China faces numerous challenges if it wants to maintain its rise. The U.S. should stop acting as if tensions – or worse – are inevitable.
Having achieved little and lost much in Iraq and Afghanistan, the White House and Pentagon in 2012 are turning their focus to the Asia-Pacific region. Top U.S. leaders seem to believe that the world’s oldest major democracy must confront the world’s oldest civilization and most populous country. Washington orphans engagement and upgrades containment. A tough line toward China may buttress President Barack Obama’s prospects in this November elections, but could also jeopardize long-term U.S. and world security. Washington risks becoming trapped in a self-fulfilling policy. Expecting and preparing for a confrontation with China, U.S. policies may push China to the very behaviors Washington would like to prevent, and toward a collision that no sane person could welcome.
Obama explained the new orientation in U.S. foreign policy to the Australian Parliament on November 17, 2011: “As we plan and budget for the future, we will allocate the resources necessary to maintain our strong military presence in this region.” While administration officials insist that this new policy isn’t aimed specifically at China, the implication is clear enough: From now on, the primary focus of U.S. military strategy won’t be the once fertile crescent or the global “war on terrorism” but China.
K. Shanmugam, the foreign minister of Washington’s long-time partner, Singapore, warned in February that U.S. domestic pressures and election pressures “have resulted in some anti-China rhetoric in domestic debates. Americans shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which such rhetoric can spark reaction which can create a new and unintended reality for the region.”
Here we have a classic security dilemma: the U.S. sees China modernizing its armed forces and decides it must beef up U.S. assets across the Pacific Ocean. In response, China believes it must do still more to counter the U.S. buildup. The pattern of action and counteraction could come to resemble the U.S.-Soviet arms race – dangerous, expensive, and, some would say, pointless.
In recent years, many U.S. analysts have told Washington policymakers to prepare for the rise of a more aggressive China and the end of a unipolar world. Alarmed by China’s rise, some believers in America’s decline call for retrenchment to a Fortress America in economics and world affairs. Instead of free trade, they urge a neo-mercantilist stance. Instead of leadership for peace and stability, they call for the U.S. to limit its military and political presence around the globe. Hawks go the other way. They demand a military buildup to contain China. Both perspectives are ill advised. Neither the retreatists nor the hawks see the world as it is.
Both declinists and hardliners worry that if China’s torrid economic growth continues, its gross domestic product (GDP) will exceed the United States’ in several decades. Rising powers, they warn, clash with declining hegemons. They note that Beijing brashly makes extensive claims in the South China Sea; that China continues to advance in space and other technologies with military applications; and that its missiles menace Taiwan, a friend of America for more than 60 years.