Military Strength, Diplomacy and “Strategic Distrust”

Kenneth G. Lieberthal, co-author of a recent Brookings paper characterizing the U.S.-China relationship as one based on “strategic distrust,” spoke with NPR’s Robert Siegel on today’s episode of All Things Considered. Siegel questioned Lieberthal on some of the many “asymmetries” that lead to distrust in the important international relationship: anxious perceptions of each other, democracy and human rights, and military campaigns in the South China Sea. Transcribed from the audio:

Siegel: There is one […] worrying area of distrust that i want you to describe a bit, which is military issues. The Chinese feel they have a real strategic interest in seas that are beyond the recognized territorial waters around their coast, and the U.S. believes that it has valid security interests in the very same waters. That’s a potentially dangerous difference of views, and you think that there actually are ways in which the two militaries could address them and perhaps understand each other a bit better.

Lieberthal: I think it is objectively the case that we are going to have a lot of tension over this issue. The Chinese do have very legitimate security interests to go beyond their territorial waters. We have very long standing, serious interests in those same waters: we have alliances with South Korea and Japan, we have a strong relationship with Taiwan […] and these are very important shipping lanes. I think there are real conflicts of interest, so this is not all a matter of perception. They can be reduced by intelligent negotiation and enhancing mutual understanding – they can’t be eliminated. Even at the height of the Cold War we could have nuclear arms negotiations that produced agreements that involved mutual restraint in some areas so that neither of us did some things that would have been destabilizing. So, I think diplomacy can really have a significant impact in helping to reconcile real conflicts of interest.

While the Brookings paper promotes diplomatic conflict mediation, recent military activity by both countries may be a cause for cynicism. A lengthy article in The Economist talks in depth about the history of China’s military, the political concerns that led to its expansion, and the global unease that has followed. One part of the article outlines China’s increased military budget and U.S. reactions to it:

That China is rapidly modernising its armed forces is not in doubt, though there is disagreement about what the true spending figure is. China’s defence budget has almost certainly experienced double digit growth for two decades. According to SIPRI, a research institute, annual defence spending rose from over $30 billion in 2000 to almost $120 billion in 2010. SIPRI usually adds about 50% to the official figure that China gives for its defence spending, because even basic military items such as research and development are kept off budget. Including those items would imply total military spending in 2012, based on the latest announcement from Beijing, will be around $160 billion. America still spends four-and-a-half times as much on defence, but on present trends China’s defence spending could overtake America’s after 2035.

[…]China’s military build-up is ringing alarm bells in Asia and has already caused a pivot in America’s defence policy. The new “strategic guidance” issued in January by Barack Obama and his defence secretary, Leon Panetta, confirmed what everyone in Washington already knew: that a switch in priorities towards Asia was overdue and under way. The document says that “While the US military will continue to contribute to security globally, we will of necessity rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific region.” America is planning roughly $500 billion of cuts in planned defence spending over the next ten years. But, says the document, “to credibly deter potential adversaries and to prevent them from achieving their objectives, the United States must maintain its ability to project power in areas in which our access and freedom to operate are challenged.”

It is pretty obvious what that means. Distracted by campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, America has neglected the most economically dynamic region of the world. In particular, it has responded inadequately to China’s growing military power and political assertiveness. According to senior American diplomats, China has the ambition—and increasingly the power—to become a regional hegemon; it is engaged in a determined effort to lock America out of a region that has been declared a vital security interest by every administration since Teddy Roosevelt’s; and it is pulling countries in South-East Asia into its orbit of influence “by default”. America has to respond. As an early sign of that response, Mr Obama announced in November 2011 that 2,500 US Marines would soon be stationed in Australia. Talks about an increased American military presence in the Philippines began in February this year.

And the U.S. President is sticking to the plan laid out in the “strategic guidance” document mentioned above. As President Obama promised in November, the deployment of 2,500 U.S. Marines to Australia began today. From Voice of America:

The first wave of U.S. Marines has arrived in northern Australia, marking the start of a larger U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith greeted the 200 Marines as they stepped off a charter flight in Darwin Wednesday. The Marines are the first contingent of an eventual 2,500-member Air Ground Task Force that will engage in joint military exercises with Australian forces.

[…]The deployment is part of an agreement announced in November by U.S. President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard during events marking the 60th anniversary of the two nations’ military and strategic alliance.

The agreement was met with open suspicion by China, which fears the U.S. seeks to stifle Beijing’s rise as a global economic and military power. But the Australian defense chief says the U.S. military presence will help to ensure peace and security in the region.

Another article in The Economist recognizes both countries’ motives for having a strong military presence in the area. Echoing Lieberthal’s sentiment, the article suggests that a measured combination of diplomatic and military action is the way to prevent major conflict:

It is in China’s interests to build confidence with its neighbours, reduce mutual strategic distrust with America and demonstrate its willingness to abide by global norms. A good start would be to submit territorial disputes over islands in the East and South China Seas to international arbitration. Another step would be to strengthen promising regional bodies such as the East Asian Summit and ASEAN Plus Three. Above all, Chinese generals should talk far more with American ones. At present, despite much Pentagon prompting, contacts between the two armed forces are limited, tightly controlled by the PLA and ritually frozen by politicians whenever they want to “punish” America—usually because of a tiff over Taiwan.

America’s response should mix military strength with diplomatic subtlety. It must retain the ability to project force in Asia: to do otherwise would feed Chinese hawks’ belief that America is a declining power which can be shouldered aside. But it can do more to counter China’s paranoia. To his credit, Mr Obama has sought to lower tensions over Taiwan and made it clear that he does not want to contain China (far less encircle it as Chinese nationalists fear). America must resist the temptation to make every security issue a test of China’s good faith. There are bound to be disagreements between the superpowers; and if China cannot pursue its own interests within the liberal world order, it will become more awkward and potentially belligerent. That is when things could get nasty.