Much of the media buzz surrounding Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s regal visit to the United States centered around a limited agreement to prevent cyber hacking. Although that pact is needed, perhaps more attention in U.S.-China relations should be given to dangerous flashpoints in the South and East China Seas. In these places, the two nuclear-armed powers could be dragged into a conflict that could escalate perilously.
In both seas, China is engaged in territorial disputes with other countries in the region. Because of President Barack Obama’s "pivot to Asia," the United States has been strengthening its Cold War-era alliances with some of these nations to contain the rising China. Because the Cold War is so yesterday, the U.S. government no longer calls its policy of encirclement "containment," but that’s still what it is. Major US formal allies in the area of these seas include Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia, and a major informal ally is Taiwan. Also, the United States, with China in mind, has improved relations with other non-allied nations in the region that are uneasy about China, such as the former US enemy and still communist Vietnam.
As part of the "pivot," the United States has transferred more of its military forces to the East Asian region. And there is talk of reestablishing a US military presence at Subic Bay naval base in the Philippines, from which Filipinos expelled the United States in 1992. Even worse, Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr., the top US commander in the Pacific, has said the US plans to get more directly involved by increasing US naval patrols in the South China Sea.
Instead, Obama and Xi should usefully discuss how to tame the competition in these two seas among the local countries of the region, which has taken the form of building artificial islands and reefs and repeated confrontations at sea between the parties. With a $19 trillion national debt, however, the United States should consider staying out of such local disputes over mostly tiny, uninhabited islands. A shooting war in either sea between China and a US ally over barren rocks could drag the US into a major conflict through these repurposed Cold War alliances. Although the American foreign policy and military elites, with a vested in the far forward US East Asian "defense" perimeter, speak of strategic shipping lanes and potential natural resources, such as oil and gas, the closure of those shipping lanes or prevention of development of those resources because of a local conflict should hardly concern the faraway United States.
What the United States really needs is a radical rethinking of its costly global security arrangements and alliances. As President, and former General, Dwight D. Eisenhower surprisingly realized, military and all other indices of national power are based on a sound economy; he cut the military budget to help renew the American economy, which boomed during the 1950s. Such national renewal, through the cutting of defense spending – the opposite of what many of the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates are advocating – is what’s again needed. (And let’s throw in a taming of the even larger and more out of control social entitlement programs too.)
Furthermore, unlike the early part of the Cold War, in all regions of the world, US allies are much wealthier in per capita terms than their enemies. These allies should do more for their own defense, but why should they do so when they can free ride off the US taxpayer? In East Asia, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Australia all need to do more, but they have no incentive to do so. Even the less affluent Philippines, which squawks about the Chinese threat and is suing China over an island dispute in an international tribunal in The Hague, has a decrepit and corrupt military that needs to be reformed and upgraded. Although kicking the United States out of Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Force Base in 1992, Filipinos still have outrageously counted on the mutual defense treaty with the United States to protect them.
Such free riding needs to end. If countries in the region want to conduct skirmishes or even wars over desolate, worthless rock outcroppings in their local areas, the United States should let them without participating. Who wants to have a nuclear war with China over such nonsensical trouble spots. Ideally, the United States should abrogate all such outdated and expensive alliances and retract its now far-forward defense perimeter back to Hawaii, Guam, and Wake Island in the mid-Pacific Ocean, still thousands of miles in front of the US west coast. Alliances are not ends in themselves; they are a means to national security. George Washington wisely warned against the United States becoming involved in "permanent alliances," and Thomas Jefferson astutely cautioned against the country being bogged down by "entangling alliances." Obama is taking the opposite course by strengthening alliances that have become both permanent and entangling.
The United States should allow China to naturally rise as a world power, just as Britain allowed the United States to peacefully ascend in the 19th century. Unlike the European powers of the day, Britain and the United States had thousands of miles of ocean between them, so that they posed less of a threat to each other. China and the United States have the same advantage. Also, the recent slowing of China’s economic growth and stock market plunges have exposed China’s many hidden weaknesses, which inaccurate economic data have long concealed. At the time of President Xi’s visit to America, the United States is not insecure vis-à-vis China and should not act like it.