REPORT: The New China Challenge Conference

Pictured above left to right: Evan Feigenbaum, Oriana Mastro (Georgetown), Michael Green (Georgetown), David Finkelstein, David Shambaugh (George Washington), and Dan Rosen. Photo Credit: Martina Hukel

By: Martina Hukel, Reporter

On October 10, 2018, the U.S. Naval Institute, with support from The William M. Wood Foundation, hosted the New China Challenge Conference at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. The conference brought together international leaders, academic experts, and retired senior military leaders to address the rise of China as a global power, debate the potential for conflict between the U.S. and China, imagine what a future conflict might look like and if it can be avoided, and discuss the complex and competitive challenges China poses to the U.S. in political, strategic, and economic domains. Throughout the day, there were two keynote speakers, the Hon. Kevin Rudd, the Asia Society Policy Institute’s President and Australia’s 26th Prime Minister, and August Cole, a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and co-author of Ghost Fleet, and two panel discussions titled “Are the U.S. and China Destined for War?” and “U.S. vs China: The Great Power Competition”, which featured Dr. Oriana Mastro and Dr. Michael Green of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program.

VADM Peter Daly, USN (Ret.), the CEO of the U.S. Naval Institute, and VADM Walter Carter Jr., USN, the Superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, offered opening remarks and introduced the first keynote speaker – Hon. Kevin Rudd. He focused his speech on understanding China’s rise and how the U.S.’s disengagement within Asia and ASEAN countries allows China to strategically expand. This subsequently enhances China’s formidable political and tactical influence which, Hon. Rudd warns, could surpass the U.S. if there is not a change in U.S. policy to address this strategic competition. Hon. Rudd encourages developing U.S. policy to be multidimensional to contend with the various levels of China’s growing influence. Furthermore, Hon. Rudd stressed the need for a U.S. message that prompts global investment, from Australia or other countries, to help balance against China.

The first panel, “Are the U.S. and China Destined for War?”, was moderated by Dr. James Holmes, the Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College. Dr. Holmes directed the discussion by questioning whether countries have predetermined destinies and, if so, what the U.S. is able to do to alter theirs. Dr. Graham Allison, Harvard professor and author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape the Thucydides’s Trap?, insisted that “destiny deals the cards, but the players play the hand.” He further explains the Thucydides’s Trap, the idea that when a rising power causes fear in an established power the only result is war, and emphasizes the need for imagination in future strategy to avoid conflict against China’s rise. Kathleen Hick, a Senior Vice President at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, underscores that there is no comprehensive U.S. strategy against China, only bits and pieces that need unification to generate success. ADM Scott Swift and ADM Robert Willard, both former U.S. Pacific Fleet Commanders, conclude that the U.S. would not be committed enough or united enough as a nation to successfully wage war.

The second keynote speaker was August Cole. He focused on how fiction and other narratives can educate people on future conflict. He describes his 2015 novel, Ghost Fleet, as “useful fiction” or “FICINT” (fictional intelligence) and suggests that it can help intelligence professionals and military officers expand their thought processes to reconsider how they see the future and avoid potential blind spots. Cole states that his novel portrays a fictional war with China and helps explore the hypothetical futures that could be derived from such a conflict, which encourages open minds for analysts.

The final panel titled “U.S. vs China: The Great Power Competition” was moderated by the Vice President and Director of China and Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, Dr. David Finkelstein. Dr. Finkelstein guided the conversation through three main topics: the current state of relations between the U.S. and China, the nature of the competition between the two nations, and the best practices for approaching the relationship in the future. Georgetown professor Dr. Oriana Mastro stated that the relations between China and the U.S. have deteriorated and the nature of the competition is unprecedented, but the U.S. can maintain its edge if it includes and cooperates with other countries in the effort to counter-balance against China. Furthermore, Dr. Mastro and Dr. Michael Green both emphasize the need to clarify U.S. plans to remain engaged in East and Southeast Asia and to deter China through imaginative means instead of simply threatening punishment that fails to change China’s behavior. Dr. David Shambaugh, the Director of George Washington University’s China Policy Program, expanded on the engagement in East and Southeast Asia through multi-domain and long-term cooperation, while urging caution to not force ASEAN countries to choose between China and the U.S. The panel concluded with all the members stressing the need for innovation and increased attention on this increasingly competitive relationship.

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