The Ugly Truth About Avoiding War With China

Great power transitions are dangerous. If outright war is not in the cards, a long cold war is quite plausible.

While ISIS is the threat that keeps Washington policymakers up at night, it’s the rise of China that has international relations theorists in a panic. Graham Allison argues persuasively that China’s rise portends a classic Thucydides Trap. His research shows that in twelve of the last sixteen cases over the past five hundred years, when a rising power challenged an established one, the result was war. John Mearsheimer, somewhat more bluntly, warns that “China cannot rise peacefully.” It’s an impending great power clash that makes the threat from ISIS look like child’s play.

But China threatens the United States only insofar as America insists on being the dominant power in China’s backyard, a policy that actually contributes very little to U.S. security. If we abandon our strategy of primacy, the risk of a clash will shrink away. If we try to contain China’s rise, on the other hand, these predictions of doom may prove right.

The current approach to China boils down to a kind of measured containment. It manifests in essentially in three ways:

1) maintaining and strengthening U.S. “treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand,” which “are the fulcrum for our strategic turn to the Asia-Pacific”;

2) increasing overall U.S. military presence in the region to develop “a geographically dispersed, politically sustainable force posture in the region”; and

3) further integrating U.S. economic engagement in the region in a way that marginalizes, and in some cases excludes, China.

But containment is problematic: it carries the dubious presumption that China’s most likely reaction to U.S. expansion in the region is to become a docile power, eager to give up its regional ambitions. In reality, Washington’s determination to maintain dominance in East Asia is much more likely to generate an intense security dilemma.

To understand why, we have to try to see the world through China’s strategic lens. According to Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell, China sees America as “the most intrusive outside actor in China’s internal affairs, the guarantor of the status quo in Taiwan, the largest naval presence in the East China and South China seas, [and] the formal or informal military ally of many of China’s neighbors.” The Chinese view the United States as “a revisionist power that seeks to curtail China's political influence and harm China's interests.”

China’s feelings of encirclement are not unwarranted. America’s presence along China’s maritime periphery is highly militarized and provocative, with the U.S. Pacific Fleet conducting countless exercises and training events with dozens of countries in the region. Washington’s massive military presence on the Korean Peninsula, and just across the East China Sea on the southern tip of the Japanese archipelago, are perceived as substantive threats to Chinese security. America’s position as the largest naval presence in the East and South China Seas also stokes fear in China, particularly because roughly 40 percent of Chinese oil imports come by sea and pass through sea-lanes that are subject to interdiction by the United States.

Currently, China’s “obvious orientation,” writes Lyle Goldstein “is defensive,” although “those tendencies could change if Beijing perceives that its strategic environment has substantially worsened.” So, what today might constitute a defensive Chinese foreign policy could in the future transform into a more aggressive stance if increased U.S. military presence in the region convinces Beijing that it is under threat.

Fortunately, the United States can relinquish its outsized hegemonic role in East Asia without damaging its core interests. Nothing in China’s foreign policy indicates any intention to preemptively or preventively use force against America’s or its allies’ sovereign territory. Despite its naval buildup, China has not credibly threatened to cut off sea lines of communication or disrupt trade routes. The United States is arguably the most secure great power in history. With weak and pliant neighbors to its north and south, vast oceans to its east and west and a superior nuclear deterrent, it is remarkably insulated from external threats. Maintaining military predominance in East Asia simply doesn’t add much to our unusually secure position.