Competition With China Is Inevitable. US Alliance Policy Could Determine Just How Bad It Gets.

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Competition With China Is Inevitable. US Alliance Policy Could Determine Just How Bad It Gets.

The two sides will find it increasingly difficult to avoid intense security competition over the coming decades, but there are still meaningful choices to make.

Competition With China Is Inevitable. US Alliance Policy Could Determine Just How Bad It Gets.

In this Sept. 25, 2015, file photo, a military honor guard await Chinese President Xi Jinping for a state arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., United States.

Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union, scholars like Aaron Friedberg, John Mearsheimer, and Richard Betts began voicing concerns about a new era of great power competition with China. But well into the first decade of the 21st century, many saw such fears as relics of a bygone era of international politics – no longer relevant in the age of global interdependence. 

Today, it is the optimists who are the beleaguered minority. Many in the U.S. foreign policy community who once enthusiastically supported engagement and cooperation with China now tend to advocate much more cautious positions, if not outright anti-engagement.

In fact, the United States and China should have anticipated intense security competition in East Asia from the beginning of the post-Cold War period. The two sides will find it increasingly difficult to avoid such competition over the coming decades. The fundamental reason does not have to do with the nature of either country’s politics or society, but rather with the basic structure of the situation in which the two great powers are dealing with each other.

The Centrality of East Asia to U.S. and Chinese Strategic Interests

The United States has long regarded the preservation of robust access to the globe’s largest economic regions as a vital strategic interest. In practice, this implies that the United States seeks to prevent another great power from achieving dominant influence in Eurasia’s core industrial-population centers. 

Western Europe was the most important of such centers during the Cold War. “Of the nations that were previously able to deploy” significant power resources, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) observed in 1949, “[i]t is only Western Europe as a group of nations that can now be considered capable of [re]attaining this status within a reasonable amount of time.” The basic problem confronted by U.S. policymakers was thus one “of keeping the still widely dispersed power resources of Europe… from being drawn together into a single Soviet power structure[.]” 

East Asia occupies an analogous position today. As the 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report observed, the region “contributes two-thirds of global growth in gross domestic product (GDP) and accounts for 60 percent of global GDP.” Thus the United States’ strategic premise is “that no one nation… should dominate” this region. 

And if East Asia is so important to the United States, it stands to reason that it is equally as vital for China – if not more so. As Rush Doshi has documented, a consistent priority of Beijing’s modern foreign policy has been to exert as much influence as possible over the political and economic affairs of China’s immediate vicinity, known as the “periphery” in Chinese diplomatic parlance. 

The simple fact that neither the United States nor China can afford to give each other a complete “free hand” over East Asia is a good first step to understanding why we should expect to see considerable competition in the region over the coming decades.

China’s Growing Power

Despite the vital stakes both the United States and China hold in East Asia, the two sides would have an easier time avoiding dangerous competition if they could be confident that neither side is able or willing to overturn the status quo. The problem, however, is that China’s power is growing. Despite reports that China’s rise has been slowing over the past few years, its overall trajectory still indicates that China’s military and economic weight in East Asia will likely further increase over the coming decades.

The central problem is that, no matter what it does, China probably cannot commit to not exploiting its growing power at the expense of the United States and its allies. Beijing doesn’t have to do much to create justifiable fears among its interlocutors. Even if China had no intention of aggressing against its neighbors, they obviously can’t trust that it will stay that way 10, 20, or 50 years down the road. Therefore, out of essentially defensive motivations, the United States and its allies will continue to pursue measures to correct the growing imbalance of regional power driven by China’s rise – beefing up their military capabilities, adjusting their defense postures to array more forces in China’s vicinity, pursuing more cutting-edge military technologies while trying to deny them to Beijing, and forming new arrangements for security cooperation directed against China.

But from China’s perspective, such efforts will invariably look quite threatening. They will appear as efforts by a hostile military coalition to “gang up” on China. China is right to think in this way, even if its interlocutors are acting with defensive motivations. Beijing’s leaders should understand that there is ultimately little China can do to fundamentally alleviate its neighbors’ concerns and that they will be searching hard for ways to bolster their security at its expense. 

This, in turn, means that the “rising power” itself must continuously worry that its rivals might eventually find the means to inflict a devastating reversal of fortunes upon China. Thus, out of its own legitimate fears China will adopt riskier measures to shore up its own security, which will tend to “confirm” the fears harbored by the United States and its allies and drive them to adopt even stronger containment measures. The “feedback effects” generated under conditions of shifting power tend to make both sides adopt increasingly hardline policies toward each other. 

All of this is to say that intense security competition between the United States and China will probably be unavoidable over the coming decades. There is bound to be considerable tension and hostility, and even crises that carry a serious risk of escalating to militarized conflict. Some may call this a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” It most certainly is. But simply recognizing a self-fulfilling prophecy at work does not mean that one can escape it in any fundamental sense. Unfortunately, the United States and China will increasingly find themselves at loggerheads with each other, even if policymakers on both sides realize the self-fulfilling dimensions of their mutual hostility.

