Republican hawks are predictably pushing for many irresponsible aggressive policies towards China. The latest example of this came last week in a speech by Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, who called for $1 trillion military budget, an explicit security commitment to Taiwan, and the creation of what he calls a "NATO for the Pacific." Any one of these ideas would be bad for the United States, and all of them together would be ruinous. The US approach to Asia is already heavily militarized, and what Sasse proposes would make it even more so. If Washington did as he wanted, the US would further overstretch itself and put itself on the path to unnecessary war with China.
Increasing a military budget that is already bloated and wasteful is a colossal waste of resources that could be used in any number of more productive and peaceful ways. The US does not need $750 or $800 billion in military spending to be secure, so it certainly doesn’t need to spend $1 trillion. The only reason to ramp up military spending to such insane levels is to court a great power conflict that would devastate East Asia, the United States, and the global economy if it occurred. The only ones to benefit from throwing this much money at the Pentagon are the military contractors on the receiving end of new purchases. It would be a colossal rip-off of the American people, and it would make our country and the world less secure.
Sasse proposes amending the Taiwan Relations Act to include an explicit security guarantee for Taiwan, but all that this guarantees is an increase tensions with China. Making an explicit commitment to Taiwan might even trigger a new crisis that makes Taiwan less secure. Putting the US on the hook for Taiwan’s defense is exceptionally risky for all the obvious reasons, up to and including a possible nuclear exchange. Perversely, pledging to defend Taiwan might drive the Chinese government to take military action when they otherwise might not. US policymakers underestimate how important Taiwan is to the Chinese government at our collective peril, and the US has no compelling reason to go to war over Taiwan.
At first glance, a "NATO for the Pacific" might seem somewhat redundant given existing US treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines, but Sasse makes clear that he thinks the US needs to add even more security commitments to its very long list. Sasse calls for "a new military alliance centered far out into the Pacific," which he thinks is required because China is expanding its sphere of influence. The senator is proposing that the US should try to dragoon non-aligned states in Asia and the Pacific into a new alliance organization that is directly aimed at China. That would create an unknown number of new burdens on the United States that could pull the US into new pointless conflicts, and it would probably expose new and aspiring members to Chinese economic warfare.
It is doubtful that there would be many states in the Pacific interested in taking Sasse up on the offer because they don’t want to become pawns in a great power rivalry, but the worst thing that the US could do right now is to try building more alliances in Asia and the Pacific when it neither needs them nor has adequate means to defend them. The alliance creation and expansion that Sasse imagines would be extremely provocative and alarming to China if it happened, and it would likely lead to an escalating arms race and deteriorating security for all states in the region. Building up an even larger armed anti-China camp is bound to feed into China’s worst fears about US intentions, and it could drive some countries to align themselves more closely with Beijing in an opposing camp. Even if it never leads to open conflict, the resulting military buildups and tensions will leave the region and the United States worse off than they are now.
A "NATO for the Pacific" is a dangerous answer to a problem that doesn’t exist. China is not about to go on a spree of conquest across the Pacific, and the Pacific states are not clamoring for more US militarism. China’s growing economic and diplomatic influence in the Pacific is not a threat that requires a military alliance in response. The fixation on military options is typical of the politicians in Washington that treat the threat and use of force as the only available tools. It is lost on American policymakers that China has gained the influence it has principally through commerce and diplomacy and not by using its military to project power. The fact that Sasse thinks a new military organization is any kind of solution here proves how impoverished hawkish thinking is. The last thing that we need is to create a knockoff version of NATO in another part of the world under completely different conditions.
Sasse can rail against the danger of imaginary isolationists all he wants, but it is his expansive and delusional policies that would bring ruin on America and much of the world. There isn’t going to be a second "American century" in any case, but the US will decline much more quickly if it follows the lead of the militarist hucksters trying to sell us on the restoration of past glories.
Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for Antiwar.com 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.