China’s rise has the Obama administration looking as uncertain as the proverbial deer in the headlights. Caught between the unappealing alternatives of embracing or containing China, it largely chooses inaction.
Its famous “pivot” to Asia has stalled — a casualty of Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s near obsession with the Middle East. There has been little meaningful response to China’s aggressive territorial claims against U.S. allies. Meanwhile, widespread defense cuts have led, inevitably, to a depletion of American military power in the region.
China’s a tough issue, no doubt, but that’s no excuse for not having a coherent policy. America’s interests in East Asia are simply too important to be managed as an afterthought. The United States needs to demonstrate, clearly and concretely, that America plans to stay involved in Asia as a great power.
China has clearly been upping the ante. Its most recent move was to announce that all foreign fishing boats must obtain clearance from Beijing before sailing in areas of the South China Sea that we recognize as international waters. China essentially is laying claim to the entire South China Sea, putting it at odds with Washington and with our ally the Philippines, as well as Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia.
This move follows an even more brazen assertion in November. Amid tension with Japan over the Senkaku islands, China declared an “air-defense identification zone” over a large swath of the East China Sea that it claims as a maritime exclusive economic zone. China also angered South Korea by incorporating an undersea mountain.
By pressing territorial claims across the board, China is trying to force us to decide between it and our allies. It’s looking for that sweet spot of confrontation in which we abandon an ally, which Beijing knows will send shock waves throughout the region.
Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, has some suggestions on how to respond effectively to China’s assertiveness.
First, we must revert to the “pivot,” only this time we should mean it. We should reverse Mr. Kerry’s neglect of the region and show explicit high-level interest. Mr. Cheng says this should include “a consistent pace of visits and consultations by the secretaries of State, Defense and Treasury.”
Second, we need to put some military meat on the Asia pivot. The services are doing the best they can to deal with the budget cuts, but they worry privately about an inability to complete the missions that the nation assigns to them. At the very least, we should avoid gutting our naval capability in East Asia. Once that is gone, it is very expensive to get back. Far better to spend a little more now to avoid spending a whole lot more later when a more robust force may be needed.
A third step Mr. Cheng recommends is to stop signaling weakness. The administration has reached out to Beijing repeatedly, yet all we get in return is more Chinese aggressiveness. A Chinese surface ship, for example, nearly rammed the USS Cowpens, which it claimed was getting too close to China’s new aircraft carrier.
At the very least, we should be insisting on more reciprocity from the Chinese. For example, we should demand the same access for the U.S. military to Chinese military exercises as we afford to China. We have invited the Chinese People’s Liberation Army into our multilateral RIMPAC exercises, but they won’t give us access to theirs. This means they get lots of intelligence on our operations while we are nearly blind to what the PLA is doing.
It’s true: Half the battle is showing up. But we can do better than that. We need to meet Chinese aggressiveness not in kind, but by firmly standing pat. This will calm allies and will show Beijing the limits to its aggressiveness.
- Kim R. Holmes is a distinguished fellow at the Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation