The Shocking Reason America Can’t Stop China in the South China Sea

Andrew Davies

Security, Asia

Simply stated: China cares much more and is willing to risk much more–and the same can be said of Russia in Ukraine. 

Hanoi is one of the best settings in which to contemplate the limits of American power. The Vietnam War showed that a determined adversary (with substantial help from two major powers) can resist even a massive deployment of hard power by a more technologically able and much richer foe.

I was in Vietnam last week, and it provided an interesting perspective on current debates about the growing strategic competition between the United States and China, and about the role of American power in the world more broadly.

There’s a popular narrative in conservative circles at the moment that says that the blame for recent setbacks lies squarely at the feet of the Obama Administration. Greg Sheridan made that argument pretty forcefully last week:

“…Obama is just presiding over a decline in U.S. influence. He leads a weak administration that is weak everywhere. This does not necessarily represent long-term American decline. It is the weakness of this one administration. … America’s enemies, and the forces generally of violence and disorder, are everywhere encouraged. The U.S. position is weak in eEastern Europe, and Vladimir Putin intensified his campaign in Ukraine after Obama ostentatiously drew a red line in Syria and then decided not to enforce it. Obama is losing influence all over the Middle East, and in Afghanistan and Central Asia.”

It’s hard to argue that the world isn’t trending in ways adverse to the interests of the United States (and Australia). But I’m not at all sure that it’s right to place all of the blame on President Obama. Instead, I think that the utility of power is often overestimated, which makes those wielding it look unreasonably ‘hawkish’ when it fails—as was the case for American administrations who oversaw the Vietnam War.

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