Welcome to The Strategist Six, a feature that provides a glimpse into the thinking of prominent academics, government officials, military officers, reporters and interesting individuals from around the world.
1) Now that China is overtly throwing its weight around, is it fair to say that Washington missed its window to negotiate meaningful compromise or concessions with Beijing?
China has been throwing its weight around for many centuries and will continue to do so in the future, especially if its leaders believe they can flout rules with impunity. Officials in Beijing naturally like to exploit opportunities, and in the past decade those opportunities have included the Global Financial Crisis, the incomplete and overly uni-dimensional US pivot to Asia, and the lack of unity among China’s neighbours.
No doubt opportunities were missed by many parties. But given enduring conflicts of interests and sharply divergent domestic politics, Washington and Beijing have managed well enough. A broad array of issues, from North Korea and cyber space to maritime tensions and climate change, have witnessed varying degrees of cooperation.
To suggest that Washington “missed” a window of opportunity exaggerates the potential for some type of unifying grand bargain. President-elect Trump has called for China to abide by the rules in order to achieve a real win-win and new-type-of-major-power relationship. That won’t be at the expense of allies and partners, but it will enhance America’s negotiating leverage as well as better protect US security and prosperity than recent policy has been able to.
2) Chinese President Xi Jinping has sought to consolidate his personal authority and tighten his grip on the CCP. To what extent does this reflect power or fragility?
It reflects both. Our liberal internationalist mindsets would like to persuade us that Xi is garnering titles out of desperation and weakness or, at best, to gain sufficient purchase to effect more significant reforms. While that may be true to a point, I suspect it’s equally likely that the CCP believes the best way to preserve single-party rule is to keep ahead of the democratic wave brought about by economic development, globalisation and information-based technologies. We will be watching Xi’s appointments over the coming year to see who’s tapped as the next head of the PLA Navy, Commerce/Finance Ministries, State Councillor, and as mayors of major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. President Xi isn’t omnipotent but his appetite for control appears unrestrained.
China’s approach to maritime and territorial sovereignty is matched by its desire to impose authoritarian rules in the media and on the Internet. China is happy to engage in international relations from an advantageous position. From the use of state-owned enterprises to compete with private companies, to a reliance on the Great Firewall of China, to the leveraging of unregulated economic inducement and information warfare, Beijing seeks to control the terms of engagement and the rhythm of negotiation.
3) To what extent has President Obama’s Asia Policy been a success?
I think it would be fair to say the outgoing administration has enjoyed no better than mixed results. I do think the Obama administration crafted an important strategic blueprint for protecting long-term US interests by seeking to reduce the burdens of fighting two protracted insurgencies and harvesting the benefits of the world’s most dynamic region straddling the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The administration also deserves credit for stepping up diplomatic engagement across the Indo–Pacific region, including with Southeast Asia and India.
However, the administration’s policy faltered with respect to implementation. Although intended to be multi-faceted and comprehensive, the rebalance wound up appearing too militaristic in orientation because of the ultimate failure to deliver on economic prosperity. If you want to speak about missed opportunities, it’s much less to do with US–China relations than with early completion of a fairer variant of the Trans-Pacific Partnership accord. Americans should hope that President-elect Trump can find a way to fashion fairer trade agreements with this fast-moving region of opportunity. America’s long-term security and prosperity depend on it.
4) What will become of Obama’s rebalance to the region under President Trump?
President Trump will seek a better deal for the United States, and especially for those many millions of Americans who have felt left behind by the impersonal forces of globalisation and a distant Washington-based policy elite. He’s likely to seek cooperation from strength, to try to establish new understandings among major powers, and to tilt from a largely geostrategic to a more geoeconomic approach to regional and international relations. A geoeconomic approach, something I have written about recently in a CNAS report (PDF), will call for establishing fairer trade deals, a new division of labour and more distributed burden-sharing with allies and partners, and a focus on recapitalising US infrastructure and strengthening our workers and families. A Trump administration’s security policy is likely to be focused on defeating or dealing with threats and adversaries, especially terrorist organisations and rogue-state proliferators such as North Korea. Within all of these goals there’s ample scope to continue a longstanding, bipartisan push for gradually increased strategic engagement with the Indo–Pacific region. Look for President Trump to fully leverage unpredictability to America’s advantage. In short, in some meaningful ways the United States under President Trump may more closely mirror the nationalist, economically-oriented approaches of most Asia–Pacific countries.
5) Should Australia be participating in Freedom of Navigation operations in the South China Sea?
There is ample opportunity for Australia, Japan and other countries to step up their contributions to the provision of regional security, including in the South China Sea. Periodic maritime patrols to reinforce international freedom of the seas are an appropriate and helpful measure to counter the arbitrary use of coercion and force by any power.
President-elect Trump’s recent intervention on the ‘One China’ issue no doubt raises more questions than answers about the era we’re entering, and Taiwan is likely to be in the headlines for some time. However, it’s worth noting that China was increasing pressure on Taiwan before Trump took a phone call from Tsai Ing-wen. The 25 November encirclement of Taiwan by a PLA Air Force bomber, two fighters and a surveillance plane is a harbinger of Beijing’s bid for air and sea control over adjacent seas and beyond. Beijing’s investment in the Philippines in order to obstruct increased US military access further widens the open running room Chinese air and maritime forces want through the Bashi Channel. Building reinforced runways on three artificial islands in the Spratlys is yet another step toward holding Southeast Asia to China’s rules. Thus, notwithstanding their vulnerability to missile attack, de facto air bases in the Spratly Islands put into jeopardy the sovereignty of neighbours and international rule set, including the July judgment issued by the arbitral tribunal.
As important as the security situation is, the incoming Trump administration needs to adopt a more geoeconomic strategy for the region. President-elect Trump is seeking leverage with China to negotiate fairer trade and better security cooperation. Equally important, however, is the need to strengthen economic ties between Australia and the United States, all the more so in the wake of shelving the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
6) What is the biggest threat to security in the region?
Although maritime Asia remains competitive, the most acute security problem in the region remains North Korea. Maintaining deterrence on the Korean Peninsula while fashioning a more comprehensive approach to managing North Korea’s imminent deployment of nuclear-tipped missiles is an urgent problem. The impeachment of Park Geun-hye has thrown the Korean Peninsula into further confusion. Kim Jong-un, perceiving weakness and transition in South Korea and the United States, may well miscalculate with a new provocation designed to win new concessions that instead escalates into conflict.
The Trump administration needs to reinforce deterrence through clear declaratory policy, visible force deployments and crisis management preparation. Beyond this, it will need to seek an immediate root-and-branch review of Washington’s strategy that uses economic, information, diplomatic, and military instruments of policy to send one message to Pyongyang: you may be able to advance nuclear and missile programs, but you won’t be allowed to have your cake and eat it, too. The United States, South Korea and others will ensure that you are contained and penalised heavily unless you forego your quest for nuclear-weapon-state status.
President-elect Trump knows the cold war with North Korea is likely to continue. There’s no clear path to peaceful unification and previous attempts at détente have faltered. A cold war may not be an ideal end state, but for the moment it’s preferable to a hot war.