Michael Swaine on Evaluating a New U.S. Strategy in East Asia

Michael D. Swaine, director of QI’s East Asia program, is one of the most prominent American scholars of Chinese security studies. He comes to QI from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he worked for nearly twenty years as a senior fellow specializing in Chinese defense and foreign policy, U.S.-China relations, and East Asian international relations. Swaine served as a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation. Swaine has authored and edited more than a dozen books and monographs, including Remaining Aligned on the Challenges Facing Taiwan (with Ryo Sahashi; 2019), Conflict and Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific Region: A Strategic Net Assessment (with Nicholas Eberstadt et al; 2015) and many journal articles and book chapters. Swaine is directing, along with Iain Johnston of Harvard University, a multi-year crisis prevention project with Chinese partners. He also advises the U.S. government on Asian security issues. Swaine received his doctorate in government from Harvard University and his bachelor’s degree from George Washington University.
Nohl Patterson CMC '22 interviewed Michael D. Swaine on March 25, 2021.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Michael D. Swaine.

The report “Towards a More Inclusive & Balanced Regional Order: A New U.S. Strategy in East Asia outlines a number of proposals for improving and re-thinking the U.S. strategy in East Asia. One specific category focuses on a more stable military balance with China. What is the military balance in East Asia today?  Which of these policy proposals do you consider most vital for the U.S. to enact in the short-term?

The U.S. military balance in Asia is changing. For 70 years, the military balance in maritime Asia was in the U.S. favor to a very high degree. The U.S. really had military primacy due to the strength of its Navy and Air Force and other capabilities. But that has changed.  Now the Chinese possess a host of capabilities that seriously call into question the ability of the United States to be able to operate, much less dominate, effectively within the first island chain. This is all the way down from Japan past Taiwan and the Philippines. In that area, the so-called military balance of the past (which was not an actual balance) has turned into a genuine balance, but a very unstable one. Neither side has firm confidence to prevail if a conflict breaks out with Taiwan or over the East China Sea or the South China Sea. It's hard to see how a conflict with Beijing could break out over the Korean Peninsula. In any event, all of these areas are very close to China- some of them within (in part or in whole) the Chinese mainland air defense network which is very sophisticated. Moreover, the Chinese have acquired capabilities to identify, track and fire on U.S. surface ships that approach China.  In other words, it has improved its own surface and missile capabilities within the first island chain in a way that would put at risk all US forces operating within that area in a conflict. The Chinese can also now put at risk forces operating beyond the first island chain, for example, those based on Guam. That is why the US Defense Department wants to put up a more serious missile defense system around Guam. All of this means that the situation has changed radically. The U.S. could not be at all confident today that it would prevail in a genuine military conflict with China over Taiwan. What’s called for right now is a stable balance: under this instability, you have the tendency of the Chinese to be overconfident in their new abilities and their leverage because they also believe that over issues like Taiwan, they have a relatively higher degree of commitment. For them, it's about national territory, national sovereignty, and regime legitimacy and they don't think the United States has nearly as deep a commitment to Taiwan as they do. So, when you add that to their increased military capabilities you get the possibility of a higher likelihood for the Chinese to do something regarding Taiwan by way of muscle flexing or some military- related signal of resolve. For its part the U.S. is now more inclined to overreact to what the Chinese might do, in order to disabuse the Chinese and other Asian allies of the idea that the United States has basically lost its advantage in the western Pacific and is in a relatively weak situation. In short, you have an increased danger arising from overconfidence and overreaction, with each side testing the other regarding their willingness to stand up for their interests and deter the other side. And with the political environment between the US and China becoming so poisoned, both sides are assuming the worst of the other.   When you have worst-case assumptions and an unstable balance, you have serious differences over how to resolve or treat certain contentious issues. That’s a recipe for crisis, and even conflict.

The report mentions strengthening U.S. influence and appeal with domestic reforms that will make it more appealing and more competitive abroad. The U.S. image abroad is shaky to say the least. How has the turmoil in the U.S. affected East Asian nations’ perception of American power and credibility? What steps do you believe the United States must take to re-invigorate its soft power with its East Asian allies?

