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Ivan Eland: Coexisting with a Rising China?

Coexisting with a Rising China?

By Ivan Eland*
April 11, 2005

The Bush administration is often guilty of running a reckless, overly militaristic foreign policy but deserves qualified praise for its recent dealings with China. The Chinese have requested—and the United States has accepted—a regular dialogue at senior levels to discuss security, political, and possibly economic issues. But the administration must go farther than merely symbolic meetings in accepting China’s rise—it must translate that new-found respect into real world actions.

Unlike the Bush administration’s threatening behavior to smaller countries, such as Iraq and Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, the bark of the Bush administration’s policy toward the nuclear-armed China has always exceeded its bite. President Bush took office and stridently labeled China a “strategic competitor,” but then a few months later essentially apologized and paid ransom to get back a U.S. flight crew and spy plane, which was harassed and damaged by Chinese fighters in international airspace. Subsequently, after 9/11, China and the United States have been cooperating more closely.

Improved relations between the two powers are a very positive development for global security. Regular high-level meetings are important for two reasons. First, such talks provide a forum for two nuclear-armed powers to nip tensions or problems in the bud before they turn into crises. Second, and most important, such meetings signal that the status quo superpower has respect for the rising East Asian power. Prior to 1914, Britain failed to acknowledge the new prestige of a rising Germany, one contributing factor to the horrific and unnecessary First World War. China, with a rapidly growing economy and a huge population, desperately wants to be recognized as a great power by the United States and the world.

Unfortunately, in international relations, talk is fairly cheap and the Bush administration will have to follow such meetings with real world changes in policy. Like most rising powers, China will want a regional sphere of influence to enhance its security. Given China’s history of being carved up by imperial powers, it will probably be relentless in pursuit of a wider security buffer. Any move toward attaining this goal, however, will be seen as a threat by the informal, hyper-extended U.S. empire.

In fact, the United States is already running a covert neo-containment strategy to counter China’s rising power. The U.S. government has augmented its network of military bases and alliances in Asia that surround China. The United States has transferred more naval assets into the already powerful U.S. Pacific Fleet and, under the banner of fighting terrorism, opened seemingly permanent bases in Central Asia to the west of China. The United States has also tightened its military alliance with Japan, China’s chief East Asian rival, and improved relations with India and an increasingly autocratic Russia—two nations that could also act as counterweights to a rising China. These developments simply amplify the power of the many existing U.S. military facilities throughout the region, as well as U.S. formal alliances with South Korea, Australia, Thailand, and the Philippines, and informal alliances with Singapore and Taiwan.

The administration’s tightening of the informal alliance with Taiwan is one of the scariest aspects of U.S. foreign policy—even more unnerving than its invasion of small, sovereign nations, such as Iraq. Although the Chinese have only 20 nuclear missiles capable of hitting the United States, while Washington has thousands that could strike China, Taiwan remains an emotional political issue for China. In fact, Taiwan is so important to China, that in a crisis in the Taiwan Strait, no guarantee exists that China would back down in the face of U.S. nuclear superiority. While Taiwan should be lauded for enhancing the freedom of its people, the U.S. government is foolish to risk the safety of American citizens (and others around the world) in a potential nuclear exchange to protect Taiwanese democracy.

Although China is an autocratic state, it still has legitimate security interests. The United States would be smart to show some empathy with those concerns. In recent years, as the United States has become alarmed at China’s expanded military spending, the Chinese have also become alarmed at large increases in the U.S. defense budget and U.S. attacks on the sovereign nations of Serbia and Iraq. Many Chinese see the threat of an expanding U.S. empire that aims at encircling China and preventing its legitimate rise to great power status.

To lessen such perceptions and reduce the chance of conflict between the two nuclear-armed nations, the United States should retract its forward military and alliance posture in Asia, including repudiating any implied commitment to defend Taiwan. With large bodies of water as moats and the most formidable nuclear arsenal in the world, the United States hardly needs a security perimeter that stretches across the entire Pacific Ocean to protect it from China. If the United States continues to maintain an outdated Cold War-style empire, it is bound to come into needless conflict with other powers, especially China.

Instead of emulating the policies of pre-World War I Britain toward Germany, the United States should take a page from another chapter in British history. In the late 1800s, although not without tension, the British peacefully allowed the fledging United States to rise as a great power, knowing both countries were protected by the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean that separated them. Taking advantage of that same kind separation by a major ocean, the United States could also safely allow China to obtain respect as a great power, with a sphere of influence to match. If China went beyond obtaining a reasonable sphere of influence into an Imperial Japanese-style expansion, the United States could very well need to mount a challenge. However, at present, little evidence exists of Chinese intent for such expansion, which would run counter to recent Chinese history. Therefore, a U.S. policy of coexistence, rather than neo-containment, might avoid a future catastrophic war or even a nuclear conflagration.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute in Oakland, California, and author of the books The Empire Has No Clothes, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

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