All Measures Short of War

In which Wright argues that the US must reassert a robust defense of the liberal world order. He criticizes President Obama for his ‘retrenchment’ foreign policy (which is a fashionable view these days, and while the Asian “pivot” was weak, it seemed to me that Obama’s Middle East was pretty good, given the mess he inherited), and thinks Trump a disaster. Wright, a Brookings scholar, argues that we should stop arguing about China’s ability to be Global Number One, and focus on the European & Asian regional orders.

Asia is what China wants to revise, and achieve, via salami-slicing and ‘all measures short of war’, de facto power parity with the US. Thus all the talk of ‘sharing the Pacific’, pushing out military bases to the South China Seas, throwing Belt and Road money around, etc. Russia is a similar challenger. So this is a huge challenge for the US, since post-WW2 policy has rested on preventing threats from the two ends of the Eurasian land mass. And now there’s two revisionist powers there, they’re allies, and more likely than not, they’re co-ordinating. Let’s focus on China.

It is extremely hard for a Global Power to deal with a contestant like this; the challenger has all the resolve and initiative, and is careful (usually) not to undermine the Great Power’s vital interests. In response to which, Wright argues, the US should not withdraw, as folk like John Mearsheimer & Stephen Walt argue, and should not compromise either, but work to create a ‘federated defense’ or a “Asian Power Web” together with Japan, Australia, India etc. The US should continue to contest the South China Seas via FONOPs, sell anti-access/area-denial equipment to allies, as well as work to revive the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement and strengthen its allies. It needs to identify its own red lines on the salami sausage, communicate and defend them. Beijing’s bluster needs to be called - since open conflict is a not an option for the CCP leadership right now, Wright argues.

This is all fine; the book is really solid, but once the broad strategy is agreed, its time for detail. What, for instance, exactly should the US do to protect Taiwan today? Which weapons and/or troops should be sent? What level of official engagement should be aimed for? How should the US protect Taiwan from cyber-attacks on its infrastructure and political system? What would the US do in the event of shipping disruptions by Chinese ‘fishing vessels’ (i.e. the PRC army)? I’m sure Wright has thought about these questions. Given policy will be set in the detail, I’d love to have read more.

Clearly, the continental gravity of China grows with all the time with its economy, while Asian countries cannot move out of the region. So, they need a lot of reassurance, which this US administration is, err, not providing. Imagine leaders in the region today - who have to make security decisions that will affect their countries for decades - trying to figure out where the US will be in five, ten, twenty years. The sheer volatility of US leadership undermines its position, while the drip-drip-drip of China’s campaign strengthens its’.

But back in China, Xi has tipped his hand, despite all the protestations of innocence, that he wants to challenge the US. And he’s awakened Washington. While it may not have been articulated well by America’s political leaders, there seems to be a strong consensus forming behind this kind of broad ‘federated defense’ strategy in Washington - and a bureaucracy which in fits and starts is trying to build some of the infrastructure in Asia, despite the troubled boss. And in the region, there’s a real desire to hedge, whether it is Korea or Thailand or, below the headlines, even the Philippines. But to build such a complex alliance structure, and maintain it as China identifies and exploits its weakest links, is going to be incredibly tough.

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