That’s not the way to protect America’s Pacific interests. A pertinent object lesson can be found in Spain back in 1898, facing war with that upstart nation on the American continent. Like many countries on the wane, Spain remained oblivious to its own internal decay. But it received a jolt of reality when it learned that the U.S. Congress, anticipating conflict, had appropriated $50 million for national defense, to be spent at the discretion of President William McKinley. Spain had no such capacity to draw on financial reserves; any war it got into would have to be paid for with borrowed funds.
Within a few months, Spain’s entire Pacific fleet had been destroyed, and it was kicked out of Asia (as well as the Caribbean). Might it happen to America? Not if the Obama administration and its successors follow a carefully calibrated policy in which America shows some empathy to legitimate Chinese security concerns, while also demonstrating that it will not simply wink at bellicose actions. Both countries have more to lose from confrontation rather than cooperation. Areas of cooperation should include proposing clearer rules of the game. A détente also needs to be encouraged between China and its neighbors. Japan’s nationalist grandstanding has unnecessarily exacerbated tensions between Tokyo and Beijing. America should support its allies in South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, but it should also discourage reckless behavior that could drag Washington into an unnecessary regional conflict. It won’t be an easy course to navigate, but skillful navigation can put Sino-American relations onto a safer course without sacrificing important U.S. interests. This will require more than rhetoric about a pivot to Asia; it will demand actual pivoting. If America wants to preserve the dreams of its heritage, it will have to pursue an Asia-first strategy.
Robert W. Merry is the political editor of The National Interest and an author of books on American history and foreign policy.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Kim Rötzel. CC BY-SA 3.0.Image: Pullquote: For America, the geopolitical stakes in this face-off are big. But the psychological stakes are possibly even bigger.Essay Types: The Realist