China's decision to escalate tensions with Japan by blocking the export of rare earth minerals necessary for high-tech devices is probably meant as a veiled threat that it would consider doing the same to the U.S., Japan's greatest protector against regional Chinese dominance. China has unintentionally played right into the long-term U.S. strategy of unifying the rest of East Asia against China and under the umbrella of American security and leadership. As I wrote earlier today, this plan would cement U.S. influence in East Asia and prevent China, which is expected to eventually become our fellow superpower, from dominating even its own backyard. However, China's retaliatory mineral ban, an irrational and aggressive act that will harm Japan and the U.S. without helping China, shows that isolating China carries some very real risk.
Isolation is self-reinforcing. An isolated state, as we've seen with North Korea and Iran, is less concerned with political or economic inter-reliance and thus has less incentive to consider how its actions will effect other states. Isolated states also have fewer peaceful avenues of diplomatic give-and-take. All of this leads a country like Iran, Syria, Zimbabwe, or, increasingly, China to behave more aggressively and to lash out at the global community keeping it down. This in turn makes the isolation more severe, and the cycle repeats.
China's inter-reliance with the outside world is a big part of what has made its ongoing rise so peaceful. With such deep economic ties to the U.S. and the rest of East Asia, Chinese leaders have shown more deference and better behavior than they would have otherwise. One of the reasons that a regional war with China is so unlikely is that all parties involved just have too much at stake in maintaining good economic ties. Inter-reliance has also kept U.S.-Sino competition in check, as both states have a vested interest in keeping one another prosperous.
The U.S. strategy of containing China with the help of Pacific rim states has so far been successful, and China's lashing out has only further driven East Asia into American arms. But we risk over-doing it. If the U.S. and its East Asian allies contain China beyond what the country's leadership is willing to tolerate, we will drive China into a self-reinforcing cycle of isolating behavior. The U.S. doesn't want China to be too powerful, but it also needs China to be a happy and fully engaged member of the global community, not an isolated pariah. As this potentially damaging mineral block reminds the world, China is far too big and powerful to simply cordon off as the world has done to, say, North Korea. In addition to its vast economic importance, China also possesses veto power on the United Nations Security Council. It showed its willingness to be a responsible global player when it joined in supporting sanctions against Iran. If China lost interest in global cooperation, any U.S. agenda involving the Security Council would be much less likely to succeed.
This doesn't mean that the Obama administration's plan to position East Asian politics as China vs the U.S. and everyone else is a bad one. But building too high a wall around China reduces cooperation, undermining regional stability and risking whatever good we have been able to accomplish. We can contain China and limit its rise without cutting off its regional and global ties. But if we treat China like a pariah, that's precisely what it will become.
Image: Chinese President Hu Jintao sits in a chair on stage waiting to speak before the 2009 United Nations General Assembly in New York. Photo by Stan Honda/AFP/Getty.