Despite the recent Sino-Japanese thaw, as Mathieu Duchatel rightly observes: “strategic competition and mistrust” pervade nearly every aspect of the in Sino-Japanese relationship. As a result, Washington certainly has a willing partner in Tokyo in its efforts to counter China. In fact, U.S. strategy towards China should be built on America’s comparative advantage in Asia, which is its extensive network of alliances and partnerships in which the U.S.-Japan alliance is foremost. However, in order to leverage this advantage, Washington must be sensitive to its allies relative economic dependence, and hence vulnerability, to China.
Towards a Workable Strategy?
The Trump administration’s shift towards a more competitive approach to China has garnered bipartisan support. Nevertheless, having signaled a major shift on China is afoot, the administration is clearly still grappling for a coherent strategy. Hearkening back to the Cold War, some have advocated for a “mid-twentieth century containment strategy” that seeks to isolate China. But as detailed above, how can such a strategy possibly hope to succeed, when even close allies like Japan, which sees China as its primary geopolitical challenge, are not lining up for Cold War 2.0? Containment worked because U.S. allies in Europe and elsewhere were willing to work with Washington to isolate the Soviet Union. No such inclination exists in Asia today.
The United States’ longstanding (pre-Trump) policy towards China could best be approximated as “engagement plus hedging.” As long as engagement is the primary element of this strategy, it will be discordant with the domestic consensus for a tougher line on China. However, a way for Trump to square the circle, and put in place a workable China strategy that is palatable both domestically and in Asia, is to shift the relative weight of this strategy from engagement to hedging. This entails adopting a harder hedge towards China coupled with continuing, although albeit more limited, engagement. Essentially, rather than implementing a wholesale strategic overhaul, the Trump administration should focus on working with allies to hedge against a potential conflict with China, while maintaining selective engagement with Beijing on issues of mutual concern (e.g. North Korea). This, not a re-warmed containment strategy that is out of synch with the realities of contemporary Asia, is the best way for Washington to leverage its extensive network of alliances and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region to counter China.
John S. Van Oudenaren is assistant director at the Center for the National Interest.