At this point in US-Chinese relations, the United States military can no longer expect to maintain long-term military hegemony in the Asia-Pacific. China’s military strength in the Asia-Pacific will match the Unites States’ by the 2020s. The United States will also maintain taxing military commitments across the globe that far dwarf China’s global commitments. The US cannot realistically expect to maintain these global commitments and concurrently confine the world’s next rising superpower to its own backyard.
As the United States maintains its military commitment to NATO and thus remains the primary guaranteer of European security vis à vis Russia (not to mention its endless Middle Eastern security commitments), it cannot realistically expect to simultaneously prevent Chinese domination of the Pacific Ocean. The American withdrawal from its own Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) coupled with its simultaneous failure to properly buttress NATO may have been key factors in Italy’s recent signing onto China’s Silk Belt trade initiative. If the Americans cannot keep the Chinese out of Europe, how on Earth can they reasonably expect to stymie the Chinese in the Pacific?
If the United States today cannot realistically guarantee Taiwanese sovereignty in perpetuity, then it can at least broker talks on the peaceful reunification of Taiwan and China, while its negotiating hand is still formidable. In exchange, the United States could secure Japanese and South Korean Independence, while removing itself from the intractable North Korean issue – if the Chinese wish to be a great power, let them demonstrate it by negotiating peace on the Korean peninsula.
Some will call this appeasement; however, unlike the Germans of the 1930s, the Chinese do not seek conquest of all the globe, but to dominate their maritime backyard (much as the Americans sought to rule the Caribbean through the Monroe Doctrine). In regions such as Europe where the Chinese projection of power is less direct, the United States may realistically still directly challenge Chinese encroachment; however, to deny them the natural expression of their military power in the Asia-Pacific is to set the stage for heightening tensions.
American pride will make such an explicit acknowledgement of its waning relative power a bitter pill to swallow; however, the removal of the threat of major military conflict with a rising superpower is likely worth the hit to national pride. However, some elements within the Trump Administration are not looking to tactically retreat; the New York Times’ Ana Swanson in her article “A New Red Scare is Reshaping Washington” reports, “China is … projecting its power abroad, funding global infrastructure and constructing an archipelago of artificial islands with giant air bases reaching almost to the shores of Malaysia and Indonesia.”
In response, the reconstructed Committee on the Present Danger, comprised of many Trump Administration officials, now earnestly calls on Americans to become more aware of the growing geopolitical threat to the United States that is a rising China. The Committee’s confrontational approach to China’s rise reveals that many in the Trump administration believe that the United States could still succeed in containing China through a combination of military and economic (e.g. the Administration’s trade war with China) actions. The great question is whether China’s geopolitical strength has advanced to the point where even a concerted American counter-campaign would be enough to truly contain it while successfully avoiding the pitfalls to war.
Instead of setting up a titanic clash with the world’s rising superpower, why not take the initiative now and strike a long term peace deal with the Chinese while American leverage remains formidable? The longer the United States puts off this reckoning with China, the weaker its relative hand will be, the more paranoid American leaders may become of China’s relative strength, and the lesser the chance the United States will emerge from a military conflict the victor.