The Truce Image Credit: Corbis

The Truce

Negotiating the end of the American era

AFA11 The March of Autocracy

This extract is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 11: The March of Autocracy. To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.

Why America won’t fight China

To put America’s dilemma in a few words, the problem is that the job is too big and the stakes too small. The job is too big because military power is a function of economic power, and China’s economy is enormous. In 1991 it was roughly the same size as Australia’s, yet by 2019 it was roughly two-thirds the size of the US economy. According to World Bank figures released in May 2020, in purchasing power parity terms, China’s economic output now accounts for 16.4 per cent of global output, while the United States contributes 16.3 per cent. That means Beijing can challenge American military primacy in Asia without bankrupting itself, unlike the Soviet Union. What’s more, China can focus all that military power on its region because, unlike the United States, it chooses not to spread its military resources across the globe.

Since the end of the Cold War, American military power in the Asia-Pacific has been built on its navy, which had the ability to roam the region and operate across vast distances with little fear of interference. In 1996, the Clinton administration’s sailing of a carrier battlegroup and an amphibious assault fleet through the Taiwan Strait to demonstrate its support for Taiwan and its opposition to Chinese military intimidation against Taipei was the material expression of this supremacy. US military leaders were clearly confident that, in the event relations with Beijing deteriorated into a military clash, the US Navy could not only defend itself against anything China could throw at it, but also use its fleet to project significant military power to the Chinese mainland.

The United States can feel no such assurance today. China now has the world’s largest navy, according to the Pentagon’s annual assessment of the People’s Liberation Army, and its capability is second only to that of the United States. It has developed an array of new missiles – and the ships, submarines and aircraft to carry them – which make it impossible for the US Navy to operate close to China’s shores at reasonable risk. In a conflict between China and Taiwan, US intervention would now be unacceptably costly. The United States would risk losing not only its aircraft carriers but also its bases in Japan and Guam. And what is true for Taiwan is becoming true of Asia more broadly – as China’s maritime power grows and is projected further outward, the shift from US military supremacy to a military balance expands throughout the region.

Yet even though China is the most serious threat to America’s leadership in Asia since World War II, that is still not a good enough reason for America to fight for it. Firstly, the ideological justification is missing – the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) clearly takes its ideology very seriously, but it is not at the vanguard of a global movement to overthrow democratic capitalism, as the Soviet Union once was. China is beginning to promote its development model to the world, but it doesn’t offer a set of universal values that compete with liberal ideas. The economic justification is weak too – even if China forced the United States to withdraw all its military forces from Asia, this wouldn’t cut America out of Asia economically because the costs of doing so would be prohibitive. The Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index shows that in the decade to 2019 alone, new American investment in Asia totalled US$511 billion, versus US$413 billion for next-placed Japan. That level of economic integration cannot be easily undone, and it would be disastrous to try.

Lastly, there is no existential justification for America to oppose China’s rise because neither the United States nor China poses a direct threat to the other’s landmass. They are far enough apart, and each has a large enough army and nuclear arsenal, to make them safe from invasion. Of course, the United States defines its interests more broadly than that. As strategist Bruno Maçães puts it, “Since it became a world power around 1900, the United States had one permanent strategic goal: to prevent a single power from controlling the whole of Eurasia.” But despite China’s size, it has no prospect of dominating the Eurasian landmass because it is surrounded by great powers, of which the United States is just one.

Nevertheless, America’s mood regarding China has shifted. Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf wrote in 2019 that “[a]cross-the-board rivalry with China is becoming an organising principle of US economic, foreign and security policies”. What’s remarkable about this shift is how little consideration has apparently been given to whether it is a good idea. The consensus that the United States and China are in competition for the leadership of Asia has developed so rapidly that the question of whether it is desirable has been sidelined. Yet confronting China in a whole-of-government contest for leadership in Asia would be so costly, and the prize so elusive and insubstantial, that it is a choice no rational American leader could make.

Right now, the United States is in the worst of all worlds. It has committed itself rhetorically to a Cold War–style struggle against China, but without the resolve to wage it and with no realistic sense of the sacrifices it will demand. So although there is growing understanding in Washington about the significance of China’s rise (a belated realisation deferred by almost two decades of fixation on Islamist terrorism), what’s missing is a willingness to admit that a highly advantageous distribution of power that seemed permanent is in fact temporary, and that it is not in America’s interest to prevent the shift away from US leadership in Asia.

This is a 934 word extract of a 4,182 word essay by Sam Roggeveen. Get your copy of AFA11: The March of Autocracy to read the complete piece, along with contributions from Linda Jaivin, John Keane, Darren Lim and Natasha Kassam. 

AFA11 The March of Autocracy

This is an extract from Australian Foreign Affairs 11: The March of Autocracy. To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.