By Alex Moore
One of Trump’s favorite worldwide punching bags has been China (ironically, China has been one of the chief beneficiaries of Trump’s misguided policies and will be strongly emboldened thanks to his decision to jettison the TPP). Nonetheless, China and the threat that it poses to the U.S, its interests, and its allies in the Asia-Pacific is perhaps the most important global issue to become familiarized with. Here’s why.
First and foremost, it is necessary to provide brief theoretical background. The United States is, by far, the most powerful country in the world. This is an objective fact (not alternative fact tho). The U.S, through the prism of structural realism (my preferred international relations theory), rose to the status of hemispheric hegemon by the end of the 1800’s, and then to global hegemon by expertly maneuvering both World Wars. Of course, the U.S then confronted the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War in a bipolar world, meaning that the U.S and the Soviets were by far the two most powerful countries in the international system. After the disintegration of the Eastern Bloc, the U.S was left as the sole global hegemon, making the international system unipolar. It has remained like this ever since.
This is where China comes in. As of today, yes, the U.S is the world’s sole superpower. However, China’s breathtakingly fast economic and military rise over the past decade has created an environment where it is entirely feasible that in our lifetimes the U.S will find itself locked into a Cold War-esque geopolitical confrontation with a symmetric China in a bipolar world.
The U.S’s interests in the Asia-Pacific are core to our national security. Ever since the end of World War II, the U.S has served as the hegemonic presence in the region, and Pax Americana, through a series of “hub and spokes” bilateral alliances has kept the region relatively peaceful and created the environment through which multiple countries, such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and less directly China have undergone economic miracles and become some of the most advanced economies in the world. While the U.S has served as the hegemonic peacekeeper in the region, theory tells us that China’s rise will likely embolden it to act more assertively in pursuit of its national interest and will someday likely seek to expel the U.S from what it perceives to be its rightful sphere of influence. “The U.S is the hegemonic power in the Western Hemisphere and has its sphere of influence there just like the Soviets were the hegemonic presence in Eastern and Central Europe, why can’t we have the same sphere of influence in our region if we are just as powerful as the U.S is and the Soviets were?” This is precisely what international relations theory tells us China will try to do in the future, assuming that it continues to rise at a meteoric pace. It should go without saying, but this scenario is a massive threat to the U.S and our Asia-Pacific allies, namely Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, and India, to name a few.
We have already seen China act more aggressively in pursuit of its interests in the region over the past half-decade. Most notably, this has manifested itself in China’s assertive proclamations of territorial control in the South China Sea and East China Sea. The Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands are likely just the beginning of increasing Chinese assertiveness. This past summer, The Hague ruled that upwards of 90% of China’s territorial claims are illegal under international law, but China, predictively, disregarded the ruling and has continued to lay claim to all territory within its declared “nine dash line.” China, of course, also continues to claim Taiwan as part of China, most notably resulting in the Taiwan Strait Crisis in the 90’s. With Taiwanese leadership pushing harder for full sovereignty, this is another hotspot where China’s assertiveness going contrary to the interests of U.S allies could boil over.
What does this mean for U.S grand strategy? There is a strong push within academic and think tank circles (I myself am part of this, and it is the topic of my Masters dissertation) to overwhelmingly reorient U.S posturing and strategy to the Asia-Pacific region, and away from Europe and the Middle East (where there are no potential existential threats to the U.S at the moment). Obama’s “pivot to Asia” has been the biggest policy manifestation of this strategy, and Obama was right to pursue it. However, in practice, Obama failed to fully implement this strategic pivot, mainly due to the fact that there was no pivot away from Europe and the Middle East (the death of the TPP was also a huge blow, as it was a huge component of Obama’s pivot to Asia). There were successes, however, as relations between ASEAN, India, and Vietnam reached unprecedented heights during the Obama era, placing these countries and regional organizations closer to the U.S’s orbit to counter China.
Moving forward, as China’s rise continues, I posit that the U.S should drastically rethink our overseas posturing and adopt a grand strategy of offshore balancing that best enables the U.S to preserve its global primacy and constrain an increasingly assertive China within its own region by strengthening our bilateral alliance system throughout the Asia-Pacific and by continuing to foster closer ties to countries such as Vietnam and India. It is imperative that we do so now, as our resources are stretched thin and it is unsustainable to subsidize the security of our European and Middle Eastern allies at the rate that we currently are. Keep an eye on China moving forward, as they undoubtedly represent the biggest threat to U.S national security as it currently stands and in 50 years may confront the U.S in a global power struggle much like the Soviets once did.
Photo Credit: Lee Chapman