Working with China: U.S. needs to push back against China's growing dominance

Members of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) honour guard on Feb. 4, 2015. (Reuters)
Members of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) honour guard on Feb. 4, 2015. (Reuters)

Washington is betwixt and between when it comes to constructing a strategy for dealing with Beijing.

Over the course of my lifetime, the United States has supported Chinese Nationalists during the Chinese Civil War; fought ‘commies’ in Korea; reached a ‘Nixon goes to China’ rapprochement, playing a ‘China card’ against the Cold War USSR; and watched an incredible Chinese economic surge, making Beijing the manufacturer for the world.

Now Chinese military construction and verbal aggression appear directed at obtaining pre-eminence in East Asia, disconcerting U.S. allies in the region and challenging the United States’ long taken-for-granted hegemony.  

The U.S. needs a put-China-back-in-the-box foreign policy approach.

That mentality has resulted in our much-discussed ‘pivot’ on Asia. Unfortunately, it has led us toif not drowning in Pacific complexitiesa pudding without any theme that would equate to coherent, coordinated, allied policy toward dealing with China.

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Just what are we doing? Supporting Japanese/Philippine/Vietnamese territorial disputes with China? Reviving bases in Vietnam/Philippines/Singapore? Stationing 2,500 Marines in Australia (to defend against…)? New navy vessels will homeport in Singapore, and 60 percent of U.S. naval deployments will be Pacific-based rather than split 50:50 between Atlantic and Pacific.

We are reportedly opening discussions (at least) for U.S. deployments in Thailand, Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay (the Vietnam War era facilities still are good), and even in the Philippines at Subic Bay. Clark AFB in the Philippines is not functional; Mount Pinatubo’s eruption blew that off the table.

We are reactive rather than active for virtually every mini-crisis, like the ‘umbrella revolution’ in Hong Kong. Obama attends the Beijing summer Olympics, and then we offer asylum to a prominent Chinese dissident.

However, the ‘pivot toward Asia’ supposedly is much more than just military change. Reportedly all is driven by a strategic assessment that led to the conclusion the United States was underweighted in regions such as the Asia-Pacific. At its inception, administration officials rolled this policy out in a number of well-placed speeches to interested audiences. It was the Washington version of preaching to the choir.

So what are U.S. interests in Asia? President Obama has said U.S. policy in Asia is to sustain a stable security environment and a regional order rooted in economic openness, peaceful resolution of disputes, and respect for universal rights and freedoms.

Administration officials further offered: “Rebalancing means devoting the time, effort and resources necessary to get each one right. Here’s what rebalancing doesnotmean. It doesn’t mean diminishing ties to important partners in any other region.”

Frankly, this is ‘bomfog’ (brotherhood of man; fatherhood of god) gobbledygook.

But that’s fine as far as it goes. Still, just what is the strategic-military paradigm that fits the above deployments?

In truth, we are so absorbed in the multiple conundrums that characterize the Middle East that East Asia has been left dangling awaiting ‘life after pivot.’ We don’t know what we want, and we don’t know how to prevent what we don’t want. We have held major military exercises in the Pacific, but avoided directly challenging Chinese naval operations. We are all-too-mindful of our massive economic debts to China and the economic impossibility of managing trade sanctions without boomerang damage.

For their part, the Chinese have announced plans to construct upward of four aircraft carriers, although clarity of purpose and building progress have been notably absent. More challenging is the plethora of Chinese stealth-designed cruise missiles and quiet submarines which could push U.S. carriers, whose vulnerability all know but none discuss, back from areas of tension ranging from the Sea of Japan and the East and South China Seas.

A bit risible, but perhaps indicative of rising Chinese military arrogance, is the report ‘Chinese hawks’ are prepared to provide arms to Hawaiian independence activists to counter U.S. military support for Taiwan. Not quite a shot across the bow but not an April Fool’s Day story either.

This is no longer the ‘American Century.’ Washington is attempting to manage a failed reset with Moscow (and not lose Ukraine); push back ISIS-sponsored terrorists whose violent approach to public relations horrifies the West, but attracts new fanatics; avoid division-scale boots on the ground for Iraq; stave off an Iranian nuke (without airstrikes on the facilities); and prevent an Afghan meltdown coincident with our military drawdown.

Still the ‘pivot’ needs fresh attention.  

We need to tell Beijing quietly but bluntly that it is headed in the wrong direction. We really don’t care how it restructures domestic politics or executes occasional billionaires, but it needs to rein in aggressive military probes/confrontations.

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as advisor for two Army Chiefs of Staff. He has just published Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.