What's going on in the United States, has on the one hand given some East Asian allies a measure of reassurance that the United States is more focused on Asia. Some countries in the region took that as a good sign that the U.S. was going to counter China in  some meaningful ways. At the same time the way in which the United States has defined this mission and the way in which it has implemented policies to support this mission, have not been reassuring to many Asians.  They are worried that the political division within the United States and the level of demonization of China that has gone on in American policy circles will further destabilize the region. And if these worrisome developments continue, they will make the Asian environment much less predictable, and Asians certainly don't like things to be unpredictable.  They fear that a deepening US-China rivalry will drag Asian countries into a Cold War-type environment between the US and China where they're forced to take sides. Even though they may speak very positively about the role of the United States in the region, they also are very cognizant of the fact that their next-door neighbor is - China. They're very cognizant of the fact that China is on the upward slope in terms of economic impact on Asia and the United States is not. They know they have to deal with the Chinese and the Chinese are going nowhere. They don't want to get on the wrong side of the Chinese and they don't want the US to push them into doing that. So, they want a policy from the United States that will strengthen its hand in the region in a responsible way, continue to look for efforts to cooperate with the Chinese where necessary, and even build cooperation beyond where it's absolutely necessary. In general, they want the US to take a position that is less focused on military balancing and more focused on diplomatic engagement and economic engagement, to raise America's economic stake and its relationships with countries in the region.

The report has a section labeled: What China is and What China is Not. You state that while China is no doubt rising as a major power it is not an existential threat. Why do you believe that the perception of China as an existential threat is incorrect?

If you take the term seriously, which is that a country or some entity poses the threat of eliminating another nation, stopping their existence in terms of either physical extermination or in terms of destroying and uprooting their political and social order or destroying their economy, China has none of the capacity to do that and is unlikely to acquire it.  Their military is certainly not big enough to pose a danger of exterminating the United States without themselves being incinerated. I mean they're not stupid, the United States has vastly more overall military power than the Chinese do. So, the Chinese cannot threaten the United States in terms of physical existence. Its economy is strong and growing, but it's not a hundred - foot giant. The Chinese economy has its own problems- some of them are very serious.  These problems are going to continue to pose a limit on how much real economic clout and power the Chinese will wield over time. The Chinese economy is facing a major challenge in what is called the middle-income trap. It needs to raise its productivity to be able to increase its wages to ever increasing levels while also increasing its productivity because it has to make the transition from a cheap wage labor export-oriented industry to one that is more based on technology and innovation and value-added beyond just physical labor inputs. It needs skilled labor inputs and technology. The Chinese are by no means certain that they're going to make that transition in a really successful way. Also, the Chinese do not have the capacity to be able to undertake covert information operations that are going to indoctrinate Western democratic societies to support China over their own governments or over Democratic principles.  In short, we need an accurate and realistic assessment of Chinese capabilities and resulting threats to have a sound policy.  And that should not be based on China posing an existential threat to the U.S.

Following on the previous question, the report also states that viewing the U.S.-China relationship solely through a lens of strategic competition  is a poor strategy for long-term success.  Can you elaborate?

I believe strategic competition is very rarely defined. What is strategic about the competition between the U.S. and China. Is it strategic because the Chinese are threatening to undermine the dominant military position of the United States in Asia? Yes to a certain degree that is the case. You can have strategic competition that is non-confrontational, but that is in some ways positive sum. I think that the most strategic aspect of the competition between the US and China that is really meaningful and that could really have traction is the economic and technological competition between the two sides. China is a major economic player in the world. China is trying to ramp up its technological capabilities. It's putting a lot of money into it and it is also stealing technology from the West as well as acquiring it in  legally acceptable terms. So, it's a mixed bag but that competition doesn't have to be a winner-take-all or a zero-sum competition.  We have to be able to acquire a more balanced perspective that allows for mutual accommodation and some level of greater restraint that puts limits on the kinds of strategic competition that you have out there. That's the main objection that we have in the report- if you focus everything on strategic competition then it becomes more and more likely that you're going to get zero-sum perspectives with worst-case assumptions. You're going to close off avenues for cooperation. You're going to start putting a litmus test to other countries and this is exactly what happened in the Trump Administration. You're going to start basically easing yourself into a Cold War environment with the Chinese that will not serve your interests or that of the Chinese or anybody else. So strategic competition should not be the defining characteristic of the international environment. It is all the more important because there are also strategic issues that go well beyond interstate rivalries such as climate change, pandemics, and the state of the global economic order. These things all have strategic national security implications but they are not problems that simply call for binary zero-sum competition between nations. They call for cooperation between nations. So, if you define strategic competition as all of that, including maintaining a good global economic environment, then yes that is a good positive sum outcome. But that is not the way strategic competition with China is understood. It is much more zero-sum and it's much less attention to the cooperative needs that exist between the two countries. The Quincy document basically rejects this and states that this is not the defining characteristic of the world today. Great power competition inevitably leads towards more militarism, more zero-sum thinking, maneuvering against each other and the security dilemma gets worse and worse. The whole thing is just a repeat of processes that have led to conflict and war in the past and you have to break out of this cycle. You cannot do that by emphasizing great power competition all the time, unless you define the term in a way that qualifies it and defines the term more meaningfully to include positive competition. 

