Look Out, Asia: China's Peaceful Rise is Over
If war erupted in the region, America’s alliance with Japan and ambiguous commitment to Manila could drag the United States into combat with nuclear-armed China. Indeed, President Obama stated that the “mutual” defense pact with Tokyo covers disputed territories under Japan’s control. Filipino officials want a similar territorial guarantee, though the bilateral relationship is looser. Even absent official ties, Washington likely would be involved: it views itself as the globe’s dominatrix authorized to settle any and every dispute.
All parties have an obligation to dampen tensions. They should start by recognizing that none of the disputed claims are worth war. China has attempted to lower the stakes by using “salami tactics”, attempting to grab the whole piece by piece. Yet conflict would be a high price to pay for everything as well.
Most of the islands have little intrinsic value. The resources in surrounding waters could be substantial but still would pale compared to the cost of conflict. Joint development would yield most of the commercial gains without risking war.
Territorial control would affect maritime rights, but not decisively. In peacetime navigation would continue largely unimpeded; in wartime navigation would depend upon on the capabilities of the respective navies. Additional military outposts would benefit Chinese forces, but the closer they were to allied states the more vulnerable they would be.
Perhaps most important is national ego. Which is why the issue so far has proved impervious to reason, no matter how sophisticated the discussion of the complicated mix of regional history and national control, international law and bilateral treaty. China’s claims may be extravagant, but it is in a position today to insist that they not be summarily dismissed, whatever five international jurists say.
Which explains why calls on the United States to confront China, to make the latter pay a price for its ill conduct, are misguided. The People’s Republic of China’s stake in securing its coast is vital and the waters beyond substantial. America’s interests are more diffuse and distant: dominating China’s borders might be theoretically desirable, but isn’t necessary to protect American security. Better the benefits of resource development go to Washington’s friends than a potential adversary, but the overall impact would be modest. Navigational freedom is important, but it is not yet directly threatened. Peaceful dispute resolution by others is welcome but not obviously a matter for the U.S. military.
Of course, there is a common presumption in Washington that the sight of a few American ships—such as the “Freedom of Navigation” patrols—and whiff of gunpowder from a few American guns would deter aggressive action by China. Perhaps, but only for a time. The People’s Republic of China is not likely to respond by abandoning interests viewed as essential.
Rather, China would do what the United States almost certainly would do if similarly provoked: increase military outlays, accelerate naval construction, strengthen cooperation with America’s adversaries and challenge U.S. interests elsewhere. As local and regional matters these territorial disputes are hard enough to resolve; turning them into a confrontation with the United States would sharply raise the stakes and make the controversies even more difficult to resolve. To allow Washington to dictate the terms would be unacceptable to Beijing.
Moreover, it is a game America cannot afford to win. First, supporting Japan and the Philippines essentially shifts the costs of any confrontation with China to the United States. Washington’s backing would make them less inclined to compromise or even negotiate. If a friend fired a shot, it would be like America fired a shot.
Second, though the United States will remain wealthier and more powerful than China for years to come, the former cannot forever afford to maintain military forces strong enough to have a reasonable certainty of defeating the People’s Republic of China in its home waters. Rep. J. Randy Forbes advocates having “escalation dominance” over Beijing, being able to “overcome China’s growing anti-access and area-denial systems” and “intervene decisively” on behalf of “allies and partners.” But it is far more expensive build carriers than to sink them. Once the entitlement tsunami begins to overwhelm the federal budget, Americans are not likely to march demanding higher taxes to maintain the Filipino flag atop Scarborough Reef and Japanese control over the Senkakus. In contrast, Chinese citizens likely would still spend and risk whatever is necessary to ensure the disputed territories remain Chinese.
While Washington should assert freedom of navigation as it always has, it should shrink its security commitments. Japan long has been capable of defending itself and its region, and should be expected to do so in the future. The United States should narrow its treaty guarantee to ensuring Japan’s independence—which is not at stake—rather than ensuring Tokyo’s control over contested territories, which encouraged Japan to deny the existence of “an issue to be solved” with China. A similar approach should be taken with the Philippines, though Washington has been less explicit in detailing its present commitments.
The best outcome for Washington would be for events to take their natural course, that is, China’s neighbors rearm and coordinate to counter Beijing’s aggressiveness. The participation of both India and Japan makes a serious regional coalition possible. They will do more if they know that they must assert and protect their territorial claims.