Between complacency and confrontation there is a responsible way forward that keeps the Asia-Pacific a big enough place to accommodate the vital interests of both Beijing and Washington. The heavy lifting will have to be done by the United States. That’s okay. The work will make America a stronger nation and a better Asian ally. In the last decade, the Chinese regime has shown itself to be anti-democratic, no friend of free markets, a first-class cyber bully and more interested in rewriting or ignoring international norms than in respecting them. Left unchecked, the Beijing method of managing international relations is not likely to make the world a better or safer place. If America didn’t share the same neighborhood with China, it might well ignore Beijing’s behavior and let others deal with it. But China and the United States are stuck with each other. Unfortunately, the current U.S. China policy isn’t working. That’s why China thinks its U.S. policy is working—and Beijing’s goal is to diminish and marginalize Washington’s influence in the Asia-Pacific.
There is a diplomatic dimension to righting the relationship, but it requires the United States to work in a more synchronized manner with key nations that have the most to lose if China’s bullying doesn’t stop. Those nations are India, Australia and Japan. There also has to be a military component to the U.S. approach. America won’t be respected in the region if its armed forces aren’t adequate to protect U.S. vital interests—namely ensuring freedom of the commons (air, sea and cyberspace) and deterring major regional conflicts (without relying exclusively on nuclear weapons). But there is more on the U.S. to-do list. Diplomatic and military initiatives are needed to respond to the threats engendered by Chinese behavior. But that same ham-fisted behavior has created opportunities for the United States. To make the most of those opportunities, the United States will need to power up two additional elements of national power: economic power and public engagement. Ramping these up ought to be easy lifts and joyful tasks. They will not only check China, they will help build a strong and more resilient America, as well as improve the lot of our friends and allies in Asia. More