The Real China Hands - By Michael J. Green – for US based “FOREIGN AFFAIRS” – 06.11.22
What Washington Can Learn From Its Asian Allies.
For four years, as an increasingly belligerent China breathed down their necks, the United States’ allies in Asia quietly endured a torrent of abuse from President Donald Trump. Under President Joe Biden, they again have a winning hand in Washington. By the time he took office, Biden, a leading optimist about cooperation with China when he was vice president, had transformed into a hardened skeptic. He has promoted key alliance builders to the top Asia posts at the National Security Council, the State Department, and the Pentagon and ensured that his first in-person summit was with Yoshihide Suga, then Japan’s prime minister.
His administration has elevated the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), the group linking the United States with Australia, India, and Japan, to a regular summit and agreed to help Australia build nuclear-powered submarines under the AUKUS pact with that country and the United Kingdom. The White House’s Indo-Pacific strategy, issued in February 2022, mentioned allies or alliances more than 30 times in a 19-page document. China merited only two references.
Despite this welcome attention, the United States still fundamentally gets the relationship with its Asian allies backward. These countries are not reluctant partners that need to be shaken out of their complacency; they live with the threat of China every day, are eager to blunt it, and in fact originated many of the Biden administration’s initiatives to counter the country’s influence. Nor are they reckless novices that fail to understand the dangers of competition with China; they often have a far more subtle understanding of coexistence than the one that prevails in Washington. As it refines its China strategy, the United States should increasingly take its cues from Australia, Japan, and South Korea.
Indeed, as the United States becomes more dependent on allies to maintain a favorable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, those countries will naturally expect a larger voice in formulating strategy on China. But the United States remains out of sync with its allies on two of the biggest strategic questions: the role that regional free-trade agreements should play in competition with China and the ultimate goal of allied policy toward China. And there are dangerous deficiencies in technology sharing and command and control that need to be addressed. These misalignments are not merely harmless differences between friends. The longer they last, the more China will be able to take advantage of them.
As U.S. policymakers revamp their country’s China policy, a good place to start would be to recognize that it was not the United States that moved first to respond to the China challenge but its allies. A decade ago, the Obama administration was flirting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s proposal for a “new model of great-power relations,” which, in Beijing’s version, would have relegated Japan and South Korea to second-tier status in a new bipolar U.S.-Chinese condominium.
Tokyo and other capitals quietly protested, as they had in 2009, when President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao signed a joint statement promising to respect U.S.-Chinese “core interests” and when Obama administration officials proposed “strategic reassurance” to Beijing. It was not that U.S. allies sought confrontation, but they had legitimate concerns about losing U.S. support at a time of growing Chinese coercion in their region.
U.S. officials shifted their stance near the end of the Obama administration, when the revisionist dimensions of China’s strategy became more apparent. The mood of the broader public was changing, too. In 2012, a survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 40 percent of Americans favored placing a higher priority on building good relations with China than with U.S. allies; by 2018, that number had fallen to 26 percent.
The sentiment was mirrored on the other side of the Pacific, with polls in Australia, Japan, and South Korea showing overwhelming support in each country for their alliances with the United States.
In waking up to the threat of China, Washington was far behind its most important allies in Asia, especially Japan. Back in 2013, as Washington anticipated a closer partnership with Xi, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government released a strategy for longer-term competition that was based on assumptions about Chinese behavior that are now widely accepted in U.S. policy circles. Abe’s controversial views on Japan’s own history—he had argued that Japan was often unfairly criticized for its conduct during World War II—made him look to many in Washington like an unwelcome spoiler in U.S.-Chinese relations.
Beijing sought to exploit those doubts by targeting him with a global media campaign. (In one of the more histrionic episodes of Beijing’s relentless campaign, the Chinese ambassador in London went so far as to write an article for The Telegraph comparing Abe to the evil Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter books.) But Abe persisted with his strategy. He had been returned to power by a ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) looking to reset relations with Beijing after years of embarrassing Chinese incursions around the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands (known in China as the Diaoyu Islands). Abe understood full well what Washington was only beginning to realize: that China’s leaders judged both the United States and Japan as being in precipitous decline. He intended to change that perception.
No other world leader did more in the face of Chinese revisionism to align the major powers and invest in countries’ durability against it, and that ultimately shaped U.S. strategy. The Trump and Biden administrations’ free and open Indo-Pacific strategies and their embrace of the Quad all flow from Abe’s original framework, often verbatim. Governments across Europe and Asia have begun modeling their approach to the region on the Indo-Pacific concept rather than on Xi’s fading China-centric alternative of a “community of common destiny.”
When Abe was assassinated in July 2022, the world acknowledged his impact. Scholars and diplomats also noted the shortcomings of his approach: challenged relations with South Korea, fruitless diplomatic efforts with Russia, and incomplete efforts at spurring economic growth and sustaining the economic empowerment of women to address Japan’s tough demographic picture.
But to move forward, Washington’s own approach to allies must include an understanding of how persistently and effectively Abe introduced the framework that defines competition with China—and where U.S. strategy falls short by comparison.
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MICHAEL J. GREEN is CEO of the United States Studies Centre in Sydney. He served as Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and Senior Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration.
U.S. and South Korean naval vessels taking part in joint exercises off the coast of South Korea, September 2022