But then there was the overly assertive Washington that launched, in Hillary Clinton’s formulation, its “forward-deployed diplomacy.” It was a volte-face of years of American policy, and it was seen as a growing—and very different sort of—challenge by Beijing.
During the George W. Bush administration, the United States reduced its troops in South Korea by 40 percent, removed its forces deployed between the demilitarized zone and Seoul, dramatically reduced the size of the annual U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises and stated in the Department of Defense’s Quadrennial Defense Review that in 2012 the United States would transfer to Seoul operational command (OPCOM) of South Korean forces. These steps, regardless of the administration’s intentions, created a China that was more secure on its periphery.
Now, the Obama administration has reversed course. The transfer of OPCOM to South Korea has been deferred for at least three years. Throughout 2010 the United States conducted a series of high-profile, large-scale military exercises with Seoul, including maritime drills in waters west of South Korea. Later in the year, the United States and South Korea signed the new “Guidelines for U.S.-ROK Defense Cooperation,” which called for enhanced combined exercises and interoperability between the two armed forces. These developments all suggested a determined U.S. interest in reestablishing a significant conventional military presence on the peninsula.
The U.S. security initiative with South Korea has eroded Beijing’s confidence over its strategic relationship with Seoul; China is now increasingly dependent on North Korea as its only reliable ally on the peninsula, and it has become more resistant to Korean unification for fear that it could lead to an expanded U.S. military presence closer to China’s border. Chinese leaders now place ever-greater value on stability in North Korea. Rather than use its economic leverage on Pyongyang in cooperation with U.S. nonproliferation objectives, Beijing has increased its support of North Korean economic and political stability.
And in July 2010, as a U.S.-South Korean naval exercise took place in the Yellow Sea, Hillary Clinton launched a new U.S. strategic initiative for Southeast Asia at an Asian regional-security meeting in Hanoi. After Washington held extensive consultations and planning with all of the claimants of the Spratly Islands except China, Secretary Clinton announced America’s support for a “collaborative diplomatic process” to resolve the dispute. The move constituted a sharp rebuke to Beijing, which has long claimed sovereignty over the territory, and suggested U.S. intervention in support of the other claimants, which have advocated multilateral negotiations. In addition, the United States had previously expressed support for stability in the South China Sea, but only in Washington, DC, at the assistant-secretary level, and never through prior discussion with any of the involved nations.
The administration’s forward-deployed diplomacy also includes strategic cooperation with Vietnam. For over twenty years Washington parried Vietnamese overtures, understanding that Indochina is not a vital interest. Yet, in August, after Clinton’s support in Hanoi for Vietnamese resistance to Chinese maritime claims, the U.S. Navy, including the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, held a joint training exercise with the Vietnamese navy for the first time. In October, Secretary Gates visited Hanoi, where he proclaimed the potential for expanded U.S.-Vietnamese defense cooperation and his hope that Vietnam would continue to participate in military exercises with the United States. Later that month, Clinton returned to Hanoi and declared U.S. interest in developing a “strategic partnership” with Vietnam and in cooperating with the country on “maritime security.” She then visited Phnom Penh and urged Cambodia to establish greater foreign-policy independence from China. In addition, for the first time the United States expressed support for the Indochinese countries’ efforts to constrain Chinese use of the headwaters of the Mekong River.
Beijing is now intent on punishing Vietnam for its hubris in cooperating with the United States. It wants to compel Hanoi to accommodate Chinese power. In 2011 it escalated the frequency and scale of its armed harassment of Vietnamese fishing ships operating in disputed waters, causing increased bilateral tension and damage to the Vietnamese fishing industry. China also stepped up its naval harassment of Philippine economic activities in disputed waters. But in response, the United States has only reinforced its commitment to the Southeast Asian countries. In July 2011 it held another military exercise with Vietnam. Then it again sent an aircraft carrier to visit the country, and the Pentagon reached its first military agreement with the Vietnamese military. The Pentagon is also assisting the Philippines’ maritime intelligence capabilities in the South China Sea. China’s deputy foreign minister Cui Tiankai recently warned that some Southeast Asian countries were “playing with fire” and expressed his “hope that the fire will not be drawn to the United States.”
Washington is thus engaged in an increasingly polarized conflict in Southeast Asia. But more important, independent of the course of the South China Sea maritime disputes, U.S. collaboration with Vietnam’s effort to use America to oppose China is not only costly but also foolish. Vietnam’s common land border with China, its maritime vulnerability to the Chinese navy and its economic dependency on Beijing ensure that the United States will not be able to develop meaningful defense cooperation with Vietnam. But having engaged China in this regional diplomatic tussle, any U.S. effort to disengage from the island conflict by encouraging moderation on the part of its Southeast Asian partners would risk being viewed as a strategic retreat.
The Obama administration’s greater security cooperation with countries on the mainland’s perimeter is a disproportionate reaction to Chinese nationalism. It is not reflective of any recent improvements in Chinese naval capabilities that could challenge U.S. maritime dominance. Nor does it reflect an increased strategic importance of the Korean Peninsula or Indochina for U.S. security. Since 1997, the United States deployed increasing quantities of its most advanced weaponry to East Asia and consolidated security cooperation with its maritime security partners, all the while maintaining significant U.S.-China cooperation. That was a productive policy.
But now Chinese leaders are reevaluating U.S. intentions. They have concluded that the United States is developing a forward-leaning policy of encirclement and containment. Regardless of Washington’s intent, recent American actions have provided ample evidence to support China’s claims.
BEIJING’S NATIONALIST diplomacy is dangerous. America’s ill-conceived response makes it even more so. China is militarily vulnerable to the United States, and the regime is vulnerable to internal instability. At this point, Washington is embroiled in territorial disputes over worthless islands in the South China Sea and is expanding its strategic presence on China’s periphery. And in an era when Chinese cooperation is increasingly important, Washington is needlessly challenging Chinese security.
Just as America expects China to restrain its security partners in the Middle East and Asia from exacerbating conflict with the United States, America has the responsibility to rein in its security partners as well.
The balance of power in East Asia is a vital national-security interest, and the United States must reassure its strategic partners that it will provide for their security, despite the rise of China. The United States military must continue to focus its weapons acquisitions and deployments on maintaining U.S. security in the region. The task at hand for American policy is to realize these objectives while maintaining U.S.-China cooperation. Chinese nationalism will continue to challenge U.S. foreign policy for a long time to come. This will require the administration to acknowledge both America’s maritime superiority and China’s domestic and international vulnerabilities, and thus exercise confident restraint and resist overreaction to Beijing’s insecure leadership.
Robert S. Ross is a professor of political science at Boston College and an associate at the John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University.Image: Pullquote: Beginning in early 2009, China committed a series of diplomatic blunders that ultimately elicited a near-universal condemnation of Chinese diplomacy.Essay Types: Essay