Rethinking U.S. Primacy in East Asia

January 8, 2019 Topic: China Region: East Asia Blog Brand: The Skeptics Tags: PrimacyU.S.-China RelationsSouth China SeaJapanSouth Korea

Rethinking U.S. Primacy in East Asia

Washington should seek to deescalate the current trend in the regional competition with Beijing and instead pursue opportunities to engage Beijing toward establishing a long-term, stable balance of power in the region.

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.

Instead, the United States needs to recognize and acknowledge the emerging limits on its power, influence and position in East Asia; and accordingly reassess both its definition of its interests in the region and the strategies by which it will pursue and defend those interests. If U.S. primacy in the region is not materially sustainable, it becomes untenable to define it as a vital interest that must be upheld. Indeed, over the long term Washington will have to confront the question of whether there is a version of Chinese primacy in East Asia which—being neither exclusive nor hostile, and akin to U.S. primacy in the Western Hemisphere—would be compatible with American interests and thus acceptable to the United States.

None of this means that Washington should withdraw its military forces or commitments in East Asia, downgrade its diplomatic and economic engagement with the region, and surrender the Western Pacific to a Chinese sphere of influence. Quite the contrary. The United States needs to redouble its commitments, and expand and accelerate its engagement, in order to reassure its friends and allies in East Asia and reaffirm its determination to sustain a sphere of influence and a decisive role there. The U.S. alliance network can and should remain central to this effort. It will still be key to balancing, leveraging, guarding and pushing back against China when Beijing overplays its hand in its own pursuit of regional power and influence.

But Washington should not approach this competition on the basis of outdated assumptions—including the belief that U.S. primacy in East Asia can and should be perpetually sustained (an obsolete world view), a misunderstanding or mischaracterization of China’s regional ambitions, or a miscalculation of the United States’ own power and leverage. Washington should accept that strategic competition is unavoidable and absolute security is not possible. It should also recognize that even U.S. allies and partners in the region are already operating within overlapping American and Chinese spheres of influence—and they prefer this to being forced to choose between Washington and Beijing.

The United States can and should continue to exercise leadership in East Asia, but will need to share it with China. Washington should seek to deescalate the current trend in the regional competition with Beijing—which is now heading toward a destabilizing and futile game of “king of the hill”—and instead pursue opportunities to engage Beijing toward establishing a long-term, stable balance of power in the region. This is a tall order that will challenge the diplomatic and security management skills and finesse of both sides, and will almost certainly remain a work in progress for many years. But it will always be preferable to an arms race or a cold war in East Asia.

Paul Heer served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence from 2007 to 2015. He has since served as Robert E. Wilhelm Research Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for International Studies and as Adjunct Professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He is the author of Mr. X and the Pacific: George F. Kennan and American Policy in East Asia (Cornell University Press, 2018). The views expressed here are his alone.

Image: A navy honor guard prepares for a welcome ceremony for U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson, at the Chinese Navy Headquarters in Beijing, China, July 18, 2016. REUTERS/Ng Han Guan/Pool.