My September Diplomat Essay: Relax – Chinese Hegemony in Asia is Unlikely


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The following is a re-up of a piece I wrote for the Diplomat last month as part of an informal back-and-forth series with the National Interest this summer on the US pivot to Asia and AirSea Battle. (Here and here are some of the other entries.) That pic, which has got to be the grossest river in all China, is from here.

In brief, I increasingly think that ASB is a mistake, because it’s almost impossible to read it as anything other than hugely provocative from the Chinese point of view, no matter what we say to them about our peaceful intentions. (Read this, and tell me reasonable Chinese wouldn’t flip out.) It’s a classic example of the security dilemma, but as I argue below, I am not really convinced that we actually need this high-tech, super-fearsome-sounding ASB right up in their face. More generally though, the pivot to Asia – a sharpening of American attention on the region, is probably a good idea. China is vastly more influential on American life than Israel or Iran. But the Middle East and Islam activates belligerent American religiosity so much, that I doubt we’ll really be able to pivot. In any case, the essay follows the jump and is written in an op-ed style.

 

“Westerners are nothing if not breathless about China. Books describing her rise often have titles like When China Rules the World, Contest for Supremacy, Eclipse (of the US by China), and so on. China is such a preoccupation that the US has now ‘pivoted’ to Asia. And the Defense Department, eager to cash-in on the China hype in an era of sequestration and domestic exhaustion with the ‘global war on terror,’ tells us now that the US must shift to an ‘AirSea Battle’ concept (ASB). In a not-so-amazing coincidence, ASB is chock of full of the sorts of costly, high-profile, air and maritime mega-platforms the military-industrial complex adores. China’s single, barely functional aircraft carrier – the second one is not due for awhile – is a god-send to hawks and neo-cons everywhere . Even as the US retrenches from the Middle East, defense can seemingly never be cut. Indeed, the terrible irony of the pivot to Asia from the Middle East is that ASB platforms like satellites, drones, up-armored aircraft carriers, stealth jets and littoral ships will cost so much that staying focused on the Middle East may well be less expensive. (For the running debate on ASB, start here.)

Before the US goes down this path, with the obvious tit-for-tat arming spiral it may provoke, it is worth noting how many other hurdles China’s rise faces beyond the US military in the western Pacific. Richard Haas recently argued that ‘foreign policy begins at home.’ As the US pivots out of the Middle Eastern quagmire, perhaps America can take some time off to ‘nation-build at home,’ as the president promised, before it rushes headlong into this expensive, provocative ASB posture. The US foreign policy community’s zeal to always find something to do with US power should not blind us to the many local obstacles China faces. The pivot to Asia, like the war in Iraq, is not a necessity; it is a choice. And US voters who would like resources to go to schools, health care, infrastructure, deficit reduction, and so on, should know this:

1. Japan. This is the most obvious reason China will never become hegemon in Asia, much less genuinely challenge the US at the global level. Westerners tend to downplay Japan, because of its terrible deflationary funk over the last two decades. It is true that Japan has slipped far from its glory days when Paul Kennedy put it on the cover the Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. But Japan is still the world’s third largest economy. Its military, although numerical smaller than China’s, is far better trained and technologically proficient. And China’s recent replacement of Japan as the world’s second largest economy seems to have galvanized Japanese voters to a new level of seriousness about getting Japan back on track under Abe.

Sino-Japanese competition goes back to 19th C, or arguably the Ming dynasty when Japan was the troublesome, badly behaved ‘little brother’ to Confucian China. This hardly means that are ‘fated’ to conflict. But it does suggest that Japan will not acquiesce to anything like Chinese hegemony or a Sinic ‘Monroe Doctrine.’ For all the talk about the ‘Middle Kingdom’ coming back, recall that only one Japanese shogun (Yoshimitsu) ever acknowledged Japan’s inferior status in the older tributary order. Loud-mouth Chinese officials, unaccustomed to speaking in front of responsible media may say foolish things, but in a strictly balance of power sense, we can expect the Japanese to go eye-to-eye before accepting Chinese regional primacy.

