Responding to Structural Change in the Asia-Pacific

Remarks to an Australian National University – East-West Center Conference

These days, people who talk about the Indo-Pacific region — the arc of Asia from Japan through China to Pakistan — always begin by noting that it’s becoming the world’s center of economic gravity. That’s true. The region’s economy is now half again as large as America’s or Europe’s. In purchasing power terms it’s twice as big. It accounts for nearly half the world’s manufacturing. It is where the world’s supply chains converge. It’s growing faster than anywhere else. And it’s increasingly Sino-centric.

Three years ago, Indo-Pacific states began to spend more on their armed forces than Europeans did. With the exception — so far — of Japan, major powers there are boosting their defense budgets at double-digit rates to cope with threats within their region — from each other and from U.S. forces there. None is yet attempting to develop the capacity to project force into other regions of the world. But rising tensions with the world’s only global military power — the United States — are pushing China in this direction.  

America has been part of the Indo-Pacific state system since 1853, when Admiral Perry’s "black ships" forced their way into Japan. Since 1945, the United States has been the dominant power and arbiter of politico-military relationships in the Western Pacific. But the countries of the Indo-Pacific region have become too big and dynamic to be regulated by any single power. Many continue to welcome American protection. But, increasingly, reflecting their growing wealth and self-esteem, they resist U.S. guidance and chart their own course. The status quo is unsustainable.

As balances of power within the region and between its nations and the world evolve to erode the Pax Americana, the risk of war by inadvertence is rising. Americans and Chinese alike incline to the conceit that it is their bilateral rivalry — rather than interactions between China and its neighbors — that drive this dynamic. But good relations between China and the United States do not guarantee good Chinese relations with the other nations of the Indo-Pacific. Conversely, if China has good relations with its neighbors, it will have good relations with the United States. This is why China’s relations with its periphery have global impact.

The squabbles over borders that are driving the region’s current arms races were suppressed by the Cold War and the long American hegemony in Asia but have little, if anything, to do with the United States. Neither are they new. History is the remembrance of mostly lamentable events. Asia has a history surplus. The past there seems never to be past. It’s just unfinished business waiting to be put right.

China’s neighbors are without exception committed to enhancing their prosperity though close connections to China’s burgeoning wealth. But those with territorial disputes with China are understandably apprehensive about how Beijing might use its surging military power with respect to them. They turn to the United States and each other for reassurance that China will not bully them. The way for China to ensure that its neighbors’ craving for safety does not become acute anxiety and active antagonism is to manage relations with them so as to minimize their perception that they might be intimidated or humiliated by China’s superior power. To accomplish this, China must, at a minimum, establish mutually agreed borders with its neighbors. This is something China can only do with them directly, not with or through the United States.

For its part, the United States is anxious about being excluded from Asia’s emerging Sino-centric economic order but gratified to be wanted militarily by traditional allies and friends there. Standing up to military bullies is something Americans think we know how to do. Besides, positing China as a "peer competitor" provides a cure for enemy deprivation syndrome. And it’s good for the defense budget, which feeds the military-industrial complex, which has become a central prop of our political economy. China’s challenge to U.S. hegemony in the Western Pacific enables military Keynesianism, the only kind of economic stimulus and jobs program the U.S. Congress will support.

So we Americans are happy to relieve Asians of the need to give serious consideration to what they might do on their own to cope with China and content to help them manage the tensions their disputes with China continue to fuel. We have no direct role in these disputes and cannot solve them. We are flattered by the role of protector. It fits with our militaristic approach to foreign policy. Americans have become accustomed to supremacy in Asia. We relish being needed.

But, in many ways, the United States is turning out to be a strategic one-trick pony. All we Americans seem to know how to do in foreign policy is what we learned to do during the Cold War. That experience taught us to guarantee the security of others by deploying our forces as tripwires, declaring challenges to their security to be challenges to our own, and promising to use nuclear weapons to defend them without necessarily consulting them about this. American strategy during the Cold War was to isolate our adversary and deny it the influence to which its power would otherwise have entitled it.

So the formative foreign policy experience of the United States involved ever more militarized struggle with a global ideological and geopolitical adversary, the Soviet Union. This explains why the American response to China’s emergence as a global economic and regional military power has been almost entirely martial. We have made countering Chinese power and perpetuating our quasi-imperial, post-1945 dominance of the Western Pacific the organizing principles of our Asia policy. To this end, we are drawing anxious Asian nations under our wing and extending implied security guarantees to them, posturing combatively, and preparing for prolonged confrontation and war with China, nuclear or not.

This is not quite what our allies and friends in the Asia-Pacific signed up for. None is confident of U.S. resolve or staying power. But all, to one extent or another, base their national strategies on the expectation that America will remain a formidable, if not dominant factor in the Asian-Pacific balance of power. That is a reasonable expectation.

But America’s security partners do not want to be subsumed in Sino-American rivalry. They seek security without antagonism, still less war, with China. They know that they must come to terms with — they must accommodate — the reality of China’s rising power. They are doing what they can to strengthen themselves and to ensure they are not alone. They want our backing to enhance their independence and bargaining position vis-à-vis China, not to confront or provoke it.

