In the last few years, it has become gospel in Washington that the status quo of U.S. policy toward China cannot continue—that China’s rise has reached a tipping point where the mix of containment and trade that characterized U.S. policy for decades is doomed. As a result, advocates of this view argue, a radical change toward a more aggressive stance is needed to protect U.S. interests in Asia.
Recognizing the shift in U.S. views of China is necessary. No serious policy proposal can ignore the sea change in attitudes that is already evident among U.S. policymakers, scholars, and even the general public. But recalling what has not changed—what is unlikely to change—between the two superpowers is even more important when crafting a responsible U.S. policy in East Asia.
First, neither China nor the U.S. wants to invade the other. Nuclear weapons make regime change an assured catastrophe. Nor are there any real gains to be had from invasion and occupation were it possible without nuclear annihilation. The era of extractive colonialism and overt imperialism is thankfully over.
Mutual deterrence against invasion is easy to take for granted, but it is precisely this feature that separates the current competition from earlier great-power conflicts resulting in open war. While today the U.S. and China may disagree, neither’s very existence is threatened. That fact should frame all disagreements in a less confrontational light.
Second, China is surrounded by capable powers and geography that make territorial expansion difficult. Beijing is unlikely to sweep across Asia like Berlin did across Europe between 1939 and 1945. Water and mountains around China have stopping power. Russia, India, Pakistan, and North Korea are nuclear powers. Vietnam and other neighbors can mount considerable nationalist resistance. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are wealthy, and each currently spends less than 3 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. Each could ramp up military spending if needed. All of this limits China from becoming a hegemonic force that could then credibly threaten the Western hemisphere.
Third, China wants trade. Concern about China’s rise has focused on the growth of Beijing’s military, and in particular its navy, which could come to dominate sea lanes in the region. But what would “domination” mean?
At home, the Chinese Communist Party has staked its survival on the stick of police-state coercion and the carrot of continued economic growth. The latter depends on trade, and trade depends on safe-enough sea lanes for shipping. Because Beijing wants trade to continue, the Chinese navy’s frequent harassment of U.S. navy vessels does not mean that a wider harassment of commercial vessels is next. Most commercial shipping is unhindered in areas where China’s navy operates. The limited instances when Chinese ships have harassed commercial interests—Vietnamese fishing vessels, for example—are not worth sending the U.S. Navy to contest.
Alone, military capability is not a threat. Instead, a threat is military capability and the intent to use it, and the latter matters. The United States, a military superpower, for example, has the capability to send its troops south and not stop until they reach Tierra del Fuego. The reason it does not is because it lacks the intent. It lacks the intent because there are no strong benefits and plenty of steep costs. Trading with other countries, instead, offers more advantages at less cost. The situation for China in East Asia is similar.
Fourth, outside powers still cannot do much about what happens within China. Make no mistake: Beijing is running internment camps; arbitrary imprisonment is common; techno-authoritarianism is oppressive. But the U.S. has no clear levers to stop these things from happening other than at the margins. And for the tools America does have to try to change Beijing’s internal behavior, there cannot be done at an acceptable cost.
Instead, what happens between the United States and China should be the main focus. Beijing and Washington disagree on important bilateral issues such as intellectual property theft, forced technology transfers, espionage, and unfair industrial policies. Some bilateral issues can be remedied, and some cannot—but none will be if rectifying a range of human rights concerns within China is a prerequisite. Beijing will bristle at the encroachment on its sovereignty, and it could then worsen the abuses. Moreover, an expanding middle class in China through global engagement remains—even if the notion has become déclassé in Washington—the best route to Chinese citizens demanding more from their government in terms of rights.
Fifth, Taiwan is not a U.S. ally. There is no official defense treaty between Washington and Taipei, and the U.S. declaring one could push Beijing to risk an invasion attempt. The status quo is better preserved by keeping the pretense that Taiwan could one day peacefully reunite with the mainland while Washington continues to sell Taipei weapons to increase the cost of an invasion for Beijing.
John Richard Cookson is a fellow at Defense Priorities. He previously worked for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, CNN, and The National Interest.