The United States in Asia-Pacific: The Changing Balance of Power

Author: Amitav Acharya

In March 2010: Admiral Robert Willard, Commander of the US Pacific Command, told a US Congressional Committee, "China's rapid and comprehensive transformation of its armed forces holds implications beyond the Asia-Pacific region." This build-up, he added, will “challenge our freedom of action in the region.” According to the Admiral, China had increased its submarine and air defence fleet substantially. "The PLA Navy has increased its patrols throughout the region and has shown an increased willingness to confront regional nations on the high seas and within the contested island chains.

Willard further added that the growing Chinese military build-up “not only concern the United States but our regional allies as well” including Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asian countries, all of whom “have to deal now with capabilities that could potentially infringe on their freedom of action throughout this very important part of the world."

Adding to this are concerns about new Chinese assertiveness. Senator Joe Lieberman in the same hearing was quoted as saying that there has been “a move up in the assertiveness of China economically, diplomatically and militarily.”

Such concerns about China in the US policymaking community are not entirely new. “America’s shrinking deterrent,” “tipping point” in the balance of power, these are some of the words with which two prominent experts in Washington described the implications of the Chinese military build-up. Writing in the The Wall Street Journal on July 17, 2009, Paul Giarra and Michael Green of CSIS argued that China’s armed forces have has moved beyond their focus on Taiwan and are now developing longer range capabilities that include “anti-satellite weapons, advanced land attack ballistic missiles, new classes of submarines and surface ships and the emerging ballistic missile capability to hit ships at sea at least 1,000 miles from China's coasts.”

Add to this, are the growing concerns in Washington about the health and future of the US- Japan alliance, the lynchpin of US security strategy in Asia. These concerns have grown since the coming to office last year of a government led by the Democratic Party of Japan under Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, which has pledged to make Japan less dependent on the US strategically. Another concern is that the global economic crisis since 2008 might have led to gains for China at the expense of the US, amid the latter’s enhanced engagement in Afghanistan and the continuing war in Iraq.

Is this too much pessimism -- the usual Washington talk to attract attention and in the case of the Pentagon, attract more Congressional funding? The answer to some extent is yes. The concerns expressed might be countered by pointing to the strategic and political gains made by the US in the past few years. These include a growing strategic partnership with India and the dramatic reversal of anti-Americanism in the region since the election of President Obama (even as his own popularity in the US dwindled). As any military expert in Washington would know, the US has not been a passive spectator of China’s military build-up.

The future role of the US in Asia-Pacific security is by no means doomed. The US will remain the dominant military power. In the short term, however, the US position is weakened by two factors: the war in Afghanistan, and the precarious state of the US economy. The role of US allies, including domestic developments that affect their relationship with the US will also matter. But there is little danger of a break-up of the US-Japan alliance. And despite the partisan bickering that has marked US domestic politics, there is little danger of isolationism in the US.

It is doubtful that China’s growing military power and denial strategy will force strategic recalculations among major Asian powers. I am not talking about Cambodia and Burma, or Bangladesh and Nepal, but countries like South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, to the extent that it would create the ‘tipping point’ that Giarra and Green and talk about. A Chinese sphere of influence over Southeast Asia which excludes the US or induces these countries to distance themselves from the US would be a good indicator of the tipping point. But the prospects for this developing are highly unlikely. The US will retain the role of regional balance in Asia for the foreseeable future.

Moreover, if a genuine concern over Chinese military build-up emerges in Asia, the fear of Chinese power will play into the hands of the US, enhancing regional countries’ dependence on the US military umbrella. It’s actually not a bad strategy therefore for senior US officials to play up the Chinese military build-up.

The story of US-China competition is not that America is declining while China is rising. It is rather that America is not declining but others, especially China, are rising. Growing competition between the US and China is likely, setting the stage for an intensified arms race, but it is unlikely to push the two countries to a game of brinksmanship or all-out zero-sum rivalry reminiscent of the US-Soviet Cold War. Chief among the factors preventing this would be their mutually dependent economic relationship. China is not the Soviet Union of the 1970s. China’s prosperity, hence its domestic stability, is too closely tied to trade and economic linkages with the West to replicate the zero-sum nature of the US-Soviet rivalry.

But there can be no question some important changes are taking place in the way the US has played its security role in the region. One possible implication is the end of the US “hedging strategy,” which meant Washington will not seek to balance China pending clearer signs of greater geopolitical assertiveness by Beijing. Another implication could be the end of the conventional thinking that the two powers could share the security space of Asia, with the US dominating the maritime sphere with China doing likewise in the Asian heartland. China is increasingly a major naval player. The US will remain the number one maritime power, but its relative dominance will not be the same. We may thus be entering an era of diffuse bipolarity.

What about China’s soft power? Much has been made of the growth of Chinese soft power in Asia in recent years. Analysts point to China as a growing source of aid and investment in the region, and there is a growing “comfort zone” between China and the region’s small and medium countries which are increasingly unsure or distrustful of the credibility of the US as a strategic partner.

But the importance of China’s soft power can be overstated. First, soft power equations are not zero-sum. Just because Chinese soft power is rising does not mean America’s or Japan’s is declining. Second, foreign aid and investment can only go so far in creating enduring soft power. Otherwise, Japan would wield considerable influence in East Asia, including China, which was its biggest recipient of ODA until recently. Or India would not have leaned to the Soviet Union after receiving massive US aid in the post-war period. Finally, a nation’s repertoire of soft power can go through major fluctuations. The anti-Americanism which seemed such a powerful tide during the years of Bush has dissipated substantially under Obama. Similarly, China’s soft power can be reversed if it’s diplomatic, political and strategic actions are not in tune with it. Chinese soft power is less pronounced in countries that matter most in Asia-Pacific security: India and Japan. South Korea probably has more soft power in India than China.

For China to build enduring soft power, two things are necessary. The first is the liberalization of its political system to make it more attractive to the countries that matter most in the region, India, Japan, South Korea and Indonesia. Chinese soft power influence is greater with Asia’s authoritarian states, because China does not criticize their human rights record or meddle in their political systems. The second requirement is the emergence of Chinese-created and -led multilateral institutions. Such institutions are vital for legitimizing the power of rising or emerging great powers, as they did for the US after World War II. China current soft power resources simply do not measure up to these requirements.

Amitav Acharya is a Senior Fellow with the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

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