The United States, which has dominated East Asia since World War II, is now "pivoting" towards that region to stem the rise of a new regional power – China. The instinct of most status quo powers is to foil the ascent of a rival for domination. This approach rarely works, because the emerging power is usually rising because of internal factors that the status quo power can do little about. Thus, U.S. attempts to contain a rising China that is experiencing rapid economic growth – because of its huge population and partial economic privatization over the last few decades – is unlikely to succeed.
This dynamic China, which has transformed from being totalitarian to more market-based authoritarian, is no stagnant communist Soviet Union, which the United States contained until its government collapsed because of economic stagnation and a plummeting price of oil – the only thing anyone ever wanted to buy from the USSR. Therefore, the current pivot to East Asia by the United States – to reinforce the already existing containment policy toward China – by building up U.S. military forces and augmenting Cold War alliances in the region, which originally contained the Soviets, is unlikely to stem China’s rise. Such a neo-containment policy will likely only lead to a hostile relationship between two nuclear-armed nations and thus provide less long-term security for the American people. But what is the alternative?
Even if one adopts the perspective of a hard-nosed realist, a smarter U.S. policy could provide more security for less defense money to an America with huge budget deficits and debt, thus freeing up more resources to compete with China economically instead of militarily. In the long-term, a strong economy underlies almost all other indices of national power.
The problem is that the Cold War U.S. containment policy toward the Soviet Union is perceived to have toppled the communist government there; subsequently, this "successful" containment policy has been quietly shifted toward a post-communist China. Even if containment was the major factor in toppling the Soviet Union – a dubious proposition given the extensive economic rot in that country – no one ever asks if the same result could have been achieved with far less cost in American lives and money using a "containment-lite" policy. For security purposes, given that many empires fall from overextension and thus financial decline, wouldn’t it have been better during the Cold War to let the Soviet Union take over and incur the costs of administering, assisting, and policing backwater economic basket cases such as South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Angola, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Afghanistan, etc. and instead concentrate U.S. efforts on preserving the key economic and technologically advanced areas of Western Europe and Japan? Thus, the economically challenged USSR might have collapsed much sooner.
Even in the more advanced regions during the Cold War, was it rational for the United States to protect these nations with an American nuclear umbrella that ultimately pledged to incur destruction of American cities to save London, Paris, Berlin, and Tokyo from the communist hordes? A communist takeover of any of these places would have not have been a good day, but incineration of American cities would have been even worse.
Yet long after the Cold War is over, America’s outdated alliances pledge an American nuclear shield for an even wider number of countries in Europe and East Asia. In East Asia, the American nuclear backstop protects Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines formally and Taiwan and other nations informally. Of course, elite American foreign policymakers, with their arcane theories of "extended" nuclear deterrence, always have wagered that they would never need to sacrifice U.S. cities, because their opponents would believe nuclear war to be so horrible that they would never test the U.S. atomic arsenal. But what if a local conflict between the Chinese and a U.S. ally inadvertently escalates into a nuclear stand off between China and the United States?
And it easily could. A rising China is an ally of South Korea’s nemesis, North Korea, claims Taiwan, and has disputes with U.S. allies over islands in the South China Sea (with the Philippines) and in the East China Sea (with Japan). In the last case, China has recently upgraded its coast guard, a new conservative government in Japan is making noises about scrapping Japan’s pacifist constitution and obtaining offensive weapons, and recent dangerous confrontations have occurred between Japanese and Chinese forces near the disputed islands. With a new hawkish and more aggressive government, Japan – like a mouthy little brother standing behind his huge sibling and taunting the opponent – could easily drag the United States into an undesired war with nuclear-armed China.
During World War I, outdated alliances dragged the major European powers into a cataclysmic war that nobody wanted. Outdated Cold War alliances could do the same to the United States now in East Asia.
However, a different, if seemingly radical, way forward exists. The United States could abandon its outdated containment policy toward China and make way for its natural rise, as Britain did the United States in the 19th century. Then, Britain was less threatened by the faraway United States than it was by much closer European powers, for example, Germany and Russia. The United States and China, too, have a vast ocean separating them, making them intrinsically less threatening to each other.
The United States – retaining its mid-Pacific military outposts, such as Hawaii and Guam – could be more secure even if it gradually abrogated all of its formal and informal alliances in East Asia. This seemingly sweeping change would give the now rich countries of the region powerful incentives to provide for their own defenses and even to create their own formal or informal alliances against a rising China. Only in the unlikely event that the regional balance of power became so unequal that an aggressive hegemonic power (say China or India) threatened to take over the entire region – as happened prior to World War II in both Europe and East Asia – would the United States need to step in as a balancer-of-last-resort.
Yet, unlike the USSR, China is so interwoven with regional countries and the United States economically that the threat of unbridled aggression is likely to be significantly less now. Even if the unlikely should occur, the United States should be a back up, not the first line of defense.
But wouldn’t such deliberate U.S. disengagement to obtain more flexibility for U.S. foreign policy lead to nuclear proliferation among U.S. East Asian allies? It might, but even if it did, all of these nations have been fairly responsible and democratic and are certainly much less dangerous than other aspiring nuclear powers, such as Iran or North Korea. Most important, any danger that East Asian allies would obtain nuclear weapons pales in comparison to the threat of U.S. cities being incinerated to protect these countries in purely regional squabbles with their neighbors. If put to average American citizens in this way, which it should be, most people would probably agree that it makes no sense to essentially commit national suicide to save rich countries that are perfectly capable of defending themselves.