The Skeptics

The Shocking Reason China and America Are Clashing: China Is Acting Just Like America Did

Of course, the theory prevalent in Washington’s pro-war precincts is that a whiff of gunpowder on America’s part would deter a war on China’s part. Perhaps—for a time. However, the world is not static, as Britain clearly understood when it appeased, by negotiating a disadvantageous settlement, the growing American republic. The course of future U.S.-China relations remains open. For Washington to attempt to coerce the PRC over interests viewed in Beijing as important if not vital guarantees a much more confrontational relationship. China likely would respond by matching American air and naval maneuvers, accelerating military outlays, and challenging U.S. interests elsewhere. Indeed, turning today’s regional dispute into a quasi-superpower confrontation would raise the stakes and make the issues harder to resolve. Americans should reflect on how they would respond to such a challenge—and to how they responded to threats in the past, going back to the so-called Barbary Pirates.

The rising nation was full of self-confidence and determined to expand. Its neighbor refused to negotiate in a bitter territorial dispute, convinced there was no legitimate issue to discuss. The new entrant to the international order also challenged the world’s greatest global power, which was forced to decide whether war could be justified against a country thousands of miles from home. The upstart’s territorial claims were excessive, but no one desired a rerun of past conflicts.

The year was 1845. The United States had absorbed Texas after the latter’s violent secession from Mexico; Washington demanded its neighbor’s acquiescence not only to the errant territory’s annexation but also to a new national boundary set well beyond Anglo settlements. The United States backed its position with provocative military maneuvers, occupying disputed territory. War soon resulted.

Around the same time Washington took an equally truculent position in dealing with Great Britain over the far western boundary between America and Canada. Where prior agreements had left ambiguity, the United States saw certainty. Some Americans proclaimed “54-40 or fight,” wanting to push the Oregon border up to the Russian territory (Alaska) later sold to the United States. The Polk administration took a less extreme position and London accommodated the arrogant juvenile nation, a necessary step in ultimately developing the “special relationship” between onetime enemies.

Today Beijing’s actions in the East Asian waters have a similar feel. The international and regional order is under strain as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has become an economic colossus with growing military might and diplomatic influence. Control of islands offer resource ownership and maritime primacy, encouraging the PRC to assert territorial claims once considered impractical or worthless.

Although America’s military remains supreme, the U.S. presence no longer intimidates. Beijing has become increasingly assertive, even truculent. Analysts spin scenarios in which America and China end up at war over some “damn fool thing” in the western Pacific rather than the Balkans, as was the case in World War I.

The waters of East Asia are filled with islands, including the Diaoyu/Senkaku, Nansha/Spratly, and Xisha/Paracel Islands, as well as Huangyan Island/Scarborough Reef.  (For simplicity’s sake I will use the latter names, more familiar in the United States)  The PRC claims all (and Taiwan, many) of these isles. Asserting a variety of opposing claims are Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

(This first appeared in 2015 and is being reposted due to reader interest.)

Washington is not a claimant, but has sparred with China over the U.S. Navy’s legal right to engage in intelligence gathering within China’s 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). More important, America has a formal military alliance with Japan which, the president declared, covers disputed territories under Tokyo’s control. Japan recently revised its defense guidelines to improve bilateral cooperation against the PRC (in contrast, Tokyo promised little assistance for U.S. security objectives). Washington’s military relationship with Manila is looser, but Philippine officials are seeking a similar territorial guarantee. The United States also views herself as the globe’s dominatrix into whose hands every dispute is properly remitted.

The Obama administration has escalated U.S. involvement by sending American aircraft over islands reclaimed by China and discussing joint patrols with Japanese aircraft. The United States and China resolved peacefully but not entirely smoothly the problems surrounding the crash-landing of the EP-3 spy plane in 2001 and subsequent maritime incidents. A future clash could pose greater challenges.

None of the claims generating so much controversy is worth war. China is carefully using “salami-slicing tactics,” successively grabbing small pieces of a larger whole to avoid a conflict. But who is prepared to fight even for the larger whole?