To Avoid a War With China, Should America Abandon Asia?

Walking away from Asia isn't a solution. It's a failure to understand the tools that America has to change Beijing’s calculus.

Rule number one if you are trying to win a debate: never admit your own thesis is a “fantasy.” And yet, this is the grim position that John Glaser finds himself in, stating that “there is something fantastical about my policy preferences.” Fictional foreign policy ‘fantasy’s’ like Glaser’s, alluding to an America that can hide behind “vast oceans to its east and west and a superior nuclear deterrent” that is supposedly “remarkably insulated from external threats” creates a false narrative. Such ideas should be exposed for what they are: at their worst a shameful mischaracterization of what many are dubbing a policy of “restraint” and at worst a foreshadowing of a dangerous neo-isolationism that should be thrown onto the ash heap of history once and for all.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. Before we continue on with our debate on American foreign policy towards Asia (you can find Mr. Glaser’s original essay here, my response here, his rebuttal here as well as a supportive post to Glaser’s position by CATO Vice President Christopher Preble here), let us recap a polished up version of Glaser’s argument:

“In order to avoid a clash with a rising China the United States should abandon its strategy of primacy in the Asia Pacific. Containment of China is a costly and risky strategy, I claimed, and one that is not necessary to secure America’s vital national interests. Crucially though, the core of my argument came down to this: the prospect for such apparently belligerent policies to successfully dampen China’s regional ambitions is very dim. That Beijing will grow more assertive in response seems more likely.”

So now that we have his arguments reestablished, I would like to focus my final effort in this debate by unpacking Mr. Glaser’s thesis points, arguing not only why they are wrong, but also why they run completely counter to furthering America’s national security interest, something Glaser argues he is advancing in his half-baked foreign policy fantasy.

 

Idea #1: In order to avoid a clash with a rising China, the United States should abandon its strategy of primacy in the Asia-Pacific

This is really the crux of Glaser’s argument and really what makes his ideas truly unique—but also uniquely dangerous.

Let us suppose next year, when a new U.S. president takes office, that he or she decides America should ‘abandon’ primacy in Asia—an argument no presidential candidate dares make, by the way. What next? At the very least, Washington would have to dissolve treaties and other obligations to allies in the region such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Australia—as well as dissolve budding strategic partnerships with nations such as Vietnam and India.

The above scenario should set off a number of frightening questions. For starters, has any nation throughout history decided to simply just dissolve so many different alliances and partnerships at once over a short amount of time? How would our allies in Europe or in the Middle East respond? Would they trust our leadership to confront the Islamic State? What about the challenge of Putin’s aggressive moves in Ukraine or Syria? Our allies would correctly assume America might just walk away from these relationships as well someday—as according to Glaser’s worldview, better to withdraw than confront a challenge to the status quo that might create conflict. Sketch this out a little further and one would not be remiss in making the assumption that Glaser is not only advocating dropping so-called primacy in Asia, but by default, walking away from many other alliances around the world. If this is the case, Glaser owes it to the reader to explain what happens when America walks away from an international system not just in Asia but around the world. What replaces it? Would nations like Russia, China and Iran that have very different interests than the United States quickly rush in and fill the void? Any college freshman taking International Relations 101 or even the most cursory reading of history would tell you that this is the likely outcome.

 

Idea #2: Containment of China is a costly and risky strategy. . . and one that is not necessary to secure America’s vital national interests

Is the Obama Administration today really trying to contain China? If this is what containment looks like—when we can’t even get the messaging right when the U.S. Navy conducts freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS), as we are so worried we are going to offend China as it builds and militarizes new islands in the South China Sea—then we have a much bigger problem on our hands.

For the purposes of this essay, let us put aside the debate if Obama is trying to contain China.

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