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As China Rises, the U.S. Should Stand Back and Allow Other Asians to Rise Too

Doug Bandow

How to respond to the People’s Republic of China is one of
Washington’s more vexing foreign policy challenges. Not only
is the PRC on the rise, but President Xi Jinping is pushing an
increasingly authoritarian policy. The result looks ominous to many

The strategy preferred by successive U.S. administrations,
continued military dominance of East Asia, cannot last. This
approach is not necessary to protect the U.S. Yet it costs far more
to project power against China than to defend America from China.
And it costs the PRC far less to deter Washington than for
Washington to coerce the PRC.

Which makes Washington’s strategy financially
unsustainable. Last year the Congressional Budget Office figured
the U.S. was going to again run trillion dollar annual deficits
around 2022. Total red ink would run $10 trillion over the
following decade.

Whatever Washington’s
short-term desire to limit the PRC, America also benefits greatly
from a peaceful Asia.

But because of irresponsible Republican fiscal policies,
analysts now fear the U.S. could begin running an annual
trillion-dollar deficit as early as next year. That will come on
top of a national debt which already tops $20 trillion and
accumulated unfunded liabilities—promised benefits with no
funding behind them—of some $200 trillion.

At some point Washington will have to trim outlays or face
fiscal disaster. However, Americans are unlikely to accept
reductions in social programs to finance military outlays to
confront the PRC over such issues as Taiwan, the Diaoyu/Senkaku
Islands, and other bits of foreign territory.

Instead of trying to organize a containment system, Washington
should focus on advancing its few serious interests, such as
freedom of navigation. Otherwise the U.S. should step back and
leave China’s neighbors free to respond to whatever they
believe necessary. Those with the most at stake should do the

Perhaps the PRC’s most important potential antagonist is
Japan. Since the late 19th century, their bilateral history has
been always difficult and sometimes violent. Nuclear-armed China is
no longer vulnerable to Japanese coercion, but much hostility
remains. As Beijing’s “peaceful rise” has turned
more assertive if not aggressive, Tokyo has begun to slowly expand
military outlays and adjust defense policies. (North Korea also has
contributed to rising Japanese hawkishness.)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing to change the so-called
Peace Constitution to authorize a wider military role. There is
even talk of adding aircraft carriers, creating an ability to
preempt hostile missile launches, and developing nuclear weapons,
though the latter remains unlikely absent either a South Korean
nuclear program or America closing its nuclear umbrella.

Equally noteworthy is how Japan’s other neighbors, once
captive to their memories of World War II, also are beginning to
escape the past. Tokyo has been increasing defense cooperation with
Australia. The two nations are looking to forge a visiting forces
agreement for Japanese personnel involved in joint exercises. Noted
Euan Graham at Sydney’s Lowy Institute: “Japan
doesn’t enter into these types of agreements lightly. This
will provide a framework so the two countries do not have to
negotiate separate agreements every time they want to conduct
exercises.” The PRC’s attempt to turn its financial
clout into political influence also has created controversy in

The Philippines, which suffered under brutal Japanese military
rule, now is encouraging Tokyo to do more. Last year Japan
announced that it was providing spare helicopter parts and donating
aircraft to Manila, as well as training Filipino pilots.

Disputes over the Paracel and Spratly Islands have helped keep
China and Vietnam apart. The latter, which fought a brief but
bloody war with the PRC in the late 1970s, has been looking for new
friends. As a result, Japan and Vietnam have been expanding their
defense ties, including port calls and naval exercises, and the two
nations’ defense ministers met late last year.

India also is playing a growing regional role. Beijing long
dismissed the former’s potential, but India’s economic
growth has accelerated in recent years and Prime Minister Narendra
Modi seems capable of matching President Xi. Hemant Adlakha of
Jawaharlal Nehru University recently pointed to a shift among Chinese
academics, who increasingly cite India as their nation’s
second most important rival, after America.

When Myanmar was under western sanctions, India helped
counterbalance China there. India began a military relationship
with Vietnam in 2000, which has since expanded. Last year
Vietnam’s foreign minister visited New Delhi, where he
declared that he wanted to “step up” the two
nations’ partnership to contribute to “stability,
security and prosperity.” India has also sold anti-ship
cruise missiles and advanced surface-to-air missiles to

In December, New Delhi and the Philippines conducted maritime
maneuvers. Even more significant, in November, Prime Minister Modi
met Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte and the two signed a
memorandum of understanding on defense cooperation and

India also has been expanding its relations with Japan.
Moreover, in January India invited ambassadors from the ten ASEAN
(Southeast Asian) nations to the annual Republic Day parade.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University in Thailand
observed: “When India is included,
Southeast Asian countries see it as a potential giant that could
counterbalance China.” The point is not to “match China
one for one,” noted Dhruva Jaishankar of Brookings India,
“but if you can provide even part of an alternative, that is
helpful.” New Delhi looks increasingly willing to challenge
the PRC in the latter’s home territory.

Of course, none of these countries want war and the U.S. should
encourage regional rapprochement. Whatever Washington’s
short-term desire to limit the PRC, America also benefits greatly
from a peaceful Asia.

As for China, the U.S. should emphasize common interests, such
as bilateral trade and denuclearization of North Korea. Instead of
seeking to ostentatiously contain the PRC militarily, Washington
should step back. Better for the U.S. to balance from afar, relying
on natural competition from Beijing’s neighbors, and
especially India and Japan, to moderate what might otherwise become
threatening tendencies from China.

The PRC is going to grow, but so will its neighbors.
Washington’s best policy will be to reduce its military role
while leaving China’s neighbors to decide how best to respond
to a potentially more assertive China. The ultimate objective is
not to suppress China’s potential growth, but to ensure that
peaceful development continues to govern East Asia.

Doug Bandow is
a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special
Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Foreign
Follies: America’s New Global Empire (Xulon).