Does American policy adequately consider the conflicting interests of East Asian nations where China and the U.S.-China strategic competition are concerned? Where can the U.S. strike the right balance?

No, I don’t believe that the current policy adequately considers the conflicting interests of East Asian nations and it certainly didn’t under the Trump administration. It served more to alienate than it did to rally most Asian countries for a whole host of reasons, not just to do with China. You need to have a serious effort to dialogue first with America's closest allies and partners about what they want to see in the region longer-term. But you have to get the region to speak honestly because regional powers tend to deflect and defer to the United States and they tend to tell American officials what they want to hear. I think some Asians want a much greater role for intra-Asian cooperation, including the Chinese in ways that can reduce tensions and rivalry and increase some level of cooperation. The US needs to listen to these views and think about what kind of policy stance in Asia would be better than what they've taken in the past. We outlined what we think this should be in that report. The core of our activity in Asia with other Asian countries should not be just the hub and spokes mutual security treaties with Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Australia, and the Philippines. U.S. policy should go beyond just military security. We say in our report that alliances should think more about supporting cooperative efforts to deal with things like climate change and the pandemic. The U.S. military itself has a gigantic carbon footprint around the world and the U.S. military should do more to cooperate with other countries in reducing that footprint which means to some degree reducing its profile and I think that needs to be a basis for a U.S.-Asian dialogue. The United States cannot afford to have an open-ended arms race with the Chinese in their backyard. Those days are gone and we're not going to be doing that sort of thing successfully. We’ve got to reach a more stable modus vivendi with  China that doesn't rely just on deterrence. You’ve got to have some level of reassurance as well.

What are the metrics for measuring the effectiveness of the Biden administration’s Asia policy in the coming years?

A number one metric: “Is the Biden administration seriously listening to other Asian countries?” It's hard to tell, but you need to have as much transparency as possible. You need to have as much honesty as possible from both sides. You need to have the media questioning seriously and not creating this anti-China framework. The Western media across the U.S. is gripped by this fascination and will publish anything that says things are deteriorating with China. If things less sexy and less alarmist that involve some level of engagement with China are published, they get less attention . There isn't just one view in the United States even about dealing with China obviously- the Quincy Institute is one good example of that. Second, I would say you need to have movement towards establishing a more stable balance of power in Asia and that should be through transitioning to what we call a more defensive-oriented, denial as opposed to control-oriented, offensive, preemptive posturing on behalf of the United States and its allies. Neither China nor the U.S. is going to dominate the Western Pacific. Both need to deter the other from controlling the air and sea space along that first island chain. You've got to be able to deter the Chinese from acting to try to control that and thereby manipulate Japan and Taiwan and other actors in the area. But at the same time the United States cannot expect that it's going to have control of its own in that area either. You've got to reach some kind of stable middle ground for doing that and we have a project at Quincy that's designed to explore exactly what that should look like: What does a denial force posture look like over the long-term?  It's a tough issue but it needs to be explored with much greater seriousness than it has been. A third indicator would be that the United States is actually doing something that is upping its economic game in Asia. It needs to be a more active presence in economic forums. I think it needs to seriously consider joining the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and consider joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Program (RCEP). It should be focused on influencing and joining and supporting as many cooperative economic and technological engagements as it can in the region to try to reduce security competition. But it needs to be able to define what are the national security dimensions of involvement in these various activities. As we say in the report, technology fields should be defined from a national security perspective as a small area with high walls. You want to clearly define what is national security and technology and then protect it well but you don't want to just have it bleed out into everything. You can define almost anything as a national security threat if you assume that behind every camera, behind every piece of software, behind every computer there is the Chinese spy waiting to get you and vice-versa for the United States. If you carry that to its extreme, then you really have nothing but a decoupling atmosphere. China and the United States will both be damaged significantly if there is a decoupling in the economic and technological spheres.  There's also a need for the United States to get much more strategic in the economic realm, talking about how it can improve its economic presence and its economic relationship with all the countries in the region. This requires revitalizing the World Trade Organization and perhaps creating new vehicles for multilateral trade, investment, and technology. It requires developing investment treaties like the European Union and China just developed. The United States needs to be a much more robust player in those games to be able to really have an impact in Asia and in a variety of different areas and regions. I think that those would be indicators of measuring the effectiveness of a Biden Administration’s Asian policy.

Nohl Patterson CMC '22Student Journalist

Yeu Ninje at the English-language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

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