Shortly after the Cold War ended, George H. W. Bush’s administration boldly stated in its famous “Defense Guidance” of 1992, which was leaked to the press, that the United States was now the lone superpower in the world and planned to remain in that exalted position. American policymakers, in other words, would not tolerate the emergence of a new peer competitor. That same message was repeated in the equally-famous National Security Strategy issued by George W. Bush’s administration in September 2002. There was much criticism of that document, especially its claims about the value of “preemptive war.” But hardly a word of protest was raised regarding the assertion that the United States should check rising powers and maintain its commanding position in the global balance of power.
The bottom line is that the United States worked hard for over a century to gain hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, and it did so for sound strategic reasons. After achieving regional dominance, it has worked equally hard to keep other great powers from controlling either Asia or Europe.
What does America’s past behavior tell us about the rise of China? In particular, how should we expect China to conduct itself as it grows more powerful? And how should we expect the United States and China’s neighbors to react to a strong China?
FOLLOWING IN UNCLE SAM’S FOOTSTEPS
If China continues its striking economic growth over the next few decades, it is likely to act in accordance with the logic of offensive realism, which is to say it will attempt to imitate the United States. Specifically, it will try to dominate Asia the way the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere. It will do so primarily because such domination offers the best way to survive under international anarchy. In addition, China is involved in various territorial disputes and the more powerful it is, the better able it will be to settle those disputes on terms favorable to Beijing.
Furthermore, like the United States, a powerful China is sure to have security interests around the globe, which will prompt it to develop the capability to project military power into regions far beyond Asia. The Persian Gulf will rank high on the new superpower’s list of strategically important areas, but so will the Western Hemisphere. Indeed, China will have a vested interest in creating security problems for the United States in the Western Hemisphere, so as to limit the American military’s freedom to roam into other regions, especially Asia. Let us consider these matters in greater detail.
If my theory is correct, China will seek to maximize the power gap with its neighbors, especially larger countries like India, Japan, and Russia. China will want to make sure it is so powerful that no state in Asia has the wherewithal to threaten it. It is unlikely that China will pursue military superiority so that it can go on a rampage and conquer other Asian countries. One major difference between China and the United States is that America started out as a rather small and weak country located along the Atlantic coastline that had to expand westward in order to become a large and powerful state that could dominate the Western Hemisphere. For the United States, conquest and expansion were necessary to establish regional hegemony. China, in contrast, is already a huge country and does not need to conquer more territory to establish itself as a regional hegemon on a par with the United States.
Of course, it is always possible in particular circumstances that Chinese leaders will conclude that it is imperative to attack another country to achieve regional hegemony. It is more likely, however, that China will seek to grow its economy and become so powerful that it can dictate the boundaries of acceptable behavior to neighboring countries, and make it clear they will pay a substantial price if they do not follow the rules. After all, this is what the United States has done in the Western Hemisphere. For example, in 1962, the Kennedy administration let both Cuba and the Soviet Union know that it would not tolerate nuclear weapons in Cuba. And in 1970, the Nixon administration told those same two countries that building a Soviet naval facility at Cienfuegos was unacceptable. Furthermore, Washington has intervened in the domestic politics of numerous Latin American countries either to prevent the rise of leaders who were perceived to be anti-American or to overthrow them if they had gained power. In short, the United States has wielded a heavy hand in the Western Hemisphere.
A much more powerful China can also be expected to try to push the United States out of the Asia-Pacific region, much as the United States pushed the European great powers out of the Western Hemisphere in the nineteenth century. We should expect China to devise its own version of the Monroe Doctrine, as imperial Japan did in the 1930s. In fact, we are already seeing inklings of that policy. For example, Chinese leaders have made it clear they do not think the United States has a right to interfere in disputes over the maritime boundaries of the South China Sea, a strategically important body of water that Beijing effectively claims as its own.
China also objected in July 2010 when the United States planned to conduct naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, which is located between China and the Korean Peninsula. In particular, the U.S. Navy planned to send the aircraft carrier USS George Washington into the Yellow Sea. Those maneuvers were not directed at China; they were aimed instead at North Korea, which was believed to have sunk a South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, in the Yellow Sea. However, vigorous protests from China forced the Obama administration to move the exercises out of the Yellow Sea and farther east into the Sea of Japan. Sounding a lot like President Monroe, a Chinese spokesperson succinctly summed up Beijing’s thinking: “We firmly oppose foreign military vessels or planes entering the Yellow Sea and other waters adjacent to China to engage in activities that would impact on its security and interests.”
More generally, there is considerable evidence that Chinese leaders would like to develop the capability to push the U.S. Navy beyond the “first island chain,” which is usually taken to include the Greater Sunda Islands, Japan, the Philippines, and Taiwan. If this were to happen, China would be able to seal off the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and the Yellow Sea, and it would be almost impossible for the U.S. Navy to reach Korea in the event of war. There is even talk in China about eventually pushing the U.S. Navy beyond the “second island chain,” which runs from the eastern coast of Japan to Guam and then down to the Moluccan Islands. It would also include the small island groups like the Bonin, Caroline, and Marianas Islands. If the Chinese were successful, Japan and the Philippines would be cut off from American naval support.
These ambitious goals make good strategic sense for China (although this is not to say China will necessarily be able to achieve them). Beijing should want a militarily weak and isolated India, Japan, and Russia as its neighbors, just as the United States prefers a militarily weak Canada and Mexico on its borders. What state in its right mind would want other powerful countries located in its region? All Chinese surely remember what happened over the last century when Japan was powerful and China was weak.
Furthermore, why would a powerful China accept U.S. military forces operating in its backyard? American policymakers object when other great powers send military forces into the Western Hemisphere, because they view those foreign forces as potential threats to American security. The same logic should apply to China. Why would China feel safe with U.S. forces deployed on its doorstep? Following the logic of the Monroe Doctrine, would not China’s security be better served by pushing the American military out of the Asia-Pacific region? All Chinese surely remember what happened in the hundred years between the First Opium War (1839–42) and the end of World War II (1945), when the United States and the European great powers took advantage of a weak China and not only violated its sovereignty but also imposed unfair treaties on it and exploited it economically.
Why should we expect China to act differently than the United States? Are the Chinese more principled than we are? More ethical? Are they less nationalistic? Less concerned about their survival? They are none of these things, of course, which is why China is likely to follow basic realist logic and attempt to become a regional hegemon in Asia.