The Obama administration’s new National Security Strategy (NSS) aims to provide a comprehensive guide as to how the United States intends to secure its national interests and global position. It’s long overdue given that the previous version dates back to 2010. In the meantime, Russia’s annexed the Crimea and supported Ukrainian separatists, the Islamic State’s created havoc in the Middle East, and Iran’s moved closer to a nuclear weapons breakout capability. From an Australian point of view, what the NSS says about America’s future role and strategy for the Asia–Pacific region is of particular interest. That’s because China’s growing power and its assertiveness in regards to territorial disputes have regional allies and partners wondering about Washington’s staying power in Asia. In fact, how the US deals with the rise of China will do much to determine regional stability and the future of US leadership.
The NSS attempts to reassure Asia–Pacific allies and partners that the US will ‘advance our rebalance to Asia and the Pacific’. It posits that American leadership in this part of the world ‘will remain essential’, a proposition most Australian observers would agree with. When it comes to China, it states that while the US welcomed the ‘rise of a stable, peaceful, and prosperous China’, it would ‘manage competition from a position of strength while insisting that China uphold international rules and norms’. It’s clear that Washington expects Sino-US competition to grow, in part because attempts to reach a mutual understanding about how to organise their relationship have so far proved elusive. The NSS signals to Beijing that the concept of a ‘new type of great power relationship’ promoted by President Xi—and initially accepted by President Obama—isn’t a sustainable basis for the relationship. Both sides have divergent interpretations of what it means, with China using it to justify the creation of ‘spheres of influence’ in the Western Pacific. That’s rattled the nerves of US allies and partners, and threatened to erode US leadership credentials.
Allies and partners should thus welcome the NSS’s emphasis on US leadership in support of regional rules-based norms and behaviour. But it’s also clear that the US expects allies and partners to carry a greater burden when it comes to dealing with certain elements of China’s coercion. In his introduction to the document, President Obama states that the US remains ‘alert to China’s military modernization and reject[s] any role for intimidation in resolving territorial disputes.’ But to ‘reject’ intimidation isn’t the same as to ‘resist’ it. The NSS also states that ‘[o]n territorial disputes, particularly in Asia, we denounce coercion and assertive behaviour that threaten escalation.’ Yet again, ‘denouncing’ is the easy part; imposing real costs on Beijing quite another.
Doing so will fall to a greater extent on the allies and partners, and the NSS stressed the need to strengthen allied and partner ‘capabilities to withstand coercion, imposing costs on those who threaten their neighbors or violate fundamental international norms’. Arguably, from Washington’s perspective, that particularly relates to coercion in so-called ‘grey zones’ in the South China Sea and East China Sea, where China typically uses lower levels of intimidation backed by PLA direct or indirect action. That’s apparent in the way the NSS discusses the ‘use of force’. While its predecessor had dealt with this issue in more generic terms, the NSS 2015 states that the US ‘will be principled and selective in the use of force’. It goes on to argue that the ‘threshold for military action is higher when our interests are not directly threatened. In such cases, we will seek to mobilize allies and partners to share the burden and achieve lasting outcomes.’
In this context, the NSS seeks to enhance interactions among the US’ primary allies Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines to ‘ensure they are fully capable of responding to regional and global challenges’. Obviously, as US power is declining in relative terms, allies and partners should be prepared to play a more active role in addressing the China challenge. But US ambivalence when it comes to ‘grey zone incidents’ is also problematic. While it’s understandable that Washington doesn’t want to be drawn into conflicts with China over ‘some rocks’ in the Western Pacific, regional perceptions about the Sino-US ‘balance of resolve’ and, ultimately, US leadership will be shaped by the degree to which the US is willing to confront China’s attempts to create facts on the water through its creeping incrementalism. Uncertainty about US willingness to do so has already led to friction within the US–Japan alliance. In that regard, the NSS represents a missed opportunity to formulate a clearer strategy for leadership in a more volatile Asia–Pacific region.