Is détente with China a good idea?

Kevin Rudd served as Australia's prime minister and foreign minister and currently is president of the Asia Society.  In an article in Foreign Affairs, Rudd advocates what he calls "managed strategic competition" between the U.S. and China.  "Managed strategic competition" is another way of saying "détente."  And détente, if practiced the wrong way, may lead not to "managed competition," but instead to "managed decline."

Détente is not necessarily a bad policy, but the devil is in the details.  In the 1970s, we had détente as practiced by Richard Nixon — hardheaded, pragmatic, realist, without any illusions about the adversary — and détente as practiced by Jimmy Carter — softheaded, idealistic, with plenty of illusions about the adversary (Carter undermined our autocratic allies in the name of "human rights" and famously preached against our "inordinate fear of communism").  Rudd's article appears to lean in the direction of the Nixon hardheaded version of détente, but there is a missing piece: what Nixon and Kissinger called "triangular diplomacy."

Rudd's article has nothing substantive to say about the Sino-Russian strategic partnership that, according to Chinese spokespersons, has "no limits," except to say that it has "deeply damaged Beijing's standing in Europe."  That strategic partnership also has the potential of uniting huge portions of the Eurasian landmass in an alliance hostile to the United States: the nightmare scenario of Western geopolitical thinkers from Alfred Thayer Mahan to Halford Mackinder to Nicholas Spykman to George Kennan to Colin Gray.  Policies designed to produce a Sino-Russian split should be part of any long-term diplomacy by Western powers, especially the United States.  Triangular diplomacy is what made Nixon's détente policy a success — it positioned the U.S. closer to the Soviet Union and China than they were to each other, thereby ensuring the geopolitical pluralism of Eurasia.  Instead, the Biden administration has helped push Russia into the arms of China.
Rudd notes that U.S.-China "competition" has intensified since President Biden took office.  Rudd claims that the Biden administration has "largely continued" President Trump's "tough policies toward Beijing."  But perhaps the rivalry has intensified because Beijing has observed the Biden national security team at work, for example, in Afghanistan, and noted the administration's prioritizing of "climate change," and the search for "white supremacists" and the promotion of "diversity, equity, and inclusion" in our armed forces.  Beijing may also have noted the Biden administration's reluctance to modernize and upgrade our nuclear forces in the face of China's build-up of such forces, and its rather tepid response to China's naval build-up.  Indeed, Biden's Navy secretary stated that his top priority is climate change — not engaging in the kind of naval build-up that Secretary John Lehman did in the Reagan administration.

Rudd's laudable goal is to avoid turning the U.S.-China strategic rivalry into a shooting war.  No sane person wants a shooting war between great powers.  But a Jimmy Carter–like détente can make war more likely if Beijing misreads "managed competition" as accommodating China's replacement of the U.S. as the world's leading power.  For that is what is at stake in the U.S.-China rivalry.

Rudd's concept has four elements: a clear understanding by both powers of "strategic redlines"; embracing "nonlethal" competition; cooperation in areas where interests align — climate change, global health, global financial stability, nuclear proliferation; and dedicated Cabinet-level managers of the relationship.

Obviously, the most immediate strategic red line is Taiwan — and here the Biden administration has repeatedly sent confusing signals that undermine any "clear understanding" of our position.  Embracing nonlethal competition sounds great, but if China believes that it can take Taiwan by force without going to war with the United States (and its regional allies) or by a successful war against the United States, it will do so.  And Rudd may be a little too sanguine in his belief that China and the U.S. share interests in global financial stability, global health, climate change, and nuclear proliferation.  China's grand strategy as set forth in the book Unrestricted Warfare includes waging war by means other than traditional kinetic war — economic, political, subversive warfare, what the authors call "a cocktail mixture of warfare."  China's unconscionable handling of the COVID-19 pandemic should put to rest any notions that it shares the U.S. approach to global health.  And China burns more fossil fuels than any other country.  Finally, dedicated Cabinet-level managers cannot substitute for sound geopolitics.  Statesmen — Cabinet-level or otherwise — can manage decline much easier than they can manage confrontation.  The president, Secretary Blinken, and national security adviser Sullivan don't exactly inspire confidence in this regard.   

Rudd believes that the outlook for "stabilization" of the U.S.-China rivalry is most promising during the next six months as the U.S. conducts midterm elections and China holds its 20th Party Congress.  He writes that China's diplomats use "Wolf Warrior" rhetoric due to "domestic political incentives" and hopes that President Xi authorizes "less ideological and more pragmatic diplomatic activity."  That is a hope based on illusion.  It is President Xi who launched the geopolitical offensive known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), who embraced the notion that the South China Sea belongs to China, who has overseen China's naval and nuclear weapons build-up, and whose "China Dream" is to replace the United States as the world's leading economic and military power.  President Xi is looking for an American counterpart who will manage America's decline.  Perhaps he found one in Joe Biden.

Image via Max Pixel.

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