American policy in the Western Pacific has long been framed in terms of preventing the emergence of an exclusive, hostile hegemon that could threaten vital U.S. interests and deny American access there. The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy respectively assert that “China seeks to displace the United States” in East Asia and thus achieve “Indo-Pacific regional hegemony.” Avoiding this possibility has required Washington, also as a matter of policy, to maintain its own hegemony in the region (although we prefer to call it “primacy” or “preeminence”) as the best and only guarantee against such a danger. This mantra was central to the Obama administration’s “rebalance” in East Asia, and remains central to the Trump administration’s advocacy of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”
But this policy mantra has two fundamental problems: it mischaracterizes China’s strategic intentions in the region, and it is based on a U.S. strategic objective that is probably no longer achievable.
First, China is pursuing hegemony in East Asia, but not an exclusive hostile hegemony. It is not trying to extrude the United States from the region or deny American access there. The Chinese have long recognized the utility—and the benefits to China itself—of U.S. engagement with the region, and they have indicated receptivity to peaceful coexistence and overlapping spheres of influence with the United States there. Moreover, China is not trying to impose its political or economic system on its neighbors, and it does not seek to obstruct commercial freedom of navigation in the region (because no country is more dependent on freedom of the seas than China itself). In short, Beijing wants to extend its power and influence within East Asia, but not as part of a “winner-take-all” contest.
China does have unsettled and vexing sovereignty claims over Taiwan, most of the islands and other features in the East and South China Seas, and their adjacent waters. Although Beijing has demonstrated a willingness to use force in defense or pursuit of these claims, it is not looking for excuses to do so. Whether these disputes can be managed or resolved in a way that is mutually acceptable to the relevant parties and consistent with U.S. interests in the region is an open, long-term question. But that possibility should not be ruled out on the basis of—or made more difficult by—false assumptions of irreconcilable interests. On the contrary, it should be pursued on the basis of a recognition that all the parties want to avoid conflict—and that the sovereignty disputes in the region ultimately are not military problems requiring military solutions. And since Washington has never been opposed in principle to reunification between China and Taiwan as long as it is peaceful, and similarly takes no position on the ultimate sovereignty of the other disputed features, their long-term disposition need not be the litmus test of either U.S. or Chinese hegemony in the region.
Of course, China would prefer not to have forward-deployed U.S. military forces in the Western Pacific that could be used against it, but Beijing has long tolerated and arguably could indefinitely tolerate an American military presence in the region—unless that presence is clearly and exclusively aimed at coercing or containing China. It is also true that Beijing disagrees with American principles of military freedom of navigation in the region; and this constitutes a significant challenge in waters where China claims territorial jurisdiction in violation of the UN Commission on the Law of the Sea. But this should not be conflated with a Chinese desire or intention to exclusively “control” all the waters within the first island chain in the Western Pacific. The Chinese almost certainly recognize that exclusive control or “domination” of the neighborhood is not achievable at any reasonable cost, and that pursuing it would be counterproductive by inviting pushback and challenges that would negate the objective.
So what would Chinese “hegemony” in East Asia mean or look like? Beijing probably thinks in terms of something much like American primacy in the Western Hemisphere: a model in which China is generally recognized and acknowledged as the de facto central or primary power in the region, but has little need or incentive for militarily adventurism because the mutual benefits of economic interdependence prevail and the neighbors have no reason—and inherent disincentives—to challenge China’s vital interests or security. And as a parallel to China’s economic and diplomatic engagement in Latin America, Beijing would neither exclude nor be hostile to continued U.S. engagement in East Asia.
A standard counterargument to this relatively benign scenario is that Beijing would not be content with it for long because China’s strategic ambitions will expand as its capabilities grow. This is a valid hypothesis, but it usually overlooks the greater possibility that China’s external ambitions will expand not because its inherent capabilities have grown, but because Beijing sees the need to be more assertive in response to external challenges to Chinese interests or security. Indeed, much of China’s “assertiveness” within East Asia over the past decade—when Beijing probably would prefer to focus on domestic priorities—has been a reaction to such perceived challenges. Accordingly, Beijing’s willingness to settle for a narrowly-defined, peaceable version of regional preeminence will depend heavily on whether it perceives other countries—especially the United States—as trying to deny China this option and instead obstruct Chinese interests or security in the region.
This leads to the second inherent problem with the mantra that the United States must maintain its primacy in the Western Pacific to prevent a hostile rival hegemon: U.S. primacy in the region itself is not sustainable, and trying to sustain it will probably be counterproductive.
For all intents and purposes, American primacy in East Asia—depending on how it is defined—is arguably already a thing of the past. Since about a decade ago, China has a larger share of East Asian regional trade than the United States, and is now the biggest trading partner of most of its neighbors. If defined in military terms, most net assessments suggest that the American advantage in power projection forces within the region is eroding relative to Chinese capabilities; and it is not at all clear in the wake of sequestration and competing budgetary priorities that the United States could or will devote the resources necessary to arrest this trend.
American primacy in East Asia has often been characterized in terms of the United States serving as the guarantor of regional security, protecting the “global commons” and providing “public goods” there. The U.S. alliance network in the region certainly extends an umbrella of protection to those countries with which Washington has defense pacts; and its military freedom of navigation operations signal an intention to resist excessive Chinese maritime claims. But even U.S. allies do not perceive that China is being deterred in the South and East China Seas. More broadly, it is not clear what other public goods the United States is actually providing in the East Asian commons. For example, commercial shippers in the Western Pacific do not presume or rely on the protection of the U.S. Navy—which doesn’t have the fleet to provide it. And Washington’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership has undermined the idea of U.S. leadership in the region on behalf of shared economic interests.
Indeed, most East Asian countries—including U.S. allies—appear increasingly uncertain about Washington’s attention to their interests and their security. Questions and even doubts about the substance and sustainability of the American commitment to the region have grown over the past decade, and most of the countries in the region—again, including U.S. allies—have already been adjusting their foreign and security policies to hedge against the potential unreliability of the United States. Indeed, such hedging and independent-mindedness by U.S. allies is itself contributing to the erosion of U.S. influence in the region. On balance, it is hard to make the case that the United States retains effective primacy in the Western Pacific when much of the region has doubts about Washington’s ability and willingness to exercise it.
So what can and should Washington do to address these new historical circumstances? It may be possible to regain the confidence of U.S. allies and partners in East Asia, but restoring and retaining American primacy there over the long term is probably no longer achievable, given the shifts in the regional balance of power and the constraints on U.S. resources. It’s not 1945 anymore, or even 1991. The United States sought and maintained a preponderance of power during the Cold War, but this almost certainly is not permanently sustainable, either globally or within East Asia. American primacy in the Western Pacific was a historical anomaly, and sooner or later the United States will have to get used to a regional role that is something less than that.
Moreover, policies and strategies aimed at upholding U.S. primacy in East Asia are likely to be counterproductive because such an approach, probably more than anything else, would reinforce Beijing’s belief that the United States seeks to contain China by keeping it subordinate within its own region. This would increase the chances of Beijing feeling compelled to adopt a more confrontational and aggressive posture. Chinese pursuit of a more exclusive hostile hegemony could thus become a self-fulfilling prophecy.