A US–China ‘shadow condominium’?
25 Oct 2012|
President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao participate in an official arrival ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Nov. 17, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Coral Bell’s recent passing has created an unfillable void in the Australian International Relations and Strategic Studies scene. Yet Coral leaves behind a wealth of ideas generated during her illustrious career that retain substantial currency for those of us continuing to toil in her imposing scholarly shadow.

One such idea is Coral’s under-studied concept of a ‘shadow condominium’, which she conceived of during the mid-1960s. Inspired by the US–Soviet relationship of the day, it is a notion which arguably better describes the current state of strategic ties between Beijing and Washington.

Contemporary understandings of the US–China relationship have tended to swing between two opposing poles. At one end of the spectrum, pessimists such as John Mearsheimer and Aaron Friedberg point to the inevitability of strategic competition between these two preeminent powers.

At the other, optimists such as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and our own Hugh White have instead pointed to the possibility of a power-sharing agreement between Beijing and Washington. This idea reached the peak of its popularity during the 2008–2009 global financial crisis in the form of calls for a ‘G2’.

Neither of these extreme positions captures particularly well the mix of competition and cooperation which has, for some time now, characterised the US–China relationship. By contrast, the promise of Coral’s ‘shadow condominium’ lies in the fact that it is able to do just that.

Inspired by the dynamics of superpower diplomacy during the Cuban Missile crisis (which marked its 50th anniversary just this month), the ‘shadow condominium’ that Bell referred to was a temporary power-sharing arrangement that emerged during periods of acute crisis engaging the interests of the two dominant powers.

But once the danger had passed, this arrangement retreated ‘into the shadows of the future’ and default adversarial postures resumed.

Ever the optimist, Coral maintained that there was always a prospect for the condominium to re-emerge out of those shadows during times of deep crisis.

In her view, periods of power transition are especially conducive to such arrangements because they are invariably dangerous and difficult. The primary function of the ‘shadow condominium’ during such periods is to provide stability through joint great power management of the balance of power.

In the context of Asia’s current power shift, the best evidence that Bell’s 1960s template applies aptly to US–China relations comes from the Korean Peninsula.

To be sure, strategic competition between these two heavyweights has been a perennial feature of security politics surrounding this flashpoint. Arguably of greater interest, however, has been the cooperation that has occurred between Beijing and Washington during periods of crisis.

In early 2003 following the collapse of the 1994 Agreed Framework, for instance, Beijing and Washington worked to initiate three party talks with North Korea which subsequently morphed into a larger and moderately successful Six Party format.

Again in 2006, in the midst of heightened tensions following North Korea’s first nuclear test, American and Chinese officials came together to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table.

In 2010, following the North’s November bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island, tensions heightened to the point where highly respected analysts such as Victor Cha pointed to the possibility of all out conflict between the two Koreas. By December, however, Beijing and Washington were again reportedly working together to create calm.

This pattern recurred once more following the sudden death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il in late 2011. The US and China maintained very close contact in the aftermath of that event. Indeed, during a visit to Beijing at the time, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell spoke in terms not inconsistent with the ‘shadow condominium’ concept when intimating that ‘I think the US and China share a strong determination to maintain peace and stability’.

Will a US–China ‘shadow condominium’ manifest itself in the case of future strategic crises—in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, or over Taiwan—if and when these emerge? Only time will tell.

Aside from the fact that it was conceived by one of our great strategic thinkers, Canberra might do well in the meantime to entertain and further explore the possibility.

First, it offers a more realistic way of thinking about US–China relations than a more formal, institutionalised power-sharing arrangement. Beijing and Washington simply do not share the same common values or strategic cultures necessary to sustain an arrangement of that nature.

Second, a US–China ‘shadow condominium’ will be more palatable to countries—including Japan and India—who fear their potential marginalisation under a more formal US–China power-sharing arrangement because they read it as a step towards some mild form of world government.

Finally, and most importantly, a US–China ‘shadow condominium’ is also a more attractive proposition than the intense and inherently unstable US–China strategic competition that some analysts predict, along with the stark strategic choices that such competition would likely imply for Australia.

Brendan Taylor is head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. Image courtesy of Flickr user The White House.