The problem is America’s global hegemony comes with insistence on maintaining military and economic dominance right in China’s backyard
This article originally appeared in The Guardian
The problem isn’t China’s rise, but rather America’s insistence on maintaining military and economic dominance right in China’s backyard
To avoid a violent militaristic clash with China, or another cold war rivalry, the United States should pursue a simple solution: give up its empire.
Americans fear that China’s rapid economic growth will slowly translate into a more expansive and assertive foreign policy that will inevitably result in a war with the US. Harvard Professor Graham Allison has found: “in 12 of 16 cases in the past 500 years when a rising power challenged a ruling power, the outcome was war.” Chicago University scholar John Mearsheimer has bluntly argued: “China cannot rise peacefully.”
But the apparently looming conflict between the US and China is not because of China’s rise per se, but rather because the US insists on maintaining military and economic dominance among China’s neighbors. Although Americans like to think of their massive overseas military presence as a benign force that’s inherently stabilizing, Beijing certainly doesn’t see it that way.
According to political scientists Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell, Beijing sees America as “the most intrusive outside actor in China’s internal affairs, the guarantor of the status quo in Taiwan, the largest naval presence in the East China and South China seas, [and] the formal or informal military ally of many of China’s neighbors.” (All of which is true.) They think that the US “seeks to curtail China’s political influence and harm China’s interests” with a “militaristic, offense-minded, expansionist, and selfish” foreign policy.
China’s regional ambitions are not uniquely pernicious or aggressive, but they do overlap with America’s ambition to be the dominant power in its own region, and in every region of the world.
Leaving aside caricatured debates about which nation should get to wave the big “Number 1” foam finger, it’s worth asking whether having 50,000 US troops permanently stationed in Japan actually serves US interests and what benefits we derive from keeping almost 30,000 US troops in South Korea and whether Americans will be any safer if the Obama administration manages to reestablish aUS military presence in the Philippines to counter China’s maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Many commentators say yes. Robert Kagan argues not only that US hegemony makes us safer and richer, but also that it bestows peace and prosperity on everybody else. If America doesn’t rule, goes his argument, the world becomes less free, less stable and less safe.
But a good chunk of the scholarly literature disputes these claims. “There are good theoretical and empirical reasons”, wrote political scientist Christopher Fettweis in his book Pathologies of Power, “to doubt that US hegemony is the primary cause of the current stability.” The international system, rather than cowering in obedience to American demands for peace, is far more “self-policing”, says Fettweis. A combination of economic development and the destructive power of modern militaries serves as a much more satisfying answer for why states increasingly see war as detrimental to their interests.
International relations theorist Robert Jervis has written that “the pursuit of primacy was what great power politics was all about in the past” but that, in a world of nuclear weapons with “low security threats and great common interests among the developed countries”, primacy does not have the strategic or economic benefits it once had.
Nor does US dominance reap much in the way of tangible rewards for most Americans: international relations theorist Daniel Drezner contends that “the economic benefits from military predominance alone seem, at a minimum, to have been exaggerated”; that “There is little evidence that military primacy yields appreciable geoeconomic gains”; and that, therefore, “an overreliance on military preponderance is badly misguided.”
The struggle for military and economic primacy in Asia is not really about our core national security interests; rather, it’s about preserving status, prestige and America’s neurotic image of itself. Those are pretty dumb reasons to risk war.
There are a host of reasons why the dire predictions of a coming US-China conflict may be wrong, of course. Maybe China’s economy will slow or even suffer crashes. Even if it continues to grow, the US’s economic and military advantage may remain intact for a few more decades, making China’s rise gradual and thus less dangerous.
Moreover, both countries are armed with nuclear weapons. And there’s little reason to think the mutually assured destruction paradigm that characterized the Cold War between the US and the USSR wouldn’t dominate this shift in power as well.
But why take the risk, when maintaining US primacy just isn’t that important to the safety or prosperity of Americans? Knowing that should at least make the idea giving up empire a little easier.