THE main element in the American hegemon’s response to the rising power China is becoming clear. It is to be a variety of “containment”—the grand strategy of the western alliance to keep Soviet control and influence within limits during the “Cold War” of 1947-1989.
Its architect—the diplomat George F. Kennan—summed up the strategy as “a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies, through the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.”
Such an approach, Kennan predicted, would “promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.” And, as we know, containment worked better than even its proponents had hoped.
Leveraging Asean fears
For the moment, Washington is leveraging East Asian fears of Beijing’s growing assertiveness on the South China [West Philippine] Sea to bolster its own security ties with them. And apprehensions are so great among the littoral states that most of them are coming down on the US side—though most also count China as their largest economic partner.
Evolving US policy seeks a mellowing of Chinese power
Among the Asean states, only Cambodia and Laos—wary of Vietnam’s ambitions in peninsular Southeast Asia—lean openly to China’s side. Indonesia recently declared it does not recognize the nine-dash line China has drawn to demarcate its South China Sea claim.
Even still-hermetic Myanmar—the object of intense US courtship—is moving away from
Meanwhile Australia has revealed its own surveillance flights over the islets the Chinese have occupied. China is the biggest buyer of Australia’s mineral and agricultural products.
Even India under the right-wing BJP party is being drawn into closer security cooperation with the US and Japan. New Delhi too has unresolved disputes with Beijing over its Himalayan borders. Japan and India have been holding joint naval maneuvers since 2012.
Hedging their bets
Japan is the most deeply committed among the US allies. In the shadow of China’s rising power, its stealthy rearmament no longer raises alarms among the East Asian capitals. Washington has been using Beijing’s claims to the Senkaku-Daioyu rocks on the East China Sea to get Tokyo to be more up front in regional security.
The Japanese Diet has been revising the official interpretation of the well-known Article 9 of the 1947 Constitution to allow its self-defense forces to come to the aid of treaty allies.
Tokyo has joined Washington in guaranteeing the stability of the Taiwan Straits, which the recent election of a pro-independence government on Taipei may jeopardize.
But most of the middle powers are hedging their bets—avoiding firm commitments to either of the two great powers. Even the Philippines—utterly dependent as it is on the Americans to protect its Spratlys claims—decided at the last minute to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank China has put up to rival the western-oriented World Bank.
Complex big-power game
When the Cold War broke out, the Soviet Union was isolated; and its centrally directed economy soon proved inferior to entrepreneurial capitalism. But China—the second-largest economy, and racing to be first—is heavily engaged in the world. It looks less to the Soviet development model than to the Meiji-era samurai who modernized Japan beginning in the 1860s.
China competes with the United States in its foreign investments, grants and loans to developing countries. From 2005 to 2013 alone, China’s foreign investments grew nearly tenfold. Beijing recently pledged $60 billion in economic aid to the African states.
For Malaysia and South Korea—both staunch US allies—trade with China exceeds their trade with the US and Japan put together.
Malaysia has claims on the South China Sea; so it allows the US patrol-craft Lassen to sail from its Borneo port of Kota Kinabalu on “freedom of navigation” cruises close to the disputed islets. But Malaysian warships also exercise with Chinese and Singaporean sea-craft in the strategic Straits of Malacca.
US aircraft carriers berth in Singapore’s deep-water port. US surveillance planes fly out from Australian airstrips. But even Canberra pondered the possibilities of “armed neutrality” before it allowed US marines an outpost on its northern coast of Darwin.
Japan has been shifting its military focus in Northeast Asia from Russia to China and North Korea. Even while still rebuilding its land and naval forces, Tokyo is offering military aid to neighbor-states to offset Chinese influence.
In peninsular Southeast Asia, Tokyo has just pledged $6.1 billion to the “Mekong Five” states to fund highways, train systems, power plants and other cross-border infrastructure. Beijing itself is working to integrate the sub-region economically with south-western China.
Japan and its former colony of South Korea are also being brought together by their apprehensions about China—and a nuclear-armed North Korea. Last month they reached what they hope would be a once-and-for-all accord on the issue of Korean “comfort women” used as sex slaves during the Pacific War.
The LDP conservatives are trying to stimulate a resurgence of Japanese nationalism. As one aspect of this effort, they’re revising the official interpretation of the 1947 Constitution. Militant mass support could bolster Tokyo’s claim to be an independent force in the East Asian power balance. Premier Shinzo Abe rejects as “outdated’ the notion of China and the US—as the “Group of Two”—shaping between them the Asia-Pacific future.
View from Beijing
In Chinese politics, containment could set off intense popular reaction—especially among the young—and so entrenching in power the hard-line military and the conservative administrative elite. Containment could even alter China’s economic direction—away from the market-friendly policies that have already generated so many political side-benefits for everyday people.
For Washington, the US military presence on China’s peripheries may merely continue the “forward defense” strategy the US has followed in the Asia-Pacific since the 1890s.
But, viewed from Beijing, the string of US bases and alliances in the West Pacific—from South Korea and Japan down to Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore; eastward to the strongpoint of Guam; then southward to Australia and westward to India—does form a “Great Wall in reverse” denying China an “ocean frontage” on the China Sea and access to the Pacific—the world ocean—and great-power rank.
For Beijing, the China Sea disputes are not just about rocks and reefs, some of which disappear at high tide. They are about the security of China’s exposed industrial heartland and a rejuvenated China’s sovereign claims to the “core interests” and “spheres of influence” that are its due as a first-rank power.