Monday, August 9, 2010

Containing China

There's more going on in East Asia re: containing China's influence in the region. 

While the Clinton State Department works to increase ties to Vietnam, Defense Secretary Gates is working to increase military cooperation with Indonesia, in moves designed to show U.S. commitment in the South China Sea and to bolster efforts to defend freedom of the seas in the face of Chinese territorial claims.

At the same time, the United States agreed to sell Taiwan two Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates for anti-air and anti-sub work, bolstering the island's defense against the PRC, which continues to claim that Taiwan is historically part of China.  Other regional powers are also working to build defenses against a potential sea threat from the PRC.  Japan is building supersonic anti-ship missiles that it can launch from fighter aircraft to counter Chinese carriers, destroyers, and cruisers, and increasing the size of its submarine fleet to counter the larger number of submarines deployed by the People's Liberation Army Navy.

What I find interesting is that the label "containment" doesn't appear in these discussions.  Instead Clinton and Gates are working to maintain the "balance of power" in East and Southeast Asia by building partnerships with regimes that are liberalizing and modernizing while still trying to push them on human rights issues.  On the surface this is different from Cold War containment, in which any opponent to the Soviet Union was our friend, no matter how nasty that "ally" might be, but containment it is, and our partners are still folks who fear an aggressive larger neighbor. 

The change in labels from "containment" to "balance of power" makes some PR sense.  Given America's Cold War efforts at containment, China might see it as an aggressive move against them, and the Obama administration's efforts are not so much a move to isolate China completely, as to keep the PRC in check.  To my mind, though, the phrase "balance of power" recalls the 19th and early 20th century European diplomacy leading up to World War I, and we all know how that worked out.

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