American defense officials, in their less guarded moments, will concede that the central object of U.S. defense posture in East Asia–and indeed Asia as a whole–is to “balance” China. What they don’t realize is what this statement reveals about their own thinking.
The balance of power is a hoary concept in international politics. From Macchiavelli to Fénelon to Waltz and forward, the idea has been that states seek to prevent other states from growing so strong that they could dominate part or all of the international system. Many scholars have suffered some positive/normative slippage, moving from describing a balance of power to infusing the balance of power with some independent moral force over international politics.
But for our purposes, in international relations jargon, “balancing” another state means either allying with other states to offset its power, or developing one’s own military power to prevent it from achieving dominance.
This is not what Washington is doing with respect to China. It is what Beijing is trying to do with respect to the United States.
That is because balancing is the act of a weaker state confronted with a stronger state. China is, by any measure, including its own, the weaker state in the dyad. To put it bluntly, no rational Chinese policymaker prefers his position to that of his U.S. counterpart. For all the talk about growing Chinese A2/AD (anti-access, area-denial) capability, for all the hysteria about the sequester and the moderate haircut the U.S. military budget has taken over the past few years, the United States and its allies continue to dominate East Asia. China is reduced to attempting to push out past two so-called “Island Chains” in the sea surrounding it.
The short version is, as it has been for years, that China could cause big headaches for any country operating between China’s shores and the first island chain. Between the first and second island chain, China would run into real problems if faced with an adversary equipped with modern weaponry, and outside the second island chain China would have very little impact on a military skirmish. (The long version is here.)
However, flip the table and imagine if American defense planners were struggling to come up with new, innovative ways to ensure that they could dominate the sea between Florida and Cuba. The idea is unthinkable. We certainly wouldn’t say that the foreign power that dominated our hemisphere was simply trying to “balance” our growing power. We’d say we were trying to balance it.
American defense planners are lying: to themselves, to China, and to other countries in the region when it comes to their intentions in East Asia. The danger is actually less that China or other countries will believe their lies, and more so that the Americans will believe the lies they tell themselves. China’s behavior will become even more bewildering unless U.S. defense planners have a clear-eyed view of what China–and we–are up to.