China v US: Who needs allies?
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People often argue that America’s alliances in Asia are a decisive advantage in its contest with China for regional strategic primacy. China’s only ally, they say, is North Korea, while America has an entire alliance system encompassing many key regional states, as well as a wider circle of close friends. Without allies and friends like that, the argument goes, China can never replace America as the region’s leading power.
But that’s probably wrong. Alliances are not always strategic assets, and sometimes they are clear liabilities. It all depends on the circumstances, and in the circumstances of Asia today, China doesn’t need alliances to achieve its strategic goals. And whether America does depends on how you define its goals.
Let’s start with China. The argument that China needs allies to fulfil its ambitions to lead Asia is based on the assumption that Chinese regional leadership would have to work just the way America’s has done. But their situations are very different. America is not an Asian power, so its position in Asia has always depended on projecting power into the region from the Western Hemisphere.
Allies in the Western Pacific have been essential for that, because of the bases they provide. Those bases have made it possible for the US to sustain a preponderant military presence in Asia. Without them, America would not be Asia’s primary power.
But China is a local power in Asia. It has no need to project power across the world to lead in Asia, because it can sustain a strong military presence throughout the region from bases at home. So it does not need allies to support it.
America enjoys the same local advantage in its own back yard. America’s feeble alliance system in the Western Hemisphere [the Rio Pact – ever heard of it?] has no significant role in supporting America’s strategic position there, because America doesn’t need allies to exercise primacy so close to home.
Of course one might argue that US allies do more than provide bases. They provide both military and political support to America which strengthens its strategic position and underwrites its primacy. China can’t compete with that.
But how real is that support, and how much does it strengthen America in the contest with China? We have seen the answer quite clearly in the South China Sea. Asian allies were willing to endorse US statements of concern, but no more. They are not willing to risk being drawn into a military clash with China to help bolster US regional leadership. Indeed they are not willing to risk damaging their relations with China at all on America’s behalf. They will only support America against China where their own immediate interests are directly at stake.
And that means they will not do America much good in today’s zero-sum contest with China. Beijing has made clear that US allies in Asia will pay dearly for any substantial support they provide to America against China, and that seems to be working. When Australian political leaders say ‘We do not have to choose between America and China’, as they so often do, they are saying that we will not do anything to support America that will damage our relations with China. And that makes it easy for China to ensure that we provide no support to America that makes any difference in America’s contest with China.
This suggests that, bases apart, America’s alliances are not much of an asset at all in managing relations with China. Indeed they are in many ways a net liability, because the benefits they offer are offset by the costs they impose. They compel Washington to confront Beijing on its allies’ behalf over issues which are of no intrinsic importance to the US, in order to preserve the credibility of its alliance commitments. Above all, they compel America to accept the risk of nuclear attack on its own territory to defend its allies against nuclear threats.
This naturally leads one to ask why exactly America sticks to its alliances in Asia (or Europe, for that matter). Their value in providing bases shows they are essential to supporting US leadership in the region. But when one asks why America needs to sustain that leadership, a big part of the answer is the need to support its allies. It is a circular argument, which is a sure sign of muddle.
The confusion arises because America has relied on alliances for so long, and so successfully, that they have come to seem like ends in themselves, not just means to achieve more fundamental national objectives. But this is all that alliances can ever be; they are policy tools, not policy goals.
And as tools, they must be judged on their cost-effectiveness. Alliances that have any content at all always impose costs. They are worth having when those costs are outweighed by clear benefits in serving more fundamental national policy objectives. We cannot judge that unless those wider objectives are clearly defined and agreed, and America’s objectives in Asia today are not. Until they are, it would be unwise to assume that US alliances are an asset, and that China’s lack of allies is a liability.
This article by Hugh White, first appeared in the The Interpreter, on the Lowy Institute of Public Policy website.