A Better U.S. Strategy for East Asia
There is a growing hawkish consensus in the United States that views the Chinese government as an aggressive and expansionist power that seeks global domination. This consensus view exaggerates Chinese power and ambitions, and threatens to push the U.S. towards a heavily militarized standoff with the world’s most populous country in its own backyard. Fortunately, there are dissenters in the debate over U.S. policy in East Asia that recognize the flaws in the hawkish approach and propose a viable alternative. One example of this is “Toward an Inclusive and Balanced Regional Order,” the recently released Quincy Institute report on U.S. strategy in East Asia authored by Michael Swaine, Jessica Lee, and Rachel Esplin Odell.
The report’s authors offer a different strategy for East Asia that emphasizes deeper diplomatic engagement and greater cooperation on those issues that threaten the entire world, including climate change and pandemics. The Quincy report challenges the hardening conventional wisdom that the U.S. has to compete for dominance in the region, and spells out how the U.S. can reduce tensions with Beijing while continuing to protect our treaty allies. Their recommendations lay the groundwork for an improved U.S. strategy in East Asia that avoids the pitfalls of militarized confrontation and greatly reduces the possibility of plunging the region into destabilizing conflict.
The report stresses the importance of rebalancing U.S. strategy away from an overly militarized response to China. It recognizes the enormous costs to U.S. interests that would result from a U.S.-Chinese conflict, and it also acknowledges that the balance of power in the region has shifted in China’s favor over the last several decades. The era when the U.S. was the predominant military power in the region is over, and the U.S. has to adapt to that and stop chasing after asserting a dominance it will never have again. This is a concession to reality, and it is also in the best interests of regional stability and peace, which are two of our country’s chief interests in East Asia.
The U.S. has considerably greater political and economic interests in East Asia than it does in most other parts of the world, and that is why it is imperative that our strategy in the region should be focused on preserving peace and stability. Because the U.S. has comparatively few vital interests in the Middle East, our government has been able to get away with sowing chaos and fomenting conflict there with relatively few direct consequences for U.S. prosperity and security. Taking the same reckless and destructive approach in a region that matters far more to the U.S. would be catastrophic and ruinous for us and our allies. That is why the U.S. needs to steer clear of militarized confrontation, and that is why the U.S. shouldn’t be taking sides in territorial disputes between China and its neighbors.
When considering Chinese ambitions, the authors correctly note that “Beijing has not behaved as a wholesale revisionist power seeking to upend existing institutions.” Like other major powers, China seeks to use existing international institutions to its advantage, but it is not interested in trying to bring the current institutional order crashing down. Along the same lines, China has not been trying to export its political system. While Mike Pompeo has tried to cast China in the role of a revolutionary adversary bent on spreading its ideology abroad, the truth is that the Chinese government prefers to advance its interests and increase its influence in much the same way that other great powers have done for centuries.
The report makes the important point that China “does not represent a direct, conventional military threat to the United States,” and it reminds us that China’s nuclear arsenal is much smaller than ours. Contrary to the alarmist warnings of the outgoing Trump administration’s arms control envoy, Marshall Billingslea, China is not engaged in a massive buildup of its nuclear arsenal, and it does not seek to achieve parity with America in the number of nuclear weapons that it possesses. For all of the talk of a “new Cold War,” China is much less of a threat to the U.S. than the Soviet Union was, and if we follow a smart, restrained strategy in the region it is likely that the U.S. and China can continue to have peaceful, constructive relations in the coming decades. If we actively court Chinese hostility and provoke them over every dispute, on the other hand, the results could be devastating for the entire region.
The Trump administration’s efforts to cobble together a regional anti-China coalition have predictably gone nowhere in large part because virtually none of China’s neighbors wishes to choose sides in a zero-sum, militarized competition between two major powers. China’s proximity and its economic influence make it extremely unappealing for these states to join a U.S.-led effort to oppose China, and furthermore most of them see no need to do this. China’s increasingly assertive and heavy-handed behavior in recent years has served to undermine Beijing’s own efforts at cultivating its neighbors, but that doesn’t mean that these states want to be turned into front-line states in an antagonistic rivalry. As the report’s authors observe, “many Asian nations have distanced themselves from the overt anti-China elements of the Trump administration’s approach to Asia, rejecting them as too ideological and confrontational.” This underscores the impracticality and undesirability of a “containment” policy towards China: the regional states that are needed to implement such a policy want no part of it.
Instead of containment and confrontation, the Quincy report lays out a new strategy that balances cooperation and deterrence. In practice, this means increased U.S. cooperation with regional organizations including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and it will also require more intensive diplomatic engagement with all regional states. At the same time that the Trump administration has been promoting the idea of “great power competition,” it has allowed U.S. participation in regional fora to languish and it has neglected cultivating relations with most countries in this part of the world. To begin making up for that neglect, the authors propose sending experienced diplomats and regional specialists to serve as U.S. ambassadors rather than giving these posts to political allies and donors.
At the same time, they propose a shift in military posture towards deterrence by denial in order to shore up the defenses of our treaty allies while allowing the U.S. to reduce the number of troops deployed in some of these countries. The authors also suggest reducing tensions at sea by negotiating agreements with China to stabilize interactions between our forces and cutting back on so-called freedom of navigation operations near disputed territories. The U.S. can also encourage its allies and other regional states to negotiate with China to settle their outstanding disputes. This would represent an important and constructive change from the recent past, and it would acknowledge that “American involvement in the disputes has not promoted restraint on the part of China or other claimants.” The U.S. should have no position on these disputes, and it should not seek to use them as a bludgeon when all that this does is exacerbate the situation.
One of the most interesting proposals in the Quincy report is the recommendation to compartmentalize advocacy for human rights to keep it separate from other issues. The U.S. has often used criticism of other governments’ human rights record selectively so that it objects to the abuses of adversaries primarily because they are adversaries, but this rather cynical and instrumental use of human rights can be more easily dismissed because it is inconsistent and driven by other concerns. Keeping human rights advocacy separate from these other issues would allow the U.S. to make more credible objections to genuine abuses by the Chinese government and others in the region, and those objections might then be given more weight by the relevant authorities. This also means that the U.S. will be freer to criticize human rights abuses by allies and would-be partners when necessary.
U.S. strategy in East Asia is one of the most important parts of our foreign policy, so it is crucial that we get it right. Americans must not allow our government’s strategy in the region to be a reckless pursuit of dominance or some misguided reprise of the Cold War. The Quincy Institute’s report is a good foundation for a strategy of peace and restraint in East Asia, and the Biden administration would do well to follow their recommendations.