Like almost everyone else in Asia, Japan is eager to trade with China, but not to be dominated by it. Chinese may say Japan is being “unleashed” (as one colleague once put it at a conference I attended), but so what? Japan is not the revanchist or imperialist China says it is. As Jennifer Lind has noted repeatedly, Japan has come a long way. Bushido militarism is two generations dead, and Tokyo restricts itself to a defense spending cap at just one percent of GDP. Indeed, China shamelessly uses such rhetoric for domestic legitimacy purposes, as well as to deter Japanese re-armament. But if China does not like it, so what? Either they can behave better or face a tougher, more heavily armed Japan. WWII cannot be a permanent, go-to excuse for China to dredge up whenever it wishes to block Japan and grease its own rise. Japan is highly unlikely to roll-over for anything like Chinese dominance because of a war seventy years ago.

2. The rest of China’s neighbors. Sticking with geopolitics for a moment, consider China’s encirclement. Even its coastline is hemmed in by Japan, Taiwan, and ASEAN, while its continental situation is like Germany’s – surrounded by many states, almost all wary of domination. Even Myanmar has begun to tack away. Should China genuinely act dangerously – although again, we should be wary of listening to military figures unaccustomed to speaking to uncowed foreign audiences – building a containment ring around China, with the US lurking off-shore, would not be that difficult. It is a commonplace to compare China to Wilhelmine Germany, but the Germans lost, twice, and the Chinese know that.

3. Nondemocratic China cannot credibly commit to restraint, so it will never be trusted. Nondemocracies have a hard to time credibly committing their good intentions to neighbors. Because their policy-process is closed and opaque, and given to unpredictable swings as poorly understood elites take power, other states inevitably hedge against even their best behavior. The little good will toward China accumulated despite a decade of cautious ‘peaceful rising’ is a good example. Suddenly a few years ago, China swung toward belligerence in its maritime disputes, and its neighbors, even Myanamar, turned rapidly against it.

Indeed the great irony of Chinese power is how ideologically limited it is. China has no friends; even Kim Jong Il reportedly told a US official that he did not trust China. True, China has business partners in democracies like South Korea, Australia, and Japan. But these states will never be China’s friends, or, in geopolitical terms, enter into a ‘security community’ with it. So long as China is a nasty autocracy with political prisons, poor human rights protections, and no elections, its outreach will be limited to the strictly utilitarian. It can bully Hollywood into saccharine portrayals of the Chinese, but it will never build an affective relations akin to those between the US and Canada, or Germany and France.

4. Domestic caps and restrains. Finally, it is increasingly understood that China can no longer maintain its headline growth rates at breakneck speed. Many China domestic specialists have argued this for a long time. Communist party rule is perpetual unstable; it was widely noted recently that China spends more on internal than external security. Someday, the crisis will come, as it does to all autocracies. Furthermore, population inversion, huge environmental problems, and rising health care issues like obesity and heavy smoking will curb the medium-term ability of China to project power in a local environment of fearful neighbors. As is happening in the US, a population that is older, sicker, and fatter will increasingly demand welfare expenditures that crowd out military spending. This may not produce a democratic peace so much as a ‘diabetic peace,’ but the outcome is similar.

In my own experience teaching Chinese students they are acutely aware that China is surrounded, friend-less, and facing enormous domestic hurdles. They worry that it will be besieged by a US-pushed local bloc, and no one believes for a moment that the pivot is anything but squarely directed at China. Given China’s large regional and internal problems, ASB will inevitably provoke Chinese paranoia and is unnecessary at the moment.”

10 thoughts on “My September Diplomat Essay: Relax – Chinese Hegemony in Asia is Unlikely

  1. Whether the US voters will prefer ASB, another strategy, or for the money to go to domestic issues is ultimately their choice, but methinks this essay is a little too biased towards overestimating the non-US opposition China faces.

    China’s situation is very different from Germany. While it is defensible to say that it is surrounded by wary foreigners, almost all of them are extremely weak. The strongest in the potential ring is Russia, India and Japan, but India (may well be the strongest in the long run) only shares a relatively small part of the border with China, and is very far away from China’s power centers. Russia, though it may be wary of China, is nevertheless close to it compared to the West (IMHO, due to a great extent from the West insisting on dwelling on the “Russian threat” for too long … instead of recognizing that the real threat to their continued primacy is a certain Asiatic country with over a billion people). Its border is also quite long and vulnerable to China.

    But let’s talk about Japan. The biggest problem with Japan being a stopper to China are the factors Lind and you stress. The very lack of nationalism and militarism, along with economic troubles, means Japan cannot assemble the will to take the defensive measures that would be required.

    For the Japanese national mood I can only speak from personal experience. I have proposed on Japanese blogs to increase the defense budget … not to 2% of GNP … but to a mere 5 trillion yen (that is, back to its historic high, and well less than a 10% increase from what it is now). Despite the blog being defense-oriented and attracting similar minds (which means in Japan it is already moderately right wing), I still meet resistance and comments amounting to “We can’t really afford that” and “We need to reduce the debt.

    We are talking an increase that’s literally a drop in the bucket of Japan’s debt problem. If that’s the kind of response I get from right-wingers, it does not take brilliant extrapolation to see what the left-wing feels about this. Overall, I can only conclude Japan cannot amass the national will to make themselves a “tougher, more heavily armed Japan”, unless China does something really stupid like a real military attack.

    As for Japan’s current military state compared to China, I don’t think I can support your conclusion. Overall, it is probably true that Japan still enjoys a training advantage over China in terms of its MSDF. As for the Air Force, however, China’s elite pilots already get more flying hours (200 or over) than Japan (150), and with the exception of Japan’s “lucky ones” that get to go to Red Flag or other American sponsored activities, probably enjoy a better training environment for simple reasons of having more airspace to use. They also enjoy similar advantages in training grounds on the Army, and Japan is actually rather cheap on the ground forces training … for example, the issue for basic rifle-shooting for infantrymen is about 10 rounds … per month (non-infantrymen get 20 rounds per year). Any advantage they might still have on the air and ground would be a leftover from a not-too-distant past when China does train less for lack of money – but that would disappear as the “new breed” advances through the ranks.

    And as for the rest of the net? I mean, the Phillipines? Who are we really kidding here? You can net all those nations into a NATO like organization, and it’ll still be countries like the US and Japan (if the latter can actually get out of its pacifism) who would be forced to split their forces thin to buffer them up.

    • Thank you for posting the article as well as to Mr. Shimazaki for his follow up points, I think both are thought-provoking and useful.

      I have to agree that I don’t find the idea of China being strategically hemmed in like Germany in the late 19th/early 20th century that compelling. These are all thoughts from an amateur but for what its worth:

      I think it is a hard to envision a Chinese exertion of power (either limited military belligerence or especially some type of quasi-military but not direct hostility action, such as much more aggressively assertion of claims to the Spratly or Paracel islands) as being responded to by those “hemming in” powers that are not directly involved. If China triples their naval presence in the Spratlys, expels non-Chinese attempts to claim land etc, you will certainly have some kind of response from the directly affected nations, but will India or Russia do anything in response that will measurably affect China’s strategic security? I tend to doubt it, although I’m basing that opinion solely on working with those countries on non-military national security matters so I could be way off. (The U.S. being the big obvious exception, although given we are unable to even open our national parks as of this writing who knows what we would actually do)

      Additionally, like Mr. Shimazaki notes, I’m unconvinced there is enough capability in much of China’s neighbors to worry China’s leadership, at least militarily. I think a U.S.-led “containment ring” around China is going to have some pretty significant gaps-

      Some countries with good capability are going to be hemmed in by other concerns that will limit their capability:

      Japan – Per Mr. Shimazaki’s comments
      South Korea – Strong capability but how likely are they to commit much/anything with North Korea still sitting there.
      Taiwan – Strong capability but major diplomatic concerns with that capability being used anywhere, plus likely huge political consequences in Taiwan
      Russia – Not sure they have strong capability in that region but if so, unlikely to cooperate with U.S.

      And when it comes to ASEAN, I struggle even harder to find countries with a military that could credibly be a concern to Chinese ambitions:

      Singapore – Strong capability but almost inconsequentially small
      Indonesia – Large capability on paper but almost entirely oriented towards internal security
      Philippines – Similar to Indonesia
      Vietnam – I claim 0 knowledge of Vietnam’s current military capability, so maybe? Unlikely to aggressively join any type of U.S. led effort

      I comment more as a thought exercise than anything else, obviously the specific situation China creates in a hypothetical belligerent action would matter a great deal in regard to how the various surrounding countries react, but in the end if I’m a Chinese strategic planner I would probably be thinking my main concerns in Asia will remain a U.S. response with the only notable support coming from Australia and perhaps Japan.

      • I agree that a lot of China’s neighbors are weak, but if China really becomes an imperialist, consider that India, Russia, and Japan would all line up against it. And the US would be drifting around in the background.

        That’s not enough to deter China?

        I also increasingly think that China’s internal problems are going to catch up to it quicker than we think. A major conflict would severely stress the rickety CCP oligarchy that now runs China. I could easily see domestic chaos cropping up in wartime environment. I think that stat about China spending more on internal than external security is very telling.

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