rules might be? Or are there now to be no rules other than those which may be fashioned over time by the new operational dynamics of strategic competition? How, for example, will the United States now manage dangerous incidents at sea (such as recently occurred when a Chinese warship came within 45 yards of the USS Decatur’s bow); incidents in the air; cyberattacks; nuclear proliferation; strategic competition in third countries; the purchase and sale of U.S. Treasury Notes; the future of the exchange rate; and other major policy domains?
  • Third, and closely related to these first two questions, is whether or not any common strategic narrative between China and the United States is now possible to set the conceptual parameters for the future bilateral relationship. In the absence of new rules that delimit the parameters of the relationship, and without a common conceptual framework of what the relationship is ultimately about, how can these two powers avoid, consciously or subconsciously, simply sliding into a new Cold War? And then a hot one?” That, it seems to me, goes to my concern that President Trump has instincts and ‘gut feels’ but no well thought out, coherent, strategic plan;
  • Fourth,” Kevin Rudd asks, and this echoes a point I have made several times, “to the extent that some U.S. strategic planners may be considering further reorienting U.S. China policy from strategic competition toward full-blooded containment and comprehensive economic decoupling, George Kennan’s famous “Long Telegram” of 1946 and his “X” article on “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” published in Foreign Affairs the following year, are worth a careful rereading. Kennan argued that if properly contained the Soviet Union would likely break up under the weight of its internal pressures. It would be a heroic assumption, however, that holds that in a new Cold War, the Chinese system would collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions should a similar policy be applied. It might. But the size of China’s domestic economy, the extent of its continuing economic engagement with the rest of the non-U.S. world, together with the new technologies of political control now available to an authoritarian state, should give those who think that China will turn out just like the Soviet Union pause for thought;”
  • Fifth, is the United States convinced that Chinese authoritarian capitalism actually poses a potent ideological challenge to democratic capitalism, the way that Soviet communism once did? The Soviet Union constructed client regimes around the world of a similar ideological nature to its own. Is there evidence that China is doing the same? If there is, what is the evidence to date of China’s success or failure? Or is China doing something qualitatively different—essentially being agnostic about the domestic political systems of other states, while still building their own coalition of the willing around the world based on the growing size of China’s global economic footprint, to be drawn upon when Chinese foreign policy interests are at stake?
  • Sixth, is the United States prepared to make a strategic counteroffer to the world to the financial and economic commitment reflected in a multitrillion-dollar set of Chinese programs—including the Belt and Road Initiative, concessional loans, and bilateral aid flows? Or will Washington continue to slash its own aid budgets and reduce the size of its foreign service?” He says, and I fully agree that “The United States won western Europe from the Soviet Union because of the Marshall Plan. It will not win its strategic competition with China on the basis of fine sentiment alone in Eurasia, Africa, and Latin America;”
  • Seventh, beyond concessional finance and grant aid,” Prime Minister Rudd says, “there is the broader question of how the United States will compete over time with the magnitude of China’s trade and investment volumes in both Asia and Europe. How will the cancellation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Asia and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, its counterpart with Europe, affect the relative significance of the United States as a trade, investment, and technology partner with these regions in the future? Beijing,” he says, “is already a bigger economic partner with Asia and Africa than Washington. Europe and Latin America are likely to follow;”
  • 1496392215_u-s-president-donald-trumpEighth, for these and other reasons, how confident is the United States that its friends and allies around the world will embrace its newly competitive strategy toward China? Many U.S. allies may decide to hedge their bets, waiting until it becomes clearer whether this U.S. shift is permanent and whether it will succeed.” This is something I have also forecasted … I think that those ‘allies’ who stick with Americans will do so because they need to “go along to get along” rather than because they have any real faith in America’s strategy;
  • Ninth, what ideational case can the United States make to the world for supporting its new strategy as an alternative to Chinese regional and global domination? Pence consciously and eloquently couched his call to arms in terms of U.S. interests. But he made no appeal to the international community based on common interests and shared values, which have been historically articulated though the U.S.-led, rules-based order crafted after World War II. Where is the shining city on the hill? Or are we left with a choice between one realist power and another?” and
  • Finally,” Kevin Rudd suggests, “U.S. and allied strategists need also to consider how a major cleavage in U.S.-Chinese relations would affect the global economy and global action on climate change in the more immediate term. A radical decoupling of the U.S. and Chinese economies could lead bilateral trade to collapse, or else fall significantly; this shock would in turn have a significant negative impact on U.S. and global growth in 2019, possibly even triggering a worldwide recession. Or consider the just-released United Nations report on climate change, which warns of potential planetary disaster because the world’s major carbon emitters have failed to take adequate action so far. What will happen if China reverts to its own more limited national measures at carbon mitigation in the absence of a functioning global environmental order? China is at present bound by its commitments made under the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change. The United States’ absence from the negotiating table is already seeing a weakening of that regime. China may use formal U.S. withdrawal from Paris, or a wider collapse in the U.S.-Chinese relationship, to walk away altogether. Although the current U.S. administration may not care about this, practically all of its allies do.

