As China has grown economically, it has increased in national power and international influence. Beijing also has become more assertive regarding contested territory in the Asia-Pacific.
Although the U.S. government takes no official position regarding any particular dispute, Washington’s bilateral alliances place the American military behind other parties’ territorial claims. This creates the potential for a destructive confrontation between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Both nations must exercise caution and Washington, in particular, must ensure that its alliances do not become transmission belts of war.
In recent years, nations in the Asia-Pacific have begun to more actively press conflicting territorial claims. Aerial and naval confrontations have been increasing. Most recently the PRC announced an expansive Air Defense Identification Zone covering disputed areas. America, Japan, and South Korea rejected Beijing’s pronouncement. However, China plans to create similar zones elsewhere, likely including the South China Sea, which would expand the area of potential confrontation.
No one wants war. But mistake or misjudgment could lead to conflict.
The PRC’s territorial interests are obvious. The most basic issue is sovereignty. Equally important are security issues. Dan Blumenthal of the American Enterprise Institute explained: “China has been gradually moving to an ‘offshore defense strategy’ meant to engage any potential enemy farther away from its thriving cities.” As a great trading nation China is concerned about secure ocean transit. Moreover, the disputed waters and seabed contain valuable natural resources.
The PRC long had only limited military capabilities to pursue its claims. However, as China has raced ahead economically it has dramatically strengthened its military.
Washington also has interests, though less substantial. The U.S. long has been committed to freedom of navigation. Moreover, Washington is bound by several bilateral alliances. American policymakers emphasize support for “global rules and norms,” including non-violent resolution of international disputes. Increased resource development would benefit America.
However, the Asia-Pacific territorial disputes do not threaten American security. Blumenthal argued, “For the first time since 1941, the Western Pacific and the U.S. homeland could be threatened by an East Asian power.” Actually, the likelihood of a Chinese attack on the American homeland is about as likely as a Martian invasion.
Nevertheless, the Defense Department has been focusing greater attention on the PRC; the celebrated “pivot” or “rebalancing” is directed at Beijing. Moreover, Washington is allied with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand, and maintains what the Cato Institute’s Justin Logan called “a murky and ambiguous commitment to Taiwan.”
These relationships are directly entangling Washington in territorial controversies. Tokyo requested Washington’s reaffirmation that the “mutual” defense treaty covered the Senkakus. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Manila in 2012 and declared that “the United States will always be in the corner of the Philippines and we will stand and fight with you.”
The Obama administration’s claim of disinterestedness fools no one. As Michael Klare pointed out, “Washington’s stance is less neutral than it appears and more geared toward violent conflict than talking it out.” The Carnegie Endowment’s Douglas Paal acknowledged that Washington’s stance has “undermined the U.S. assertions of a principled approach based on international law.”
Nevertheless, Washington appears to assume that Beijing has no choice but to accommodate America’s dominant role. More likely, America’s activities will trigger greater PRC military efforts. Argued Jonathan Holslag with the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies: “The fact that the U.S. Navy enjoys such superiority in the blue waters of East Asia will not discourage China from trying to close the gap.”
As a result, American involvement threatens to exacerbate tensions. Warned Klare, the president “has surely increased the chances that rash and potentially incendiary behavior by any one of the countries hashing it out in the South and East China seas could lead to war.”
The only sustainable solution to the region’s territorial conflicts will come from the claimants. In fact, in past years Beijing took the lead in settling disputes. Of 23 border controversies since 1949 the PRC ended 17 peacefully.
In some cases disputes could be brought before international bodies. In others bilateral negotiation could resolve issues. However, in the case of the Spratlys, with multiple claimants, a multilateral dialogue or forum, which China so far has resisted, might be more effective.
Another approach would incorporate regional sovereignty, with shared naval policing and resource development. Bilateral agreements could separate sovereignty from resource exploitation and navigation rights.
Even more important is preserving a peaceful U.S.-China relationship. America and the PRC should consult regularly on issues affecting peace and stability, such as disputes over U.S. intelligence activities within China’s EEZ. The two governments should understand the other’s perspectives and avoid surprises. Washington and Beijing should develop a code of conduct to prevent dangerous confrontations. A hotline for maritime emergencies, as well as additional naval cooperation and exercises also could reduce problems.
More important, the U.S. should rethink its activist role. Leaning toward other nations inevitably means leaning against the PRC. Moreover, the U.S. should reconsider activities which Beijing views as unduly provocative, offering to restrict such missions in return for Chinese steps elsewhere to minimize confrontation with its neighbors. Rather than attempting to impose particular outcomes, Washington should promote a stable peace by encouraging broad development and cooperation throughout the region.
The best policy toward this end is benevolent detachment. Argued Lyle Goldstein of the Naval War College, “The main principle guiding U.S. policy regarding the South China Sea has been and should remain nonintervention.” In particular, “New commitments, such as an enhanced defense relationship with Vietnam or other claimants should be avoided in order to prevent further escalation of this tension into actual violence.”
Rather, American officials should press allied states to demonstrate restraint and negotiate, precisely what expects from Beijing. Former Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy acknowledged the risk of the Philippines “mistaking U.S. support for an opportunity to be much more assertive in staking their claims.”
A new Asian conflict, and especially a U.S.-China war, would be catastrophic. In contesting territorial claims, countries should avoid confrontational policies which could lead to conflict. Too much is at stake to do anything else.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a Former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author and editor of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.