When America and China have a falling out, the world tends to take notice.
That’s no surprise, of course. This relationship doesn’t just shape the interests of two nations; it heavily influences the economic, military, and political trajectory of the world. Indeed, because of this reality, the prospective consequences of a serious U.S.-Chinese dispute actually help decrease the likelihood of such a dispute’s occurring.
Still, I think there are three lessons that we can take from the present crisis.
1. In order to be real, American power must be projected.
As I suggested earlier this week, it’s very likely that this new ADIZ flowed from China’s desire to test American resolve. Yet even as the Obama administration has (thus far) acted courageously, the very fact that China decided to launch this challenge should be a serious cause for concern.
For all the imagery of American military power — jets shooting off carrier decks, tanks storming across deserts, vast ground deployments abroad — American power isn’t real unless it’s perceived practically. Just as our aircraft carriers cut waves through the sea, those vessels also cut waves of geopolitical consequence. This is a truth that we must embrace. In order to positively influence American foes and consolidate American friends, the United States must apply its power without apology.
2. The sequester is physically degrading U.S. national security.
For the U.S. military, this is just another day at the office. Facing a mission portfolio that ranges from piracy to terrorism and Chinese expansionism to humanitarian disasters, the Navy has long understood the value of a ready and reflexive capability. Unfortunately, robust capability also requires significant resources. Absent those investments, capability rots.
Consider the present crisis. Today, thanks to the sequester, the U.S. Navy’s emergency deployment (one-week notice) capability has been reduced from three carrier strike groups to one. At the same time, as the head of the U.S. Navy has recently noted, the U.S. lacks a good understanding of the Chinese navy’s strategic intent.
As we’re seeing in the East China Sea, where military capability disconnects from strategic reality, the ramifications are potentially severe. To be sure, the U.S. 7th Fleet represents an extraordinary force. Nevertheless, the proof is now forensic — the sequester is jeopardizing national security.
3. The U.S. has a diplomatic opportunity here.
Isn’t it interesting how anti-Americanism goes dormant when a threat knocks at the gates?
When it comes to Japan and South Korea, whether by encouraging both nations to spend more on national defense (and so relieve some of the burden on American taxpayers) or by helping facilitate new trade deals, the U.S. should use this crisis to advance our broader interests. In a similar sense, regarding Vietnam, the U.S. has an opportunity to move conclusively past former enmities and eventually forge a new strategic alliance with that nation.
In the end, if the U.S. grasps this moment, we won’t simply serve the interests of peace and trade; we’ll help create a buffer of allied democracies on the frontiers of Chinese territory. Over time, by basic economic necessity, that buffer will force China to engage more constructively with the structures and norms of the international system.
Don’t get me wrong: I realize that this crisis is precarious and undesired — that the first priority is China’s acceptance (whether tacit or overt) that it cannot dominate the region. Yet our reaction to this challenge cannot simply exist in the moment. We also need to take stock of the deeper policy lessons it’s elucidating.
If we do, we’ll be acting in that finest of American traditions — forging lasting good from a negative situation.
— Tom Rogan is a blogger based in Washington, D.C., and a contributor to TheWeek.com and the Guardian.