Unfortunately, America’s impulse to interpose its forces between others and China, rather than  fostering diplomatic dispute resolution, inadvertently creates moral hazard. Moral hazard is the condition that obtains when one party is emboldened to take risks it would not otherwise take because it knows another party will shoulder the consequences and the costs of failure. We have seen this dynamic at work most clearly in the confrontations between China and other claimants to islands, rocks, and reefs in the East and South China Seas.

U.S. policies aimed at deterrence rather than dispute resolution embolden protected claimants to harden their positions and to avoid consideration of negotiated settlement of their differences with China. The security guarantees these policies embody imply that a clash between China and one of its neighbors could trigger an American attack on China. The U.S. "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific thus creates the illusion of American-led collective defense even as it imposes no restraint or accountability on any of the beneficiaries of American protection. This posture preserves the United States’ role as regional hegemon by ensuring that all in the region would suffer should China or any of the nations on its periphery misjudge or mismanage existing disputes.

Five years into the "pivot," it is becoming clear that this kind of defense "rebalancing" by the United States, far from constraining China, is instead arousing it. Rebalancing — still more rhetorical than real — has aggravated rather than moderated regional confrontations. The well-intentioned U.S. effort to manage tensions has demonstrably frustrated rather than promoted diplomatic solutions to the disputes that threaten stability in the region.

The extension of an avowed or implied American military shield to each and every opponent of a Chinese territorial claim has helped propel China into patrol-boat diplomacy and power projection through island-building. China is now engaged in measures short of war but bereft of diplomacy that neither the United States nor those it seeks to protect can effectively counter. The absence of any effort by any party to do more than freeze the status quo perpetuates the possibility of armed conflict that could ignite the first trans-Pacific war since 1941. Meanwhile, official Washington’s intermittent denials that the United States is attempting to contain China or that it seeks to frustrate Chinese initiatives like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank bring to mind Mark Twain’s comment that one should "Never believe anything until it has been officially denied."

China’s capacity to conduct an active defense of its periphery and its current territorial holdings in its near seas is growing apace with its economy. The military balance off the China coast has been shifting inexorably against the United States. Strengthened Chinese defenses are already beginning to deprive America of the ability to respond to clashes between China and its neighbors with counterattacks from China’s near seas. This is forcing the U.S. military to prepare to fire at China from farther away, that is, from outside the "first island chain." This would place China’s neighbors — including all the counter-claimants to land features in the East and South China Seas — forward of the U.S. naval line of battle should war break out in the region. That makes these neighbors not only the probable cause of potential Sino-American conflict but a major part of the battlefield in any such war.

These trends are a convincing refutation — if one is really needed — of the notion that the answer to the region’s intensifying security dilemmas should or could be escalating American efforts to sustain military supremacy along the frontiers between a steadily wealthier and stronger China and an economically ever-more Sino-centric Asia-Pacific.  Time as well as geography work to China’s advantage. America may be holding its own, but China is on the upswing and on its home ground. Distance attenuates power even as short lines of communication augment it. Counterattack is inherently more demanding than active defense, especially when it involves the projection of power across a wide ocean.

The bargaining power of China’s neighbors in disputes with it has been receding. It is more likely to continue to ebb than to grow. The military balance between China and its neighbors has been shifting in China’s favor. It is more likely to tip against the United States over time than toward it.

Realistically, therefore, the protection the United States can offer those with disputes with China is a wasting asset best leveraged now rather than later. It should be seen not as a long-term answer to the challenges of rising Chinese power. Instead, it should be exploited to settle issues on more favorable terms now than will be possible later and to eliminate irritants to nationalism at home and in China rather than allowing them to fester. If China needs to settle its disputes with its neighbors in order to calm their mounting apprehensions of it, those neighbors also have compelling reasons to resolve their disputes with China sooner rather than later.

China’s neighbors should therefore see and use American power as backing for peaceful efforts to resolve disputes with China, not as reassurance that they need make no serious effort to settle these disputes through negotiations. The "rebalancing" of U.S. global strategy toward the Indo-Pacific known as the "pivot" is timely and appropriate, given the rise of the region to global centrality. But enhanced attention to Asia should be designed and implemented to lower military tensions between the nations of the Indo-Pacific, not to lock these tensions in, still less to escalate them. Addressing those tensions is key to a mutually agreeable rather than antagonistic relationship between the United States and China. So it is in the interest of all concerned.

No one should underestimate either American power or obduracy. I am confident that, as undesirable as this would be, the United States is fully capable of following a course of military confrontation with China, leading to a dangerous global contest for supremacy, the outcome of which is far from certain. This seems to be the bracing future that some of those who conceived the "pivot to Asia" anticipate. It could prove to be a case of self-fulfilling pessimism and paranoia. It is hard to argue that this is not now the direction in which things are moving. Only fools, warmongers, and complacently overconfident members of the military-congressional-industrial complex could find that encouraging.

All the more reason for the states of the Asia-Pacific to make use of America’s great power to facilitate rather than delay or obstruct mutually beneficial resolution of their disputes with China. What is inherently at stake in these disputes is trivial. It is worth a tough diplomatic struggle but not a war. Were the nations of the Indo-Pacific to leverage American backing to make their peace with China, they would create a more secure and prosperous world for themselves as well as the United States.

This conference could make a contribution to achieving that better future by considering how diplomatic processes designed to resolve issues and set aside the prospect of war might work. I would be happy to begin that discussion now by responding to questions and comments.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)

Washington, DC

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