How (and How Not) to Handle China in the Pacific

By Connor Woodin

USS John C. Stennis during Rim of the Pacific 2016.
Image Credit: Jason Noble/DVIDS

In 1991, the top rival of the United States and only other world superpower collapsed. The demise of the Soviet Union left America in an interesting situation: a unipolar moment. 

Any foreign policy goal could be achieved, any objective accomplished because there was no nation that could challenge American might. It didn’t hurt that the majority of the developed world was allied with Washington, either. 

This led to a degradation of how the United States approached foreign policy. Instead of compromising and working with other countries, Uncle Sam began to demand things. There was still ‘diplomacy,’ but America slowly became the strongman of the world with lofty goals to bring about massive global change. 

These lofty goals, with some foul intentions, landed the United States in the Middle East, including in a war that lasted the majority of this author’s lifetime and cost the United States trillions of dollars. This has led to American primacy being undermined and now threatened by rising regional powers. 

The most prevalent example of this is China, which over the past few years has begun aggressive expansion into the South China Sea and in contested areas such as Kashmir. Both these regions are decidedly not Chinese according to international law, yet the Chinese continue to push into them anyways. 

For example, in the South China Sea, the Chinese have assembled a string of islands in order to claim the potentially resource-rich area as their territorial waters. Due to this, the hostility in the region has been growing hotter and hotter. The U.S. Navy can and does still enter the region, although it has become more dangerous to do so. 

This rise of China has caused the U.S. to pivot its strategic goals towards the East. As a result, America has an amazing opportunity to redesign how its strategic goals are achieved. Rather than simply using brute force to achieve the goal of containing Chinese expansion and aggression, the United States could empower allies in the region to assist in the effort. 

The United States should work toward improving relations with nations such as Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. Washington can ink more treaties and contracts that allow these nations to build up their militaries, like the recent AUKUS nuclear submarine deal with Australia and the United Kingdom. 

With that deal, the United States not only bolstered Australia but made it a more strategically important nation. The Australian navy will soon have the ability to deploy submarines that can stay out at sea for months at a time and will be able to patrol both territorial waters as well as international waters. This arrangement essentially made Australia a larger partner in the defense of the Pacific and made America an even more vital Australian ally.

If deals like AUKUS were extended to a nation such as South Korea, American troops would not be needed as a linchpin of Korean defense. The Korean military could be sold state-of-the-art weapons technology which would allow them to protect their sovereignty against nations such as China and North Korea. 

However, the United States should not simply sell weapons to these nations, or create alliances with them on an individual basis, but rather should actively attempt to bring them all together. 

Asean does exist, but the relationships between these countries could be bolstered to allow for mutual defense planning. Creating a more cohesive alliance network throughout Asia could trap China in their territory, which should be the United States’ main strategic goal in the region–to trap and stop Chinese expansion both economically and politically. 

China has capitalized on the United States’ recent withdrawal into isolationism, using the opportunity to form trade agreements with former U.S. trade partners. This allowed for massive economic expansion, and threatens to cut the United States both out of the region and out of the picture entirely. 

China’s military build-up, aggressive attitude in international waters, contested territory claims and new trade deals have weakened the United States’ position in the Pacific. Although the United States is down, it is not out yet. The United States is still the world’s largest economy and one of, if not the most, influential nations in the world. These determinants mean that the United States can recover its position if it plays its cards right. 

The best way for the US to reach these goals is to foster closer alliances with nations in the Pacific through the sale of military equipment and through economic deals. 

The sale of military arms will allow for these nations to gain access to state-of-the-art technology that they simply do not have the industry to produce themselves. With these technologies, they can also defend their sovereignty and deter the Chinese from bullying them.

If better mutual defense alliances can be fostered between these nations, America will no longer be ‘alone’ in defending the area as there will be other powers or a grouping of powers that is comparable to China. 

If good economic deals can be struck between America and these nations, it will hinder Chinese expansion into regional economies and prevent trends like Chinese domination of the Australian real estate market

America has a chance right now to ensure that the Pacific theater works for American strategic goals, without costing trillions of taxpayer dollars, while allowing for the nations in the region to prosper as secured allies. Finally, as American primacy declines, this approach will ensure that the United States does not completely lose its force projection in this area but simply changes tools from fleet groups to diplomats and industry. 

Connor Woodin is the Realist Review’s newest contributor. He studies Political Science at Wheaton College.

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