Don’t Try to Contain China

In his State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama has an important opportunity to dispel some of the tensions brewing in northeast Asia, and to stress the political and economic imperatives of a post-Cold War peace across the region.

The U.S. “pivot to Asia” -- a major shift in foreign policy priorities -- has already provoked fears of encirclement and accusations of meddling from China. Last week’s revelation that the Chinese navy trained its weapons radar on a Japanese warship, not far from the disputed Senkaku islands, underscores the real challenges before the U.S in east Asia.

Relations between two of the world’s largest economies have deteriorated to the point where an overly patriotic pilot or drunken naval captain could set off hostilities. The U.S. is bound by treaty to defend Japan, whose position on the Senkaku islands -- no dispute, and therefore no discussion necessary -- is less than convincing. Increased American diplomatic and military maneuvers in Asia as part of its pivot are now prone to even more menacing interpretation by the Chinese.

Fortunately, no one really wants war, least of all the Chinese, whose growing economy needs Japanese investments. Chinese leaders seem to be speaking the truth when they claim they are more concerned with domestic issues than external ones.

At the same time, the country’s modern history, and the Chinese Communist Party’s influential nationalist narrative of recovering Chinese greatness, commits China’s leaders to a forceful public posture in their relationships with the West and many Asian countries. Consequently, China’s neighbors fear its growing assertiveness even as they grow economically more interdependent with it.

But the U.S. should resist seeing this as an opportunity for a wider “strategic containment” of China. It would further stoke Chinese nationalism, which remains a potent force. In any case, Asian countries would dislike being forced to choose between Beijing and Washington. With words followed by deeds, Obama could do well to dispel these unworkable Cold War binaries at this volatile moment.

(Pankaj Mishra is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia” and a Bloomberg View columnist, based in London and Mashobra, India. The opinions expressed are his own. This is one of 11 suggestions Bloomberg View columnists made for the foreign policy section of Barack Obama's State of the Union address. Read more here.)

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