Breaking the Habit of Bullying Small States

The US and Australian panic over a security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands is a warning sign of how irrational and dangerous Washington’s anti-China containment policy has already become. The security agreement itself seems to be modest in its terms and includes no basing rights for Chinese forces, but that hasn’t stopped US and Australian officials from denouncing it and trying to strong-arm the small Pacific nation into changing course.

One of those US officials, Daniel Kritenbrink, refused to rule out military action if China were allowed to have a base in the country. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison also recently warned that a Chinese base would be a "red line" for both Australia and the United States. After spending months lecturing the world on the rights of states to set their own foreign policy course and to decide on their own alliances, the US is once again reminding small states that it assumes that their freedom to make those decisions is contingent on Washington’s approval.

This intimidation of weaker states to fall in line is what we can expect to see happening many times in the future as the US pursues its zero-sum rivalry with China. The US and Australia are clearly overreacting in the case of the Solomon Islands, and it should worry us how quickly news of this agreement concerning internal security issues has led to talk of invading the country. If an agreement as limited as this one is creating this much hostility, we can only imagine what the reaction would be to the establishment of a Chinese base somewhere. It is likely just a matter of time before "countering Chinese influence" becomes a default excuse for military intervention and regime change against small states that can’t defend themselves. That is why it is important to repudiate this sort of thinking from the start.

The US has dressed up rivalry with China in the rhetoric of supporting a "free and open Indo-Pacific," but as soon as a small state leans in the "wrong" direction and cultivates closer ties with the rival great power we see the US drop the pretense that it respects the sovereignty and independence of the countries caught in the middle. "Competing" with China has become the new all-purpose excuse for engaging in more of the crude bullying and interference in the affairs of other nations that have defined so much of US foreign policy over the last century. Every time that the US finds a new foreign enemy, our government engages in the same predictable abuses of trampling on the rights of other nations, meddling in their affairs, and trying to dictate their political futures, and the same things will happen again if the US continues down its current path of confrontation with China.

Other states in the region can see how the US and Australia are reacting, and many of them are likely to be alienated by the arrogance and heavy-handedness on display. If the US genuinely respected their sovereignty and independence, it should be prepared to accept it when some of them choose other security partners and even when they make alliances with other major powers. The US doesn’t have the right to dictate the foreign policy of other states, and when it tries to do so it inevitably corrupts its own foreign policy.

While some US officials are strong-arming a small state in one part of the world, others are claiming that China is the one that seeks to subvert international order and coerce smaller states. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said as much last week in Brussels: "Beijing is seeking to undermine the very system they benefited from to return instead to a system where might makes right and big nations can coerce smaller countries to act against their own interests." This line would be difficult for anyone with even passing knowledge of the last thirty years of US foreign policy to take seriously, but to say it in the same week when the US was delivering a demarche to a small state is just ridiculous.

The US record of violating other states’ sovereignty in the name of larger policy goals is a long and ugly one, and those abusive habits obviously die hard. To break the habit of bullying small states, the US will need to stop seeking dominance in other parts of the world. Until the US gives up its pursuit of primacy, it will keep making the same errors and committing the same crimes as it did in the past. It is this pursuit of primacy that is fueling the rivalry with China, and it will sooner or later lead to avoidable wars with China or one of China’s clients if the US stays on its current course. As long as the rivalry endures, it is very likely that the US will fall into the same pattern of abuses and wars as in the Cold War and during the so-called "war on terror." If Americans wish to have a more peaceful and sane foreign policy in the coming decades, we will have to reject the bipartisan consensus that has formed in support of fruitless and destructive rivalry with China.

Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.