WASHINGTON — Americans often assume that Chinese military aggression is increasing the likelihood of a clash between China and the United States. But many policy makers in Washington ignore that Beijing has good reason to be troubled by the United States’ military footprint in its neighborhood. President Obama’s “pivot” to Asia — which includes doubling down on Washington’s already-robust military presence in the region — further stokes the potential for conflict between China and the United States.
If the United States wants to avoid strife in Asia, it should resist antagonizing China by encircling it with ever more military partners and bases.
True, China is bolstering its armed forces. Its military budget has risen7.6 percent this year and grew at an average of 9.5 percent from 2005 to 2014 (it slowed this year along with China’s economy). China is turning reefs in contested waters into islands dotted with airstrips and radar towers. This year, China has flown its jets close to Japanese andAmerican planes over the East China Sea; in recent years Chinese boats have rammed and sunk Vietnamese vessels in the South China Sea. Still, the United States, with a military budget three times as large as China’s, pours far more resources into the Pacific region than Beijing.
Washington agreed recently to deploy missile-defense systems in South Korea, a response to North Korea’s nuclear program but also a provocation to Beijing. The United States will deploy 2,500 Marines to Darwin, Australia, and rotate troops through five military bases in the Philippines, despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-American rants.
Washington has signed new defense agreements with Vietnam andIndia, both of which have tense relationships with China. The United States military continues to deploy all manner of next-generation aircraft, destroyers and drones throughout the Pacific.
Even before Mr. Obama’s pivot, the American military presence in the region dwarfed China’s. Tens of thousands of American troops have been stationed in Japan and South Korea since the World War II era. Such troops occupy 28 percent of Guam. Washington also has a complex web of military alliances in Asia, surrounding China with countries buttressed by American security commitments.
The United States’ huge Pacific presence touches a nerve in Beijing in part because of memories of the so-called Century of Humiliation — from the first Opium War in 1839 to the end of the Communist Party revolution in 1949 — when Western powers and Japan ravaged and occupied China. Beijing’s leaders feel that as China vies to surpass the United States as the world’s largest economy, their country has the right to be the main power in the neighborhood.
Washington and its allies counter that the American presence in Asia since World War II has stabilized the region, adding that the United States protects smaller countries from China, which seeks to dominate them and flouts international law.
It’s true that an American military presence may stabilize the region — although many Vietnamese, Laotians or Cambodians would debate that claim — but there is no reason to dismiss outright alternative arrangements to American predominance, such as a genuine balance of power agreement between the United States and China.
As for America’s role as a protector of small states against China, Beijing is quick to point out Washington’s hypocrisy.
In the 19th century, when the United States had had enough of a world order dominated by Europeans, it declared the Monroe Doctrine and expelled the Spanish Empire from its backyard. Washington has dominated the region since. American leaders would never tolerate the type of outside military presence in the Caribbean that China faces at its doorstep in the Pacific.
As the United States military doubles down in Asia, the chances increase that one side will cross a red line. It is easy to imagine, for instance, that China could respond with force to joint American-Japanese naval patrols.
That does not mean Washington should abandon its allies. But it should avoid creating extensive, untenable defense agreements.
Washington should maintain a manageable number of security commitments and take steps toward balancing power with China in the Western Pacific — and it should do so while it has the power to shape that balance in its favor. This would not come about through any grand bargain, but would require a gradual shift with clear stages over a long time.
The United States should also put more effort into communicating with China in an unprovocative way. American leaders should note when they are expanding the United States military presence in response to allies’ requests, emphasizing Washington is not acting unilaterally. In the case of the its Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines, for example, Washington should stress it is revitalizing the Mutual Defense Treaty, which was signed in 1951.
American leaders should also be less condescending toward Beijing. Subtle denigration of China is common, such as when Mr. Obama saidlast month that China needs to “recognize that with increasing power comes increasing responsibilities.” Patronizing by United States officials, more than anything, irks China. Beijing has earned the right to be treated as an equal.
Washington should also put more focus on developing nonmilitary connections throughout the region. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a good example of how a free-trade agreement can be used to strengthen political ties.
Similarly, the United States should strengthen its educational and cultural-exchange programs in Asia, and consider other soft-power plays like development projects, technical knowledge transfer programs, and cooperation on nuclear power, like the successes in Indiaand Vietnam.
A more nuanced approach to the Asia-Pacific region would allow the United States to pursue goals like democracy promotion and secure long-term stability. Too much focus on militarization is a recipe for conflict.