Some might say that America’s problem with China boils down to a well-founded fear of China becoming more like us. Does the world have room for another country that is strong at arms, but a bit weak in the head?
Might a powerful China seek to exempt itself from international norms or show indifference to the views of other countries? Might it develop a bloated military budget like ours, and a similar preference for applying coercion rather than diplomacy to those who annoy it?
Could China develop some sort of ideology it will seek to impose on others as Americans once sought to impose our religious faith and now seek to impose democracy?
Can the world afford another country that has itself convinced that bombing foreigners is both an act of humanitarian assistance and the surest path to peaceful coexistence with them? Some Americans seem to fear it might.
Those who are nostalgic about the Cold War and eager to reenact it look forward to China mirroring us to become a true “peer competitor.”
A cure for enemy deprivation syndrome!
Just think! A China that modeled itself on America would justify sustaining the United States’ bloated military budget. U.S. defense firms and their hordes of Washington lobbyists and supporters in Congress would love it. Such a China would cure our current “enemy deprivation syndrome,” and return us to the welcome simplicities of some sort of bipolar struggle for global dominance.
For the leprechauns of the military-industrial complex, such a China is the pot of gold at the end of the Congressional rainbow. A “pivot” toward East Asia could give us the high-tech enemy we need to justify the continuation of Cold War-style weapons systems that have proven irrelevant in combating rag-tag terrorists in the Middle East.
China’s bankers, unlike its military, seem curiously relaxed about this possibility. Perhaps it’s because they own so much U.S. public debt that they can’t help noticing that Americans have a budget problem. And they surely notice that we are addressing this budgetary challenge by mindless disinvestment – cutting everything equally so as to avoid having to make choices or set priorities.
Why should China believe that a United States that can’t prepare itself for the future, make choices, or set priorities at home might develop a serious strategy for doing so abroad?
Alliterating b’s in Beijing and the Beltway
So the best bet in Beijing – like the worst fear of the military-industrial complex in Washington D.C. – is that America’s “Pivot” will turn out to be just another blast of boastful babble from the Beltway bubble’s bureaucrats and their bloviating bosses.
Of course, the People’s Liberation Army can’t be sure about that, so it will prepare for the worst. What this means is that China’s ability to fend us off will improve – even if our ability to bludgeon it into submission doesn’t.
This is how wasteful arms races are born. But this time around, the competition is with a country that does seem to know how to set priorities and whose economy is about to be bigger than the American economy. Despite our unmatched military capabilities, the “Pivot” strikes most America-watchers in China as too clever by half.
Most likely, they think, the “Pivot” will turn out in the end to be what it has been so far: part pirouette, part bluff – and part fiscal fizzle. From the point of view of American interests, that’s too bad. It is entirely appropriate for the United States to pay more attention to East Asia, including to shifting military balances there.
There are other countries in Asia, too
Countries like Japan and South Korea have grown into prosperous and politically stable societies with formidable self-defense capabilities. Others, like Vietnam, are no pushovers, as they have shown. India is emerging as a major regional power.
It is true that China is now rising, but there is no vacuum along its borders. The task before us as Americans is not to build a military Great Wall on China’s East and South, but to facilitate graceful adjustment by China’s smaller neighbors to its renewed prosperity and military vigor, while leaving China in no doubt of our interest in their continued wealth, power and independent sovereignty.
This task makes a robust American presence in the region desirable for some time to come. But adjustment to new regional realities will not be advanced by U.S. policies that obviate the responsibility of Asian nations to mount their own effective efforts at self-defense.
No reason to expand US military presence
Neither will it be helped by policies that discourage the establishment of mutually respectful and cooperative relationships among China, India, Japan, and other regional powers. If ill-considered behavior by China stimulates its neighbors to come together to limit its influence, this is a problem for China, not one for Americans. It is still less a reason to expand our military presence in Asia.
Conversely, if our now wealthy Asian allies and friends do not see the threat to their security from China as justifying expanded defense efforts on their part, why should it justify such efforts on ours? It makes no sense for us to increase our defense spending so they can keep theirs down.
For the United States to meet the economic challenge of a rising, competitive Asia, we need policies that leverage Asian prosperity to the benefit of our own, not higher defense budgets.
If we try to divide Asia to suit our geopolitical convenience instead of accepting, accommodating and buttressing its new balances of power, we will end by dividing Asia from ourselves.
That would undercut both our own prosperity and America’s global and regional influence. It would also necessitate an even higher level of defense spending than the unaffordable one we now have.