Commentary

Americans Shouldn’t Go to War with China over Asian Territorial Disputes

Every four years China seems to become a political issue, and this year’s election cycle is no different. Candidates usually focus on trade, but the potential for military conflict with Beijing is more serious.

For centuries China was weak and isolated, and lost territory to other nations. Yet Beijing has rejoined the world and is growing rapidly, creating a far more powerful China than we have previously seen.

The PRC’s expansive claims would essentially turn the vast waters of the South China Sea into a Chinese lake. Beijing has effectively abandoned the “peaceful rise” which it once proclaimed to minimize fears of China’s growing power. This has led to sometimes dangerous confrontations between the PRC and several of its neighbors — Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam in the South China Sea, and Japan and South Korea further north.

Although the U.S. claims no territory, it runs “Freedom of Navigation patrols through waters claimed by China. American intelligence gathering led to air and naval incidents near the Chinese island of Hainan.

Moreover, the Obama administration affirmed that America’s security guarantee for Japan covers the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Washington also effectively backs the Philippines, though that commitment is more ambiguous. Should the international pushing and shoving turn violent the U.S. could be drawn in.

Washington must avoid war with the People’s Republic of China over Asia’s many territorial disputes because our interests in East Asian territorial issues are small compared to those of China and the latter’s neighbors. The U.S. understandably prefers that its allies and friends control more territory and resources, but the benefits to America are indirect and limited.

Nothing warrants conflict today, yet just one drunken ship captain or reckless aircraft pilot could light the fuse of war.

Washington proclaims its commitment to a rules-based international order, at least to the degree the U.S. gains thereby. The advantages for America are real, but don’t justify the U.S. military acting as global enforcer.

America’s most important interest is navigational freedom, but U.S. maritime rights remain largely protected in peacetime despite Beijing’s current activities. In wartime naval power, not paper guarantees, are the ultimate guarantor.

Nothing warrants conflict today, yet just one drunken ship captain or reckless aircraft pilot could light the fuse of war.

It was never realistic to expect newly empowered China to sacrifice important interests to what it viewed as a rigged system. After all, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the young American republic, vigorously, even aggressively, acted against its neighbors.

Nevertheless, the Obama administration is expanding U.S. involvement. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Washington must undertake “a long campaign of firmness and gentle but strong pushback.” However, China shows no signs of backing down. What if “gentle but strong pushback” doesn’t work? Not so gentle pushback?

Unfortunately, more U.S. involvement — especially the threat of military intervention if necessary — will exacerbate the situation. The PRC is unlikely to give in to America, which Beijing sees as engaged in a campaign of containment. Washington’s policies even have pushed China and Russia together. They recently held joint naval maneuvers in the region.

Potential U.S. intervention also encourages allied states to count on the great superpower across the ocean to bail them out of any trouble. Consequently they underinvest in defense, take greater risks, reject compromises, and dismiss negotiations.

Instead, the U.S. should dampen regional tensions. It should back away from confrontation, encouraging all parties to look for creative solutions. The most controversial sovereignty decisions could be deferred.

Washington also should let China’s neighbors know that they must arm themselves and cooperate with others to constrain the PRC. If the issue is important to them, then they must act.

Shifting responsibility will become even more important in the future. It will be ever more difficult for Washington to dictate to China. The PRC always will spend and risk more to advance interests more important to Beijing than America. The looming entitlement crisis inevitably will constrain U.S. military outlays.

Washington faces a multitude of foreign policy challenges in the coming years. Perhaps most important will be to avoid being dragged by other nations into war with China.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties.