Balancing Against China: Necessity, Tragedy, or Folly?
In a comment on my post about Mearsheimer, LFC asks the really obvious question that a lot of people (myself included) skirt over:
Why should the U.S. care whether China becomes a regional hegemon in the Asia/Pacific?
He notes that Mearsheimer does attempt to explain this by noting regional hegemon’s abilities to make trouble in foreign backyards. The Monroe Doctrine had this concern in mind. However, though Mearsheimer acknowledges “the stopping power of water,” geography really does matter when it comes to the potential for regional interference. A European hegemon interfering in North or South America is plausible. The Atlantic is simply a smaller ocean to cross than the Pacific, and economic and cultural ties had already granted European powers a good deal of leverage. Though none succeeded, the imperial European powers, Nazi Germany, and the USSR all had some level of influence, offensive capability, and interest in the western hemisphere.
Today, China lies across a vast ocean with many US naval bases strewn across it. Its influence in South America is indeed on the rise. China’s economic interest in South American minerals and oil is translating into growing political clout. China has even begun naval coöperation with Brazil to bolster the carrier strength of the former and the submarine strength of the latter. Of course, Chinese influence in South America has yet to rival that of Europe in the early 20th century, and many of the countries with which China is forging strong ties are in the southern cone, the “dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica.” Atlantic Europe is closer to northeastern North America than some parts of South America are.
China would only pose a threat to the American backyard in the long-term, certainly no sooner than it can acquire expeditionary carrier groups capable of challenging America’s. Given the current debate is currently over whether China can achieve area denial and muscle out its neighbors, that moment is decades in coming. So why worry about balancing China at all? China is hardly the ideological competitor that the USSR was. Even if Chinese authoritarian capitalism is a viable alternative to liberal democracy, it is not one China is looking to export by force of arms. Answering the question, however, requires explaining what Chinese regional hegemony would actually entail. Mearsheimer cites US as the only example today of a regional hegemon. Were China to follow in our path, it would dominate and defeat any regional competitors. This would involve, at a minimum, turning the Yellow Sea, Sea of Japan, South and East China Seas into “Chinese Lakes” and extending that dominance to the Second Island Chain. It would need a Monroe Doctrine for East Asia, expunging major US military presence from the Korean peninsula, Japan, Singapore, the Philippines and possibly elsewhere. It would also likely require neutralizing India as a major competitor. Obviously, Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet would have to be under firm Chinese control. So too would China need at least tacit hegemony over eastern Russia.
Such hegemony would give the foundation for an extremely powerful China, at least in terms of the natural and industrial resource base. Should China convert that into usable seapower and expeditionary land forces, that would be a serious threat to the US. But this scenario is decades, perhaps a century or more, from being anything but a glimmer in the eye of a hawkish Chinese officer. The US can prevent a China that can overpower any combination of its neighbors from coming into being. It would certainly have economic interests on a global scale and begin to encroach on the Western hemisphere, and be able to purchase the military means to pursue them. That is what preventing Chinese regional hegemony really means, at least in Mearsheimer’s terms. Obviously this is not going to happen anytime soon, and it is a threat we can today prevent or at least delay without enormous mobilization of resources or great power conflict.
If we believe that China cannot create a Chinese Monroe Doctrine, simply because its economic fundamentals are too weak and its neighbors too strong, then aggressive containment as used against the USSR is essentially folly. If we believe that somewhere down the line, China, like Germany or the USSR, could come to dominate the continent, then containment looks more attractive. After all, containment’s essence was denying the USSR free access to industrial centers of the “rimland,” denying Chinese control of Asia’s other economic centers and the Indian Ocean would seem a similarly good idea. So too would ensuring the US military has the capability to deter China should passing the buck to India, Japan and other states fail.
Containment, however, quickly grew far beyond its architects’ imaginations. It became less about denying industrial centers and more about upholding the principles to reassure those wealthier, more strategically vital allies that they should not acquiesce to non-alignment or worse. Vietnam was one unfortunate result, heightened tensions in other flashpoints were another. British determination to prevent a continental hegemon and ambiguity about its own balancing strategy arguably contributed to WWI, which Niall Ferguson and others have called “the greatest error in modern history.” No doubt, the security dilemma will still apply to China and the United States, and the potential for crisis to spark warfare will grow. Whatever strategy the United States chooses to deal with China’s rise, it will open the potential for miscalculation and misinterpretation. America should try to prevent China from becoming a regional hegemon because it entails the subjugation of Asia with global consequences. Nevertheless, China has yet to subjugate Taiwan, let alone other Asian great powers. Because of the enormous power that regional hegemony provides under Mearsheimer’s definition, balancing China is a necessity. However, because ambiguity generally leads to fear rather than restraint in contests for continental or global leadership, a mistake in balancing China could easily lead to tragedy. American statesmen would do well to recognize that our intolerance for peer competitors is only prudent insofar as it they temper it with patience and restraint, or else they do not prevent disaster and decline, but invite them.