Why Do We Need To Counterbalance China?

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on November 26, 2010

That’s the question asked in this post, which gives us some smart analysis concerning the geopolitical situation in Asia. I am glad to try to answer the question, but first, behold the analysis:

One goal of American foreign policy these days is to guarantee that America has options for counterbalancing rising Chinese power in the Far East. American officials would never state such a goal in so many words, as that would be obnoxious and unnecessarily provocative. Officially, we welcome China’s rise as a partner in guaranteeing global stability and prosperity, and so forth. But if there were any doubt that the United States were engaged in a competition with China for East Asian sympathies, Hillary Clinton’s efforts over the past six months to align America with southeast Asian countries and Japan against Chinese maritime territorial claims should have dispelled them. Incidents like the shelling attack are quite helpful for American diplomacy, because they are blamed partly on China’s failure to restrain its psychotic North Korean nephews. The damage to Chinese prestige put the Financial Times‘s Geoff Dyer in mind of the laments he heard from a Chinese official during Barack Obama’s world tour this fall:

As Barack Obama was visiting Asia earlier this month, his friendly reception in country after country provoked a somewhat forlorn response from one Chinese official. “Look around the world, the US has dozens of well-established alliances,” he said. “We only have one.”

That one being…North Korea. Events like the shelling attack on South Korea enhance American relations with South KoreaVietnamJapan, the Philippines, and to some extent Indonesia, India, Thailand, and any other country that worries about how China will behave in its region. In other words, when North Korea goes nuts, American soft power grows. Unfortunately, that kind of American soft power is based on the availability of American hard power. Countries turn to America in the face of North Korean madness because America is the only country that can dispatch a carrier task force into the Yellow Sea.

It really ought to be clear why China needs to be counterbalanced. Its territorial demands in Asia, and its quest for regional hegemony threaten to overawe American allies, who are no match individually–or even together–for China’s economic and military power. Because they cannot stand up to China, either the United States needs to maintain a healthy presence in the region to protect their interests–and the interests of the United States as well–or America’s allies in the region will be forced to bandwagon with China in order to survive. Bandwagoning may very well mean that America’s allies will be forced to adopt policies that run counter to American interests as a way to keep the Chinese happy and pacified.

There can be little dispute that China’s recent aggressive diplomatic and military posture, and its commensurate threats to limit America’s naval presence in the region–its semi-backtracking on this issue notwithstanding–pose a threat to American interests by seeking to curb American military power (and commensurate diplomatic influence) in Asia. If American military and diplomatic influence is indeed restricted, a whole host of bad things happen. To name just one bad thing, the North Koreans, emboldened by America’s retirement as a major actor in Asia, and reassured by a state of affairs in which China, its chief ally, becomes the unchallenged hegemon in Asia, will believe that they have a completely free hand to run amok with policies and activities that will further destabilize the situation on the Korean peninsula, and throughout Asia as a whole. A whole host of countries in the region–especially including South Korea, but also including China–will find themselves with reason to be alarmed, and to lose sleep in such a situation. This may not be a scenario that the Chinese envision or intend, but it is a scenario that ought to be prevented.

A continued strong, vibrant American presence in Asia is necessary not just for the implementation of policies that help serve American interests (though for American policymakers, and the American people, this should be reason enough to maintain a potent presence in the region), but also because America’s presence in Asia is a stabilizing force. Remove that stabilizing force, and policymakers in the United States, and around the world will be facing more nightmare scenarios than one can shake a stick at. We can argue about how much in terms of resources is needed to counterbalance China. But so long as the Chinese insist on engaging in a security competition with the United States, and so long as such a security competition serves to encourage bad actors and bad acts in the event that the United States fulfills Chinese demands and withdraws from Asia, the United States has little choice but to try to check Chinese policies that will bring about significant amounts of regional and international instability if implemented. It is reassuring to see, per the Democracy in America discussion, that the United States possesses a great deal more soft power than does China, but the United States will only continue to enjoy the benefits of greater soft power if it maintains its military might, and if it refuses to sit on its laurels in the security competition between it and China.

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