Would scaled back US military role in Asia-Pacific open door to China? Not everyone is convinced

Kristin Huang
·4-min read

Supporters of a scaled-back US military role believe China is unlikely to be “inalterably aggressive or impossible to deter” despite its growing power, an analysis by a US think tank has concluded.

The Rand Corporation report published last month examines what changes would happen if the strategy favoured by these “advocates of restraint” was adopted.

“These realist thinkers assess that Russia and Iran are relatively weak states that will be unable to dominate their regions,” the report said.

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“Although advocates of restraint believe that China is more capable, they remain more optimistic about the ability of local powers to limit China’s domination of East Asia.

“Moreover, advocates of restraint anticipate that China will be ambitious as it continues to rise, but not inalterably aggressive or impossible to deter.”

The authors said supporters of this approach believed that only a few developments could threaten US national security and they favoured fewer military interventions abroad, wanted to reduce the numbers of troops overseas and reform or abandon some of America’s security commitments.

In the section of the report looking at the Asia-Pacific region, the authors said there were some circumstances in which advocates of restraint would favour the use of force to protect US interests.

They believe that although the United States should maintain its military capability to prevent China from dominating its neighbours, trying to contain China could bring about unnecessary conflict.

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They also want the United States to decrease freedom of navigation operations and surveillance near disputed islands in the South China Sea – an area that has seen regular confrontations between the two sides.

The authors said advocates of restraint were unlikely to support an armed intervention in response to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, and said at least one analyst had called for the US to abandon its policy of defending the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkakus in Japan.

They argue that Europe presents few threats to US strategic interests as Russia’s ability to dominate the continent is limited, and say Washington should scale back troop numbers there to limit the risk of being pulled into other conflicts.

The authors of the report noted that neither the arguments in favour of restraint or the current policy had yet been fully tested.

Miranda Priebe, director of the Rand Centre for Analysis of US Grand Strategy and one of the report’s authors, said the primary aim was not to evaluate whether these arguments were sound or whether adopting such a strategy was advisable.

“Rather, we take advocates of restraint on their own terms and explain how US regional security policies would change if their proposals were adopted,” Priebe said.

Liu Weidong, a US affairs specialist from Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the Biden administration was unlikely to adopt this approach.

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“Biden and his team are far more idealistic than Donald Trump. For example, he cares very much about climate change, an issue that has no direct impact on current US development,” Liu said.

“And Biden wants to further promote human rights and support democracies across the world, and this Rand report obviously doesn’t fit with his administration, especially considering that being strong against China is almost a consensus in Washington.”

Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London, said that “while [the Biden administration] will not take a reckless and erratic approach as the Trump administration did, it will continue to take a robust approach to China, allowing for scope to explore cooperation, but will not agree to working together on Chinese terms.

“It will be restrained compared to the Trump approach but it will not be seen as particularly restrained from the perspective of Beijing.”

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