US–China rivalry needs more clarity and less polarity

Author: John Wright, US Air Force

A daily barrage of US–China military alarms fill inboxes and news feeds. While many of these reports genuinely attempt to understand this rivalry, more often than not they create fear, confusion and uncertainty. It is important to brush past this overwhelming ‘fog of more’ and get back to basics.

To understand the US–China military rivalry it is important to grasp its main cause — conflict stemming from two competing grand strategies. China wishes to assert its own brand of leadership and reclaim its regional hegemonic crown. The United States prefers no regional hegemons at all, and especially not one that does not share common values and respect for the current rules-based order.

These grand strategies are integral parts of both states’ efforts to survive. They are not ‘worldviews’, ‘ideologies’ or ‘wish lists’. They are measurable, tangible goals that come with advantageous security consequences for one state at the expense of others. Each strategy is mutually exclusive, and neither state stands a realistic chance of convincing the other to change.

Strategy is simply the finding of ways to achieve objectives — within the realm of the possible — in the endless search for a better peace. But strategy is constrained by statecraft, the specific actions a country can take to implement strategy, and this is immensely complicated. Military posturing is a tool of statecraft as much as it is a component of strategy, but its intricacy means that strategy often takes a back seat to statecraft and its ‘tyranny of the now’.

China and the United States must both contend with statecraft from remarkably similar positions. US foreign policy and military posture is synthesised by an often contradictory multitude of bureaucrats and specialists who all see foreign policy in a particular light. Similarly in China, rank-conscious individuals compete for their leaders’ attention in guiding foreign policy and military posture. Beijing’s ability to centrally marshal its military posture and foreign policy is often oversold due to the opaqueness of its government.

Both states are constrained by the same things — using the right resources and executing a coordinated response to events. For instance, when China sent a five-vessel flotilla through the Bering Strait in 2015, it calculated the move would poke the United States in the eye as a territorial violation. After US authorities declared the voyage ‘not threatening’ and watched it pass unopposed in a manner consistent with international law of the sea, China was clearly flummoxed.

In December 2016, a then president-elect Donald Trump tweeted his disapproval of the Chinese theft of a US Navy underwater drone without first discussing options with the rest of the administration, which generated additional frustration.

Believe it or not, these blunders are good news for the US–China military rivalry. Statecraft’s pace naturally slows down decision-making, providing more time to defuse situations before they become crises.

US–China watchers should not concern themselves with how many aircraft China launches towards Japanese airspace, or how many vessels the United States sails through the Taiwan Strait. Instead, they should be concerned with developments that lead down the road of miscalculation. For instance, when one side mistakenly believes going to war outweighs the benefits of not going to war.

Miscalculation begins with misunderstanding. The urgency behind military posture decisions are often perplexing. One need look no further than the irritated response from China following the US deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Air Defense system in South Korea in 2017. This was a time of tense military standoff between the United States and North Korea, demonstrating how well-meaning military deployments can be misunderstood through a different lens.

There is a danger if misunderstandings begin to affect military credibility — the belief a rival will actually carry out a threat. No deterrence can happen in a situation where neither rival believes the other will actually follow through. In a world where the United States and China blame each other for their problems, this is a real threat.

To manage the military rivalry, both states should seek a balanced force posture which lowers the risk of military encounters. The United States will seek to reprioritise its preferred instruments of national power away from military and economic, and toward more diplomatic and information-based power. The Biden…

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