The Buzz

America: Its Own Worst Enemy In Asia?

As Washington prepares for Chinese President Xi Jinping's state visit, the U.S. is beginning to question assumptions that have guided its approach to China for decades. Not only does China's economic juggernaut no longer appear quite so relentless, but China's actions are forcing a reevaluation of prospects for its peaceful rise. But like a hapless soccer team persistently kicking the ball into its own goal, Washington has shown a perverse knack for responding with policies that do more to weaken than strengthen the U.S. position.

Emerging Strategic Rivals:

The debate revolves around concerns that China is poised to challenge the United States in a struggle for primacy in Asia. In this view, as China becomes richer and more powerful, it will seek to reassert its preeminence in its own neighborhood. Just as the U.S. did in its own hemisphere during its rise as a great power, China will strive to prevent outside powers from interfering with its regional dominance.

Proponents of this view regard China's ambitions with alarm. Among the bedrock principles of U.S. policy are the right to free navigation on high seas, the security of treaty allies, and a commitment to peaceful settlement of disputes. Yet in recent years China has tussled with Japan over claims to sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over a wide stretch of the East China Sea, built artificial islands in the South China Sea, and bullied smaller nations with claims overlapping China's in these waters.

These and other actions give reason to fear that a rising China is defining its interests in ways that could endanger those of the United States and its allies. In this view, the balancing act of promoting cooperation and managing competition that has characterized U.S. policy toward China since 1972 is inexorably degenerating into a tense, even dangerous, strategic rivalry.

Those who see the situation evolving in Asia in these terms typically advocate steps to bolster the U.S. position. They seek to counter China with a comprehensive strategy to advance U.S. economic, political, and military influence. They endorse President Obama's moves to rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region and welcome steps to engage with regional institutions, upgrade treaty alliances, and strengthen security cooperation with new partners.

In other areas they are sorely disappointed. Rather than a vigorous policy of counterbalancing a more assertive China, they are appalled by the many ways the United States seems to be setting itself up to be a victim of its own mistakes. This goes not only for failures to deal with shortcomings that erode its domestic strength, but for its actions abroad, too. Thus, those worried about China's conduct in the Western Pacific have to wonder how the United States, with so many assets at its disposal, should be so inept at using them.

America's 'Own Goals':

Take the reluctance to contest with more than words China's campaign to reinforce its claims in the South China Sea. China is hard at work building landing strips and harbors on tons of sand it has heaped on atolls in waters crossed by some the world's busiest sea lanes. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter stated emphatically at an Asian security forum last May that "the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows." Indeed, a few days before Secretary Carter spoke, the Chinese navy warned a P8-A Poseidon surveillance aircraft carrying a CNN film crew when it was deemed too close to one of China's artificial islands.

Within days of China's announcement of an ADIZ in the East China Sea last November, two B-52 bombers were sent from Guam to fly through that air space, a visible demonstration that the Pentagon had no intention of recognizing China's claim. But in the run-up to Xi's visit, the Obama administration is reportedly holding back from dispatching aircraft and ships on missions to uphold rights of free navigation in the disputed waters - even though China's ability to impose its writ is growing stronger by the day as it closes in on completing military installations on its newly created islands. By these actions, China is asserting a precedent for legal rights in the air and waters surrounding these islands. The longer the delay in deploying military hardware to pass through these areas, the harder it will be to challenge that precedent.

The failure of the United States to ratify the Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) does not help its position. The case Washington and others have against China's actions in the South China Sea is premised on principles codified in this document. Its rules provide the legal framework for military and commercial use of the seas. 157 nations have signed UNCLOS, including China. The United States has conspicuously not done so.  Although the US abides by its provisions and both Democratic and Republican administrations have urged US membership, Congress has refused to ratify it.