Washington may be junking a strategy of integration that has ruled for 45 years.
Beijing’s bid to dominate one of the world’s most important waterways, the South China Sea, is again the focus as U.S. and Asian leaders gather here for the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s top security summit. Last year’s meeting occurred as China was drilling for oil in Vietnamese waters and shooting water cannons at ships that tried to get in its way. This year China is building military bases on 2,000 acres of artificial land it has dredged atop reefs and rocks claimed by its neighbors.
But one big thing has changed. China’s cumulative behavior has led to a shift in American strategic thinking. Beijing’s gradual process of “salami slicing” its way to maritime control may have gone too far, resulting in a decisive hardening of opinion among U.S. officials, policy experts, business leaders and voters. This rethink could shape global security for decades to come.
Start with President Barack Obama, who is preparing to host Chinese leader Xi Jinping for a state visit in September, following his own trip to Beijing last year, which included the signing of a celebrated (if toothless) environmental pact. Expect Mr. Xi’s visit to focus on areas of cooperation, but even at the presidential level the message is subtly cooling.
At their first summit two years ago, Mr. Obama appeared to embrace Mr. Xi’s slogan that the U.S. and China should pursue “a new model of great-power relations.” National Security Adviser Susan Rice pledged later that year to “operationalize” Beijing’s concept, even as it increasingly sounded like a demand for accommodation of a Chinese sphere of influence in East Asia. Again Mr. Obama spoke of “continuing to strengthen and build a new model of relations” in March 2014, but he soon stopped using the phrase—a shift noticed in Beijing, where such official formulations carry significant weight.
Relations between the U.S. and Chinese militaries have likewise cooled after a period of warmth that culminated in China seeking and receiving an invitation to the U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific (Rimpac) multilateral naval exercise, the world’s largest, in 2014. The outgoing U.S. chief of naval operations, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, is said to have grown so close to his Chinese counterpart, Adm. Wu Shengli, that some Pentagon officials refer to the duo by the portmanteau “Wunert.”
Yet a major ambition of the two admirals—to bring the USS George Washington aircraft carrier to a Chinese port, perhaps Shanghai, for a tour by Chinese naval personnel—was shelved at least temporarily by the Pentagon in January. U.S. officials have said China first should sign a code for handling unplanned encounters between military aircraft. Such rules might have prevented a Chinese fighter jet from executing a dangerous barrel roll within 50 feet of a U.S. surveillance plane in international airspace off China’s coast last August.
The U.S. Navy says China has adhered to a code signed last year concerning unplanned encounters at sea. But officials still complain about China’s refusal to open reliable lines of communication and to explain destabilizing actions such as building artificial islands for military use—what new U.S. Pacific Commander Adm. Harry Harris has called a “great wall of sand.” Congressional staffers and others in Washington expect China’s military to be disinvited from the next Rimpac exercise.
All this, remember, from an administration hardly itching to confront America’s overseas adversaries. But in shifting its stance toward China, Washington is something of a lagging indicator. Pollsters from Pew found only 35% of Americans viewed China favorably last year, down from half in 2011. (More than 80% of Japanese, Vietnamese and South Koreans, and more than 90% of Filipinos, fear territorial disputes will lead to armed clashes.)
Even the American Chamber of Commerce in China, representing firms that have long been among Beijing’s strongest advocates in Washington, found 60% of its members complaining last year that conditions in China are worsening for foreign firms. IBM and many others continue expanding investment in China, but perhaps there’s a limit to how much intellectual-property theft U.S. firms will be willing to suffer—to say nothing of Americans whose electrical grid, gas pipelines and emails have all come under sustained Chinese cyberassault.
The clearest call for rethinking China policy comes from a recent Council on Foreign Relations report by former U.S. diplomats Robert Blackwill and Ashley Tellis. The assumption behind four decades of U.S.-China integration, they write, has proven inoperable: China isn’t interested in becoming a “responsible stakeholder” in any U.S.-led liberal international order, period. Beijing wants to end U.S. primacy in East Asia, a goal that imperils U.S. interests in free commerce, nonproliferation, peace and stability.
China isn’t an enemy and “containment” isn’t appropriate, they write, but prudence requires trying to “limit China’s capacity to misuse its growing power.” So implement Mr. Obama’s “pivot”—move military assets to Asia, finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact—but also do far more, they say: Eliminate budget caps on defense, maintain nuclear balance, accelerate missile defenses, expand cooperation with regional partners, insist on freedom of navigation. Further: Tighten limits on transferring technology to Chinese buyers, and even pursue “an across-the-board tariff on Chinese goods” to answer cybertheft.
Seen in this context, the China challenge extends far beyond the island-building that is capturing so much immediate attention. But as delegates meet at the Shangri-La Dialogue, China’s neighbors and top U.S. officials are sounding alarms. “There should be no mistake about this,” said Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Wednesday, “the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do all around the world.”
Such rhetoric appears to derive from a crystallizing Washington consensus that China has announced itself as a bona fide strategic rival. Treating China as such would entail risks and opportunities that U.S. leaders and voters are only beginning to mull. The stakes are enormous, representing a strategic shift that wasn’t in the cards a year ago—or for any of the past 45 years.
Mr. Feith is a Journal editorial-page writer based in Hong Kong.