- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
What’s the BIG question? If you were trying to predict the course and character of world politics for the next 50 years or so, what question would you like to know the answer to today? It’s easy to think of different candidates, such as: 1) will climate change continue unabated with far-reaching effects on the world economy and low-lying areas?; 2) will the euro survive? 3) will terrorists ever acquire and use a weapon of mass destruction?; 4) will there be a major global pandemic? And so forth.
All good questions, but the future of Sino-American relations should be on everyone’s list of Top 5 "Big Questions." And on that subject, the main issue is whether China will continue to tolerate America’s extensive and powerful military presence in East Asia or whether it will conduct a sustained effort to drive a wedge between the United States and its current allies and eventually force the United States out of the region.
The current situation is clearly anomalous. Historically, it is somewhat unusual for one great power to have a tight set of alliances in the immediate neighborhood of another great power and to maintain a lot of military force in its vicinity, without the other power having a compensating presence in close proximity to its rival. To be sure, America’s Cold War alliances and military deployments had this same quality — the United States had large forces in Europe and Asia while the USSR had a very modest presence in the Western Hemisphere — but this situation mostly reflected the Soviet Union’s unfavorable geographical location and relative economic weakness. Moscow would have loved to have gotten the United States out of Asia and Western Europe and pinned it down in the Western Hemisphere; it just didn’t have any good way to accomplish any of those goals.
As my sometime co-author John Mearsheimer has repeatedly noted, a rising China is likely to want to force the United States out of Asia. I mean, seriously: What great power would want to be ringed by neighbors that have close security partnerships with its main peer competitor and would want that same rival to keep a lot of potent military forces near its shores? The United States certainly didn’t like the idea of a large-scale European great-power presence in the Western Hemisphere — remember the Monroe Doctrine? — and once it became a great power it lost little time in pushing Britain and France out of its "backyard." It certainly helped that the European powers were always more worried about each other, but the key point is that U.S. leaders understood that the nation’s security would be maximized if it were the sole great power in the region. There is no reason to think that Beijing sees this issue any differently.
It is hard to overstate the long-term implications of this issue. If the United States is able to maintain the status quo in Asia and help prevent China from dominating the region, then Beijing will have to focus a lot of attention on local issues, and its capacity to shape politics in other parts of the world will be constrained. By contrast, if China eventually pushes the United States out of Asia, it will have the same sort of hegemonic position in its region that the United States has long enjoyed near its own shores. That favorable position is what allows Washington to wander all over the world telling others what it thinks they should do, and regional hegemony would give Beijing the option of doing the same if it wished. It might even start forging closer ties — including security ties — with countries in the Western Hemisphere. That’s why the question of how long Beijing will tolerate the U.S. presence in Asia is so important.
Over the past five to 10 years, China’s "peaceful rise" has given way to more assertive efforts to challenge the regional status quo. There has been no formal declaration of a Chinese "Monroe Doctrine," no announcement of a Beijing-centered "Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere," and certainly no fiery speeches denouncing the existing order the way that Hitler used to rail against Versailles. Instead, what we’ve seen is a more gradual, low-intensity effort to challenge current arrangements and to pressure other states to accept revisions that are more to Beijing’s liking. Sometimes the object of attention is a reef or some small islands; sometimes it is a declaration of sovereignty over contested waters; and most recently, it was the unilateral announcement of an "air defense identification zone." In each case, the goal has been to reinforce Chinese claims to particular territorial arrangements, but also to establish China’s position as the power in the region whose demands must be respected.
This is what great powers do, especially in their immediate vicinity. The United States didn’t launch a war to drive Britain from the Pacific Northwest and Latin America; it just kept pushing until London sensibly decided it had other priorities and that winning U.S. friendship was more valuable given the balance of threats closer to home. This is what Russia has been doing in its "near abroad" ever since the Soviet Union broke up, most recently by leaning on Ukraine to reject closer economic ties with the European Union. By calmly probing, using carrots and sticks adroitly, and being willing to suffer short-term costs for the sake of long-term gains, great powers bent on revising the status quo basically aim to wear their opponents down. A clash of arms is not the goal here, though accidents do happen and one can never completely rule it out.
Indeed, a rising power seeking regional hegemony would be wise to avoid war. Look what happened to Germany (twice), Japan (once), and even Napoleonic France, each of which launched wars of hegemony that ended in disaster. When you try to gain hegemony with one bold roll of the iron dice, others will gang up to stop you. By contrast, slow, steady accretions of power are less likely to trigger a balancing response, and they also avoid the inherent uncertainties of open warfare.
America’s rise to regional hegemony remains the textbook case on how to establish a dominant position without fighting a major war. And take note: The task of expelling other powers from the Western Hemisphere was easier because Britain and France were operating far from their home territory and ultimately concluded that staying in the Western Hemisphere wasn’t as important as trying to keep Germany from dominating Europe.
So there you have it: One of the Big Questions that will shape the next few decades. Of course, it is not obvious that China’s rise will continue (at least not at the same pace as before); even if it does, its efforts to reduce America’s presence in Asia may not succeed. A lot depends on how America’s current (and potential) allies respond and also on whether the U.S. national security establishment can reach an enduring consensus on the priority to be given to Asian security in general and China in particular. That consensus seemed to be emerging during President Barack Obama’s first term, but the energy behind the "pivot" seems to have dissipated as the administration has re-engaged in the Middle East maelstrom. No doubt Vice President Joe Biden will try to straighten things out when he visits the region this week, but long-term success will depend on a lot more than the occasional top-level fly-in.