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

January 4, 2016 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: ChinaWarPrimacyBeijingU.S. Strategy

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.

In the past, I have offered a specific five-point plan to tackle China’s challenge of the status quo when it comes to the South China Sea. While for purposes of time and length a complete review is beyond the scope of this essay, I would offer two points from this previous work that could also be applied when it comes to Chinese actions throughout Asia. First,

“If Beijing wants to raise the stakes in the South China Sea [and for that matter, Asia], it should know its actions will have repercussions across the region - even in the areas it holds most dear.

“. . . If China is hell-bent on changing the international order in Asia to accommodate its own wants and aspirations, why should America respects its core interests anymore?

“For example, if Taiwan wishes to enhance its own military with progress toward new conventional submarines, or by purchasing updated F-16 or even F-35 aircraft, Washington should help.

“America could even float the possibility of large arms sales agreements with Vietnam and the Philippines as a way to level the playing field. Washington could also speak out to a much greater extent on human rights abuses in China - specifically in Tibet and Xinjiang. Regular invitations to the White House for the Dali Lama and Chinese human rights activists would certainly get Beijing's attention.”

And Second:

“China's growing power has always been rooted in its economic rise. Bearing in mind Beijing's actions over the last several years, it is long past time for Washington to consider whether its deep trade and economic relationship with China now runs counter to its own national interests. Should America's economic success be so intertwined with a rising China that routinely challenges the international order?

“The mere threat to reverse decades of U.S. economic policy would be enough to give Beijing pause. U.S.-Chinese bilateral trade is worth more than $550 billion. Even the slightest hint of a change would have powerful ramifications - and would likely be opposed by many in the American business community who have made their fortunes in China. Yet, with $1.2 trillion-worth of U.S. seaborne trade passing through the South China Sea, and with a global commons that has stood the test of time now under threat, Washington has a powerful reason to hint at reconsidering its economic relationship with Beijing (and an even more important reason to ensure the Trans-Pacific Partnership becomes reality).”

Would China get even more aggressive as a reaction to the above, as Glaser seems to suggest? Beijing, I would argue, would have very few options to respond in kind—unless it wants to up the ante dramatically and at the same time the costs of its actions. An even more aggressive China would only align the Asia-Pacific and wider Indo-Pacific against its ambitions—and by default contain itself. While I doubt China will completely back down, Beijing would be creating tremendous risk by pushing even harder, as the costs would simply be too high for what they would get in return.

A Flawed and Dangerous Worldview that Won’t Work

While I tip my hat to Mr. Glaser for a spirited debate and I respect his position, and to a certain extent his idealism, an America that would simply withdraw from Asia—and by default, as the predominant power globally considering the damage to its reputation—is a nothing short of a recipe for disaster. How would Washington be perceived in global capitals as abandoning its allies to China at a time when Beijing continues to alter the status quo throughout the region? Would anyone ever trust America’s word again? At the end of the day, I admire Mr. Glaser’s fantasy, but it should remain where it belongs, for debate in a classroom or in an International Relations theory textbook.

Harry Kazianis is the former Executive Editor of The National Interest. Mr. Kazianis also serves as Senior Fellow (non-resident) for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest, Senior Fellow (non-resident) at the China Policy Institute as well as a Fellow for National Security Affairs at The Potomac Foundation. He previously served as Editor of The Diplomat and as a WSD Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum: CSIS. All views are his own. You can follow him on Twitter: @GrecianFormula.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Air Force.