It's Debatable

How Far Should the U.S. Go to Counter China?

From Pacific bases to the Himalayas, Washington and Beijing are facing off.

Aircraft mechanics repair a harrier jet on deck the USS Bonhomme Richard after the formal opening of the annual  Philippine-U.S. Amphibious Landing Exercises program  on Oct. 8, 2012.
Aircraft mechanics repair a harrier jet on deck the USS Bonhomme Richard after the formal opening of the annual Philippine-U.S. Amphibious Landing Exercises program on Oct. 8, 2012. JAY DIRECTO/AFP/GettyImages

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt, congrats on the start of the semester! Have they quarantined your entire class yet, or just most of them?

Matthew Kroenig: So far, so good. But, despite the virtual classroom, many students have moved back to the Georgetown area to be with their friends. We received an email from University officials indicating that some students are ignoring public health guidelines about large group gatherings and face masks, so we will see how long the positive news lasts.

EA: Ugh. You know where they could send the students? Palau. I hear the United States is getting a new military base on the tiny Pacific island. Sounds like a nice boondoggle for the military.

MK: Yes. Grab your sunscreen. We should organize a think tank conference there immediately. Palau has invited the Pentagon to place military installations on their islands. I think this is a welcome development.

EA: Well. you’ve answered my first question, which was that I don’t see what the U.S. military can do from Palau that it couldn’t have done from Guam. But it sounds like you’re just saying more bases are better? I’m pretty confident the Chinese can figure out how to target Palau as well.

MK: It helps solve two challenges to U.S. defense strategy in Asia. First, the United States needs to bring more firepower to the region. In war games, Americans run out of weapons pretty quickly if they are relying solely on air-based and sea-based platforms. More ground-launched capabilities would help, but Washington needs places to put them.

Second, U.S. military power in Asia is currently concentrated at a handful of bases, which makes them easy targets for the Chinese army. Dispersing them makes China’s targeting challenge at least somewhat more difficult.

EA: I remember back when the Trump administration pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty—citing China as the reason—most of us policy wonks were perplexed about where the United States would base appropriately ranged missiles in the Pacific. There’s barely any land! So I guess Palau helps with that problem.

But I think any government should be very wary of taking steps that are primarily based on the outcomes of war games—in other words, steps that focus mostly on how we would win a war against China. Sure, it would be helpful in a conflict. But it also makes that conflict more likely. That’s not a good trade-off.

Increasing and dispersing U.S. firepower in the Indo-Pacific region will help the United States to deter and defeat Chinese military aggression.

MK: I hate to invoke IR theory, but many debates about U.S. defense policy revolve around whether one believes the deterrence or spiral model. Does strengthening our military capabilities deter war or provoke it? And when dealing with an aggressive adversary, like China, the deterrence model is a better guide. After all, did you see what happened on the border with India this week?

EA: If you believe China is implacably aggressive, then it’s possible that strengthening U.S. capabilities would deter them. But if I’m right, and they’re driven by security concerns—which seems extremely plausible—then what you’re suggesting could cause a war. It hardly matters why the United States is putting a base in Palau; what matters is how China perceives it.

But I’m not sure anyone saw what actually happened on the China-India border. You could not ask for a worse location from which to obtain intelligence. It’s high up in the Himalayas, with poor visibility and bad roads. Most of the information we get comes from the Chinese and Indian governments. And they’re both accusing each other of bringing a gun to a rock fight.

MK: The situation is certainly intensifying. Shots were exchanged for the first time in decades, and Chinese forces are sitting across the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control. China’s neighbors are getting nervous. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun has said that he would like the “Quad” of major democracies in the Indo-Pacific (the United States, Japan, India, and Australia) to become a formalized institution—with the unstated objective of defending against China.

EA: Washington should be trying to dial down these tensions, not add to them by confirming Chinese fears and boosting India. Both sides are behaving badly. The last thing the United States needs to do is take a side in a border dispute between two nuclear powers.

It hardly matters why the United States is putting a base in Palau; what matters is how China perceives it. 

Speaking of border disputes, it seems like new problems have come up during the Brexit process. Or rather, the same old problem: the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. What’s your take?

MK: Yes. As part of the Brexit negotiations, the U.K. had originally vowed to keep the border open, consistent with the Good Friday Agreement. But now it appears that Boris Johnson is thinking about backtracking on that commitment, prompting the Joe Biden campaign and leading Democrats in Congress to threaten that a hard border would hurt U.S.-U.K. relations and could jeopardize progress toward a bilateral trade deal.

EA: I don’t know what Johnson is thinking. The Irish border is a seriously controversial issue. A hard border would be extremely unpopular, and it could reignite separatist tensions in Northern Ireland. As someone who grew up in the middle of the Troubles in Glasgow, Scotland—a city where hardcore Northern Irish unionists once bombed two pubs—I just can’t understand why he would risk it. After all, he could have stuck with the so-called backstop instead. That would have kept the whole of the U.K. in regulatory compliance with Europe and avoided the whole question of a customs border with Ireland.

That said, I also don’t believe Biden would necessarily retaliate if he wins the presidency in November. Just like the Obama administration threatened that the U.S.-U.K. relationship would be less strong if Britain voted for Brexit, it’s a bit of an empty threat.

