China Hawks Walk the Line on Advocating War

US Navy fleet in Asia-Pacific
US Navy fleet in Asia-Pacific

Writing at The National Interest, Robert Haddick, an independent contractor with U.S. Special Operations Command, welcomes “getting tough” on China. He argues that Washington has been too accommodating to China’s regional ambitions and has thus failed to provide a military deterrent to China’s rise.

“Heretofore, the U.S. has pursued a policy of forbearance with China,” Haddick claims, “with the hope that by going out its way to show respect for China’s emerging great power status, Washington would avoid a ruinous security competition.” However, he notes, there is some evidence that the Obama administration has begun to take a “stiffer tone” and a “tougher line” on China with regard to its maritime and territorial disputes with its neighboring rivals (most of whom happen to be U.S. allies).

Obama’s Asia Pivot, announced about two years ago, involves boosting support for all of China’s neighboring rivals, increasing the presence of U.S. military bases surrounding China’s coastline, and stationing sixty percent of U.S. naval and air power in the Asia Pacific theater. This sure doesn’t sound accommodative, but where Haddick gets the “forbearance” argument is from the official U.S. line on China’s territorial disputes, which is as follows, according to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel: “we do not take a position on the question of sovereignty in these cases” but “the United States stands firmly against any coercive attempts to alter the status quo.” (Leave aside for a moment the fact that, as a matter of routine policy, the U.S. employs coercion in an attempt to alter the status quo.)

A question China hawks might want to consider is, how should a “tougher line” on China’s rise manifest in terms of policy? If boosting military assets to encircle China isn’t enough to deter Beijing, what is the next step? Are we supposed to respond militarily and face China, a nuclear-armed state, in a war?

“As the Obama administration was reminded in Syria,” Haddick notes, “policymakers should not draw red lines unless they can convince the adversary that he has no chance to successfully challenge them.” In other words, we need to demonstrate that we will go to war against China if it continues to expand its regional influence.

What do we suspect China’s reaction will be if we act militarily? The same power that is building up its military assets and defense spending and provocatively establishing ADIZ’s and occupying disputed island chains is suddenly going to sit back and become a picture of docility just as soon as Washington takes a “tougher line”? Two scenarios are more likely: (1) a shooting war in the Asia Pacific that includes the China against the U.S. and all its allies, or (2) a reversion to Cold War politics in which Beijing and Washington retreat into the destructive policies of espionage and prolonged proxy wars.

When it comes down to it, the only pretext for a conflict with China – and a pretext is needed because Washington is too embarrassed to simply call for war because China has a bigger economy and military – are these territorial and maritime disputes. Notice, though, that China hawks are not suggesting that the United States take the position of an impartial arbiter of these disputes, which are complicated and ambiguous to say the least. Rather, they argue that we better ignore the legitimacy of the opposing claims in each dispute and simply take the anti-China position.

Is there anyone prepared to argue such an approach will yield peaceful conclusions?