Friday, January 6, 2012

The Asian "pivot" revisited: show me the threat

You may remember the line that Cuba Gooding uttered in that Tom-Cruise-as-sports-agent movie (yeah, 'Jerry MacGuire' or whatever it was called): "Show me the money."

Well, here's a slight tweak: Show me the threat.

Last September, Aaron Friedberg wrote an NYT piece (h/t here) in which he asserted that China's military preparations not mean that China wants war with the United States. To the contrary, they seem intended mostly to overawe its neighbors while dissuading Washington from coming to their aid if there is ever a clash. Uncertain of whether they can rely on American support, and unable to match China’s power on their own, other countries may decide they must accommodate China’s wishes.

In the words of the ancient military theorist Sun Tzu, China is acquiring the means to “win without fighting” — to establish itself as Asia’s dominant power by eroding the credibility of America’s security guarantees, hollowing out its alliances and eventually easing it out of the region.

If the United States and its Asian friends look to their own defenses and coordinate their efforts, there is no reason they cannot maintain a favorable balance of power, even as China’s strength grows. But if they fail to respond to China’s buildup, there is a danger that Beijing could miscalculate, throw its weight around and increase the risk of confrontation and even armed conflict. Indeed, China’s recent behavior in disputes over resources and maritime boundaries with Japan and the smaller states that ring the South China Sea suggest [sic; should be "suggests"] that this already may be starting to happen.

I sort of, kind of get this argument, which seems to provide the theoretical basis, such as it is, for the Obama admin's much-ballyhooed pivot to Asia. The argument is: if China thinks the U.S. is withdrawing in some way from the region, China may go a step too far, tell Japan to get off some tiny goat island that's hiding a ton of oil (or whatever), whereupon Japan mobilizes its navy (such as it is), and all of a sudden they're on the verge of, or into, what IR types are wont to call a militarized interstate dispute. Solution: strengthen U.S. presence in the region, put Marines in Australia, sell jets to Indonesia, etcetera, and China will be less likely to, in Friedberg's words, "miscalculate."

I am not fully convinced, however. By Friedberg's own estimate, China does not want war with the U.S., it just wants to be "Asia's dominant power." Well, yes. And the U.S. wants to be, and is, the Western hemisphere's dominant power. And it's OK for the U.S. to be the Western hemisphere's dominant power but evidently it's not OK for China to be Asia's dominant power. Why not? Because China is an authoritarian regime? Because it puts dissidents in jail and suppresses bloggers it doesn't like? Because it wants the Spratly Islands for itself? Because it's not serious about reducing its greenhouse gas emissions? Because its construction codes are shoddy, with the result that large numbers of its people die in earthquakes? Because its government takes land from peasants without compensation for development? What exactly is the problem with China being Asia's dominant power? Don't just hand-wave about maritime boundaries. Show me the threat, in concrete terms, to U.S. national security and to regional "stability". To be impolite about it: put up or shut up.

P.s. See this and this.