The U.S. Isn’t Trying to Contain China…

...and China's neighbors don't want it to anyway.

ANDY WONG/AFP/Getty Images
ANDY WONG/AFP/Getty Images

Many Chinese military officers and commentators misinterpret the Obama administration’s rebalance to Asia as part of a U.S. effort to contain China. I tell them that if the United States were really trying to contain China, it would be seeking to isolate it internationally and cut off trade and investment ties, not working to expand China’s role in international organizations and increase U.S. access to China’s market. Official Chinese views are more sober, but the underlying suspicion is clear. Speaking at a joint press conference in Washington with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Aug. 19, Chinese Minister of Defense Gen. Chang Wanquan said he hoped the U.S. strategy in Asia "does not target a specific country in the region."

Still, I was surprised to see that view in Foreign Policy, in an Aug. 20 article arguing that "the U.S. military is encircling China with a chain of military bases and ports." John Reed connects U.S. efforts to expand access to military bases and facilities in Asia with the Pentagon’s Air-Sea Battle operational concept and suggests that both are focused on a possible conflict with China.

The United States is not trying to contain China. Rather, the rebalance seeks to increase U.S. diplomatic, economic, and military resource commitments to Asia in order to bring them into balance with America’s expanding political, economic, and security interests in the region. Yes, U.S.-China relations have grown more competitive over the last few years, especially in Asia, where China’s growing influence and expanding military capabilities are challenging U.S. dominance. And yes, Washington is concerned about China’s increasingly muscular military, which is developing anti-access/area-denial capabilities that might challenge the U.S. military’s ability to operate in Asia. Some of these capabilities are defensive, like improved air defenses and anti-ship cruise missiles. Others will enhance the Chinese military’s ability to project power (a new aircraft carrier), to attack U.S. aircraft carriers (advanced submarines and a new anti-ship ballistic missile), and to threaten U.S. bases in Asia (more accurate conventional ballistic and cruise missiles). Both developments are worrisome.

But more importantly, both American and Chinese leaders recognize that a U.S. attempt to contain China would damage their hugely important and mutually beneficial relationship. Bilateral trade between the two nations rose 5.6 percent in the first half of 2013, reaching $244 billion. U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping (and his predecessor Hu Jintao) have sought to build a U.S.-China relationship that expands cooperation on regional and global interests, not one that dwells on differences and threatens to divide the region. The rebalance hasn’t increased tensions; instead, it has prompted Chinese leaders to redouble efforts to build a stable, cooperative relationship with the United States as a means of managing strategic tensions. 

This is borne out with recent events. Since the U.S announced its rebalance, the two militaries more regularly use their hotline and have agreed to set up an important new dialogue mechanism between the U.S. Joint Staff Strategic Plans and Policy directorate and its counterpart in the People’s Liberation Army. The Chinese have proposed negotiating a method for advance notification of major military activities, and discussing protocol for how U.S. and Chinese ships and aircraft should operate when they are in close proximity. The two sides have also established a cyber working group and a strategic security dialogue to discuss contentious strategic issues. 

China’s Asian neighbors are perhaps even more aware of how that country’s rise is affecting them. For roughly the last decade, Asian countries have encouraged the United States to play a larger diplomatic, economic, and military role in the region, in order to offset China. These countries have incorporated the United States in regional institutions, such as the East Asian summit, and expanded security cooperation with the U.S. military. These efforts took on greater urgency in 2009, when China began assertively pursuing its maritime claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea, angering other claimant states including the Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan.

But Asian leaders want the United States to offset China, not contain it. China is a major market for all countries in Asia, including key U.S. allies like Japan, South Korea, and Australia. Their nightmare scenario is a military conflict between the United States and China that forces countries to pick sides. Almost as bad would be a division into pro-U.S. and pro-China blocs, threatening the region’s prosperity and undoing decades of economic integration. 

Even if the United States decided to try and contain China, Asian countries would be extremely reluctant to participate in U.S.-led efforts to isolate China economically. There is no enthusiasm in the region for an "Asian NATO" or for hosting U.S. military forces that are clearly aimed against China. Asian countries would not support Chinese efforts to curtail U.S. involvement in the region, nor would they sign up for U.S. efforts to encircle or contain China. And without the assistance of allies such as Japan and South Korea, the United States would lack the forward bases necessary to implement a military strategy of containment.  The U.S. access to South Pacific airfields that Reed discusses may provide flexibility in contingencies and marginally enhance deterrence, but is a wholly insufficient basis for a regional strategy aimed against China.

Fortunately, that is not the United States’ objective.

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