China Hasn't Won the Pacific (Unless You Think It Has)

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(Bloomberg View) -- Is China destined to dominate the Asia-Pacific? Among U.S. allies and partners in the region, there seems to be a growing doubt that America can win the ongoing competition for influence with China, and that they must begin preparing for a regional order headed by Beijing. The challenge for America, then, is to ensure that this feeling of strategic fatalism doesn’t become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

QuickTake China's Territorial Disputes

It is an undeniable fact that China has been making a concerted and accelerating push for regional supremacy in recent years -- and that the U.S. has struggled to respond effectively. The military balance of power has shifted considerably over the past two decades, as Beijing has undertaken a military buildup of historic proportions and America’s efforts to counter it were undercut first by a lengthy military involvement in the Middle East and then by budgetary austerity and defense cuts.

As a RAND Corporation study published in 2015 warned, the regional balance is reaching a series of "tipping points" at which the U.S. might find it increasingly difficult to defend allies and partners such as Taiwan from determined Chinese intervention at an acceptable price.

China has also been expanding its regional influence through incremental steps that have cumulatively had a major effect: coercing its neighbors in the East China Sea and South China Sea, building and militarizing artificial islands in contravention of international law, seeking to separate the U.S. from its allies through a mixture of coercion and economic inducement, and so forth. Such salami-slicing tactics are inherently difficult to counter, because they shift the status quo without escalating matters to a level that might set off a U.S. military response. During the Barack Obama presidency, U.S. officials were often stymied by this predicament, warning against Chinese expansionism but struggling to identify measures that might thwart or even significantly penalize that expansionism absent a full-on military showdown.

The result of all this has been a dramatic shift in perceptions of power and momentum in the region, raising the question of whether the U.S. can meet the Chinese challenge. While much of this concern is still being expressed privately, behind closed doors in the capitals of America’s allies, it is also seeping, gradually but unmistakably, into public debates.

Case in point is a recent essay by Hugh White, a former Australian defense official who turned heads in 2013 by arguing that America should “share power” with China as part of a new great-power concert in the Asia-Pacific. White has now re-entered the fray with a widely read essay arguing that it may be too late for even that type of compromise arrangement given China’s ongoing ascent.

China is determined to push the U.S. out of the region, White argues, and it is making great progress. Unless Washington is willing to fight a potentially catastrophic military conflict to thwart Beijing’s momentum, the long-term outcome of the competition is a foregone conclusion. The U.S. will slowly but surely be edged out of its role as arbiter of the balance of power. China will increasingly set the rules of the road across the Asia-Pacific. The task for U.S. allies is thus to begin adapting to a post-American regional order, one in which Washington can no longer protect its friends or otherwise play a decisive strategic role.

White’s essay is simultaneously essential and dangerous reading. It is essential because it offers perhaps the most bracing demonstration yet of just how adversely the climate in the Asia-Pacific has shifted over the past several years, and how badly regional perceptions of U.S. leadership have eroded. China is no longer the threat of tomorrow: It is reshaping the regional order today, at the expense of the U.S. and its closest allies. And while most policymakers and elites in Australia and other allied countries are not ready to concede the outcome of that competition, their faith in Washington is increasingly being tested.

In Australia, for instance, White is hardly alone in publicly questioning his nation’s continuing reliance on the U.S. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating has voiced similar ideas. And in the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has ostentatiously repositioned his country between Beijing and Washington on the thesis -- exaggerated, no doubt, but nonetheless telling -- that “America has lost” its strategic duel with China.

It would be foolish, then, for U.S. policymakers to simply dismiss the concerns that are emanating from Australia and other Asia-Pacific countries. But it would also be dangerous for U.S. and allied leaders to accept the thesis that China is destined to dominate the region and simply give up on countering Beijing’s ambitions.

China appears imposing today, but it is hardly 10 feet tall. As I discuss in my new book, “American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump,” Beijing is still no match for the U.S. in aggregate national power: Its military budget is still less than half that of the Pentagon’s, and its per capita gross domestic product remains roughly a quarter of America’s, even as its overall GDP approaches parity.

Moreover, China is almost certain to encounter serious economic and political difficulties in the coming years because of the rapidly approaching limits of its existing growth model and the inherent instability of authoritarian rule. It is a fantasy to believe, as U.S. observers sometimes have, that China will collapse or democratize before it is able to make a serious bid for geopolitical supremacy in the Asia-Pacific. But it is hardly preordained that China will be able to maintain, over a period of decades, the impressive trajectory needed to decisively overtake America as the region’s leading power.

In fact, the U.S. and its allies can make it enormously difficult for China to accomplish that objective. For example, the same maritime geography that complicates U.S. efforts to project power into the areas along China’s coastline makes it hard for China to project power outward, toward its neighbors and beyond. The island chain running from Japan to the Ryukyus to Taiwan and the Philippines constitutes a series of natural barriers to Chinese expansion into the Pacific.

As Michael Beckley Of Harvard’s Belfer Center has recently written, it should therefore be possible for U.S. allies and partners such as Japan and Taiwan to blunt Chinese expansionism by acquiring the same anti-access/area denial capabilities (anti-ship missiles and mines, for instance) that Beijing has deployed to good effect.

There is also much more the U.S. and its partners can do to impose greater costs on China’s destabilizing behavior, such as slapping sanctions on Chinese companies involved in activities like illegal land reclamation, helping friendly countries fortify their own holdings in the South China and East China Seas, and responding to Chinese advances by deploying additional U.S. military assets to the region.

These measures carry increased costs and risks in their own right, of course, and they offer no guarantee of success in what seems certain to be a decades-long geopolitical struggle with China. But the U.S. and its allies can still hold their own in that contest, so long as they don’t succumb to a misplaced fatalism. The only sure way to lose in the Asia-Pacific is to give up the game.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump."

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