Copyright The Wall Street Journal
May 5, 2005
It’s becoming fashionable in some quarters to forecast that the United States and China will eventually go to war. Such predictions may yet come to pass, but they can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Such pundits would do well to recall Thucydides’ warning more than two millennia ago that belief in the inevitability of conflict can be one of its main causes.
That’s not to deny that the key strategic issue facing America in East Asia is the rise of Chinese power. For nearly three decades, the Chinese economy has grown at 8% to 9% annually. This year, China announced a 12.6% increase in its defense spending, and CIA Director Porter Goss has warned about a worsening military balance in the Taiwan Strait.
Yet it should also be remembered that the Beijing leadership speaks of China’s “peaceful rise” and “peaceful development.” Or that in recent years Beijing has settled border disputes, played a greater role in international institutions and recognized the benefits of using soft power.
Ten years ago, I oversaw the Pentagon’s “East Asian Strategy Report,” which has guided American security policy toward the region ever since. At the time there was a raging debate between those who wanted to contain China before its strength increased and those who urged China’s integration into the international system. But the containment option was never feasible because, unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War, China’s neighbors did not see it as a clear and present danger. Also, treating China as an enemy would guarantee future enmity, thus unnecessarily discarding the possibility of a more benign outcome.
The strategy the report chose was to “balance and integrate.” The East Asian balance of power rests on the triangle of China, Japan, and the U.S. By strengthening the U.S.-Japan relationship, the report encouraged a favorable regional balance. By simultaneously encouraging China’s entry into the World Trade Organization and other international institutions, it created incentives for good behavior.
By and large the strategy has worked well. As Bush administration officials have noted, America’s relations with both China and Japan are now at historically high levels. While China is becoming more powerful in all dimensions, it is not likely to close the gap with the U.S. anytime soon. But just because China is unlikely to become a global competitor to the U.S. anytime soon, doesn’t mean that it won’t challenge American interests in East Asia, particularly over Taiwan.
The conventional wisdom is that if Taiwan were to declare independence, China would use force, regardless of the perceived economic or military costs. However the picture is not as simple as that since Beijing understands it would be unlikely to win such a war, and that makes such a conflict less probable so long as the U.S. restrains Taiwan from declaring independence.
But there are also other possible tipping points. Stability in East Asia depends upon good relations in all three legs of the U.S.-China-Japan triangle, but relations between China and Japan have deteriorated in the past six months. China permitted violent demonstrations against Japanese consulates to protest Japanese textbooks that sought to downplay the numbers killed during Tokyo’s invasion in the 1930s.
In addition, an Internet petition against Japanese permanent membership in the U.N. Security Council — which gathered close to 30 million Chinese signatures — was used by Premier Wen Jiabao to justify Beijing’s opposition to Japanese membership. Despite the fact that China has become Japan’s largest partner in trade and direct foreign investment, the animosity among nationalists in the two countries is growing and both governments are playing with fire.
The U.S. has an interest in dampening this trend to preserve the long term stability of the region. At the micro level, the U.S. could encourage the two countries to appoint a joint commission on history textbooks as Germany did with France and Poland. At the macro level, the U.S. can be cautious about involving Japan in Taiwan issues, as was the case when Washington issued a joint communique earlier this year.
Perhaps most important, the U.S. can encourage other Asian nations to help dampen the conflict. East Asia plans to hold its first regional summit in December. Washington has long been cool to any meeting without American participation, and U.S. opposition killed a previous version of the idea in the early 1990s. But now the situation has changed. Unlike the earlier efforts by former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad in the 1990s, the proposal for December’s summit came from friendly countries like Singapore and Indonesia, and will include American allies Australia and India as a balance to China.
Sometimes not being present can help advance America’s strategy so long as the U.S. knows what is going on and has its friends present. This new proposal is a missing piece in America’s long-term strategy for East Asian security.
Mr. Nye , a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense, is now a professor at Harvard and author of “The Power Game: A Washington Novel,” (Public Affairs, 2004)