This means in practice that Beijing boldly restates its claims and emphasizes not only that there is no room for compromise but that it will fight to defend what it considers to be sovereign Chinese territory. In some cases, the Chinese feel compelled to deploy military or paramilitary forces to make their position crystal clear, as happened in April 2012, when a crisis flared up between China and the Philippines over control of Scarborough Shoal, a small island in the South China Sea. The same kind of intimidating behavior was on display after September 2012, when China and Japan became embroiled in a crisis over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The Chinese government has also shown little hesitation in threatening or employing economic sanctions against its rivals. Naturally, such hard-nosed pronouncements and actions raise the temperature and undermine Chinese efforts to pursue a low-profile foreign policy.
Finally, at the most basic level, the United States and almost all of China’s neighbors have powerful incentives to contain its rise, which means they will carefully monitor its growth and move to check it sooner rather than later. Let us look more closely at how the United States and the other countries in Asia are likely to react to China’s ascendancy.
THE COMING BALANCING COALITION
The historical record clearly demonstrates how American policymakers will react if China attempts to dominate Asia. Since becoming a great power, the United States has never tolerated peer competitors. As it demonstrated throughout the twentieth century, it is determined to remain the world’s only regional hegemon. Therefore, the United States will go to great lengths to contain China and do what it can to render it incapable of ruling the roost in Asia. In essence, the United States is likely to behave toward China largely the way it behaved toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
China’s neighbors are certain to fear its rise as well, and they, too, will do whatever they can to prevent it from achieving regional hegemony. Indeed, there is already substantial evidence that countries like India, Japan, and Russia, as well as smaller powers like Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam, are worried about China’s ascendancy and are looking for ways to contain it. In the end, they will join an American-led balancing coalition to check China’s rise, much the way Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and eventually China, joined forces with the United States during the Cold War to contain the Soviet Union.
Uncle Sam versus the Dragon
China is still far from the point where it has the military capability to make a run at regional hegemony. This is not to deny there are good reasons to worry about potential conflicts breaking out today over issues like Taiwan and the South China Sea; but that is a different matter. The United States obviously has a deep-seated interest in making sure that China does not become a regional hegemon. Of course, this leads to a critically important question: what is America’s best strategy for preventing China from dominating Asia?
The optimal strategy for dealing with a rising China is containment. It calls for the United States to concentrate on keeping Beijing from using its military forces to conquer territory and more generally expand its influence in Asia. Toward that end, American policymakers would seek to form a balancing coalition with as many of China’s neighbors as possible. The ultimate aim would be to build an alliance structure along the lines of NATO, which was a highly effective instrument for containing the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The United States would also work to maintain its domination of the world’s oceans, thus making it difficult for China to project power reliably into distant regions like the Persian Gulf and, especially, the Western Hemisphere.
Containment is essentially a defensive strategy, since it does not call for starting wars against China. In fact, containment is an alternative to war against a rising China. Nevertheless, war is always a possibility. There is no reason the United States cannot have substantial economic intercourse with China at the same time it implements a containment strategy. After all, Britain, France, and Russia traded extensively with Wilhelmine Germany in the two decades before World War I, although they had also created the Triple Entente for the purpose of containing Germany. Even so, there will probably be some restrictions on trade for national security reasons. More generally, China and the United States can cooperate on a variety of issues in the context of a containment strategy, but, at root, relations between the two countries will be competitive.
Given its rich history as an offshore balancer, the ideal strategy for the United States would be to stay in the background as much as possible and let China’s neighbors assume most of the burden of containing China. In essence, America would buck-pass to the countries located in Asia that fear China. But that is not going to happen, for two reasons. Most important, China’s neighbors will not be powerful enough by themselves to check China. The United States will therefore have little choice but to lead the effort against China and focus much of its formidable power on that goal. Furthermore, great distances separate many of the countries in Asia that will be part of the balancing coalition against China—think of India, Japan, and Vietnam. Thus, Washington will be needed to coordinate their efforts and fashion an effective alliance system. Of course, the United States was in a similar situation during the Cold War, when it had no choice but to assume the burden of containing the Soviet Union in Europe as well as in Northeast Asia. In essence, offshore balancers must come onshore when the local powers cannot contain the potential hegemon by themselves.
There are three alternative strategies to containment. The first two aim at thwarting China’s rise either by launching a preventive war or by pursuing policies aimed at slowing Chinese economic growth. Neither strategy, however, is a viable option for the United States. The third alternative, rollback, is a feasible strategy, but the payoff would be minimal.
Preventive war is an unworkable option simply because China has a nuclear deterrent. The United States is not going to launch a devastating strike against the homeland of a country that can retaliate against it or its allies with nuclear weapons. But even if China did not have nuclear weapons, it would still be hard to imagine any American president launching a preventive war. The United States is certainly not going to invade China, which has a huge army; and crippling China with massive air strikes would almost certainly require the use of nuclear weapons. That would mean turning China into a “smoking, radiating ruin,” to borrow a phrase from the Cold War that captures how the U.S. Air Force intended to deal with the Soviet Union in the event of a shooting war. The nuclear fallout alone from such an attack makes it a nonstarter. Furthermore, it is hard to know for sure whether China will continue its rapid rise, and thus whether it will eventually be a threat to dominate Asia. That uncertainty about the future also cuts against preventive war.
Slowing down Chinese economic growth is certainly a more attractive option than nuclear war, but it, too, is not feasible. The main problem is that there is no practical way of slowing the Chinese economy without also damaging the American economy. One might argue that the Chinese economy would suffer greater damage, thus improving America’s relative power position vis-à-vis China at the same time Chinese growth was slackening. But that is likely to happen only if the United States can find new trading partners and China cannot. Both conditions are necessary.
Unfortunately, many countries around the world would be eager to increase their economic intercourse with China, thus filling the vacuum created by Washington’s efforts to cut back its trade with and investment in China. For example, the countries in Europe, which would not be seriously threatened by China, would be prime candidates to take America’s place and continue fueling Chinese economic growth. In short, because China cannot be isolated economically, the United States cannot slow its economic growth in any meaningful way.
Britain actually faced the same problem with a rising Germany before World War I. It was widely recognized in the British establishment that Germany’s economy was growing at a more rapid pace than Britain’s, which meant the balance of power between the two countries was shifting in Germany’s favor. A fierce debate ensued about whether Britain should try to slow German economic growth by sharply curtailing economic intercourse between the two countries. British policymakers concluded that this policy would hurt Britain more than Germany, in large part because Germany could turn to other countries that would take the exports it sent to Britain, as well as provide most of the imports Germany received from Britain. At the same time, the British economy would be badly hurt by the loss of imports from Germany, which would be hard to replace. So, Britain continued to trade with Germany—even though Germany gained power at Britain’s expense—simply because it was the least-bad alternative.