U.S. Policy Choices Regarding China

While the Obama administration has preoccupied itself with developments in Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq, a far more important foreign policy relationship continues to deteriorate.  Late last month, a nasty incident occurred when a Chinese fighter plane intercepted and harassed a U.S. spy plane near Hainan Island, where China has a major submarine base.  It is just the latest in a growing list of spats between Washington and Beijing. 

Relations had already become tense because of China’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea and its acrimonious dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.  Washington suspects that China is trying to become the dominant power in East Asia and gradually displace the United States from that role.  Beijing suspects that the United States is trying to enlist East Asian nations in a de facto containment policy directed against China, although Americans also want to continue enjoying the benefits of an extensive economic relationship with that country.  Both sides are probably correct in their suspicions.

In an article over at the National Interest Online, I suggest that the Obama administration’s China policy is a dangerous muddle.  Instead of continuing to drift toward an implicit, hostile containment policy, even as America’s regional clout continues to erode, the United States should consider two other options.  One would be to recognize China as the pre-eminent power in East Asia, thereby accepting a Chinese equivalent of America’s long-standing Monroe Doctrine in the Western Hemisphere.  I discuss that option in greater detail in an article in China-U.S. Focus.  Britain’s willingness in the 1890s to defer to the United States in the Western Hemisphere ended tensions between the two countries and ushered in an era of extremely close relations.  A similar trend might occur following such a U.S. concession to China in East Asia. 

But as I note, Britain and the United States were both democratic, capitalist states with similar cultures and overlapping interests.  Today’s China, on the other hand, is an authoritarian, quasi-capitalist country.  Conceding regional pre-eminence to a country with those characteristics would be much harder and riskier for the United States.

The other policy option would be for the United States to adopt a much lower security profile in that part of the world and allow a natural balance of power to develop between China and its uneasy neighbors, led by Japan.  That approach would recognize that the strategic and economic dominance that the United States enjoyed following the end of World War II was artificial and has been fading for at least a quarter century.  Not only China’s rise, but the growing prosperity and capabilities of other East Asian nations have eroded Washington’s advantages.  U.S. power in the region is still superior to that of any other actor, but the margin grows narrower, and that trend is likely to continue.  Policymakers need to ask themselves whether it is realistic to expect that a country whose homeland is thousands of miles away can continue to be East Asia’s hegemon much longer.  It makes more sense to relinquish that role gradually and create incentives for Japan, Indonesia, India, Vietnam, South Korea and other countries to become more assertive in balancing China’s growing power and sometimes abrasive behavior. 

Fostering the development of an independent regional balance of power has some drawbacks.  It would require the United States to relinquish the security role it has played for nearly seven decades, as well as relinquish the prestige and influence accompanying that role.  And there is no guarantee that adopting a lower U.S. security profile in East Asia would produce the outcome we desire.  Although unlikely, it is possible that the countries there would capitulate and accept Chinese dominance instead of assuming the costs and risks required to balance that country.  Alternatively, the emergence of multiple well-armed powers could create greater instability in the region.  No strategy is risk free.

One point is increasingly apparent, however.  Clear policy choices, even if difficult, need to be made.  As China’s power grows, it will become harder and riskier for Washington to continue its contradictory strategy of containing China while trying to enjoy the fruits of a close bilateral economic relationship.  We need a more coherent China policy—and soon.