It has taken China only 30 years since it embraced capitalism to create the second largest economy, beating out Japan and positioning itself to surpass the US over the next two decades. The world should take care, however, in noting this achievement. China has yet to display a similar growth as a respected, responsible partner in either Asian or global affairs.
Its neighbors, from South Korea to Vietnam to India, have recently become anxious as China wields its new-found strength with reckless impatience, claiming territory, controlling markets, and expanding its Navy in provocative ways. It even defied much of the world in not condemning North Korea’s recent sinking of a South Korean warship.
The response by many Asian nations has been a renewed embrace of the region’s longtime protector, the United States.
That embrace, however, is not just because the US is a geopolitical power with a Navy and an economy that can counter China’s expansion. No, fundamentally it is because the US still displays values and leadership that far surpass those of China in attracting allies.
The new regional concerns about China confront the US with a dilemma: How much should it contain China in areas that appear threatening while also trying to engage it as a potential strategic partner?
That requires a tricky balance. Containment worked during the cold war to bring down the Soviet Union because the communist system collapsed under its own contradictions. US containment of China also helped force it to abandon a communist-oriented economy in 1979, but not its authoritarian rule.
Since the end of the cold war in 1991, the US has more often than not tried to engage China, most notably in letting it enter the World Trade Organization and in seeking its help on crises such as the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea. But President Obama has begun to shift toward containing China, forcing the question of how far the US should go.
Washington has recently beefed up its military ties with Taiwan, Vietnam, and Indonesia, while threatening to conduct a massive sea exercise with South Korea near China’s coast on the Yellow Sea. Mr. Obama has asked Congress to approve a free-trade pact with South Korea, while seeking other such bilateral agreements in Asia that can measure up to similar pacts already won by China.
Most notably, the US stood shoulder to shoulder with many Southeast Asian nations last month. Washington told Beijing that its recent claims to many small islands in the South China Sea are essentially bogus and that it needs to resolve those claims peacefully with all the other nations around that sea.
This was a direct challenge to China’s presumed dominance of Asia. The US laid down a marker that it wants to remain the dominant power while also building up more alliances with other Asian nations to counter China.
That is not a light commitment by Obama. He must make sure the US military maintains a strong presence in Asia. He must stand up to Congress in winning approval of free-trade agreements. And he must encourage Asian nations to beef up their militaries to support the US in a regional defense.
On economic issues, the US is still engaging China, such as asking it to stop manipulating its currency in order to favor its exports. Here again, the US is standing up for the value of free markets, a value that China honors more for its self-interest than it does for other nations.
China’s lack of regard for the effects of its currency manipulation is straining Obama’s patience as he tries to revive the US economy. Congress certainly is becoming less patient as it moves closer to hindering imports of Chinese goods.
In making such moves, the US must remember that it stands for values such as liberty and openness which have enabled it to be a superpower. As China climbs toward becoming a superpower, it won’t get too far unless it adopts those values.
Last year, Lee Kuan Yew, the former leader of Singapore, warned that “US core interest requires that it remains the superior power on the Pacific.” That power, however, doesn’t necessarily come out of the barrel of a gun. For America, it comes out of the power of its values.