Washington’s Missing China Strategy
To Counter Beijing, the Biden Administration Needs to Decide What It Wants
In the 1950s a balance or pattern of power grew up in Asia and the Pacific, the central feature of which was the conflict between the Sino-Soviet bloc and the American alliance system. It is obvious that this pattern has been disintegrating in the course of the last decade, and that in the 1970s it will be replaced by something quite new. What this new balance will be we cannot say with any assurance, but certain propositions may be tentatively advanced.
The new balance will rest primarily upon an equilibrium among three great powers-the United States, the Soviet Union and China-and the principal uncertainty is whether they will be joined by a fourth, Japan. Each of the three present great powers gains from the conflict between the other two (although only up to a point: it is unlikely that any of them wishes to see the others embroiled in a nuclear war). Each fears that the other two will combine against it. Russia and China express this fear of collusion in strident terms; while the United States does not voice its concern in any comparable way, it does not wish to see a restoration of Sino-Soviet solidarity.
In fact, the tensions on all three sides of this triangle seem likely to persist and to exclude an enduring and comprehensive combination of any two against the third for the foreseeable future. A Sino-American understanding has been made more likely by the evident willingness of the Nixon Administration to seek an improvement in relations with China, and the presumed interest of China in influencing United States policy against an understanding with Russia; moreover, the disengagement of the United States from mainland Southeast Asia will remove one important source of friction. But the intractable problem of Taiwan is sufficient by itself to prevent a general rapprochement for many years.
A Sino-Soviet understanding might be facilitated by changes of régime in Moscow, Peking or both, but the border dispute is likely to outlive particular governments and the ideological claims and counterclaims of the last decade to leave a legacy of bitterness. The restoration of a working partnership between Russia and China on particular issues is a real possibility, but it would not be a return to the close-knit alliance of the 1950s; for the present the relationship between Russia and China remains the principal point of friction among the great powers.
The Soviet-American side of the triangle, unlike the other two sides, already rests upon firm foundations of mutual understanding. The United States and the Soviet Union recognize common interests in the avoidance of nuclear war, and are involved in an extensive network of negotiations covering SALT, Berlin, the Middle East and many other issues. They have developed a habit of tacit coöperation in relation to China on the Indian subcontinent, in relation to non-nuclear nations in the context of the non- proliferation treaty and in relation to economic have-nots in the context of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. But the Soviet- American relationship does not contain the makings of an alliance directed against China, still less of a system of joint hegemony or condominium designed to preserve their privileged position against all comers. The United States and Russia each values China as a check on the power of the other, as the Americans demonstrated by their neutrality in the Sino-Soviet border dispute and the Russians by helping to defend China's strategic frontier in North Vietnam. The United States and the Soviet Union by virtue of their strategic preëminence still have more to fear from each other than from any third party; if it is the Sino-Soviet relationship that is the principal point of friction among the great powers, it is the Soviet- American relationship that remains, in Stanley Hoffmann's phrase, the relationship of major tension.
Changes in the pattern of relations among these great powers are possible, even likely, especially in the relationship of China to each of the others. Even a partial mending of the fences between China and the Soviet Union, or between China and the United States, might have major consequences for the area as a whole. But these changes are likely to take the form of limited coöperation for particular purposes and to fall short of any general alliance. They are also likely to be unstable in nature. Whatever proves to be the pattern of power relationships, it is unlikely to reproduce the stable alliances and antagonisms of the cold-war period, the sources of which lay in conditions-the polarization of power and the ideological schism-which have long been in decay and may soon disappear altogether.
The position of the United States in the Asian and Pacific balance is also likely to decline drastically. In the 1970s America's military capability to exert influence in the area will be qualified by a number of factors that have not operated in the past: the achievement by the Soviet Union of parity with the United States in strategic nuclear arms; the presence of significant Soviet naval power in the Indian and Pacific Oceans; the emergence of China as a strategic nuclear power; and the emergence of Japan as a potential military great power.
To this decline in America's military ability to sustain the role she has played in the past there must be added a no less striking decline in her will to sustain it. Three years ago it was possible to argue that after the United States completed her withdrawal from mainland Southeast Asia this would not necessarily lead to an abandonment of other positions in the area. On the contrary, the result might be a reinforcement of them; the new American policy would be not so much a retreat as a strategic withdrawal to defensively superior positions on the Asian periphery; Walter Lippmann, for example, argued in favor of an American redoubt in Australia. It is now clear that America's withdrawal from Indochina will not be accompanied by new commitments or deployments elsewhere; on the contrary, the pattern of American force deployments in Japan, Okinawa, Taiwan, Thailand, Korea and the Philippines is already one of reduction.
