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Is It Time for America to Harden Its Asian Alliances?

by Elizabeth C. Economy
September 8, 2011

Chinese fighter jets take part in an international fleet review to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army Navy in Qingdao, Shandong province on April 23, 2009.

Chinese fighter jets take part in an international fleet review to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army Navy in Qingdao, Shandong province on April 23, 2009. (Guang Niu/Courtesy of Reuters)

Anyone who needs convincing that China’s military trajectory is cause for alarm should take a look at “Asian Alliances in the 21st Century,” a new report co-authored by several well-known Asia security experts, including Dan Blumenthal, Randall Schriver, Mark Stokes, L.C. Russell Hsiao and Michael Mazza. The report details the rapid modernization of China’s military capabilities and claims that Beijing is interested neither in benign hegemonic rule nor in helping Washington address global challenges. Rather, China’s leaders are ultimately concerned only with maintaining their power and expanding their maritime reach.

The thrust of the report has merit. China’s assertiveness in the East and South China Seas, as well as its increasingly unattractive foreign policy rhetoric, gives significant reason for concern and little reason for optimism about China’s real interest in strengthening regional security cooperation in the near term.

There are no shades of gray in the report, however, and the lack of nuance can be disconcerting. Oddly enough, it may even lead the authors to be a bit too optimistic. In the “what do we do about it” section, for example, the report calls for a far more deeply integrated U.S.-led alliance system in Asia.  This proposal, however, raises a few additional issues that the report does not fully address.

First, in recommending that the United States weave together a more cohesive military alliance in Asia, the authors seem to assume that given the necessary political and economic will on the part of the United States, the allies will be ready to jump on board. Maybe the authors are right, but for the most part, countries in Asia—even the United States’ closest allies—see their economic future with China and the United States as their security blanket. It’s not clear to me that absent a truly significant provocation by Chinese military forces, these countries will be willing to upset their economic apple carts.

Second, before the United States begins developing, transferring, and selling its advanced military technology throughout the region,  as the report proposes, it may be worth thinking about the fickle nature of global politics. A number of countries in Asia hold joint military exercises of one form or another with China as well as with the United States — perhaps the authors might suggest a few safeguards against inadvertent or deliberate sharing of technology.

Finally, I think that there is an intermediate step that the United States should take before completely slamming the door on potential military to military cooperation with China. While the U.S. military on its own has not been able to get the PLA to the table in a meaningful manner, the region as a whole may have more success. Collective action has proved useful with China in areas such as climate change and trade; there is no reason not to give it a chance now. The United States and the region’s other central military players need to send a unified message to China that they want a legitimate effort from Beijing to sit down to negotiate the rules of the road—or the sea in this case—otherwise China will face the “Asian Alliance in the 21st century”.

The report is certain to raise other questions as well. Foreign Policy columnist James Traub, in his commentary on the report, for example, worries that painting China as an enemy may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fair enough, but he may also want to consider, as the report suggests, that it more and more looks like the painting is of China’s own design.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by RousseauC

    The CFR experts on China are predictably hawkish. No surprise.
    I used to think that only Chinese suffer from paranoia sometime. Now I see a lot of Americans show more severe symptom, such as making a big fuss about China having an aircraft carrier even it is the only Permanent 5 not having one.
    No one seems to care about the US defense budget being more than doubled in the past 10 years while criticizing China for modernizing its military.
    Why I smell such a strong flavor of lobbyists from the US military industry in so many articles here.
    It is sad that the US needs to find an enemy all time. Now China is the pick, because it seems the only country that you can make Americans angry. They don’t care about Russians, or the Mexicans who were accused of taking away American jobs a decade ago.
    The only sensible paragraph is the last one, quoting columnist James Traub.
    The US needs to think that after why after it puts so much money, military power, international aid and effort in the past decade in the Middle East and Arab World, the US remains deeply unpopular in the region.
    If you think only by hurting China and betting on its collapse is in the interest of the US, you will be on the wrong side of the history.

  • Posted by DavidR.Howell

    A NATO in Asia style ‘balance of threat’ response should only be pursued if a clearly identified red line is crossed.

    Articulating what is legitimate acquisition for a rising great power and what is offensive expansion will avoid miscommunication and misperception.

    Diplomatic clarity and mutual transparency is essential for mutual trust. And establishing trust is essential for avoiding a new cold war.

  • Posted by LOL

    Cold War Enemy Deprivation Syndrome.

    America loves wars.

  • Posted by Paladin

    Anyone who thinks we can trust China to simply grow its economy without an eye to neo-imperialistic ambitions need only to look at its territorial claims in the South China Sea, as well as its series of soft loans to Pacific Island nations with little hope of ever repaying them. The US needs to stay engaged in the SW Pacific, at the very least to counter Chinese hegemonic ambitions there, keep commercial sea lans open and not leave its allies, such as Australia, in the lurch. A carefully considered US-Asian alliance system is the best bet to ensure this.

  • Posted by urabus

    China seemed to have sowed many traps for US to walk into and Now is the SE Asia and the Pacific security, which I think US is best doing nothing lest US is going to lose both ends – the free loaders ( small countries wanting only free from US otherwise they will side with China) and China itself. A game set that China is playing making sure any move against China it can be only one thing – detrimental to the opponents. US had both in the past – big gun and big money but now US
    lack the money. I do not think China is out to challenge US but it is just how China does things through out its history only this time make sure it learns from others and make good use of it.

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