n the last few years, it has become gospel in Washington that the status quo of U.S. policy toward China cannot continue—that China’s rise has reached a tipping point where the mix of containment and trade that characterized U.S. policy for decades is doomed. As a result, advocates of this view argue, a radical change toward a more aggressive stance is needed to protect U.S. interests in Asia.
Recognizing the shift in U.S. views of China is necessary. No serious policy proposal can ignore the sea change in attitudes that is already evident among U.S. policymakers, scholars, and even the general public. But recalling what has not changed—what is unlikely to change—between the two superpowers is even more important when crafting a responsible U.S. policy in East Asia.
First, neither China nor the U.S. wants to invade the other. Nuclear weapons make regime change an assured catastrophe. Nor are there any real gains to be had from invasion and occupation were it possible without nuclear annihilation. The era of extractive colonialism and overt imperialism is thankfully over.
Mutual deterrence against invasion is easy to take for granted, but it is precisely this feature that separates the current competition from earlier great-power conflicts resulting in open war. While today the U.S. and China may disagree, neither’s very existence is threatened. That fact should frame all disagreements in a less confrontational light.
Second, China is surrounded by capable powers and geography that make territorial expansion difficult. Beijing is unlikely to sweep across Asia like Berlin did across Europe between 1939 and 1945. Water and mountains around China have stopping power. Russia, India, Pakistan, and North Korea are nuclear powers. Vietnam and other neighbors can mount considerable nationalist resistance. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are wealthy, and each currently spends less than 3 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. Each could ramp up military spending if needed. All of this limits China from becoming a hegemonic force that could then credibly threaten the Western hemisphere.