Obama’s China Strategy Is Doomed

The Obama administration’s policy toward China is either a clumsy attempt at deception or an extraordinary case of self‐​deception.
August 16, 2014 • Commentary
This article appeared in National Interest (Online) on August 16, 2014.

The Obama administration’s policy toward China is either a clumsy attempt at deception or an extraordinary case of self‐​deception. The United States has steadily built the components of a containment policy directed against Beijing, while steadfastly denying that it is pursuing any such policy. Washington has worked assiduously to strengthen and update its Cold War‐​era alliances with Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines and to forge new security partnerships with countries such as Vietnam and India that previously had rocky relationships with the United States. All of the U.S. moves have a common denominator: they involve significant security ties with countries that are hostile to China or at least worry greatly about the growth of Chinese power in East Asia.

Yet U.S. leaders seem reluctant to face either the logic or probable consequences of the policy they are pursuing. Secretary of State John Kerry epitomized that approach earlier this month when he finalized arrangements to station 2,500 U.S. Marines in Australia while reassuring the Chinese that the move was not directed in any way against their country and that Washington actually welcomed China as a “cooperative partner” in security affairs. Chinese leaders likely regarded that assurance with the same skepticism that they have viewed official U.S. statements contending that Washington remains neutral regarding the substance of Beijing’s dispute with Tokyo over the Senkaku/​Diaoyu Islands or the equally acrimonious feuds between China and its neighbors over the South China Sea. In both cases, U.S. actions belie protestations of impartiality.

The principal area of uncertainty is whether U.S. officials believe that they are cleverly deceiving the Chinese or whether they have succumbed to their own propaganda. The former explanation is the more likely one, but some U.S. actions indicate the latter may be true. At least some policymakers apparently believe they can simultaneously weave a web of containment around China’s power and still enjoy an economic relationship with Beijing worth hundreds of billions of dollars annually. That approach is captured by the term “congagement”—a blend of containment and engagement—that became popular in foreign policy circles a decade ago. It was a clever term, but at heart it was, and remains, little more than a cutesy equivocation.

U.S. leaders need to confront the reality, unpalatable though it might be, that their current strategy is not only internally contradictory, it is unsustainable over the long term. Given the emerging strategic developments in the Western Pacific and East Asia (China’s rising power combined with growing hostility and resistance to that power by the United States and Beijing’s neighbors), Washington will have to adopt a more coherent approach in the relatively near future. That requirement means choosing among three rather stark options. Each one has major advantages and disadvantages.

Embrace an Overt Containment Policy:

Adopting this approach would acknowledge and intensify the policy that Washington has been pursuing unofficially for years. If the United States was successful in enlisting the substantive support of Japan, South Korea, Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and other important geopolitical actors in the region, an overt containment strategy would have a high probability of constraining Beijing’s power for several decades. In essence, Washington would replicate the successful policy that it used against an expansionist Soviet Union during the Cold War.

A key reason why U.S. administrations were able to implement such an approach, though, was that the United States had meager economic links to the USSR. That is clearly not the case concerning bilateral ties with China. Not only is that country a major U.S. trading partner, but China holds some $1.3 trillion in U.S. government debt. A blatant containment policy would put those relationships at risk.

A related problem is that most potential partners for Washington in an anti‐​China containment strategy also have crucial economic ties to Beijing. Again, the contrast with the Cold War environment is striking. At least until well into the 1970s, major U.S. allies had minimal trade and other commercial relations with the Soviets. And even after that period, their economic stakes were not sufficiently large to cause them to defy Washington’s wishes on important security issues. U.S. leaders would find it challenging, to say the least, to gain support from countries that have lucrative economic ties with China for a hardline, long‐​term containment policy directed against that country.

Accept Chinese Pre‐​eminence in East Asia:

The opposite of a containment policy is also theoretically an option for Washington. Even the mere suggestion of acknowledging China’s regional pre‐​eminence, though, provokes allegations of “appeasement.” Unfortunately, that term always evokes images of the feckless conduct of Britain and France toward Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. But until that era, appeasement was considered a legitimate tool of foreign policy statecraft, so it should not be ruled out arbitrarily in dealing with China.

The model for such a policy would be London’s acceptance of U.S. dominance in the Western Hemisphere following the Venezuelan boundary dispute in the late 1890s. That concession proved extremely successful. Not Not only did it end more than a century of friction between the two powers, but it created the foundation for the close alliance that would emerge during the two world wars and persist continuously thereafter. It is possible that Washington’s recognition of a Chinese version of the Monroe Doctrine in East Asia could produce similar benefits.

But such a result is far from certain. It is important to remember that both Britain and the United States were liberal, capitalist democracies with an extensive shared cultural history. China is a one‐​party state that embraces tightly managed state capitalism. It is difficult to imagine the development of the mutual trust required for an enduring political and strategic partnership between such different countries. Washington might well end up with scant geopolitical benefits to offset the concessions that would be entailed in acknowledging Chinese regional pre‐​eminence. Moreover, Japan and some of China’s other neighbors would deeply resent such U.S.-Chinese collusion, and their reaction could have unpredictable, perhaps highly negative, consequences.

Let a Regional Balance Develop with Little U.S. Involvement:

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. There is no question that 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 might make more sense to relinquish that role gradually and create incentives for Japan, Indonesia, India, South Korea and other countries to become more assertive in balancing China’s growing power and sometimes‐​abrasive behavior.

By jealously guarding America’s hegemonic role, U.S. leaders create the opposite incentive—encouraging those countries to continue free riding on Washington’s security exertions. A disturbing example of the consequences is Japan’s persistent underinvestment in defense (spending a paltry one percent of its gross domestic product on that mission) even as Tokyo challenges China’s territorial claims. That sets up a situation in which the United States could get drawn into a nasty armed conflict over issues that have little relevance to intrinsic American interests. The bitter reality is that America’s allies in East Asia are more akin to rowdy security protectorates than genuine allies.

But fostering the development of an independent regional balance of power also has some drawbacks. It would require the United States to relinquish the security role it has played for nearly seven decades, as well as relinquishing the prestige and influence that has accompanied 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 painful, need to be made. As China’s power grows, it will become more and more difficult for Washington to continue its strategy of trying to enjoy the fruits of all possible approaches to dealing with that country. Congagement was always an ephemeral evasion rather than a coherent policy, and its days grow increasingly short.

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