The pattern of United States withdrawal, indeed, is not local or regional but global, although Europe has so far been less affected than other areas. Moreover, it reflects loss of confidence in the ends of United States foreign policy as well as in the means. This is why the present revulsion against the Vietnam war is not comparable with the revulsion against mainland Asian involvement that followed the Korean War, a revulsion that brought with it only a resolve to change the means by which America's purposes in the world were pursued, from local conventional action to global nuclear. Since the time of the Truman Doctrine the United States has been viewed by its leaders, rightly or wrongly, as a country dedicated to resistance to aggression and to the containment of communism on a global scale. These goals are now rejected by large sections of American public and Congressional opinion.
It is true that the United States will remain vitally interested in the global balance of power, and therefore in its relations with Russia, China and Japan. But concern for the global balance of power does not necessarily require United States intervention to resist aggression or to contain communism in particular areas. The American interventions in Korea and Indochina were motivated not only by concern about the global balance but also by those legalistic and ideological purposes which are now losing their grip on the American public mind.
The Nixon Doctrine, however, seeks to preserve the essentials of the older policy while taking account of the new public mood. As President Nixon stated in his report to Congress of February 18, 1970: "The United States will keep all its treaty commitments. We shall provide a shield if a nuclear power threatens the freedom of a nation allied with us, or of a nation whose survival we consider vital to our security and the security of the region as a whole. In cases involving other types of aggression we shall furnish military and economic assistance when requested and as appropriate. But we shall look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense." In his report to Congress of February 25, 1971, President Nixon claimed that the operations in Cambodia and Laos, conducted with American military assistance but without American ground forces, are a concrete illustration of the principles of the Nixon Doctrine.
The new formula, however, cannot disguise the fact that United States policy is undergoing a change not merely of means but of ends. It now seems likely that the United States, unconvinced that the global balance of power is at stake, will be prepared to allow aggression to succeed, and communism to expand, in Indochina and possibly in other areas of Asia and the Pacific, rather than intervene directly to prevent it. Treaty commitments may be kept as Britain, France and Pakistan may claim to have kept their commitments under the Manila Treaty. But how will they be interpreted? A nuclear shield will be available; but how credible will its use be after China has developed an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability? What if, in cases of conventional aggression, the country directly threatened is not able to meet the challenge? The withdrawal of American forces will be a fact, whereas "local self-reliance" will be merely a hope; "the Vietnamization of the war" may or may not enable a non- communist government to survive in Saigon, but in either case the American forces, once they have gone, will not return.
The Nixon Doctrine, moreover, is not a sacred text defining the possibilities of American involvement for all time, but merely a milestone on a road that may lead to more radical disengagement The authors of the Doctrine are men reared in the older tradition of postwar American foreign policy, fighting a rearguard action against new trends. It is not clear, in particular, that an enduring consensus will emerge within the United States in favor of the formula, at present being applied in Laos and Cambodia, that substitutes for direct U.S. intervention military assistance to local troops, including air support This is a formula that carries for the United States the risk of wider involvement, while its chief rationale-the protection of U.S. ground forces withdrawing from South Vietnam-will not outlast the completion of their withdrawal.
In the course of the next decade a strategic nuclear stalemate or relationship of mutual deterrence is likely to develop between China and the United States, and between China and the Soviet Union. Indeed, in view of reports that a limited deployment of Chinese medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) has already taken place, China may well be able to threaten the Soviet Union, as well as U.S. forces in Asia. It is true that when China develops its ICBM force there will be some who will say that it will be unable to penetrate Soviet and U.S. anti-ballistic missile (ABM) screens, and that the United States and the Soviet Union will each still be in a position to eliminate or cripple the Chinese strategic nuclear force in a disarming strike. But China will be able to create sufficient apprehension in Soviet and American minds as to her capacity to retaliate effectively to bring to an end the situation in which each of the superpowers has felt confident that it can make nuclear threats against China with impunity.
