Not wishing to pile on to Abe Denmark's piece dismissing the idea that the US is containing China, but I have another concern to add to those of Hugh White. It relates to this passage in Denmark's piece:
The key question is not whether China develops its own military power, but how that power is utilised. Professor Ayson asks, a bit rhetorically, 'Does (the US) really want China's navy to escape the island chains?' The answer, naturally, depends on the purposes of China's naval expansion.
China's navy has already 'escaped' the island chains to conduct counter-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, an initiative the US supported. These kinds of missions, which contribute to international stability and demonstrate an acceptance of responsibility to the global order, are certainly positive and are the kind of uses of military power the US would not likely object to. Yet other uses of naval power, such as missions to assert a claim of sovereignty or to challenge another nation's rights to freedom of navigation on the high seas, would be highly objectionable and destabilising.
I too would like to see China contribute to international stability and the global order, though there is a whiff in this passage that America alone gets to define those terms. That's simply not realistic in a world in which China is the world's second-largest economy.
More importantly, though, this passage exposes a certain lack of empathy. Because from a Chinese perspective, the demand that Beijing not use its power to claim sovereignty or challenge another nation's right to freedom of navigation on the high seas must look rather one-sided.
It is America that projects overwhelming military power into the Asia Pacific through a web of alliances and military bases. It is America that supplies Asia Pacific nations (and 'renegade provinces') with advanced weapons. And it was America that surged its naval forces into the region in 1996 during the Taiwan election crisis.
You might argue that none of those things amount to 'asserting claims of sovereignty' or 'challenging another nation's right to freedom of navigation'. Fine. But I wonder if the US would be in any mood to split such hairs if it was China sailing its aircraft carriers into the Gulf of Mexico, garrisoning 100,000 troops in Venezuela and selling stealth fighters to Cuba.
America's Asia Pacific military presence has been good for Australia, for the region, and for China too. But to think that China will remain content with present arrangements indefinitely seems unrealistic. Why would a country on the way to becoming the world's largest economy in the next decade-or-so not want a big say in how the rules are made and how the region is ordered? To manage the transition away from American dominance, we've got to try harder to understand China's point of view.
Photo by Flickr user #PACOM.