Since Nixon went to China, America and the West have been working to expand China’s economic rise and to integrate it diplomatically and politically into the international system. That part of the engagement policy has worked, to China’s great advantage and the benefit of millions of Chinese.
Even in the security realm, Washington had been willing to give China the benefit of the doubt during its dramatic military buildup. Putting the best face on it, US policymakers acknowledge that economic power usually leads to military power, if for no other reasons than the accrual of international prestige and the defense of expanding economic interests.
But that tolerant view ignores three facts: 1) China faces no external threat requiring its huge military investment, 2) the US Navy has protected China’s commercial interests along with everyone else’s by keeping the world’s sea lanes open, and 3) China hardly needs weapons systems like long-range ballistic missiles just to ward off Somali pirates.
When China decided to accompany its military build-up with threatening rhetoric and actions against the interests of the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Southeast Asian countries, alarm bells finally went off in Washington and the region. Chinese actions are starting to evoke unpleasant memories of Japan’s rise in the 1930s.
The bottom line is that Washington is committed to deterring an aggressive, expansionist China and is expanding its regional security ties for that purpose. When Beijing warns its neighbors to remember, “you are small and we are big,” it practically invites big friends of those small countries to undertake some serious containment.