Stop Competing With China For Hegemony in East Asia


In a post titled “US Warns China: Don’t Pull a Crimea,” The American Interest notes the Obama administration’s efforts to maintain a credible military threat as a bulwark against China’s disputed maritime and territorial claims in the South China Sea:

The U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia issued a stern warning to Beijing yesterday: Don’t even think about using force to annex islands in the South China Sea, as Russia did in Crimea.

“The prospect of the kind of incremental retaliatory steps that are gradually being imposed on Russia in terms of its banks, in terms of cronies and other areas should have a chilling effect on anyone in China who might contemplate the Crimea annexation as a model,” Daniel Russel said. ”The net effect is to put more pressure on China to demonstrate that it remains committed to the peaceful resolution of the problems.”

“The president of the United States and the Obama administration is firmly committed to honoring our defense commitments to our allies,” he continued.

China has been paying attention to the West’s response Russia, which has so far included nothing more than anemic sanctions and the categorical ruling-out of the military option.

It is very unlikely that China is drawing actionable lessons from Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Just as Washington’s failure to bomb Syria did not influence Putin to take action in Crimea, Washington’s failure to respond militarily in Crimea is not going to convince Beijing that it can annex Taiwan or the Spratly islands. For one thing, the U.S. probably would intervene militarily in the East or South China Seas because Washington has formal defense treaties with Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines and remains the guarantor of the status quo in Taiwan. Washington had no such arrangements with Ukraine. Beijing knows this.

That said, China’s long-term strategy has indeed been to gradually gain more economic, military, and political power while refraining from outright aggressive provocations that upset the status quo. Beijing intends to acquire its expanded claims in a de facto way as its own sphere of influence in East Asia expands and Washington’s contracts. As University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer noted: “The Chinese are going to imitate the United States. They’re going to try to dominate Asia the way we dominated the Western hemisphere, and they’re going to try to push us out.”

So a war over the Diayou/Senkaku islands is unlikely to happen in the near term. But as U.S. power declines due to imperial overstretch, the influence over questions like Taiwan or these disputed island chains will gradually be ceded to China. That can either happen peacefully, with the U.S. willingly withdrawing from its claims of global hegemony, or violently, with a clash between two nuclear-armed giants.

In other words, the U.S. could easily keep out of costly war (whether hot or cold) with China over hegemony in East Asia. As Jan Hornát wrote recently at The National Interest, “a balance of power system can accentuate mutual differences, intensify rivalries and legitimize expansionist policies and preemptive war in name of the equilibrium.” Ceasing to impose on a region half a world away, on the other hand, can keep these dangerous contingencies remote. Seems like an easy choice to me. But the Obama administration is instead reinforcing its claims of dominance in East Asia and is issuing reassurances that we will continue to surround China militarily and respond with violence to any perceived expansions.


8 thoughts on “Stop Competing With China For Hegemony in East Asia”

  1. As the citizen of an American ally, I naturally find this one interesting. The words 'Nothing could be more immoral or successful',first used to describe the British bombardment of Copenhagen, were what occurred to me when Carter so sensibly abandoned his loyal ally, Ethiopia, and cast it into the pit of civil war and Communist rule. South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, like Ethiopia, are in effect, outposts of Fortress America. When an outpost is placed under unbearable pressure, it is abandoned. The question is what will Japan, South Korea and Taiwan do? It is quite plain that they need nuclear weapons. One may note that the US has carefully avoided real action against nuclear armed Pakistan, although raids across the border into Afghanistan are constant. One may also note that Russia had no hesitation at all in attacking the Ukraine, which gave up its nukes. Of course, even if South Korea and Taiwan armed themselves with nukes, China would 'win' a nuclear war with them, and probably with Japan. But you may reasonably ask whether China would wish to pay the price. The problem for the US is that, if China really decided to take action, its former allies might say 'We're going to hell, anyway. If you Yanks don't fulfill your alliance obligations, we'll dump a couple of our nukes on, say, New York and Washington before we go under.' The US has, naturally, always discouraged its allies from obtaining nukes for just this reason. It would plainly be more convenient for the US if the collapse came before the allies had time to produce their nukes. The president of the day could commit political hari-kiri in contrition, and the US could withdraw into Fortress America and forget about it all. Obama is certainly wise to continue to build Raygun Ron's Star Wars defence system. It will be interesting to see what happens.

  2. The article above seems to subscribe to the notion that “might makes right”. The article fails to mention that China’s territorial grab in the West Philippine Sea violates UNCLOS principles to which China has signed up to. While I have the greatest disdain for US foreign interventions which violate the rights of other nations, in the case of China’s territorial dispute with the Philippines, I appreciate the US position. Capitulating to China when China is clearly acting as a bully is not the best thing for the US to do regardless of a waning US regional strength. Rather than abandoning allies, the US can instead diplomatically support the enforcement of international agreements like UNCLOS. Respecting international agreements will redound to the benefit of all states in the future and minimize having to resort to shooting wars to settle disputes.

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  4. The biggest problem that is coming back to haunt the Empire, is the signing of so many ridiculous treaties with Japan, South Korea , Taiwan, the Philippines, etc after WWII. As China has developed from the poor, starving country of Mao to the economic powerhouse of today, the bankrupt US is having more and more trouble maintaining its hegemony in the Far East (and elsewhere). Those from the WWII "greatest generation" have really put us into a bind. Treaties are made to be broken – its time we did so.

  5. Crimea is dirt poor, even by Ukranian standards, and was intensely dependent on government aid. The regime change brought about a lot of philosophical shifts in government, but the big change from the Crimean perspective was economic in that

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