After the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, the US immediately implemented an arms embargo on the People’s Republic of China. The embargo remains in place to this day. In light of the Obama Administration’s recent refocus on Asia in an attempt to contain China, I asked John Glaser, the assistant editor of Antiwar.com, his views on the arms embargo in the context of this new geopolitical reality.

1. As the US declines and China ascends, what is the impact of treating China as our “enemy,” through policies like the arms embargo, on this transition?

Presumably, the impact of this will be to further divide the diplomatic and economic relationship between the two countries. We see this beginning to happen now, with presidential candidates on both sides arguing for protectionist economic measures, trade wars, currency wars, etc. Romney and Santorum, on the Republican side specifically. And Obama has used some of this rhetoric as well: when he announced US deployments to Australia, he said China needs to act responsibly if it wants to be a global power; and I also think he talked about trade/currency issues during his recent State of the Union address. The US and China markets are deeply intertwined, but may become less so if the politics and policies become more bitter.

2. Do you think our “pivot” towards East Asia to contain China puts us on the path to war with them?

Not immediately, at least. What is more likely is a sort of Cold War with China, where perhaps there are naval skirmishes between the opposing allies in the region. It would turn into something like proxy wars before it put us in an actual war with China (that, I think is unlikely). Most likely, it will be defined by competing alliances, offshore balancing, and various security relationships with Asia-Pacific countries.

3. Would a gesture like lifting the embargo help to counteract the perception that we are containing China? Do you think it would be an effective strategy in acquiescing to China?

Yes, I think it would help (although I’m not a huge fan of having the US government be the arbiter of weapons stockpiles). Although I don’t think we need to “acquiesce” to China per se, just that we have no business trying to suppress their economic and military rise, nor to counter their influence by peddling our own.

4. Are the US policies of pressure and containment of China sustainable?

It depends on what you mean by sustainable. Yes, I think our government can sustain bellicosity, pressure, and containment pretty far into the future. Despite the crippling indebtedness of the US government, I see defense budgets continuing to expand for quite a while. If, on the other hand, you mean is it reasonable to hinder economic progress and cooperation of both the US and China through protectionism and threatening postures, then no, its not sustainable. A full-on Cold War with China, as I mentioned, could lead to proxy conflicts in the region, which of course would not be “sustainable” for innocent people who happen to get caught up in the middle (as so many millions did in America’s Cold War with the Soviet Union.

5. Would lifting the embargo help to integrate China into the international community? Would it be a more effective strategy than our current containment policy?

I don’t think China is very marginalized within the international community. But certainly more openness and cooperation will be better for Americans as well as Chinese.

6. What is your analysis regarding people who claim China would be emboldened by the US lifting the embargo?

People who claim China would be “emboldened” by such a move seem to operate with two fundamental constants. First, is perpetual fear and threat inflation. This has a long history and goes back deep in US history and culture, but inherent fear of “the other” and drastic overestimation of the danger around the corner is prevalent. This kind of attitude led to some of the worst missteps of the Cold War. Secondly, these people tend to have state-building and hegemony always in their minds. What’s sad for them is that they don’t seem to realize that the US government would probably gain some political and economic leverage over China if it lifted the embargo. Security deals and the selling of arms has been one of the primary methods of maintaining dominance in the Middle East over the decades, for example.

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  • The Law, Frederic Bastiat

    Life, faculties, production — in other words, individuality, liberty, property — this is man. And in spite of the cunning of artful political leaders, these three gifts from God precede all human legislation, and are superior to it. Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.