Why Americans don’t care about China’s tensions with its neighbors

by Chris Zappone

US media coverage of the USS Cowpens incident with China’s nascent aircraft carrier group has been half-hearted at best. For much of the US, foreign policy is synonymous with the Middle East. That means for the US’s Asian pivot to have it’s full effect, Americans will have to begin thinking about Asia in a way they haven’t done since the Vietnam War. That’s a big ask of a people who are clearly war weary after the Iraq disaster and the War in Afghanistan.

Peter Beinart, famous for his change of heart on the Invasion of Iraq, makes some revealing and valuable observations about where the China Challenge sits in the US political spectrum. The bottom line is, as he says,

Were the neo-imperialists [in US politics] able to turn toughness on China into a Republican cause célèbre, liberals might respond. But without the familiar cast of Bush-era villains to rally against, it’s hard to get progressive pundits interested.

The isolationist urge is on full display in the US these days, attractive to both Democrats who questioned the rashness of George W. Bush’s terms and Republicans who hold isolationism as a core principle. Beinart writes that the most strident voices in US politics today will be the ones questioning why the US has be involved in the region (although I don’t think that’s exactly true).

On both left and right, the voices gaining the most traction fall into a third camp, which questions why America needs to be patrolling the Western Pacific at all. To people like Greenwald and Paul, who have expended vast energy battling post-9/11 infringements on personal liberty, tension with Beijing must look like another excuse to rev up the national security state. That means they’re unlikely to focus much attention on what happens in the South China Sea, either.

So the Obama administration finds itself in the odd position of making hugely consequential decisions about how strongly to resist China’s expanding reach in the absence of virtually any high-profile debate in Congress or the media. Would more public discussion improve Obama’s policies? Who knows? But it would force the administration to explain publicly why it’s worth risking war to ensure American access to bodies of water most Americans have never heard of. We’re better off hearing those arguments presented—and challenged—now, while our ships and theirs are still 200 yards away.

On a recent trip to the US, I was struck by how little Americans were aware of the tension between China and it’s neighbors and how blind Americans were to the reasons behind a possible China-Japan conflict. Yet, the Chinese style of engagement is to consistently apply pressure – so it may be for Americans that China only comes on the radar if it continually causes friction with the US in a variety of areas. But I don’t see that happening. Until, of course, there is a full-blown international crisis.