By any of the various yardsticks of nuclear strength, China will not in the foreseeable future command "parity" with the superpowers. Nor should it be assumed that in bargaining with them in a crisis situation China will necessarily be able to make up by superior will or resolve for her inferiority in strategic capacity. Nevertheless, the Chinese nuclear force will be a new source of strength to China's diplomatic position. Moreover, it will help further erode confidence in the reliability of American commitments to allied and friendly states, and strengthen the forces making for proliferation in India, Japan and Australia. Just as in Western Europe in the late 1950s the emergence of a Soviet-U.S. nuclear stalemate led to the raising of questions about the credibility of American nuclear threats on behalf of allies, so in the Pacific in the 1970s the emergence of a Sino- American nuclear stalemate will pose the same questions. In Europe the American alliance has survived despite these questions; the same may obtain in the Pacific. Nor will the Chinese nuclear force be sufficient in itself to cause countries in the area to seek to acquire nuclear weapons: too many other factors are involved in the debate about nuclear weapons in each of the countries concerned. But in each of these countries the hand of the pro- nuclear party will be strengthened.
The United States itself may come to revise its attitude toward nuclear proliferation in the area, as it balances the costs of the latter against those of continued nuclear commitment. "Local self-reliance," taken to its logical conclusion, implies the existence of independent nuclear capabilities. For the present the United States remains opposed to the spread of nuclear weapons and has made clear that disengagement does not include withdrawal of the nuclear umbrella. But the nonproliferation treaty does not enjoy the status, in the hierarchy of American priorities, that it had under the Johnson Administration; and pressure on non-nuclear countries to adhere to it has been relaxed along with America's "tutelary" role. No Asian or Pacific country bent upon the acquisition of nuclear weapons is likely in the near future to receive encouragement from the United States, but such a country might already be justified in concluding that if it were to "go nuclear" the United States would accommodate itself to the situation soon enough.
By the end of the decade the Asian balance may be further complicated by the emergence of Japan as a fourth great power. Already Japan's position as the third richest country in the world has brought with it an increased political stature: certainly the agreement of the United States to the return of Okinawa and the generally more independent stance of Japan within the framework of the Japan-United States security agreement reflect this increased bargaining power which derives from the recognition of economic potential. Even if Japan's growth rate does not average over 11 percent in the next decade, as it did in the last, Japan's economic position relative to other major states is likely to go on improving. Moreover, even if defense expenditure were to be no more than about one percent of GNP as envisaged in the Fourth Defense Build-Up Plan for 1972-76, Japan's likely rate of growth will ensure very substantial absolute increases (the expansion of the Self-Defense Forces over the last decade has actually been accompanied by a decline in defense expenditure as a proportion of GNP). A number of factors make for the treatment of defense as a higher priority: the reëmergence of nationalist feeling, the growing-importance in Japanese life of a generation less affected by the memory of defeat, the emergence of defense as a subject of public discussion and study, and the actual problems of security posed for Japan by the disengagement of the United States, the nuclear armament of China and the growing Japanese economic stake in other parts of the region whose security is in doubt.
But if by a great power we mean-following Ranke-a country that can maintain itself against any other single power without allies, Japan is not yet one. Nor can she become one without acquiring the military accoutrements of a great power, which at the present time include a strategic nuclear force. In his address to the United Nations in October 1970, Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato said that whereas history had shown that countries with great economic power were tempted to possess commensurate military forces Japan had no intention of using any major portion of its resources for military purposes; in a speech to the Diet in November the same year he spoke of Japan's path in this respect as "a completely new experiment in world history." The idea that Japan can be such a new kind of great power may be thought to chart a wise and prudent course for Japan, and even to contribute a constructive precept to the international debate. But there is no reason to believe that Japan, or any other country, can attain the status of a great power without providing itself with the military means that have been a necessary condition of such a status in the past.
It is true that military force as an instrument of foreign policy is now circumscribed by powerful inhibitions and is of diminished utility in relation to some of the ends, such as the promotion of economic gain, for which it has traditionally been employed. It is also true that questions of trade, aid, investment and multinational enterprise now occupy a large place on the agenda of diplomatic discussion, and that Japan's position as an economic colossus places her at the center of this discussion. Finally, it is true that Japan's economic strength provides her with powerful leverage in dealing with other countries over a range of non-economic issues.
But Japan, while she retains only her present armed forces, cannot guarantee her own security and enjoys only that amount of freedom of diplomatic man?uvre that is consistent with reliance upon the United States. Japan does not now perceive any direct threat to her security. But if this were to change, her position of dependence would quickly become apparent. Nor can Japan, simply by relying upon economic strength, play the role of a principal party in the range of politico-strategic issues in dispute in the area, even those-such as the future of Korea and Taiwan-that vitally affect her. The political stature that Japan has already attained, moreover, does not derive solely from her economic performance: it reflects other countries' assessments of Japan's potential military power-their knowledge of the speed with which Japan could become a great military power and memory of her past performance as such.
It is not inevitable that Japan will elect to become a great power, in this decade or later. Japanese leaders are well enough aware of the opposition that would be generated in the area and the problems that would be created for Japan in her economic as well as political relations with other states by a premature move in this direction. Nor is it worth speculating as to how, in detail, if Japan were to become a great power, this would affect what would then be the quadrilateral of great-power relations in the area. It is clear, however, that in the calculations of foreign offices in the area the possibility of Japan's emergence as a major political and strategic as well as economic force there is already taken very seriously into account.
The middle powers of the region, to different degrees and in somewhat different ways, are likely to view their own interests as best served by the preservation of an equilibrium among the three or four great powers. They are likely to feel threatened by the domination of the region by any one great power, and to regard some measure of checking or balancing of each by the others as the condition of their own security and freedom of man?uvre.
Take the case of Australia, which in the past 20 years has seen its interests as lying in the maximization of U.S. presence and influence in the area and the minimization of that of Russia and China. In August 1969 the Australian Minister for External Affairs at that time, Gordon Freeth, made a speech about Soviet penetration of the Indian Ocean in which he argued that the Soviet presence was not necessarily prejudicial to Australian interests, that Australia and the Soviet Union had common interests in the containment of China, and that there might even be opportunities for coöperation. Freeth was at once subject to a storm of criticism, not only from those on the Right who reasserted the conventional view that the encroachment of any communist state was necessarily menacing to Australia, but also from those on the Left who objected to what they took to be an attempt to align Australia with Soviet hostility toward China. It is a testimony to the continuing strength in Australia of the older perspective that the government found it necessary to disavow the foreign minister's speech and that, partly because of the views he had expressed, he lost his seat in the general election later in the year.
It may be argued not only that the new perspective suggested by Freeth is the correct one but also that it is likely to become part of the orthodox Australian foreign policy of the future. The point, however, does not concern simply Australia's interest vis-à-vis the Soviet Union but is a more general one. China, Japan, and indeed the United States are also likely to be assessed by Australia according to the contribution they make to the equilibrium among the great powers of the area, the effect of their presence or influence in checking the encroachment of the others. Australia, of course, will not regard the competition of the great powers as if it were indifferent to the outcome. As an ally of the United States, Australia will continue to consider that its interests are bound up with a continuing American presence and influence, in a way in which they are not bound up with the political fortunes of the others. But Australian assessments will at least include the recognition that any of the great powers is capable of contributing positively to the equilibrium or balance of the area. This is an element that was not present in Australian thinking of the previous period.
The same theme may be illustrated with reference to Indonesia. Indonesia under its present government is absorbed in economic reconstruction and pursues a very correct policy toward its neighbors. But the ambition to assert leadership within peninsular Southeast Asia is still an aspect of its foreign policy, reflected in its sponsorship of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), from which powers external to the region have been excluded. Indonesia has a naturally dominant position among the states of peninsular Southeast Asia, but this could be threatened by the encroachment upon the area of China, Japan, the Soviet Union or the United States. Given that the influence of these powers cannot be excluded from the peninsular region, Indonesia's perceived interests are likely to lie in a situation in which no one of them achieves a preponderant position.
Equilibrium among the great powers depends on the existence of conflict among them; it can be threatened in certain cases by understandings among the great powers bringing this conflict to an end in particular areas. An understanding between the United States and China might have grave implications for Taiwan, South Korea and the non-communist states of Indochina. A rapprochement between China and the Soviet Union might deprive India of its chief prop against China, and might be regarded as potentially menacing by Japan as well. An understanding between the United States and the Soviet Union, so long an objective of India's foreign policy in the era of Nehru, has in fact weakened India's diplomatic position now that it has come about. India's increased dependence on the Soviet Union for security against China, at a time of declining U.S. interest in the subcontinent, has provided India with a new motive for seeking a settlement with China, as well as for forming closer relations with middle powers in the Asian and Pacific region.
Finally, the American alliance system in Asia and the Pacific is likely to continue to decay. But it is unlikely to be replaced by a new alliance of regional powers along any of the lines that have been suggested. The true theme of international politics in the area is likely to be that of self- reliance. With some exaggeration it may be said that the situation is like that which Canning described when, at the time of the breakdown of the Holy Alliance, he wrote: "Things are getting back to a wholesome state again: every nation for itself and God for us all."
Though it does appear to be in decay, the American alliance system in Asia and the Pacific does not seem likely to disappear in the next decade. Within each of the alliances linking the United States to a country in the region there is a diminished sense of community of interest, a tendency on the part of the regional country to question the value of the American commitment, reinforced by a tendency on the part of the United States to question the extent of the present commitment, if not the commitment itself. The most important element in the system, the U.S.-Japanese security treaty, even if it survives, is likely to go on being slowly modified to take account of Japan's increased political stature and capacity for self defense. The American commitments to Taiwan and South Korea could not be abrogated without producing convulsions in East Asia, and their termination could hardly take place except as part of wider settlements. But the possibility of these settlements is now for the first time the subject of serious attention in Washington.
The United States commitment to Thailand, through the Rusk-Thanat interpretation of the obligations of the Manila Treaty, seems likely to survive only on a limited liability basis. The South-East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), after the withdrawal of American forces from Indochina, may come to mean as little to the United States as it does to Britain and France. Even the alliances with the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand, which have a more enduring basis, are subject to this sense on both sides of a diminished community of interest.
The movement of the United States and Britain toward disengagement from Southeast Asia has been accompanied by suggestions, emanating chiefly from Washington and London, that new alliance arrangements comprising countries of the region might take over the tasks which the external powers are in process of laying down. A few years ago Alastair Buchan suggested an alliance between India, Japan and Australia.[i] There have been suggestions that an alliance might arise on the foundation of the nine-power Asian and Pacific Council (ASPAC), or on that of the five-power ASEAN. The idea is sometimes broached of an alliance centered upon coöperation between Japan and Australia.
These projects reflect the desire of the external powers to rationalize their own withdrawal by demonstrating that their presence in the area is no longer necessary, since local elements are at hand to accomplish the common task. They are not founded upon the realities of the area. India, Australia and Japan do not share a common perception of external threats to their security; still less do the members of the unwieldy ASPAC. It is difficult to regard ASEAN as a potential military alliance, the chief anxieties that some of its members have about their security being those that they entertain in relation to one another.
The five-power Commonwealth arrangements now evolving in relation to the defense of Malaysia and Singapore, involving these two countries together with Britain, Australia and New Zealand, are founded upon a sense of common threats and upon tried habits of coöperation inherited from the past. But Australia and New Zealand, while they have agreed to maintain forces in the area, have at the same time studiously avoided any formal commitment to the countries concerned. Prime Minister Gorton's decision in February 1969 to stand fast in Malaysia and Singapore, at a time when it had been announced that British forces would be withdrawn altogether by the end of 1971, was hailed at the time as an historic decision to make Australia a force in Southeast Asia in her own right rather than as an appendage of Britain.
But it should be seen, in my view, not as the first phase of a new policy, so much as the last stage of the old policy of "forward defense," which seems likely to be succeeded by a policy of concentrating Australian forces in the Australian continent. The British Conservative government's decision to maintain a force in Singapore and Malaysia has given a new lease of life to the five-power arrangements. But the force is to be comparable in size with the Australian one, and Britain proposes to extricate herself from the formal obligations she had under the Anglo-Malaysian Defense Agreement. The five-power Commonwealth arrangements are a step in the winding up of an old association, not in the construction of a new one. It is difficult to see them as anything more than a transitional device designed to provide Malaysia and Singapore with time in which to adjust to the new era of self- reliance.
If no new military alliance appears to be in process of formation, it may not be wholly unrealistic to think of a new association of regional states that would not be a military alliance directed against an outside power such as China, but a regional collective security organization in the strict sense of one concerned with relations among its own members. It is anomalous that there does not exist, in the Asian and Pacific area, an association that is able to perform the mediating and peacekeeping role in relation to disputes within it that may be played in other areas by the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Organization of African Unity (OAU). At the same time it seems unlikely that in the next decade there will be any expansion of the role of the United Nations in the area, particularly if, as seems likely, the possibility of consensus within the Security Council is further limited by the entry of China into the organization.
Such an Asian and Pacific regional security group, excluding both the United States and the Soviet Union but containing Japan, India, Indonesia and Australia, would not reflect the cultural unity and aspirations to ultimate political unity that underly the OAU. Its role in security matters might be no more than to provide mediation and good offices, and to symbolize aspirations for regional peace and security. It would be in no sense a principal source of security for its members, which they could treat as a substitute for their own arms and alliances. But it might serve to mitigate, however slightly, the factors making for international tension in the area. Today this may not be a realistic or negotiable proposition, but in the course of the decade it could become one.
[i] See Alastair Buchan, "An Asian Balance of Power?" Australian Journal of Politics and History, August 1966.