National Security

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

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

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.

ANDY WONG/AFP/Getty Images

Rebuttal

An Honest Broker

The national security advisor of James Mann's profile bears little resemblance to the Tom Donilon I know.

As chief of staff at the CIA and the Pentagon over the past four years, I had regular contact with Tom Donilon and his senior team at the National Security staff (NSS). We spoke frequently and worked hand-in-glove on some of the most important national security decisions in our nation's history -- the effort to decimate al Qaeda's senior leadership, including the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden; the end of the Iraq war; the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan; the new defense strategy unveiled by President Obama in January 2012; and the challenges posed by nuclear tests and missile launches from North Korea.

Tom has brought discipline, rigor, and a strategic approach to the NSS process. He directed his staff to prepare volumes of material -- all of which he consumed and utilized. He chaired meetings of enormous consequence. He brought the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the secretary of defense into his office for small group discussions on the most sensitive national security issues from strategic cooperation with Israel to missile defense. He facilitated weekly meetings between my then-boss Secretary Panetta and the president, the kind of close access that is the cornerstone of a cabinet secretary's authority. He engaged with foreign leaders to advance U.S. national security interests. He carefully studied intelligence products and brought intelligence leaders in for a weekly meeting to coordinate operations. And he did all of this while empowering his deputies, listening to cabinet officials, carefully preparing the president for major decisions, and exercising the sound judgment you would expect from the national security advisor.

The critiques of Tom leveled in Mann's article ("Obama's Gray Man") are off the mark. He has been deeply engaged in foreign affairs for more than 20 years. He served as a senior official at the State Department in the 1990s. During the George W. Bush administration, Tom stayed involved with think tanks, boards, and other national security forums. He has good political judgment, but he is not partisan. (People often forget the distinction.) Like Jim Baker, he can counsel on political matters while considering alternative views and ensuring that partisanship stops "at the water's edge." He undoubtedly is tough on his staff, but he doesn't ask anyone to work harder than he does. He is a vigorous defender of the president, to be sure, but more so he is a vigorous defender of the presidency, as White House staff should be.

I have quarreled with Tom many times on issues large and small. But he always argued on the merits. He always gave the agency and department leaders their say. And he always respected the result, regardless of whose argument won the day.

The no-drama teamwork of the Obama administration's national security team is due in large measure to Tom's leadership. Your future reporting should credit him with at least this.

EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS