Why U.S. Policy in East Asia Is Dangerous

Ivan Eland
The Independent Institute
August 6, 2013


The Asia PivotThe United States, which has dominated East Asia since World War II, is now “pivoting” towards that region to stem the rise of a new regional power—China. Following the instinct of most international powers to foil the ascent of a rival for domination, this approach rarely works and is charting a dangerous course. U.S. attempts to contain the rise of China—which is experiencing rapid economic growth because of its huge population and partial economic privatization over the last few decades—is unlikely to succeed because China’s steady rise on the back of its soaring economy is a problem that America can do little about.

This dynamic China, which has transformed from being totalitarian to more market-based authoritarian, is no stagnant communist Soviet Union. The United States contained the Soviets until the government collapsed because of economic stagnation and a plummeting price of oil—the only thing anyone ever wanted to buy from the USSR. Now, the United States’ latest pivot to East Asia is intended to reinforce the already existing containment policy towards China by building up U.S. military forces and augmenting Cold War alliances in the region. This is unlikely to stem China’s rise. While Russia was supposedly on the rise, their economy was sinking. In China’s case, their economy is largely the reason behind their new status as an international power broker. Thus, applying the same containment policy will likely only lead to a hostile relationship between two nuclear-armed nations and thus provide less long-term security for the American people. But what is the alternative?

A different, if seemingly radical, way forward exists. The United States could provide more security for less defense money to an America with huge budget deficits and debt, thus freeing up more resources to compete with China economically instead of militarily. In the long-term, a strong economy underlies almost all other indices of national power.

The problem is that the last major containment policy applied by the U.S came against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, which is widely credited to have toppled the communist government there. Consequently, this “successful” containment policy has been quietly shifted toward a post-communist China. However, even if containment was the major factor in toppling the Soviet Union—a dubious proposition given the extensive economic rot in that country—no one ever asks if the same result could have been achieved with far less cost in American lives and money using a “containment-lite” policy. For security purposes, given that many empires fall from over-extension and thus financial decline, wouldn’t it have been better during the Cold War to let the Soviet Union take over and incur the costs of administering, assisting, and policing backwater economic basket cases such as South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Angola, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Afghanistan, etc? Instead, the U.S could have concentrated efforts on preserving the key economic and technologically advanced areas of Western Europe and Japan. The economically challenged USSR might have collapsed much sooner.

Even in the more advanced regions during the Cold War, was it rational for the United States to protect these nations with an American nuclear umbrella—one that ultimately pledged to incur destruction of American cities to save London, Paris, Berlin, and Tokyo from the communist hordes? A communist takeover of any of these places would have not have been a good day, but incineration of American cities would have been even worse.

Yet long after the Cold War is over, the American nuclear shield extends even wider to include a number of countries in Europe and East Asia. In East Asia, the American nuclear backstop protects Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines formally, and Taiwan and other nations informally. But what if a local conflict between the Chinese and a U.S. ally inadvertently escalates into a nuclear stand off between China and the United States?

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