An emerging great power is rapidly expanding its military capabilities. It unilaterally abrogates decades-old norms and agreements by militarizing a strategically vital waterway, and is seeking to coercively expel the reigning global hegemon from the region.
Sound familiar? It should. This is what the United States did at the turn of the 20th century, overturning the 1850 Clayton-Bulwer Treaty and bullying Great Britain into allowing the U.S. to unilaterally construct and fortify the Panama Canal. Within three years, the United States all but expelled British military influence from the Western Hemisphere.
It’s also what China is doing to the United States today in the South China Sea.
The 1901 Hay-Pauncefote Treaty, in which Britain abjectly caved to American demands to build and fortify the canal, facilitated a “great rapprochement” between the two Anglo-Saxon powers and laid the groundwork for a the “special relationship” that continues today. But this happy precedent offers little solace to contemporary observers of U.S.-China relations. China’s militarized island-building campaign in the South China Sea and aggressive pursuit of territorial claims elsewhere in the region have convinced many that China’s intentions are fundamentally incompatible with America’s interests in East Asia. In response, they claim, the United States should implement a more confrontational strategy to counter China’s efforts and sustain America’s regionally hegemonic position.
I argue that these conclusions are premature. China’s grand strategy is clearly aimed at supplanting the United States as the dominant military power in East Asia. But this alone does not mean that Chinese and American interests are incompatible. The real question is what China plans to do with its emerging regional preponderance.
Would China use its hegemony to maintain an economically open, institutionalized, and rule-based regional order, even if one that is tilted in its own favor? Or would it seek to fundamentally overthrow these decades-old rules and norms in ways that effectively exclude outside economic engagement and threaten the territorial integrity of America’s regional allies?
If the latter, then the costs and risks of a more confrontational policy of “containing” China’s rise may be justified. If the former, then Chinese regional hegemony is perfectly compatible with America’s substantive interests, and may even help reduce the burden of the United States’ expansive global commitments. To date, there are surprisingly few indications that a Chinese-led regional order would be antithetical to core American interests in the region.
Greater levels of military power allow states to secure their borders and impose favorable political or economic outcomes in their own backyard. But critically, power is still a means to an end. Power itself is of little use except as a means of attaining substantive strategic goals. Given the uncertainty inherent in international politics, states understandably covet the capacity to look after their own interests. Dependence on others inherently entails vulnerability. But this capacity is only valuable insofar as it enables a state to achieve outcomes of more substantive value.
The United States has occupied a hegemonic position in East Asia since the end of World War II. This preponderance has allowed the United States to guarantee vital regional interests through its own efforts for over 70 years. It is thus understandably jarring for many Americans to imagine a world where core national security interests in East Asia are dependent upon a foreign power’s acquiescence.
But maintaining military preponderance should not be considered a core American interest in East Asia. To reiterate, hegemony is only valuable if it helps a state achieve more substantive interests. It would be foolish to incur the massive costs and risks of containing China in order to maintain U.S. regional hegemony if Washington were confident that a Chinese-dominated regional order would uphold core American interests. As such, American policy toward China should be guided by signals of what exactly Chinese leaders would seek to do with their emerging regional hegemony, not the fact that they’re pursuing this hegemony in the first place.
Assertive or Incompatible?
Charting a course for U.S. grand strategy in East Asia requires asking three key questions. First, what are the United States’ vital substantive interests in the region? Second, how costly will it be for the United States to maintain its longstanding regional dominance in the face of China’s rise? And third, how likely are its interests to be maintained within a regional order dominated by China?
First, with respect to core regional interests, the United States fundamentally seeks to maintain an open, liberal economic order and to maintain the territorial and political security of its regional allies. This would necessitate upholding the freedom of navigation throughout the region’s international waters, including the South and East China Seas. Second, given China’s enormous population, geographic location, and economic dynamism, it will be impossibly costly for the United States to sustain its regionally dominant position over the coming years. With declining economic clout and a military dispersed across the globe, U.S. containment of Chinese influence in East Asia is futile.
So, if containing China would be immensely costly and probably futile, how badly are America’s core regional interests likely to suffer under a Chinese-led regional order?
Pessimistic observers point to the recent “assertive shift” in China’s foreign policy, along with the expansion of China’s military capabilities, as indications that leaders in Beijing harbor deeply revisionist ambitions in the region. After all, why would China be seeking to deny the U.S. military access inside the first island chain if it didn’t anticipate taking actions directly contrary to vital American interests there?
This interpretation overlooks the simple fact that great powers do not tolerate competitors possessing the military capacity dominate their home region. As a rising great power, China would seek to control its immediate periphery irrespective of any revisionist intentions. During the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, the USS Nimitz battle group sailed through the Taiwan Strait, effectively intimidating Beijing into deescalating the crisis. Imagine the American response if a Chinese aircraft carrier sailed between Cuba and Florida during a Sino-American crisis. Even satisfied great powers will not allow foreign competitors to militarily control their near-abroad. That China would seek to deny the United States this capacity is entirely predictable, and not necessarily an indication of revisionist intentions.
Implications of Assertiveness
China’s assertive shift has challenged the territorial claims of key American allies, but there is little indication that Chinese leaders harbor territorial ambitions beyond what was claimed in the immediate post-World War II period (including the nine-dash line, which dates back to 1947). The more aggressive pursuit of longstanding claims does not necessarily portend new, more expansive claims down the road.
Furthermore, China’s recent push to supplant the United States has revolved around a series of alternative institutions to guide regional economic integration. These institutions will surely tilt toward Beijing, but they also bind China into a rules-based order that will constrain its ability to bully and coerce its neighbors.
In short, a China-led regional order may entail some Chinese expansionism, but there is little indication that it would threaten the core territorial security of American allies. Furthermore, China’s vision for the regional economic order seems to be premised on an alternative set of institutions geared toward maximizing Beijing’s economic returns. This may undercut some American economic interests in the region. But it will broadly retain an institutionalized framework built on the rules and norms established under U.S. hegemony after World War II.
The biggest problem here, as ever, is Taiwan. Maintaining Taiwan’s democratic institutions and effective autonomy from the mainland remains a core U.S. interest. And while Beijing’s territorial ambitions elsewhere in the region appear limited, its desire to reincorporate Taiwan remains undiminished. Chinese regional hegemony would, I suspect, leave many of America’s core regional interests intact. However, I cannot say this with confidence about Taiwan, and managing this issue peacefully will require important compromises on both sides.
Actions and Intentions
American policymakers grappling with the strategic dilemma presented by China’s rise and recent assertive shift should focus on signals of China’s substantive preferences for East Asian regional order. China is clearly seeking to supplant the United States as the region’s hegemon, but this is entirely consistent with the behavior of an emerging great power that is largely satisfied with the status quo order. The United States similarly expelled Great Britain from the Western Hemisphere after 1900, but did not push on to invade Canada or pilfer British investments throughout the region. As an emerging great power, the United States sought primarily to deny other powers the ability to threaten its territory.
Despite some disquietingly aggressive tactics, the substantive policies underlying China’s assertive shift actually seem quite compatible with American interests. China would establish effective control over most of the South and East China Seas, and construct a set of economic institutions more favorable to its interests. But China’s policies have given little indication that it harbors designs of broader territorial expansion or seeks to fundamentally overthrow the liberal regional order. American strategy in East Asia should be driven by these signals of China’s substantive preferences, not the fact that China is pursuing regional hegemony in the first place.
Kyle Haynes is an assistant professor of political science at Purdue University, specializing in international security and U.S. foreign policy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in 2012. Follow him on Twitter @kyle_e_haynes.