So far, Chinese have been considerably more deferential to international law and opinion than we Americans were at a similar stage of national development.
Around 1875, the United States passed the U.K. to became the world’s biggest economy. Soon thereafter, we pressed the ethnic cleansing of our country to a conclusion, engineered regime change in Hawaii and annexed the place, seized the Philippines and Puerto Rico from the Spanish Empire, forced Cuba to grant us Guantánamo in perpetuity, detached Panama from Colombia, and launched repeated military interventions in Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. To date, by contrast, China has leveraged the upsurge in its power to step up its contributions to U.N. peacekeeping and to use its coast guard, construction companies, and other nonlethal means to buttress century-old claims to islands, rocks, and reefs in its near seas against more recent counterclaims by neighbors.
It says more about us than about China that we have chosen to treat its rise almost entirely as a military challenge and that we have made countering Chinese power and perpetuating our quasi-imperial, post-1945 dominance of the Western Pacific the organizing principles of our Asia policy. China’s capacity to defend its periphery is indeed growing apace with its economy. The military balance off the China coast is therefore inevitably shifting against us. This is certainly a threat to our long-established dominance of China’s periphery. It promises to deprive us of the ability to attack the Chinese homeland from there at will, as Air-Sea Battle envisages. But greater security from foreign attack for China does not imply a greater risk of Chinese or other foreign attack on the United States.
Even more important, the notion that Americans can indefinitely sustain military supremacy along the frontiers of a steadily modernizing and strengthening China is a bad bet no sober analyst would accept. Extrapolating policy from that bet, as we do in the so-called “pivot to Asia,” just invites China to call or raise it. We would be wiser and on safer ground, I think, to study how Britain finessed the challenge of America’s emergence as a counter to its global hegemony. It viewed us with realistic apprehension but accepted, accommodated, and co-opted us.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.