The Role of U.S. Grand Strategy

Even if some amount of China-U.S. security competition is unavoidable, the kind of grand strategy that the United States pursues in East Asia can significantly affect the intensity of this competition. The key to understanding this dimension of the problem is that great powers instinctively tend to be more fearful about the militarization of geographically proximate competitors than those that are located farther away

The same proximity also increases the likelihood that the great power’s efforts to forcefully arrest such states’ efforts will succeed. Not only does the great power then encounter lower physical barriers to aggression, but it can also more easily deploy capabilities that blunt a faraway rival’s ability to militarily intervene on behalf of its “frontline” allies. Therefore, even when they enjoy the formal protection of a leading power like the United States, some weak states cannot rule out the possibility that their great-power neighbor might target them with costly aggression in the hope of presenting their patron with a fait accompli

Episodes from the Cold War serve to drive this point home. In the late 1950s, West Germany’s apparent efforts to acquire nuclear capabilities under the auspices of Washington’s “nuclear sharing” policies were thwarted by preventive threats from the Soviet Union. In essence, the Soviet-launched Second Berlin Crisis (1958-1962) presented West German leaders and their American sponsors with the choice of continuing down the path of promoting the West German army’s nuclear armament at the risk of catastrophic escalation in Berlin or holding off on such efforts to reach an understanding with the Soviets. West Germany’s vulnerability to Soviet punishment left them with no choice but to accept the latter. 

Washington’s behavior during the Cuban missile crisis can be interpreted in an analogous light. The United States was much more fearful of a handful of nuclear missiles that the Soviet Union sent to Cuba than the thousands of missiles the Soviets had in their own territory. One key fear that motivated Washington’s efforts to nip this development in the bud was the possibility that, at some point in the future, Cuba itself might come to wield nuclear capabilities at the expense of U.S. interests. 

As Attorney General Robert Kennedy articulated during the “Ex Comm” discussions of October 1962, the United States couldn’t dismiss the possibility that nuclear capabilities in Cuba might dangerously constrain its future freedom of action in the Western hemisphere: “[Let’s say] in South America a year from now…[you have] these things in the hands of Cubans…[then] some problem arises in Venezuela [and] you’ve got Castro saying, [y]ou move troops down into that part of Venezuela, we’re going to fire these missiles.” The United States was ready to take extraordinary risks to prevent such nightmarish scenarios.

The takeaway for the United States today is clear: although some intense competition with China will be inevitable over the coming years, Washington risks exacerbating mutual antagonism and the danger of military clashes by adopting a grand strategy designed to “outsource” military capabilities and decision-making responsibilities to security partners located close to the Chinese littoral. China has good reasons to be apprehensive about the U.S.-led alliance network from the get-go, but this fear will be further aggravated if Beijing’s leaders believe that their country is being pushed against the wall by multiple proximate rivals – each with significant military capabilities, each with their own political or territorial grievances vis-à-vis China, and each with the decision-making capacity to act upon those grievances if given the opportunity. 

Among other things, this dynamic has implications for debates about the feasibility of devolving nuclear assets and responsibilities to the United States’ East Asian allies as an expedient to balancing Chinese power. Such measures have received growing attention among foreign policy experts in recent years. 

The chief hurdle to such efforts is that substantive policies of nuclear devolution take time to materialize, as allies arrange the transportation and storage of warheads, the acquisition of new delivery platforms, specialized training for personnel, and new command and control systems. During this time, the adversary expecting to become more insecure by the militarization of a proximate rival will be strongly tempted to use forceful countermeasures to arrest this development. This, in turn, will present the United States and its allies with a difficult choice between walking back their militarization efforts or risking inviting preventively motivated aggression from China.

The alternative grand strategy is one that calls on the United States to embrace a heavy-lifting role within the East Asian alliance network, with all its attendant political and financial burdens, but with the benefit of being able to limit the amount of leeway individual allies have in the coalition’s military interactions with China. In effect, the United States would strive – as much as possible – to be the sole executive agent of the alliance network. This is a grand strategy of “insourcing,” designed to meet China with a hierarchical and monolithic structure of military capabilities centered squarely on the United States.

A grand strategy that suppresses allied autonomy and constrains the kinds of military contributions they could potentially make to the regional containment effort brings its own problems. Its prescriptions will not be easy to swallow for U.S. elites who prioritize alliance “burden sharing” in East Asia, for allied policymakers who believe that the United States should be willing to underwrite their country’s actions in every dispute or crisis involving China, and more generally for those who – for moral or ideological reasons – believe that giving agency and voice to weaker actors in a partnership is a good in itself. But in today’s East Asia, such a grand strategy is nonetheless better than the alternative strategy based on outsourcing, which is likely to aggravate a China-U.S. competition that is already destined to be quite intensive and dangerous. 

This article is based on a paper presented at a February 2024 conference hosted by the Security and Foreign Policy Initiative at the Global Research Institute, William & Mary.