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Seeking Regional Hegemony in Practice

September 27, 2010

After a lot of posts about China and the theory and prospects for regional hegemony, the real world of international politics has provided a glimpse of what may be to come in Eastern Eurasia. The behavior is not exactly surprising. China’s recent spat with Japan, as Blirg points out, was not a major incident in and of itself, but the furor which it aroused is indicative of the rising tensions over sea control and the regional balance of power in China’s maritime periphery.

Though China has technically won the immediate issue and the Chinese fishing boat captain at the root of the dispute has come home, they have hardly shown prime strategic judgment. As a propaganda victory for domestic consumption, the incident might have served the regime’s immediate interests, allowing the cooler-headed technocrats running the PRC to calm more bellicose elements within China. In a larger view, though, the Senkaku Islands remain beyond Chinese control, and Japan remains firmly in the US camp on security issues. A more adept Chinese leadership might have exploited the chaotic state of Japan’s DPJ-led government and the rifts exposed by the disputes over US basing in Okinawa to try to neutralize Japan. Instead, they have jolted the Japanese into recognizing their irritation with the US carries far less weight than their fear of an assertive China.

As Dan Drezner pointed out, many prominent voices of the commentariat, absorbed in internal debates and dissatisfaction with Washington politics, tend to assume that China has mastered some form of wrong-but-prescient, ultra-efficient form of government that dooms the United States to subservience to our new overlords in Beijing. I do not buy into a lot of this commentary*, because it enormously overstates the internal political problems of the US, and understates the internal problems of a country which does not exert territorial control over one of its claimed provinces, maintains control over its western borderlands by military force, suffers enormous environmental degradation, and must manage the new desires for prosperity and modernity all while managing massive transitions in its economic geography and, despite becoming the world’s number two economy, has to deal with all of this while still possessing a GDP per capita around that of Albania.

China’s relative state of underdevelopment and the numerous challenges it will face in taming East Asia mean it is a long way away from posing the kind of regional-hegemonic threat to the US that many get so worried about. Because most Asian countries are relatively eager to defer to the US on issues of regional security, and there are strong potential challengers to Chinese hegemony in Eastern Eurasia, the US should not make the mistake of adopting an aggressive containment strategy in the area. China’s bungled diplomacy and local presence make it a far more compelling threat to local states than the US, which can take advantage of its option to function as an offshore balancer. Part of the reason that any run at regional hegemony would take China decades is not just because of building up the necessary fundamentals, but because China needs time to correct its own errors and temper vigor with experience.

Reconfiguring US political relationships, force structure, and economic ties to adapt to a rising China and prevent its growing regional power from sparking a war with its neighbors will be difficult, but necessary. This does not have to be World War III. It does not even have to be the Cold War. In practice, seeking regional hegemony is an incredibly complicated process, and China will have myriad disputes and rivalries to sort through if it hopes to achieve it – and while it might be strong enough to coerce, it is too weak to resist a significant balancing coalition. The recent dispute over the Senkaku Islands is proof that managing China’s rise deserves more of policymaker’s attention and consideration than it has been getting, but also that it deserves less hyperbolic rhetoric than both Beijing’s admirers and disgruntled hawks have devoted towards it.

*How many Thomas Friedman columns are based on proclaiming the end of American supremacy because the government won’t invest money in companies whose CEO’s Friedman gets lunch with in between electric car rides?

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