The Short-sightedness of America’s Pivot to Asia

The United States’ China containment policy is a robust one. American troop deployments run the length of the Western Pacific, with soldiers from Paju on the Korean Peninsula to Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory. Naval and air bases dot Southeast Asia and Japan. The Seventh Fleet sails the waters off the coast of Indonesia eyeing the disputed nine-dashed line.[1] A retired Chinese admiral compared such a scheme to a man with a criminal record “wandering just outside the gate of a family home.” Can he, or anyone else in China, be blamed for thinking so? Though the United States does not publicly acknowledge its military presence in the Pacific as part of a strategy of containment, it looks suspiciously similar to one.[2] Such a strategy is destined to bring China and the United States into conflict in the future. The United States could best understand this if it were to consider three things: what its reaction would be if it were in China’s position, its history of failed containment strategies, and its own road to becoming a superpower.

The ultimate folly of American foreign policy is that notions of American exceptionalism direct it. As a result, American foreign policymakers often mistakenly assume that foreign states are fundamentally unlike the United States, and as such, behave differently than the United States does in the international system. However, a certain set of natural rules intrinsic to the international system governs all states. Paramount among these rules is the security of the state is its most important concern and states will always seek greater security when possible. Accordingly, a useful thought experiment presents itself: what would the United States’ reaction be if China were to pursue a strategy of containment against it? Analyzing the United States’ reaction to hypothetical containment by China would provide valuable insights about China’s own response. Imagine that scenario. Chinese troops are stationed in Cuba and Bolivia; Chinese air bases are maintained and operated in Nova Scotia; Chinese naval bases exist in Vancouver, and its own massive Pacific fleet sails outside the territorial waters of California.[3] Not only would the United States consider itself justified in taking aggressive steps to address an obviously provocative military strategy by an enemy nation, but doing so would be a strategic necessity. No American president could imagine sitting idly by while another country cordoned the United States off from its most immediate areas of influence, even if that country made its best effort to honestly explain such a position was purely for defensive means.[4] If there were a world where China actually attempted to contain the United States, there could only be two outcomes: a military withdrawal on China’s part, or war.[5] Such is exactly the position China is in with the current American containment strategy, and a Chinese leader would be equally concerned about his country’s security as, and perhaps more willing to take aggressive steps to improve it than, an American president.

A second major mistake American foreign policymakers have made is not learning from America’s foreign policy failures. Most recently, American leadership in Libya was indeed tactically successful—the country’s brutal dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, was killed—but strategically proved a bumbling catastrophe. Today the country stews in civil war as the United States learns for a second time what happens when it kills the dictator of a stable country but does not have a plan to stabilize the chaotic aftermath. As Libya came after Iraq, the United States’ treatment of China comes after the failure of dealing with a post-Soviet Russia. In the wake of the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the shattering of the Soviet Union, President Clinton and American policymakers leaped at the opportunity to isolate Russia and ensure it never had the opportunity to significantly threaten American interests again. The result was the expansion of NATO and the swallowing up of former Soviet bloc countries, threatening to fully isolate Russia from its past allies. This myopic strategy of the Clinton administration has now thrust Eastern Europe into a state of unease as Russia adventures into Ukraine and hungrily looks south towards Georgia, a country it has already waged war with in the last decade. The post-1991 enlargement of NATO provided both a real reason and an unspoken self-justification for Russia’s recent aggression. Faced with the threat of the American led NATO military machine virtually on its boarder, Russia was presented with a difficult choice: lie down and allow itself to be cordoned off from its former sphere of influence and its future source of power, or aggressively compel NATO to back down. Russia chose the latter—and it seems to be working. Though the expansion of NATO towards Russia’s boarders and the positioning of American military infrastructure and personnel near China are not identical situations, they share a basic truth: powerful countries do what they can to prevent containment. Russia reacted hostilely to Western containment once it had the capacity to do so, and there is no reason to think China will not as well.

A third major mistake American foreign policymakers make is failing to appreciate their own country’s early history. It takes only a cursory understanding of the early history of the United States to notice that states seek to throw out foreign powers from their spheres of influence and establish regional hegemony.[6] At the birth of the American nation, its thirteen colonies lay in a precarious position—not only because the mighty British Empire was planning to subdue its subversive colonists by way of war, but also because the nascent country lay in a literally precarious geographic position in North America. An infant United States of America was surrounded – essentially contained – by numerous great imperial powers. The Spanish occupied land to the south of the thirteen colonies, the British to the north, and a combination of squabbling empires to the west. The history of the first century and a half of the United States would be one of expelling these foreign powers from North America and attempting to establish regional hegemony, often by bloodshed. We should not suppose that China, a relatively young state in a world of now established superpowers, will act any differently than the similarly young United States did in expelling its rival foreign powers.  Indeed, why should we suppose China will act differently than any other state in history that has gone to war to prevent containment, establish itself as the regional hegemon, or increase its national security?

It would take a significant degree of humility for the United States to dismantle its complex military security network in the Western Pacific. However, so long as the United States continues to pursue a policy of containment against China, ignoring its own history and blindly embracing the dangerous myth of exceptionalism, conflict is inevitable.

 

Harry Seavey (’19) is a freshman in Calhoun College.

 


Endnotes

[1] Jeffrey Bader, Richard Bush, Jonathan Pollack, Kenneth Lieberthal, Jeffrey Bader, Claude Barfield, and Lt. General Wallace “Chip” Gregson, Jr., “Understanding the U.S. Pivot to Asia,” The Brookings Institution, 31 Jan. 2012.

[2] Michael D. Swaine, “Beyond American Predominance in the Western Pacific: The Need for a Stable US-China Balance of Power,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 20 Apr. 2015.

[3] “China and America Spar at Sea: Naked Aggression with an Impeccable Sense of Timing,” The Economist, 12 Mar. 2009.

[4] Andrew Browne, “Can China Be Contained?” The Wall Street Journal, 12 June 2015.

[5] Joseph Nye, “Only China Can Contain China,” The World Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 11 Mar. 2015.

[6] Ashley J. Tellis, “Balancing without Containment: A U.S. Strategy for Confronting China’s Rise,” The Washington Quarterly, Fall 2013.

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