President Barack Obama’s "pivot" to Asia is directed at strengthening U.S. Cold War era alliances to tacitly contain a rising China. However, that means that even minor disputes between American allies and China could drag the United States into a shooting war with a nuclear weapons state. Unfortunately, those minor quarrels are occurring now. Among other nations, China has disputes with US allies Japan and the Philippines over barren uninhabited islands that may have petroleum resources near them. The same is true between China and Vietnam – except that although relations between Vietnam and the United States have dramatically improved since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the United States has not formed a similar alliance with that nation, thus promising American protection. The differences in how the American Philippine ally and the Vietnamese non-ally are dealing with such disputes with China illustrates the danger of keeping outdated alliances long over the Cold War is over.
Vietnam chose to take the route of bilateral negotiation with China over territorial contentions. In 2011 and 2013, Vietnam reached a framework with China for talking about maritime issues so that they would reduce the chance of confrontation. The two nations have also signed accords on maritime rights in the Gulf of Tonkin and on their land border. Although their recent altercation at sea over a Chinese oil rig near Vietnam shows that such a negotiated approach does not prevent all disputes, it does build a framework for resolving them.
In contrast, knowing it has the formal backing of the powerful American military, the Philippines has refused bilateral negotiations over maritime disputes with China and has behaved more aggressively. For example, the Philippines has begun legal proceedings against China in a United Nations tribunal over its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Thus, the US security umbrella can make small countries feel cocky toward big regional neighbors to which they should be more accommodating. Throughout world history, small nations living near great powers often have had to make some accommodations to their larger neighbors.
However, the United States also allies itself with bigger countries than the Philippines vis-à-vis China – for example, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Australia. If any one of these countries, behaving more aggressively as a result of its US alliance, got into a major altercation with China, the resulting armed conflict could be more severe and thus be even more likely to drag in the United States.
What does the United States get from all of these alliances? It earns the right to defend fairly affluent nations against China, which is poorer than they are in per capita GDP. Also, during and after the Cold War, US imperial policy became clear as its home market was opened to East Asian allies’ goods, without reciprocal access to their markets, in exchange for the privilege or protecting these allies militarily. What a deal for the US taxpayer! And now the absurd situation arises in which a heavily indebted America borrows money from China to help defend wealthy US allies from…well…China!
The best way to deal with a rising China is how Great Britain dealt with a rising United States in the 19th century – adaptation rather than confrontation. An economically dynamic China, just like the then rapidly growing United States in the 1800s, has an understandable desire for more influence over its neighborhood, for both security and economic reasons. And China should be less threatening to the United States, much like the United States was to Great Britain, simply because a vast ocean separating great powers provides more security for them than sharing a land border or even being nearby. Also, China is more integrated into the world economy than was the autarkic and adversarial Soviet Union, thus at least providing commercial lobbies in both China and the United States for peace instead of war.
Thus, to adapt to China’s rise, the United States should abandon its tacit containment policy, retract its Cold War-style forward and provocative security perimeter in East Asia, and abrogate bilateral alliances with wealthy nations that could and should band together to form their own first line of defense against China. However, the United States could provide an informal back up hedge against any aggressive China rampaging across East Asia (which is hard to do, given that the major economic centers are all across water from China). Such a new American "balancer-of-last resort" strategy, better than Obama’s more-of-the-same "pivot," would allow the United States to pay down its debt and recharge its economy, thus ensuring that it will be an influential player in East Asia and the international system for decades and perhaps centuries to come.