Mr Rudd is still all of a career diplomat, a noted policy wonk and a China scholar so he wonders, of course, if there is a “third option.”

Of course there is, even those, like me, who believe that the US led West needs to accommodate and curb, but not, à la Kennan and Truman, contain China’s rise, want that done while persuading China to act like a cooperative rather than a controlling member of the liberal world order. I believe, that, relative to Prime Minister Rudd’s third question, President Trump has, intentionally, removed any possibility for a “common strategic narrative between China and the United States to set the conceptual parameters for the future bilateral relationship.” I don’ think President Trump wants to slide into a new cold war or, especially, into a hot one, but I do think that he cannot see beyond his own, personal balance sheet view of the world in which America is, by his standards, losing the profit and loss war with China.

Kevin Rudd asked, at the very beginning, “What is the United States’ desired endpoint?” In so far as President Trump is concerned, I think we heard that in his speech in Nevada a few days ago when he said that what he wants is a situation where “China comes to us,” by implication on bended knee, as a supplicant, and asks for reciprocity in missile development, but I think that President Trump wants China to come to him, as a supplicant, and acknowledge America’s superiority. Is that something that we can imagine? Is it even desirable? Above all, is that the sort of America, a bully, that the world wants?

I doubt that a hot war is in the cards even though I have suggested, before, that the Chinese are not afraid to play “bumper cars” in e.g. the South China seas. I say that because (same linked article) I also believe that the Chinese, correctly in my view, believe in the shark vs dragon or elephant vs whale analogy which says that while America is the world’s greatest sea power (the shark) it cannot project enough power on to the Asian mainland to defeat mapTaiwanstraitChina, and while China, the dragon or elephant, is superior on land it cannot match America on the ocean. My suspicion is that China is not afraid to trade some, minor “blows” with the Americans in a couple of places where it matters to them: the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Taiwan Strait which links them. My guess is that China is quite willing to sacrifice a few warships, even one of its new aircraft carriers IF it can reduce Japan’s, Taiwan’s and the Philippines’ faith in America’s resolve. My question is: what will America do if it loses a warship or even an aircraft carrier? There are serious doubts about America’s capacity to get troops to Europe in a crisis. Moving a large enough land army to Asia is a much more difficult problem. Would America even try? Would it use nuclear weapons, first? What about Chinese retaliation? I have read estimates that the Chinese are on track, now, to have hundreds of mobile ICBMs (ranges 1280px-PLA_ballistic_missiles_rangein excess of 13,000 km)  deployed, each with multiple nuclear warheads which means that a punishing retaliatory second strike, against America (or Russia, for that matter) is almost guaranteed. The graphic on the left (from 2007, I think) shows the ranges of some Chinese nuclear missiles, several have most of the USA within range. I doubt that America, including Donald J Trump, wants to risk a hot war with China, even if provoked by Chinese aggression, because, it seems to me, that the inevitable downstream options are to risk either ignoble stalemate or a pointless nuclear exchange.

Thus, there must be a third way; a way which will, simultaneously, persuade the Chinese to manage their seemingly inexorable rise in ways that are less likely to provoke a full blown Cold War 2.0, and contain Donald Trump’s instincts which, as I have said before, will outlast his presidency.

But, what if President Trump blunders into a full blown Cold War 2.) and what if that get hot, as it very well might? What should Canada be doing? Well, two things:

  • First we should be working diplomatically, with other like minded nations, to defuse tensions. We should, for example, be trying to “internationalize” the freedom on navigation ‘exercises’ in the South China Sea by send Canadian warships through those straits to tell friendly nations, like the Philippines that we want to help and to tell China that this is more than just China vs. the USA, it is China vs. all those who value international law and order. We should, also, be trying to promote free(er) trade with China and we should be trying to tie China into more and more international bodies and agreements; and
  • Second, we should look to our own defences, just in case things go from bad to worse. We should begin by increasing the defence procurement budget so that we can buy enough of the new Type 26 combat ships for our Navy and enough first line fighter jets and modern long range patrol aircraft for the RCAF and, of course, everything else we need, beginning with diverting 500+ LAV-6 armoured personnel carriers from Saudi Arabia to the Canadian Army.





Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

3 thoughts on “How to avoid a war with China

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