As Asia contemplates alternative future orders, China appears to assume that its power -- rather than an inclusive, open, rules-based system -- should dominate the core of an emerging regional system. An editorial in China's state news agency Xinhua evaluated the situation at the start of 2012: "the United States' high-profile 'pivot' to Asia strategy … has further complicated China's neighborhood," but "no matter how the landscape changes, Beijing will continue to uphold the time-honored Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, deepen its friendship and partnership with neighboring countries and strive for regional peace and common prosperity." Implicit is that China stands in the center. Missing is any self-awareness of how Beijing's neighbors will perceive its actions. As Indian statesman Jaswant Singh opined last month, "Chinese assertiveness, most of it currently focused on the country's claims to the South China Sea, has been a wake-up call about the type of regional order that China would establish if it had the power."
In response to China's push back, the United States should focus on expanding a common agenda with China, but by adopting a posture that compels China to follow the rules in regards to fair trade, freedom of navigation, and other regional and global issues. The Obama administration deserves full marks for outlining a strategic vision, enhancing engagement, and elevating issues of maritime cooperation. But that's not enough: The United States needs to increase trade and investment with East Asia and continue to invest in a strong navy.
The United States must move in the direction of the 346-ship fleet recommended by the bipartisan Quadrennial Defense Review independent panel or face the danger of slipping from the present 284 combatant ships to a fleet of just 250 warships. Otherwise, it will lack the balance of power needed to credibly control -- or at least defend -- access to the sea lines of communication in and around the South China Sea, through which about half of all global maritime commerce passes. China is improving its naval and air forces through better integration of anti-ship ballistic missiles, fifth-generation stealth aircraft, submarines, aircraft carriers, cyber weapons, and outer-space systems. Left unaddressed, China's military programs will increasingly call into question America's power projection capability.
The aim of more U.S. naval and air power in the region, however, should be to avoid war and remain steadfast in support of an inclusive, rules-based system that benefits all nations. We need to replace the traditional hub-and-spoke model of alliances between the United States and its East Asian partners with a more diffuse web of relationships where other regional partners accept more responsibility for common defense goals. A failure to do this -- compounded by likely budget cuts exceeding Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's recommendations -- will accelerate China's relative rise.
Economic interdependence should prevent a 21st century-style Cold War between China and the United States, but we must not let diplomatic blandishments about strategic partnership obscure the underlying realities of competition and uncertainty. Some will argue that the United States simply needs to accommodate China, but accommodation is not a strategy. If the United States wishes to perpetuate a liberal world order amid a rising China, it can best do so by cooperating from strength. That requires not just pivoting in and within Asia, but also parrying the inevitable Chinese attempts to obstruct and repulse American power.