Recent events in the Asia-Pacific reveal the United States has no strategy when it comes to dealing with what is quickly becoming a neighborhood bully, increasingly armed with the some of the planet’s most sophisticated weaponry; namely, the People's Republic of China.
Beijing’s new leadership has demonstrated clearly to the world an aversion to the status quo — an international system that has provided the peace and security needed since the late 1970s for Beijing to morph into the world’s second-largest economy and a regional powerhouse. For the past several years, China has abandoned a foreign-policy orientation of a “peaceful rise” to an outlook that seeks to aggressively assert its claims economically, politically, militarily and now geographically.
While it is certainly natural for an increasingly rich and powerful nation to seek a larger role in global affairs and especially in its own neighborhood, Chinese actions when summed up over the past several years place at risk the peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific — one of the most economically dynamic regions on the planet. From Beijing’s recent declarations of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea with veiled hints of more to come, while at the same time confronting a U.S naval vessel in international waters, tensions in Asia between China and its neighbors and the United States are growing. Instead of working with neighbors to find common ground over contested islands, natural resources or parts of the maritime commons, Beijing has increasingly used its growing military and economic might to achieve its aims. This is not the sophisticated foreign policy one would expect of a mature stakeholder in an international order that has only served to make it rich — but more like a schoolyard bully pushing around its weight to achieve its aims.
For its part, Washington has done little in Asia to halt Beijing’s policy of confrontation. In fact, American strategy over the past several years is largely to blame. After much fanfare declaring a “pivot,” in which Washington would make Asia the center of its foreign policy, such a strategy has been watered down to what has been respun as a “rebalance” — more an afterthought as America lurches from crisis to crisis in the Middle East. As the Obama administration refuses to lead in Asia, Washington sows the seeds of an eventual crisis that would dwarf anything that has been seen since World War II — a tragedy clearly in its power to stop from ever coming to fruition.
Considering recent events, one thing is crystal clear: The United States must begin to develop a grand strategy when it comes to the rise of China. Such a strategy need not adopt the same bullying or confrontational tone that Beijing has employed, but rather a show of strength to halt Chinese attempts to alter the status quo and to ensure regional stability of our allies in the region.
A first step in such a strategy would be for Washington to not only renounce China’s recent Air Defense Identification Zone declaration, but insist on its rollback. Such a deceleration would send a strong signal to Beijing that we do not endorse such moves, and they will be met with the strongest of resistance.
A second part of such a strategy must put in place military assets in the region as a signal to China that even though its buildup is formidable, it is no match against American air and naval power. Leaders in Washington should consider, for example, increasing from the current total of 60 percent of U.S. nuclear-powered attack submarines in the Pacific to as high as 75 percent. Considering the advantages America’s underseas fleet would have against a Chinese military that has unproven anti-submarine warfare capabilities, U.S. military forces would be able to leverage a key advantage in any possible confrontation.
The United States must also begin to work with allies in a much more robust manner when it comes to helping arm them with the finest military equipment, as well as training to use such equipment. Washington should step up arms sales to nations such as Taiwan, the Philippines and South Korea, as well as joint training.
Finally, Washington must also invest much-needed time and energy to bring together Japan and South Korea, two important allies that history and past tensions have driven apart. Considering both nations face challenges from China, as well as from North Korea, there is an obvious incentive to work together instead of allowing the past to harm their shared national interests.
In the end, only U.S. leadership can ensure tensions in Asia do not spiral out of control. It is time Washington develops a comprehensive strategy that reinforces the idea that China’s rise is a welcomed one in which the entire world can benefit — but not at the expense of voiding the current international order in Asia.
Harry J. Kazianis is managing editor for the National Interest and a nonresident fellow of the Center of Strategic and International Studies. The views expressed here are his own.