MK: The policy position is the right one; the United States would prefer that the Northern Ireland protocol remain in place. But it is puzzling that Democrats launched this shot across the bow to London, especially given that a central plank of Biden’s foreign-policy platform is repairing relations with allies in Europe.

I don’t know what Johnson is thinking. The Irish border is a seriously controversial issue. A hard border would be extremely unpopular, and it could reignite separatist tensions in Northern Ireland.

EA: Sometimes it seems that the United States is so concerned with building new alliances that it rejects the old ones. Even putting Donald Trump aside, Barack Obama and now Biden have both been quick to repeatedly criticize the United Kingdom while pushing for countries like Kosovo or Macedonia to become U.S. allies. I know I’m biased, but it hardly seems like a good strategic choice to alienate one of the most militarily capable European countries just because you’re mad about Brexit.

But even the Trump administration seems to have the Balkans on its mind. It announced a major new diplomatic initiative this week: economic normalization between Kosovo and Serbia. Pity it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.

MK: I guess I’m more optimistic. The parties to the agreement were killing each other two decades ago, and now they have agreed to increase economic cooperation. It does not solve all of the outstanding political issues (including Serbia’s refusal to recognize Kosovo’s independence), but it is a step in the right direction and another late-term diplomatic achievement for the Trump administration.

Why do you say it is worthless?

EA: It sounds great when you put it that way! But it’s a classic Trump diplomatic achievement: Scratch the surface, and there’s nothing there. Most of what the two parties agreed to had already been resolved in European Union-brokered agreements, for example. They couldn’t even get the Serbian and Kosovar leaders to agree on a joint statement. Instead, the signing ceremony was just the three leaders signing different bits of paper.

And there’s already been backpedaling on some of it. Aleksandar Vucic, the Serbian leader, has already said that he won’t move the Serbian Embassy to Jerusalem—Trump’s attempt to pander to his base—if the Israelis recognize Kosovo.

Doesn’t that sound a little less impressive?

MK: I remain somewhat impressed. But I was less stirred by another recent news item: Trump’s claim that military officers like starting wars to help the defense industry. If anything, senior military officers are reluctant to recommend the use of force because they appreciate the life-and-death consequences better than anyone.

EA: I find it almost laughable that Trump has finally rediscovered his strong support for ending America’s endless wars. I’m happy that he’s committing to bringing some troops home from the Middle East, and that he’s criticizing corruption in the military-industrial complex. It’s a true about-face.

After all, Trump has done very little during his time in office to end the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. He kept troops in Syria to guard oil fields that don’t belong to us. And his administration has repeatedly sought to increase the profits of defense contractors, whether from weapons sales abroad or corporate welfare and tax cuts at home.

But it does prove one thing: Even Trump finally realizes that America’s wars overseas are unpopular and unproductive. Has he persuaded you?

MK: Unproductive? No. There remains an important role for a contingent of U.S. forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria for the foreseeable future.

And the popularity of foreign-policy issues is hard to pin down. Most Americans don’t have firm opinions on foreign policy any more than I have strong views on how to repair my air conditioning. It is just not in my interest to devote time and attention to the issue, so I outsource it to specialists.

There is clearly a need for U.S. leaders to better make the case to the American people about the purpose of U.S. forces in those countries.

EA: Well, the president is certainly going to have trouble persuading the electorate he’s the peace candidate this time around. But I look forward to seeing how he tries to persuade everyone that Joe Biden is simultaneously soft on defense and a warmonger. Should be entertaining, at least.

I do want to one hit one final news story. The only thing less surprising than Donald Trump’s itchy Twitter finger is the news that the Russians have been trying to hack into the Biden campaign. Apparently, they were unsuccessful this time. But I’m more concerned about the hacks that we don’t know about, and particularly about the return of the election meddling that we saw in 2016. You have to admit, the Trump administration has done very little to prevent or deter such meddling. There’s even a whistleblower who says that he was ordered to stop providing intelligence on Russian hacking to Congress!

MK: Unsurprising, indeed. The United States is an open society and is the target of constant cybersurveillance and attacks from malicious state-backed actors.

And you are right that the administration has not done enough. The solution is to stop treating cyberspace as virtual. What if Russian commandos had tried to physically break into the office of Biden’s consultants at the firm SKDKnickerbocker, who were the hack’s targets? What would the U.S. response have been in terms of arrest warrants, expelling diplomats, targeted sanctions, etc.? That should be the response in this case.

Most Americans don’t have firm opinions on foreign policy any more than I have strong views on how to repair my air conditioning. People prefer to outsource some things to specialists.

EA: For once, we agree. But it’s hard to see a second Trump administration cracking down on this kind of interference, particularly when his first term was enabled by interference from a wide range of state and nonstate actors.

MK: And don’t forget the latest Washington controversy—the claim in Bob Woodward’s new book that Trump knowingly downplayed the threat of the coronavirus in his early public statements. There is a necessary balance to be struck between alerting the public to dangers and shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. In hindsight, Trump may not have gotten it exactly right, but I don’t think the average voter is going to punish him for a less than perfect response to a once-in-a-century pandemic.

EA: I’m not so sure about that, but I guess it’s time to watch the polls closely. Now I just need to figure out if the fivethirtyeight.com election forecast model includes Russian interference as a variable or not.

MK: After 2016, I’m not putting much credibility in the poll numbers this time around. I think it is still anyone’s race.

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola