Argument

Power Play

It's time for the U.S. to stand up to China. And cutting the Pentagon's budget isn't going to help.

For a president who admires a slick backdoor pass and the occasional alley-oop, it is fitting that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described his key strategic doctrine in terms of pivoting. In a recent Foreign Policy article, she articulated the administration's grand new strategy: America would "pivot" from conflict in the Middle East and Southwest Asia to deeper engagement in the dynamic Far East, shifting from an over-concentration on Japan and Korea to a more distributed posture across East Asia and throughout the Pacific and Indian oceans. The strategy entails a focus on ensuring alliances in the region are "nimble and adaptive," and guaranteeing allies up-to-date "defense capabilities and communications infrastructure." Speaking at the Pentagon today, President Barack Obama declared that the United States would achieve this pivot towards Asia, especially China, from a "position of strength." 

But as in basketball, an offensive pivot toward the hoop can be met with a zone defense aimed at protecting the court's strategic real estate. And make no mistake: Far from acquiescing to America's strategic pivot to Asia, China will seek to block what the Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily called the "U.S. 'return' to China," alleging that the United States is reverting to Cold War policies.

Even as Chinese officials seek to dispel the notion that they desire hegemony, Beijing has taken advantage of America's relatively light presence in the region over the past decade by expanding its economic, political, and military influence throughout the neighborhood. Over the past nine months, it has advanced the idea of a free trade zone among China, Japan, and South Korea; suggested that it should supplant the dollar as the sole global reserve currency; and floated bilateral maritime measures, like a hotline with Vietnam and a new conflict-prevention mechanism with Japan, to stave off the internationalization of local disputes. It has taunted America over its cautious thaw in relations with Myanmar and even questioned the U.S. decision to base Marines in Darwin, Australia, more than 3,600 miles from Beijing.  

If 2011 was the year of the American pivot, 2012 is shaping up to be the year of the great push back.

China's next generation of leadership, in preparation for their ascension this autumn, will likely push for the country to appear strong internationally to appease the nationalists and to distract from a possible economic slowdown. Conversely, Obama will necessarily slow his administration's frantic diplomatic pace during an election year. In 2010 and 2011, Vietnam and Indonesia (respectively) chaired the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and focused on countering China's push in the resource-rich and strategically important South China Sea. Now that the chair has passed to Cambodia, a nation with no claim to the disputed waters and heavily dependent on China's economy, Beijing will behave more assertively towards ASEAN, attempting to sidestep it and negotiate directly with its member states. On the Korean peninsula, China will likely take advantage of Kim Jong Un's inexperience to increase its influence over North Korea, further integrating its economy into the mainland's and blocking its path to reunification with the South. China will continue to resist India's attempt to further integrate with East Asia, protesting when it holds military exercises with Japan or announces joint projects with Vietnam.

Beijing will aggressively contest Japan's claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, where over the past year China has encouraged fishermen and civil law-enforcement vessels to enter into Japan's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and the territorial seas of islands administered by Japan.  Perhaps most worryingly, China will likely further underwrite massive cyber espionage -- while supporting a modernizing defense force that calls into question the value of America's military guarantees throughout the region.

China has portrayed virtually every improvement in the defense capabilities of any regional power as part of a containment conspiracy. As Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan wrote on the website of the People's Daily in December, "it is time for the U.S., as well as the other Asian countries, to give up the containment policies" because "otherwise these countries may slip down on China's list of potential partners once when [sic] China elbows its way to the top table." Such warnings presage more diplomatic brouhahas over future actions, such as deeper naval and air cooperation between the United States, Japan, and other militaries considering how to counter Chinese strategy.

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.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

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