Two Asia Hands Clash Over the Future of U.S. Strategy in the Region


Editor’s Note: A recent article in Foreign Affairs by Ely Ratner has sparked a debate among Asia-watchers. Part of this debate has played out in The Interpreter, the online magazine of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, an independent, nonpartisan think tank based in Sydney. War on the Rocks is proud to be publishing select articles from The Interpreter, where Hugh White responded to Ratner, who then chimed in with a retort. We hope you learn from this debate as much as we have. 


Hugh White: For America, the Struggle in Asia Starts at Home

Earlier this month, in his speech at the Shangri La Dialogue, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis twice declared that China’s assertive conduct in Asia to be “unacceptable.” That is tough language – tougher then Washington has used before. This raises the question of what he plans to do about it.

He needs to do something much more effective than anything America has tried so far. Otherwise the gap between bold words and timid action will grow, U.S. credibility in Asia will shrink even further, and Mattis will have handed China another easy win in the contest for regional leadership.

But what can he do? More freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) like last month’s won’t help: The legalistic punctilio with which they have been conducted simply emphasizes how reluctant Washington has been to risk a confrontation with China that might conceivably escalate into an armed clash. And that just plays into Beijing’s hands, because the underlying strategic purpose of their campaign in the South China Sea is to show that America lacks resolve.

So, what might be more effective? Secretary of State Tillerson, in his confirmation hearing, proposed simply blocking China’s access to its island bases, but he backed down fast when he realized this would lead straight to war.

Now Ely Ratner, writing for Foreign Affairs, has offered a more thoughtful and nuanced suggestion. He proposes a three-step process aimed to prevent Chinese domination of the South China Sea and demonstrate U.S. resolve. First, America should encourage and support the other countries with rival claims in the South China Sea to confront China by developing military bases on the islands and features which they occupy, just as China has done.

Second, it should enlist other regional countries like Australia and Japan to support the other claimant states much more directly against China. And finally, it should quite unambiguously commit to help defend other claimants’ island bases militarily if China decides to respond with force.

This approach has two major advantages over what’s been tried so far. First, it recognizes that America must show quite plainly that is willing to go to war with China in the South China Sea, if Washington is to resist the salami-slicing tactics that China is using so effectively there to undermine U.S. leadership in Asia.

Next, it puts China’s neighbors in the front line, where they belong. It makes little sense for the United States to be more committed to containing China’s challenge to regional order than China’s neighbors are, which is how things have looked so far.

But would it work? Does it offer both a high chance of compelling China to back off, and a low risk of starting a war? Alas there are three reasons to think that it won’t.

First, it is very unlikely that the Southeast Asian claimants would accept American help to fortify their islands, or that other regional allies like Australia or Japan would be willing to play their part. China’s neighbors are worried about its growing assertiveness, but none of them so far have been willing seriously to damage their relationship with China, let alone risk a conflict, by standing up to Beijing. Ratner’s proposal would pose a test for their resolve which they would most likely fail.

Second, it is far from clear that the Trump administration would in fact be willing to go to war with China in the South China Sea, any more than the Obama administration was. It would be disastrous if America, having pushed China’s neighbors into a confrontation with promises of support, then pulled back. And that is not unlikely. Notwithstanding plenty of mixed signals, the new administration has so far taken a notably accommodating and cooperative approach to China.

And third, the risk that China would indeed test U.S. resolve by pushing back hard is very high. Washington’s big talk-small stick conduct in the South China Sea over recent years means that Beijing would be unlikely to believe that America was really willing to go to war there, so it wouldn’t be deterred from a confrontation with the other claimants. Washington would then face a no-win choice between humiliating retreat and major war. That risk is too high to be worth running for America, even if its Asian partners were game.

But this third point does offer a clue about what might be worth doing instead. The reality is that there is now no way to push back effectively against China in the South China Sea itself without a high risk of war. The big talk-small stick policy has undermined American credibility, emboldened China, weakened deterrence, and increased the risk that China would respond to any attempted display of U.S. resolve in the South China Sea by doubling down rather than backing off.

As such, Washington should forget about the South China Sea for a while. It should instead focus on rebuilding the credibility of America’s strategic commitment to Asia where it matters most – at home in America. As I have argued before, America will not be able to persuade the Chinese, or anyone else in Asia, that it is really resolved to bear the costs and risks required to remain a leading regional power unless and until they see and hear American leaders explain to American voters why that is necessary, not with boilerplate clichés but with brutally realistic analysis.

And before that can happen, American policymakers and analysts have to conduct what has been missing hitherto: a serious debate that plainly acknowledges the seriousness of China’s basic strategic challenge, identifies the essential U.S. interests at stake, and recognizes the costs and risks of preserving a strong role in Asia that protects those interests in the face of that challenge. Only then can a broadly-based consensus emerge about America’s future regional role, and only then can a truly credible commitment be made to do what’s needed to maintain it.

Of course, this is all a tall order, especially as things stand in Washington right now. But America won’t be able to respond to China’s challenge effectively until it does all this. That’s the lesson to be drawn from the failures of the Pivot and the South China Sea policy of the past few years.

Hugh White is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra, and the author of The China Choice: Why We Should Share Power. He served for many years as a senior Australian defense official.  


Ely Ratner: There is No Choice Between War and Accommodation

I appreciate Hugh White taking the time to critique my essay in the current edition of Foreign Affairs, which recommends a course correction in U.S. strategy to deter and, if necessary, deny Chinese control of the South China Sea. In fact, I agree with core elements of White’s perspective. He is right that the United States has yet to take seriously the severity of the China challenge and that there has been inadequate debate among America’s leaders and its public about the very real stakes. He is also correct in observing that current trends, including deficient U.S. policy, portend a China-dominated region.

But White and I diverge significantly on the question of whether the United States can and should do anything to arrest the slide toward a Chinese sphere of influence in Asia. He offers three reasons why my recommendations for a more robust U.S. policy in the South China Sea would pose little chance for success, while likely risking war.

First, he argues:

[I]t is very unlikely that the Southeast Asian claimants would accept American help to fortify their islands, or that other regional allies like Australia or Japan would be willing to play their part.

But U.S. and allied support for rival claimants is not, as White describes, the “first” and “second” steps in my recommended strategy. Rather, I readily acknowledge that regional concerns about economic retribution for standing up to Chinese revisionism is a major obstacle for the United States. That is precisely why I argue that additional non-military measures would be necessary at the outset, including a return of American participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, or some equally ambitious initiative on trade and investment that offers regional states an alternative to growing economic dependence on China. I also recommend an informational campaign aimed at shining a brighter light on China’s illegal activities in the South China Sea, creating political space (if not domestic pressure) for governments to push back.

Moreover, this is a deterrence strategy: I argue the United States should move forward with proactively supporting regional states only if China reclaims Scarborough Reef or deploys advanced military capabilities to its new bases in the Spratly Islands. China taking these extraordinary steps would likely be provocative enough to alter political dynamics in Southeast Asia, heightening concerns and opening new opportunities for cooperation. Taken together, the execution of the proposed strategy would occur, as compared to today, in an environment much more conducive to attracting regional support.

White’s second critique is that the only choice for the United States is accommodation or war, and that Washington isn’t willing to risk the latter. His characterization of my argument that the United States should “unambiguously commit to help defend other claimants” island bases’ is simply a misreading. Nowhere do I suggest such a commitment.

Regardless, here is the line that I really disagree with: “The reality is that there is now no way to push back effectively against China in the South China Sea itself without a high risk of war.” This view overlooks a number of important political, diplomatic, and institutional brakes on armed conflict between the United States and China, as demonstrated by the fact that we haven’t see anything remotely approaching the brink of war (much less a major military crisis) even as the relationship has grown significantly more competitive. In fact, the current glide path toward Chinese hegemony in Southeast Asia poses a much more serious risk to American security and prosperity. In other words, uncontested Chinese dominance, not major power war, is the biggest threat facing the United States (and Australia, for that matter) in Asia today.

Besides, China is itself deeply risk-averse and has backed down in almost every instance in which the United States has stood firm on interest and principle. President Xi Jinping is likely aware that a war with the United States would severely damage both China’s economic development and its aspirations for national reunification. Despite loose talk about China’s “core interests,” recent experience suggests that China could certainly be compelled into a more moderate approach in the South China Sea, if only the United States and its partners were willing to make a serious go of it. Promoting the misperception of China as ready to run up the escalation ladder is both wrong and counterproductive: China has instead been pushing on an open door, surprised at its ability to do so cost-free. As a more general comment, I tend to think White’s analyses would benefit from less certainty about the futility of deterrence, and greater skepticism of China’s own willingness to fight.

Finally, Hugh suggests that a more robust U.S. policy won’t work because Beijing currently doubts Washington’s resolve. Now again we agree: that this is a serious problem, but also that it could be resolved by U.S. leaders being clear at home and abroad about the intensity of the China challenge and the commensurate importance of America’s enduring commitment to Asia. There’s no question that, as White says, “this is a tall order, especially as things stand in Washington right now.” It was never going to be easy, and it’s only getting harder by the day. But now at least there’s a viable plan on the shelf if and when U.S. policymakers are willing to admit that American efforts are faltering, and to commit for real to preventing Chinese dominance of the South China Sea.


Ely Ratner is the Maurice R. Greenberg senior fellow in China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His work focuses on U.S.-China relations, regional security in East Asia, and U.S. national security policy. From 2015 to 2017, Ratner served as the deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, covering the global portfolio with particular focus on Asia and China policy, the South China Sea, North Korea, and U.S. alliances in Asia. 

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Randy Lee Adams