The Obama administration has moved to assert America’s Asia policy by vigorously engaging Southeast Asian nations concerned about China’s recent posture. On his trip to the region earlier this month, the president affirmed that the United States is, and will remain, a Pacific power. He made the point in dramatic fashion by announcing the stationing of 2,500 Marines in Australia.
America’s renewed commitment to the region is in response to a series of worrisome Chinese statements and actions in the South China Sea. This is the same area where Chinese actions spurred similar action by President George W. Bush.
Just two months in office, Bush faced his first challenge from Beijing when a Chinese fighter jet harassed and collided with a U.S. unarmed, slow-moving EP-3 reconnaissance plane flying in international air space in the South China Sea. The Chinese pilot was killed and the U.S. plane had to make an emergency landing on China’s Hainan Island. China detained and interrogated the American crew for over a week and, after a couple of humiliating U.S. apologies, only allowed the plane to be dismantled, crated, and moved months later.
With that reality check on Chinese intentions and behavior in the region, President Bush seemed to reflect a toughening American posture when he declared a few months later that the United States would do “whatever it took” to defend democratic Taiwan against Chinese Communist aggression.
But Osama bin Laden’s attack on New York and Washington instantly shifted America’s attention to the emerging danger that administrations of both parties had largely ignored or underestimated over the previous decade. Overnight, China became America’s ostensible ally in the war on terrorism, though its actual contribution to fighting non-Uighur and non-Tibetan “terrorists” was mostly rhetorical.
Nevertheless, Washington policymakers managed to convince themselves that on counter-terrorism, as well as on counter-proliferation and the growing North Korea nuclear threat, China was a committed, reliable, and essential partner—a “responsible stakeholder.” What China was doing to prepare for war against Taiwan, and against the United States should it come to Taiwan’s aid, largely became a back-burner issue. The same was true of China’s complicity in proliferating dangerous weapons and materials to the world’s most dangerous states, including North Korea and Iran.
As China’s own military capabilities grew, so too did its confidence and its regional pushiness. It clashed with Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines in their territorial waters, and with the United States in international waters, harassing ship movements, seizing fishing boats, cutting sonar cables, and threatening dire consequences to all who dared resist its dramatically expanding maritime claims to virtually the entire South China Sea.
It seemed that Beijing had made a conscious decision to abandon Deng Xiaoping’s prudential counsel not to alarm others as China built its economic and military power: “Hide your capabilities, bide your time,” Deng had advised. This was China’s “peaceful rise.”
More recently, those in the Chinese military, political, and intellectual establishment, whom Henry Kissinger has called “the triumphalists,” succeeded in advancing a disturbing new strategy for China: flaunt your capabilities, alarm your neighbors, intimidate the small countries, provoke the large powers, and alert the world to the rising China threat.
In response, countries throughout the region have begun to build up their own militaries, especially their naval forces. But they know that China’s foreign minister was right when he brusquely reminded his Asian counterparts that "you are small and China is big.” They cannot resist or challenge China one-on-one, so they are enhancing their multilateral cooperation through joint planning and exercises.
More importantly, other nations have made clear that they earnestly seek a strong American presence in the region, militarily as well as economic. And they complained at a recent Washington conference on maritime security in the South China Sea that government officials should stop referring to China’s “assertiveness” and should call it what it is—“aggressiveness.”
After some initial hesitation, Obama administration officials have responded admirably. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Pacific commander Robert Willard have all called China out and asserted that the United States cannot accept any erosion to the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea or other international waters of the region. As former Pacific commander Timothy Keating succinctly put it, “We don’t need China’s permission to go through the Taiwan Strait.”
The West has reawakened to the growing peril posed by a Chinese government that has grown wealthy and powerful under the benefits of an international system it appears still to resent despite forty years of generous Western engagement. President Obama has discovered what President Bush discovered earlier, then seemed to forget: China’s Communist government remains a threat to the values and interests of the West.
Joseph A. Bosco served in the office of the secretary of defense as China country desk officer from 2005 to 2006 and previously taught graduate seminars on China-U.S. relations at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is now a national security consultant.