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Balancing Against China: Necessity, Tragedy, or Folly?

September 9, 2010

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.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 9, 2010 10:10 pm

    Interesting post. First, on Mearsheimer: my recollection is that he writes unequivocally in TGPP that the stopping power of water means that no state can become a global hegemon — he thinks it’s impossible, period. So although you, in this post, see a regionally hegemonic China eventually posing “a serious threat” to the US, I personally don’t think Mearsheimer’s basic assumption(s) support that view. However, one of my problems w/ TGPP is precisely that Mearsheimer glides over the implications of his no-global-hegemon postulate and advocates, in the last chapter, containment of China, at least to the extent of deliberate efforts to slow its economic growth. (See btw, on some other Mearsheimer assumptions and their validity or lack thereof, the article by Shiping Tang in International Studies Review 10:3, September 2008.)

    But putting Mearsheimer to one side, would a regionally hegemonic China indeed pose a serious threat to the US? I don’t know for sure, partly b/c I’m not an expert on technical military matters, but my inclination is to be a bit skeptical. China’s military might (carrier groups or whatever) would only be a serious threat to the extent China wanted to use its power aggressively against the US, and you admit that China has no apparent interest in exporting its version of authoritarian capitalism by force. (And btw your word “subjugating” is out of place insofar as it suggests conquest: has the US “subjugated” the Western hemisphere?) This is why, incidentally, I also find Robert Kaplan’s recent writing about China, which I have skimmed quickly not read closely, to assume what Kaplan should actually argue for: namely, China’s (supposedly) aggressive intentions. (And, contra Mearsheimer, I do think intentions, not just capabilities, matter.) One question is whether a regionally hegemonic China would permit the other countries in the region to develop domestically along their own lines or try to interfere with them in direct ways. If a regionally hegemonic China allows Japan, say, to order its domestic affairs however Japan sees fit, then I don’t see that it matters too much that the US would no longer have tens of thousands of soldiers on Okinawa. The vague language of ‘threat,’ ‘balance,’ ‘regional hegemony’ obscures the question of what Chinese dominance of the region would actually mean for the region itself, and, absent compelling evidence that it would mean something bad or awful, I find it hard now to get too exercised about the prospect. (Which is no doubt one of many reasons I am not writing policy papers for the State Dept or ‘respectable’ think tanks.)

    OK, I’ve rambled on long enough.

  2. September 10, 2010 3:38 pm

    First off, thanks for the response. My assumption from Mearsheimer is that while global conquest is impossible, global intervention certainly is – US history proves this empirically, even if Mearsheimer’s theory does not. So to clarify my own argument here, I do think a more globally active China is possible in the long (multi-decade) run, with interventions in the Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf as particularly strong possibilities, much as the US was able to act globally after its own rise to regional hegemony in WWI and afterwards. Nevertheless, I think Mearsheimer’s theory does allow regional hegemons to act “out of area” to prevent the emergence of others. As for his specific recommendations with regards to China, I agree that they are rather extreme, given many of China’s neighbors and rivals are also growing quickly.

    I agree that there is no way to be sure that a regionally hegemonic China would imperil the survival of the US. However, it would imperil US prosperity and security to some degree, or at least require a major redefinition (which may be necessary or what we should be after!). While it will be decades before China will be sending military forces into the Western hemisphere, Chinese military intervention in the Indian Ocean or Persian Gulf could seriously disrupt US, European and other East Asian nations’ economic interests. As China grows, it will inevitably come into resource and economic competition first with its neighbors and then with extra-regional great powers.

    Even without a driving ideological motive, the desire to employ gunboat diplomacy in the pursuit of increasingly global economic interests can be quite powerful – and China may well succumb to that desire if it wishes to continue its breakneck economic growth. Globalized interests and great power competition can even spur the development of aggressive ideologies to justify interventionist foreign policy (White Man’s Burden, Weltpolitik, outright nationalism).

    As for the idea of subjugation, I didn’t mean to imply that the US had conquered the Western hemisphere, or that China will conquer East Asia. What I mean is that China, like the US, will have incentives to make war against or at least coerce any regional military competitor and expel extra-regional threats. Subjugation will mean Chinese “veto” on foreign policy and probably the ability to exclude economic competition that might imperil Chinese national interests. This is essentially what it meant for the US. Though I sympathize with realists, I recognize that globalization and free trade have been very kind to the US, and that a collapse or restructuring of that system could certainly harm us. While China will certainly not want to tear down globalization, I imagine that on certain areas, such as energy and resource competition, it will want to draw up terms far less favorable to the US and Europe.

    There is also the “offshore balancing” argument that insists that only a power without territorial or local ambitions in Asia can prevent China, Japan, or India from entering a major (possibly nuclear) conflict. I am not sure if I buy this argument, since the US could foul up regional politics as easily as it could calm them, but it’s another possibility to consider.

    In any case, these are some really thought-provoking questions. Given the timescale necessary for China to even think about achieving regional hegemony, though, I wonder if we will be around to actually see them answered. Though it may be an example of “worst-case” thinking, my inclination is that China will have at least as much incentive as the US to translate regional hegemony into global intervention and intolerance for peer competitors. But they will have a few decades at least before they can even wrestle with that choice.

  3. September 10, 2010 9:40 pm

    I agree with your highlighting energy and resources as an area that may contain seeds of future US-China competition.

    One’s outlook about all this depends partly on one’s basic assumptions, and in this respect the article I mentioned (Shiping Tang, “Fear in International Politics: Two Positions,” Int’l Studies Review, Sept 2008), though not a model of elegant writing and, unfortunately, poorly edited, is worth a look if you have time. Tang points out that Mearsheimer holds that leaders of great powers must assume the worst about other great powers’ intentions, and that this position — even though Mearsheimer does not list it as one of his five starting assumptions — is actually crucial to the whole framework and ‘logic’ of offensive realism.

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