While China’s growing military capabilities and ambitions certainly create challenges for the United States, they do not necessarily reflect aggressive or expansionist intentions and instead derive largely from Beijing’s difficult security environment and historical experience. China has land borders with fourteen countries, some small and inconsequential but others, like Russia and India, wielding significant power and resources. Four of these neighbors have nuclear weapons, and the United States has a nuclear umbrella over Japan and South Korea. China's “near abroad” also includes major countries such as Indonesia and Iran.
While China can develop formidable naval capabilities along its coastal areas, it lacks unfettered access to the open seas, whether the Pacific, Indian, or Arctic Oceans. It does not control the island chains on its eastern flanks, and narrow straits restrict its naval access to the Indian Ocean. In this sense, anti-access and area denial, a concept often applied to China’s military strategy along its maritime periphery, can also work against it.
Modern history has not been kind to China. It lost vast swathes of its territory because of its earlier weakness, and it lagged behind Japan in modernization. In the 19th and 20th centuries, multiple wars were fought inside China or on its borders. In addition, vast sweeps of China's western regions are occupied by ethnic minorities, such as the Tibetans and the Uighurs in Xinjiang, living in their historic homelands. These regions are vulnerable to separatist sentiments, which reinforces the importance China attaches to preserving national unity and territorial integrity.
Understandably, the Chinese believe that over the last two hundred years they have been bullied and victimized by stronger powers. They are determined not to let this happen again, and genuinely believe their own rhetoric that their goal is not to dominate but to avoid being dominated. Their neighbors, not surprisingly, are skeptical of this claim. Moreover, the Chinese may be poor judges of their own future behavior since their military modernization gives them growing capabilities to bully weaker countries around their periphery.
Despite these insecurities and historical grievances, postulating that China’s goal is to dominate East Asia ignores geographic, historical and domestic political factors. History has demonstrated that some regions of the world are not conducive to sustained domination by major powers. No major power has been able to dominate Europe for the last two hundred years, despite several attempts. East Asia is another such region. Japan tried to dominate it and suffered a catastrophic defeat. While the United States has enjoyed maritime primacy in Asia for seventy years, it has certainly not dominated East Asia as a whole.
Moreover, domestically, China—like the United States—faces huge challenges, including slowing economic growth, an aging population, a shrinking workforce, and badly skewed income distribution. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign is shaking up the party, the government and the military. The leadership’s economic reforms threaten the giant state owned enterprises that constitute a powerful interest group in China. And the military reforms Xi is undertaking pose significant implications for promotions and career patterns.
With such an external mindset and these internal challenges, China’s interests are no better served than ours by a Cold War-style strategic competition with the United States – especially when the two sides are economically interdependent and facing joint responsibility for the management of climate change and other transnational global threats. Instead, Beijing’s priorities require stability, lessened security competition and continued growth. China is in no position to seek regional (much less global) dominance.
The Best Response: Transition to a Stable and Mutually Beneficial Balance in Asia
Given the strategic circumstances outlined above, fundamental U.S. security interests are best served by maintaining the credibility of our defense arrangements in East Asia while focusing on economic development over military rivalry. At the same time, it is necessary to recognize and take into account China’s own vital security interests and concerns, which include keeping Taiwan within a one China framework and defending its homeland against external threats.
The security imperatives of China and the United States are potentially, but not inherently, incompatible. They become incompatible only if neither side is willing to accommodate, in some fashion, to the other’s fundamental interests.
The solution is not for the United States to double down militarily, spending vast amounts of money in a futile attempt to remain militarily predominant across all of maritime East Asia. Such an approach would be virtually certain to result in an intensifying arms race and political rivalry with Beijing that would undermine the basis for vital Sino-U.S. cooperation in other areas. At worst, it could generate a new Cold War that benefits no one.
Washington also needs to adapt its security posture in the region to one that the U.S. economy can sustain, and the U.S. polity can endorse, especially given America’s myriad domestic priorities.
We judge that the United States can best meet all these requirements and best protect its interests—and those of its allies and partners in the region—by working with China and other countries to transition toward a stable balance of power in East Asia, and a more integrated and dynamic regional economic network that benefits all.
Maintaining a stable security environment requires retaining a robust U.S. alliance network, supplemented by an expanding set of mutually verifiable understandings with Beijing, U.S. allies and other Asian powers.
These understandings would be aimed at stabilizing the military balance with China at a level both sides can live with. Each side would possess capabilities sufficient to deter the other from using force to resolve serious differences, but would lack the clear superiority that could, in the eyes of the other, foster aggressive intentions or stimulate an arms race.
Such understandings must also aim at defusing and demilitarizing the most contentious issues in the region, from North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs—which threaten to restrict U.S. freedom of action in defending itself and its allies—to Taiwan and the maritime disputes across the Asian littoral. Managing or resolving these issues can be achieved most optimally in the context of a regional balance.
Achieving a more integrated and dynamic economic region would require the United States, China and other Asian economies to strengthen their domestic economic growth and to rationalize their trade relationships. Most importantly, successful long-term economic integration will depend on Beijing and Washington agreeing to join a common trade architecture, creating an eventual region-wide free-trade agreement. This will require more active and focused U.S. economic diplomacy that maximizes Chinese incentives to work with Washington to strengthen the global economic structure.
For Washington, this process will require a consistency of purpose that goes beyond tactical short-term cooperation with Beijing on bilateral issues, while hedging against downside scenarios by reconfiguring U.S. military capabilities and selectively strengthening our alliances in the region. It will also require strengthening diplomatic efforts and coordinating them more closely with our military efforts. Economically, it will require—but will also facilitate, by making our East Asia strategy more cost-effective—the rejuvenation of the vital foundations of American growth, such as improving national infrastructure, managing the nation’s mounting national debt, reducing income inequality and limiting spiraling entitlements.
For Beijing, which is confronting its own domestic priorities, this process will similarly require better policy coordination and consistency. But it should also promote stable economic and social development inside China. Beijing’s many problems and needs strongly suggest that it would be receptive to reaching the kind of stable and mutually beneficial balance outlined above.
Working From Strength, Not Weakness
If mishandled, the above approach could be perceived as a sign of weakening U.S. resolve to preserve a military environment in East Asia sufficient to reassure our allies and friends. This risk is well worth taking, however, and can be minimized or eliminated altogether through strong U.S. initiatives that more effectively leverage America’s many strengths and a clear recognition by all of the even greater dangers posed by efforts to dominate East Asia or to “muddle through” on a piecemeal basis.
This pursuit of a stable U.S.-China balance and greater economic integration in East Asia is an approach better suited to what our economy can sustain over the long run and strikes a better balance between our external security interests, our international responsibilities and our domestic requirements. It rests on the effective use of America’s substantial military and economic power, both globally and regionally, and anticipates that the United States will remain a powerful and influential nation in the world for decades to come. And it assumes that Washington, with the support of its allies and friends, can retain a leadership role in Asia in a manner that is reassuring to all regional powers, including China.
Joseph W. Prueher is a former career U.S. Naval officer, having served as Commander of the Pacific Command, and after retiring from the Navy, as U.S. Ambassador to China for Presidents Clinton and Bush (1999-2001). He has also worked in academia and serves on the boards of U.S. corporations and nonprofit organizations.
J. Stapleton Roy is a former senior career U.S. diplomat specializing in Asian affairs. He served as U.S. ambassador in Singapore (1984–86), the People's Republic of China (1991–95), and Indonesia (1996–99). He was also director of the Kissinger Institute for Chinese-U.S. Studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.