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Applying America’s Monroe Doctrine to China’s Neighborhood Risks Conflict

Mar 25, 2021

Attempting to dominate the People’s Republic of China in its own neighborhood is a prescription for conflict. Yet instead of taking a less confrontational approach to China, as suggested when candidate Joe Biden called it a “competitor” rather than a threat or adversary, the Biden administration appears to be preparing for war. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken made his first official trip to Asia in mid-March. He lectured Beijing, threatening to “push back if necessary when China uses coercion or aggression to get its way.”

The administration is being pressed hard by Washington’s bipartisan war party. For instance, the Atlantic Council, one of America’s most important foreign policy think tanks, published The Longer Telegram for dealing with the PRC. The title references George Kennan’s famous “Long Telegram” set forth the policy of containment for dealing with the Soviet Union. 

The Cold War turned into a continuing military confrontation despite Kennan’s belief that Washington’s focus should be on political means. The Atlantic Council is upfront in pushing “coercive containment”. It proposed a series of “red lines” backed by the threat to use military force in response to: “any nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons action by China against the U.S. or its allies or by North Korea; any Chinese military attack against Taiwan or its offshore islands, including an economic blockade or major cyberattack against Taiwanese public infrastructure and institutions; any Chinese attack against Japanese forces in their defense of Japanese sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, which China claims as the Diaoyu, and their surrounding exclusive economic zone in the East China Sea; any major Chinese hostile action in the South China Sea to further reclaim and militarize islands, to deploy force against other claimant states, or to prevent full freedom of navigation operations by the U.S. and allied maritime forces; and any Chinese attack against the sovereign territory or military assets of U.S. treaty allies.” 

The U.S. armed forces are preparing for possible conflict. And not just the Navy and Air Force. Army Gen. Richard Coffman pointed to China’s possession of 7,000 tanks and 3,000 infantry fighting vehicles, warning that “10,000 vehicles will be decisive if we are not there.” Thus, he insisted, “we have to be there with armor to prevent the Chinese from getting into a position of relative advantage.” His combat plan remained obscure: a ground assault to capture Beijing, perhaps? 

As evidence of Chinese belligerence, Gen. Coffman pointed to the recent statement by Gen. Xu Qiliang, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, that war is inevitable. “That is the first time China has made that statement publicly,” Coffman observed. That could reflect Chinese aggressiveness. Or Qiliang might have been responding to what and his colleagues see as increasingly militarized—and grandiose—demands by the U.S. 

The Biden administration should halt this apparent rush toward confrontation. As it formulates policy, how about hitting “reset”? 

Washington should exhibit humility in dealing with the PRC. Americans care deeply about human rights and Xi’s government is behaving badly in a number of areas. Perhaps most infamous  are recent events in Hong Kong. But there is much more which offends the West’s values. In response, Chinese officials have pointed to America’s militaristic foreign policy, which has caused far more harm than any Chinese government action since the Cultural Revolution. Washington officials should exhibit more modesty when addressing Beijing’s faults. 

The U.S. is also understandably concerned over freedom of navigation in the oceans, as well as the independence of friendly states. Nevertheless, none of these issues are as important as defending America, which is not at risk. Rather, U.S. officials are using these points to justify threatening war thousands of miles away. 

Imagine how Americans would react if Chinese warships were sailing down the East Coast into the Caribbean; Beijing was filling Latin America with bases and troops; PRC officials were attempting to dictate American policy regarding Cuba; and the National People’s Congress was demanding a more aggressive posture in the Western Hemisphere to contain America. 

Particularly significant is the Atlantic Council’s failure to set priorities. Should the U.S. really go to war with a nuclear armed power over a handful of worthless rocks, such as the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands? Is the sovereignty of Scarborough Shoal, controlled by China and claimed by the Philippines, as important as the security of the entire archipelago? Should Washington risk full-scale war over Taiwan, part of China all but the last century or so, and as close to China as Cuba is to America? 

U.S. officials presume inevitable victory, but it is far more expensive to project power than to deter its use. The results of multiple war games have not been reassuring. Plans for massive investment in new technologies are likely to founder on Washington’s veritable bankruptcy: America’s debt to GDP ratio is over 100 percent, nearing the record high set in World War II, and could break the 200 percent level by 2050. 

Nor should Washington expect its allies to enthusiastically join an American crusade. Would the Philippines aid a U.S. fight over Taiwan? Would South Korea make itself a permanent enemy of its huge neighbor to back war over the Senkakus? Would Japan send a task force to help drive the PRC’s navy from Scarborough Shoal? 

Of course, China has significant weaknesses itself. However, it has far more at stake facing threats so close to home. Washington would be fighting over influence, not survival. Beijing would have another significant advantage in being able to rely on the mainland. This also creates a danger of escalation. U.S. forces would have little choice but to strike military targets in the PRC, creating extraordinary pressure on the latter to retaliate accordingly. 

Perhaps the greatest danger is that even an American victory would only be temporary. Absent a complete collapse, China likely would double down to prepare for an extended campaign to expel U.S. military forces from its vicinity. History has shown us the price that could come to - two terrible global contests were necessary to settle Germany’s role in the global order. 

The U.S. and China have many important differences. However, it remains vital that the two governments settle their disputes peacefully. Generals are paid to prepare for the worst. But diplomats, like Secretary Blinken, must labor to achieve the best.

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