Rise of China and the Return of Great Power Politics




Washington’s “Pivot to Asia,” the redirection of U.S. focus to the Far East, opens a new (but familiar) chapter of U.S.-Chinese relations.  U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s trip to the Far East has been part of that larger program to reassure our Asian allies of American support in the region. While filled with sharp words for his Chinese counterpart, Sec. Hagel has helped assuage fears of a miscalculated military crisis. Nonetheless, China’s assertive foreign policy and growing military muscle has created an anxious environment for Asian and Pacific countries, especially those of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Japan and India. These events signal a closing to the Cold War norm of hegemonic struggles of superpowers or the post-Cold War order based on American leadership. Instead, we are slowly returning to the era of Great Power Politics, threatening the global order molded on American free trade, the U.S. dollar and American security.

Historically, China has always been a great power, exerted influence beyond its borders, and been a cultural and economic beacon to its neighbor. The interruption of European and American interference in Chinese affairs led to a steep decline of Imperial China, followed by forty years of civil war and warlordism. The revival under the post-Mao Communist Party leadership demonstrated that China is an economic power and political force in global affairs. Hu Jintao, the new Premier of the People’s Republic, at the 2009 National Military Parade in Beijing, exclaimed: “The Chinese People have stood up!” When comparing Hu’s words with those of Deng Xiaoping, former premier and the last of the old revolutionaries, it marked a tone of change in Chinese attitudes. Such words spoke of a China that had risen from the ashes of colonialism and internal strife, coming of age as a world power.

Chinese Carrier "Liaoning" in port at Yuchi Naval Base

Chinese Carrier “Liaoning” in port at Yuchi Naval Base

The rhetoric speaks for itself as a major foreign policy challenge to the United States and its allies in the region. Since the end of World War II (and even stretching back to World War I), the U.S. has maintained strong alliances with the nations in the Far East, especially Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Australia. Our ships have patrolled the high seas ensuring stability in predominantly important maritime trade that has been the lifeline of the globalized market. Just recently, Secretary Hagel toured the first Chinese aircraft carrier that is also the newest addition to an increasingly assertive naval military presence in the western Pacific. Compared to downsizing of the U.S. armed forces in the wake of changing global challenges, China’s military presence is threatening to end the peaceful and stabilizing U.S. protection of maritime trade.

The ASEAN Way in Question

The vigorous Chinese assertion of strength has sent shock waves to our Allies, especially ASEAN. ASEAN has long attempted to balance economic, social, and diplomatic cooperation through a policy called the “ASEAN Way.” Its ten member states launched this policy to maintain individual state sovereignty, or security from foreign interference in domestic affairs, while allowing them to pursue economic expansion. According to economists, ASEAN as a bloc is the eighth largest economy in the world, even at the most formative stage of intergovernmental, regional integration. In many respects, it aspires to become the “European Union” of Southeast Asia.


The South China Sea Dispute

However, this arrangement has been viable as long as China remained weak while the U.S. remained committed. These nations are now vulnerable to the new challenge presented by China. Just like the U.S. and Japan, ASEAN faces competition with a power motivated by geopolitical ambitions and a strong sense of nationalism. Furthermore, the disputes over the South China Sea demonstrate a Chinese willingness to exert its own rules over that of international law, and intimidating its neighbors into passive acceptance of its status quo. In the perspective balance of power, ASEAN may be entering a new transition not unfamiliar to our friends in Europe during the Cold War.

The Tigers and the Eagle

The revival of China’s ambitions to make decisions on the world stage has made it our greatest geopolitical challenge since the Soviet Union. We need to assure our allies in the region, including Japan, that we can stand by them while countering Beijing’s ambitions to make the rules in international diplomacy. Furthermore, we need to work to avoid military conflict in two of the most economically important regions of the world, the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca. Left unchecked, it is only a matter of time before Japan expands its military prowess and Taiwan get fidgety over Chinese ships knocking on its territorial waters. Equally important is how Chinese expansion will conflict with India, whose motivation to garner influence, demonstrated by the Look East policy is equally fervent.

As these titans collide, the nations of Southeast Asia are likely to recalculate their own geopolitical positions. ASEAN may be more conscious about re-evaluating the its ASEAN Way policy and favoring closer economic and security agreements. The presence of the Soviet Union was a factor in pushing the European Community to strengthen their own political bonds, even though the Union formed after the Cold war. The security situation around the South China Sea Dispute is a major motivator and could be pressed by increased American support for these friends and allies in the region. The call by Japan for Joint-Military Exercises (JME) with the Philippines and Taiwan could be another attractive opportunity to garner a new ally. Finally, we cannot discount India and their role in this tug-of-war for the western Pacific, so they will need to be included in the current American foreign policy calculus.

Fashion the Shield

In a small conversation regarding U.S.-Chinese relations, a Chinese officer made these remarks to former Admiral Timothy Keating, head of the U.S. Pacific Fleet: “You, the U.S. take Hawaii East and we, China, will take Hawaii West and the Indian Ocean…If anything happens there, you let us know, and we will let you know what happens over there.” Such an event would cripple nearly a century of U.S. policymaking in the regions and be inherently destabilizing. Chinese control of the western Pacific, followed by India securing the Indian Ocean threatens to end peaceful trade security and that of our partners in the Far East. The naval presence must be maintained and strengthened as the foundation of security for the Far East.

A stronger and united ASEAN, organized around similar structure and connectivity compared to its European counterpart, will be a great American ally. Its combined economic and military strength would make it a strong regional power with stronger influence over its own geographic conflict. Finally, it provides a buffer that enhances U.S. economic, political and military interests and a united front against Chinese incursions into the Pacific.

Author of "The Influence of Sea Power on History"

Author of “The Influence of Sea Power on History”

The U.S. should reach out to India and continue developing a strong partnership for regional security. The decline in relations with Pakistan provides opportunities for flexibility in South Asia, especially as Beijing feels empowered to challenge Delhi on Look East. The future for Indo-U.S. relations will be based on economics power and that can only take place while the Malaccas and surrounding seas remain secure and unimpeded. We propose continued confidence-building measures through JMEs and cooperation on piracy.

According to Alfred Thayer Mahan, no great power has ever existed without guaranteeing its own security of trade and commerce through sea power. Theodore Roosevelt found these words invaluable advice when launching the Great White Fleet on its 1907 whirlwind tour of the globe.Unfortunately for us, the Chinese have equally taken to heart these words of advice in attempting to secure their own economic and political destiny. However, they have also been the downfall of powers such as Germany, who pursued this course to great peril and loss in two World Wars. Our vigilance and strength will not suffice if we are deter China from pursuing what is a natural instinct of a great power to expand. We must fashion a “Shield” of allies while maintaining our diplomatic engagement with Beijing, Delhi, Tokyo and our other allies. The delicate moment of transition is here and we should dare not miss on the opportunities to continue exercising leadership in the Pacific Ocean.


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