July 11, 2011 4:28PM

America’s China Conundrum: Simultaneously Confronting and Engaging

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is off to China for discussions with Chinese military officers. His trip follows a visit in May by China’s army chief of staff. The discussions are valuable since they will help increase transparency, if nothing else. But they won’t do much more if Adm. Mullen doesn’t bring the right message.

While the admiral is in China the U.S. Navy will be holding exercises with Australian and Japanese forces in the South China Sea. Although the number of ships involved is few, the maneuvers are meant to send a message to Beijing about its controversial territorial claims, which would turn much of these waters into a Chinese lake.

Washington has many issues at play with China—the status of Taiwan, trade and currency disagreements, support for North Korea, status of human rights, policy towards Iran. If the U.S. and People’s Republic of China cooperate, the 21st century is likely to be far more peaceful and productive. If the two nations confront each other, the future could turn ugly.

The ultimate question is whether Washington is prepared to accommodate a wealthier and more powerful PRC in coming years. Contrary to the fevered claims of some, the shift in global power likely will be gradual, not abrupt. The U.S. will remain richer, more influential, and possess a better military for years, if not decades. Indeed, China faces significant economic and political challenges and will be poorer than America even as its GDP grows larger.

However, while the speed and process of China’s rise is not guaranteed, its ability to deter U.S. military intervention will expand. Beijing’s outlay of $100 billion to $150 billion a year on the military already raises alarms in Washington, even though the latter devotes about $700 billion to “defense.” The reason? It is much cheaper for the PRC to defend itself than for the U.S. to sustain an offense capable of imposing Washington’s will on China. Beijing doesn’t need to build 11 carrier groups. It just needs the ability to sink American carrier groups.

Even if a new policy of containment seemed affordable, it still would not be in America’s interest to scatter military tripwires throughout East Asia. Americans obviously will remain very involved in Asian affairs. But alliances should be a means to an end, namely defending the U.S. Alliances should not become ends in themselves. It is hard to imagine what likely dispute—such as whose claim to the Paracel Islands is paramount—would justify the U.S. risking war with an increasingly well‐​armed nuclear PRC over issues the latter considered vital in its own neighborhood. Consider how Washington would react to Chinese military intervention in Central America.

The better approach would be to encourage friendly states to do more on their own behalf. In fact, that is already happening to some degree.

Japan is slowly moving beyond the strict limitations of Article 9 of its constitution, which technically bans a military. South Korea has begun looking at security beyond North Korea. Australia has embarked upon an ambitious security program. Several Southeast Asian nations have begun purchasing submarines and improving their militaries. All see, and generally fear, the specter of a rising, hostile China.

This process would be accelerated if Washington made clear that it planned to step back and would no longer act as the meddler of first resort. Countries must look after their own interests instead of automatically looking eastward for aid.

Adm. Mullen’s message in the PRC should be simple. China has gained much from its peaceful participation in the international system. Beijing will gain even more in the future if it continues the same strategy. If, however, it chooses aggressiveness over assertiveness, the PRC will have much to fear, and perhaps more from its own neighbors than America.