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China’s declaration on Nov. 23 of an air-defense identification zone over the Japanese-held Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea transformed Vice President Joe Biden’s Asia trip this week. Mr. Biden’s main objective in meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Abe on Tuesday was to assure him that America opposes China’s belligerent, unilateral action in asserting the defense zone. Of course, if Mr. Abe really wants to know how the Obama administration treats close American allies, he can always call Bibi Netanyahu.
Although Mr. Biden publicly criticized the defense-zone announcement, he did not expressly reject it. Moreover, the administration earlier advised U.S. commercial airlines to notify China of flights into the zone, whereas Japan and South Korea told their airlines not to make such notifications. At the very best, these are mixed, and therefore dangerous, signals.
Beijing’s new zone over the islands the Chinese call the Diaoyu, along with the government’s broader territorial claims, is indicative of a much larger problem for the United States. For too long, American business and political leaders have accepted the notion that China is engaged in a “peaceful rise” to become a “responsible stakeholder” in world affairs, which we should placidly allow to happen. Instead of fantasizing about what China might become, it is far more sensible to consider what America’s strategy should be under a range of possible scenarios. The rosy “peaceful rise” theory ignores countless other possibilities, particularly its polar opposite.
The People’s Liberation Army remains the dominant force within the Communist Party, and the party remains the dominant political (and major economic) force in China. That explains Beijing’s sustained increases in military budgets; its expanding nuclear and ballistic-missile arsenals; its unmatched cyberwarfare program; its construction of a blue-water navy; and its anti-satellite, anti-access and area-denial weapons systems. These aren’t the marks of a “peaceful rise,” especially combined with Beijing’s aggressive territorial claims.
America urgently needs strategic thinking about China’s radically different alternative futures. Simply ignoring the bad news won’t work. Here are three building blocks for a more realistic U.S. strategy on China.
First, since China’s principal theater of action for decades will be Asia, that must also be the focus of America’s response. China’s territorial claims, and now the air-defense zone, provide Washington with an enormous opportunity to maintain and expand its influence along China’s periphery, from India to Japan. Whether we have the wit to exploit this opportunity remains to be seen.
Ideally, the U.S. would benefit from something akin to an alliance system among our friends and allies, currently a far-fetched goal given, for example, tensions between South Korea and Japan. Contemporary Japanese-Chinese disputes are mirrored in Seoul-Tokyo arguments over seemingly useless islands and reefs, reflecting even deeper historical grievances and animosities. Nonetheless, America alone can provide the support necessary to resist Chinese hegemonism, which essentially all Asian governments recognize. They would welcome a stronger, more visible, Washington role, even if they won’t necessarily say so expressly in today’s uncertain and dangerous environment.
Taiwan has an interesting potential role. Although its territorial claims mirror Beijing’s, Taipei could gain substantial support for its unique status from its Asian neighbors, thereby reducing its international isolation, by distancing itself from China’s current assertive posture. For example, Taiwan could say publicly that it does not recognize Beijing’s defense-zone declaration, and that it wants to confer with Japan, South Korea and others to align their responses. So doing would serve notice that Taiwan won’t accept being declared part of China’s next power projection.
Second, China’s military growth demonstrates persuasively why the U.S. can no longer countenance massive military-budget cuts. We need superior Pacific Ocean air and naval power to counter Chinese aggressiveness, but we also need capabilities in the Middle East, the North Atlantic and elsewhere against other potential threats.
Beijing doesn’t have to match America’s military capabilities world-wide to equal the U.S. off China’s shores. Accordingly, allies who pulled their weight in meeting common-defense needs would certainly help. Most of Europe may be beyond redemption, but Japan is poised to resume a normal nation’s full self-defense role, something Washington should welcome.
Third, the U.S. and its allies should press China to join a vigorous campaign to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by North Korea, Iran and others. Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic-missile capabilities have fueled enormous concern in East Asia. While China has the heft to bring North Korea to heel, Beijing’s persistent failure to do so signals that it is not as interested in solving the problem as its rhetoric indicates.
No wonder, therefore, that Tokyo and Seoul look to their own military capabilities, including missile defense, to protect themselves against Pyongyang and Beijing’s growing nuclear arsenal as well. Nor has China’s interest in Iran’s oil reserves helped in containing Tehran’s nuclear program.
Japan and Israel both live in the real world of threats and dangers, not in the Obama bubble where national-security issues rarely intrude on his efforts to reshape American society. But China’s air-defense zone move has pierced the bubble, and Joe Biden’s Asia trip could tell us if President Obama now gets it.
Mr. Bolton is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad” (Simon & Schuster, 2007).
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