China-bashing is a favorite American media and political past-time. Headlines blast that China is ‘building up its military’. From what? For what? China has one of the lowest military to civilian spending ratios in the world. It is a regional power, yes, but has never ventured into exotic wars and adventures on continents far across the globe. People like Neil Ferguson who claims China is on a trajectory to become a major threat to the US by 2050 (!) engage in ridiculous speculation, not intelligent analysis. Another example of Western warmongering based on a threat that doesn’t exist.
Lyle Goldstein, on the other hand, develops the counter-narrative to the ‘bellicose Chinese’ narrative in Foreign Policy, using regional tensions in the South China Sea to draw out larger problems with aggessive US policy in the region. I am quoting large parts of his excellent article:
Last year, tensions reached a boiling point. U.S. officials were apparently disturbed when senior Chinese officials referred to the South China Sea as a “core interest” in March. This was viewed as the latest evidence of a supposedly bellicose, new turn in Chinese foreign policy. Then, a catalytic moment seems to have occurred in July 2010 during the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi. At this meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asserted a U.S. national interest in freedom of navigation through the South China Sea and warned against the “use or threat of force by any claimant.” Attending this event, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi is said to have been surprised and furious at Clinton’s remarks. Then, in August, Vietnamese officers were taken aboard the USS George Washington aircraft carrier in a clear sign that the U.S. military intended to intensify its relationship with Vietnam’s armed forces to deter China. Major Chinese military exercises also took place in the South China Sea in August 2010.A fresh round of tensions erupted this spring. The Philippines complained of Chinese incursions in their territorial waters, while Vietnam accused China of cutting its seismic exploration cables, which is both an escalation of the dispute and a symbol of Beijing’s disgust with the fact that Hanoi continues to actively explore in disputed areas. Washington’s response has been firm: At a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Asia Security Summit this June, Defense Secretary Robert Gates proposed “deploying U.S. littoral combat ships to Singapore” and also “increasing … naval engagements … throughout the region.”
Washington’s focus on “freedom of navigation,” which has inexplicably become the main pillar of current U.S. policy in the region, is actually rather absurd. China, the world’s largest maritime trading nation by almost any measure, is very unlikely to threaten navigational freedoms — its own economy is almost wholly reliant on those very freedoms. The claim that China’s opposition to regular U.S. military surveillance activities in the South China Sea threatens “freedom of navigation” is likewise disingenuous and represents an unfortunate tendency to reach for the clever sound bite. In fact, such U.S. surveillance activities all along China’s coasts are excessive to the point of seriously disrupting the bilateral relationship and should thus be decreased, especially if linked to concrete progress on Chinese military transparency.
The alleged Chinese threat to ASEAN states, moreover, turns out to be more hype than fact. Much has been said about China’s new nuclear submarine base on Hainan Island, but the surprise is that up to now Beijing has had only one nuclear submarine base (Qingdao) — quite paltry when compared with the four operated by the U.S. Navy in the Pacific area. Similarly, the basing of a ballistic missile submarine and even China’s first aircraft carrier at Hainan would more likely represent weakness than strength. After all, alternative basing in north China simply means these high-value assets would be closer and hence more vulnerable to the impressive striking power of both the Japanese and U.S. fleets that are based primarily in Northeast Asia.
The author lays out a text-book case of a foreign policy at odds with US interests. The tensions among nations with claims to the South China Sea are regional and have nothing to do with US national security. They are part of regional power plays and jockeying for resources. There is no threat whatsoever to open navigation on the SCS. The US has no interest in the dispute and should stay away from it.
Southeast Asia can deal with its own problems. The weaker states might egg on the US to ‘stand up’ to China. But it’s a sucker-punch. This is not the after math of WW2 where the US had obligations to stabilize the Nor are we in the Cold War playing the ‘China card”. Wake up to reality, America! China has a clear interest in South East Asian politics. Let them deal with it! What possible interest do we have in regional disputes such as this – unless we want to aggravate them into international crises. Why do politicians see aggression as the default status of US foreign policy?