Countering Hegemony: The US-China Balance

The geopolitical game is a constant; only the actors change.

Countering Hegemony: The US-China Balance
Credit: White House

The Shanghai communique, also called the Joint Communiqué of the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), was signed during President Richard Nixon’s monumental visit to the PRC in 1972. It led to a Sino-American rapprochement that had a dramatic impact on Asian geopolitics. This came after the equally momentous and secretive visit to the PRC by Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. These words from the communique come across as particularly significant: “neither should seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region and each is opposed to efforts by any other country or group of countries to establish such hegemony… China will never be a superpower and it opposes hegemony and power politics of any kind.”

The United States at that point in time had never recognized the PRC; the Chinese seat at the United Nations Security Council was occupied by the Republic of China (Taiwan) until 1971 and the United States didn’t switch its recognition to Beijing until 1979. So, what made Washington change its policy toward the PRC?

The Soviet Union and the PRC underwent a border conflict in 1969. The Sino-Soviet split was a major determinant of America’s China policy. It was geopolitically prudent for the United States to divide the communist band of brothers, if there existed such a thing. Mao Zedong’s PRC would have never seen itself as little brother to the Soviet Union. But yes, there was a simple enough geopolitical rationale to pit one communist nation against another, and check the expansion of the one that was America’s nemesis and competitor in the global security environment: the Soviet Union. For China, it mattered in terms of striking an understanding with an extra-regional power to check any advances from a great power in its neighborhood. So, a communist nation bonded with a capitalist nation to check the hegemonic tendencies of another communist nation in the Asia-Pacific.

That was then. However, the geopolitical calculations, as they seem, are not too alien in the 21st century either. A strategy document released by the Department of Defense in January 2012, “Sustaining Global Leadership: Priority for the 21st Century Defense,” contended that “the growth of China’s military power must be accompanied by greater clarity of its strategic intentions in order to avoid causing friction in the region.” Moreover, emerging debates look at the probability of a “Thucydides Trap” in U.S.-China relations, sensing the inevitability of China’s search for regional hegemony in the Asia-Pacific, portending an impending U.S.-China conflict.

In that sense, there are certainly enough combustible materials in the region, including China’s anti-access/area denial strategy in the South and East China Seas versus America’s stand for freedom of maritime navigation and operations in the region and tensions over the Taiwan Strait.

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So, what does this imply for great power behavior and the continuities and changes of their threat perceptions? Does this mean that any country that enjoys great power status by having established hegemony over its own hemisphere, like the United States in the western hemisphere, would detest the rise of another peer competitor in another hemisphere, in this case the probable rise of China as a hegemon of the eastern hemisphere? In that case the fear of the rise of another regional hegemon that restricts the status quo hegemon’s access to that region is sure to be challenged, regardless of who the actor is.

While during the Cold War, the Soviet Union was clearly America’s nemesis and had to be countered by any means possible, including striking deals with a China that had more or less the same political values that Washington demonized in Moscow. The United States tried all means possible, including supporting the Kuomintang forces against the communist forces in the Chinese Civil War, and later on edging a non-aligned India to act as a counterweight to a communist China before pursuing rapprochement.

Today, one of the biggest challenges for the United States is to use old and new tools of statecraft ranging across strategies of both cooperation and coercion to manage the rise of China. The United States, at present largely perceived to be on the retreat from global leadership, faces a China which, under its mercurial leader President Xi Jinping, has dumped the “hide and bide strategy” and fully embraced the “China Dream” strategy that wants the world, and the United States in particular, to recognize that China’s time has come. As Stimson Center’s Yun Sun wrote, “The Chinese desire three things: More Influence, More Respect, and More Space.” These desires seem all encompassing in terms of the implications of a China that has seen political, economic, and military growth and shows no intentions to restrain itself from attempting to reshape global norms and rules in its own image.

China’s economic influence is palpable even among countries with which it shares adversarial security equations, thus leading to analyses that a number of countries would want to align with Beijing on economic matters, and with Washington on security matters. This deceptively simple demarcation hardly plays out easily in the complex geopolitics of the 21st century. China’s economic ventures, including the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), are seen to have strategic objectives. The connectivity corridors and their economic outcomes for China are ingredients of Beijing’s sense of distributing public goods in the international system as a great power. But it is still unclear what the trade-offs for the Chinese largesse are and what opportunity costs countries are willing to pay for entangling themselves with Chinese geopolitical and geoeconomic designs. What does all this entail for U.S. global leadership, and its engagements with countries that are concerned about an aggressive China, yet are equally entangled in the Chinese economic web? The jury is still out on the nature of the U.S.-China dynamics and its implications for global geopolitics. However, if one thing is clear, it is that the pursuit of hegemony and the balance of power game is a constant; only the actors change.

Monish Tourangbam is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal University, Karnataka, India. He is currently a South Asian Voices Visiting Fellow at the South Asia Program, Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington D.C.