The United States, which has dominated East Asia since World War II, is now pivoting towards that region to stem the rise of a new regional powerChina. Following the instinct of most international powers to foil the ascent of a rival for domination, this approach rarely works and is charting a dangerous course. U.S. attempts to contain the rise of Chinawhich is experiencing rapid economic growth because of its huge population and partial economic privatization over the last few decadesis unlikely to succeed because Chinas steady rise on the back of its soaring economy is a problem that America can do little about.
This dynamic China, which has transformed from being totalitarian to more market-based authoritarian, is no stagnant communist Soviet Union. The United States contained the Soviets until the government collapsed because of economic stagnation and a plummeting price of oilthe only thing anyone ever wanted to buy from the USSR. Now, the United States latest pivot to East Asia is intended to reinforce the already existing containment policy towards China by building up U.S. military forces and augmenting Cold War alliances in the region. This is unlikely to stem Chinas rise. While Russia was supposedly on the rise, their economy was sinking. In Chinas case, their economy is largely the reason behind their new status as an international power broker. Thus, applying the same containment policy will likely only lead to a hostile relationship between two nuclear-armed nations and thus provide less long-term security for the American people. But what is the alternative?
A different, if seemingly radical, way forward exists. The United States could provide more security for less defense money to an America with huge budget deficits and debt, thus freeing up more resources to compete with China economically instead of militarily. In the long-term, a strong economy underlies almost all other indices of national power.
The problem is that the last major containment policy applied by the U.S came against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, which is widely credited to have toppled the communist government there. Consequently, this successful containment policy has been quietly shifted toward a post-communist China. However, even if containment was the major factor in toppling the Soviet Uniona dubious proposition given the extensive economic rot in that countryno one ever asks if the same result could have been achieved with far less cost in American lives and money using a containment-lite policy. For security purposes, given that many empires fall from over-extension and thus financial decline, wouldnt it have been better during the Cold War to let the Soviet Union take over and incur the costs of administering, assisting, and policing backwater economic basket cases such as South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Angola, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Afghanistan, etc? Instead, the U.S could have concentrated efforts on preserving the key economic and technologically advanced areas of Western Europe and Japan. The economically challenged USSR might have collapsed much sooner.
Even in the more advanced regions during the Cold War, was it rational for the United States to protect these nations with an American nuclear umbrellaone that ultimately pledged to incur destruction of American cities to save London, Paris, Berlin, and Tokyo from the communist hordes? A communist takeover of any of these places would have not have been a good day, but incineration of American cities would have been even worse.
Yet long after the Cold War is over, the American nuclear shield extends even wider to include a number of countries in Europe and East Asia. In East Asia, the American nuclear backstop protects Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines formally, and Taiwan and other nations informally. But what if a local conflict between the Chinese and a U.S. ally inadvertently escalates into a nuclear stand off between China and the United States?
And it easily could. A rising China is an ally of South Koreas nemesis, North Korea. China also claims Taiwan and has disputes with U.S. allies over islands in the South China Sea (with the Philippines) and in the East China Sea (with Japan). In the last case, China has recently upgraded its coast guard. Meanwhile, a new conservative government in Japan is making noises about scrapping Japans pacifist constitution and obtaining offensive weapons, and recent dangerous confrontations have occurred between Japanese and Chinese forces near the disputed islands. With a new hawkish and more aggressive government, Japanlike a mouthy little brother standing behind his huge sibling and taunting the opponentcould easily drag the United States into an undesired war with nuclear-armed China. During World War I, outdated alliances dragged the major European powers into a cataclysmic war that nobody wanted. Outdated Cold War alliances could do the same to the United States now in East Asia.
However, the United Statesretaining its mid-Pacific military outposts, such as Hawaii and Guamcould be more secure even if it gradually abrogated all of its formal and informal alliances in East Asia. This seemingly sweeping change would give the now rich countries of the region powerful incentives to provide for their own defenses and even to create their own formal or informal alliances against a rising China. Only in the unlikely event that the regional balance of power became so unequal that an aggressive hegemonic power (say China or India) threatened to take over the entire regionas happened prior to World War II in both Europe and East Asiawould the United States need to step in as a balancer-of-last-resort.
Could such deliberate U.S. disengagement to obtain more flexibility for U.S. foreign policy lead to nuclear proliferation among U.S. East Asian allies? Perhaps, though it is highly improbable, and even if it did, all of these nations have been fairly responsible and are certainly much less dangerous than other aspiring nuclear powers, such as Iran or North Korea. Any danger that East Asian allies would obtain nuclear weapons pales in comparison to the threat of U.S. cities being incinerated to protect these countries in purely regional squabbles with their neighbors. If put to average American citizens in this way, which it should be, most people would probably agree that it makes no sense to essentially commit national suicide to save rich countries that are perfectly capable of defending themselves.