April 22, 2016
We recently wrote that China’s economic rise has created for it an imperative to secure key trade routes and to protect its overseas resources and markets from foreign interdiction. This adds to the three imperatives that have historically defined the country’s geopolitics: the maintenance of a united Han China, control of the country’s buffer regions and the protection of its coastline. Although this new imperative does not dictate China’s attitude toward its neighbors or the United States, it introduces an underlying compulsion that in the years to come will reshape the costs and benefits of different courses of action.
Because this imperative compels China to be more proactive, and in particular to expand its maritime capabilities and reach, it necessarily creates conflict with the United States, whose own imperatives compel it to contain China’s rise. The United States must respond to China’s rise because of its need to control the world’s oceans and to prevent the emergence of another regional hegemon, even if this need does not determine the precise nature and timing of that response.
Tension between the two is inevitable. How this tension plays out, however, is beyond the scope of what could be called fundamental geopolitical analysis, which is concerned with “first principles,” the hardwired structural constraints and imperatives that shape the direction of international politics. First principles tell us, for instance, that Europe in 1900 was bound for war. They do not explain why war came in 1914 rather than in 1905 or 1920; or why Germany conducted war the way it did in both world wars; or why Britain, France, Russia and the United States responded to Germany’s rise as they did and when they did. Likewise, first principles tell us that so long as China’s wealth and power continues to grow, its relationship with the United States will be marked by competition and conflict. But they do not predict whether China will go to war with the United States, or whether one will ultimately accommodate the other, or whether the two will find some other form of agreement.
To understand these matters, it is necessary to look beyond the fundamental constraints and imperatives of the first principles to the process by which states evaluate their environments and formulate policies. In other words, it is necessary to consider grand strategy — in particular that adopted by the United States.
We focus on U.S. strategy because the United States’ overwhelming military power, economic heft and political influence mean that its decisions, more than any other external variable, will determine the course of Chinese action in the long run. This is not to suggest that China is unconcerned by countries such as Russia, Japan and India, but insofar as the fundamental geographic, historical and economic realities that shape China’s behavior leave its leaders room to maneuver, the most important factor in determining which strategy they choose will be the United States. Moreover, as both the most powerful state in the international system and the most secure great power in history, the United States has greater freedom than any other country to determine its desired strategy. To understand the future of East Asian security, it is necessary to outline the strategic options available to the United States and to assess their likely consequences for China’s rise.
Four Core Strategies
The United States today can choose from four basic grand strategic postures: isolationism, offshore balancing, selective intervention and extraregional dominance.
Isolationism entails complete disengagement from security affairs beyond the borders of the United States and its immediate neighbors. Isolationism is hardly viable for the United States because, as the sole world power, the country is responsible for protecting the sea lines of communication on which it and the international economic order depend. Still, the concept is popular among the American public, so it could factor into future U.S. foreign policy. Isolationism’s continued influence is largely a consequence of the power of its logic: Because the United States is protected by two oceans and overwhelming military (including nuclear) power, isolationists ask, what good does it do the United States to divert precious resources away from the home economy and toward maintaining peace in distant regions?
The second potential grand strategy, which international relations scholars commonly refer to as offshore balancing, advocates that the United States disengage militarily from other regions except in the unlikely event that a potential hegemon emerges in one of the world’s three most geopolitically significant spheres: Europe, East Asia or the Middle East. Advocates of offshore balancing believe the United States should intervene only to the extent that secondary powers in other regions are unable to balance against a rising regional hegemon themselves.
The third basic strategic approach is commonly referred to as selective engagement. According to this strategy, the United States should move proactively to maintain peace and to prevent the rise of potential hegemons in Europe, East Asia and the Middle East but should largely eschew direct intervention in other, less geopolitically significant regions. Unlike offshore balancing, a strategy of selective engagement requires that the United States maintain a robust and active security presence beyond its own backyard, rather than merely count on regional partners to balance against and constrain the rise of potential hegemons in other parts of the world.
The final strategy is what has been called global dominance, extraregional hegemony or offensive containment. The core of this strategy is that the United States, as the “indispensable nation,” has both a right and responsibility to intervene and to assert its interests around the globe, including in regions or in conflicts that do not present serious threats to U.S. national security. In recent decades, this strategy has been evident in U.S. foreign policy approaches as diverse as neoconservatism and liberal internationalism, which differ in their relative emphases on international institutions and on the uses of American military power but which otherwise share a basic commitment to global peacekeeping and to the active use of U.S. power to reshape the international system in its image.
Since the end of the Cold War, the final approach has, with minor fluctuations, formed the backbone of U.S. foreign policy. But it is important to recognize that each of these approaches is, at least in theory or in part, viable. The geopolitics of the United States is such that it, unlike its rivals, has comparatively wide room to choose how to behave because it is less geographically, economically or militarily constrained than others. There is no structural barrier to the United States adopting a relatively more accommodative military and economic posture toward potential rivals, especially if the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs. By the same token, so long as the United States largely maintains its economic and military preponderance, it will remain capable of moving offensively — whether militarily or through political-economic means, or both — to assert its interests globally. What motivates the United States to adopt one strategy over another is a separate question. The point here is simply to note that many more strategic postures are available to the United States than to any of its rivals, including China.
The Implications for China
It is impossible to anticipate precisely how the U.S. approach to China will evolve over the next decade, much less how U.S. behavior toward China will interact with and influence the decisions and actions of the Chinese. But a number of baseline scenarios can be considered.
A U.S. grand strategy that erred on the side of isolationism or offshore balancing would likely create a more relaxed and accommodative strategic environment for China. Such an environment would not only give China greater flexibility as it struggles to manage internal social and economic problems, but it would also lower the risk that China will adopt a more assertive regional security posture in the short term. Meanwhile, such a U.S. strategy might temper China’s feelings of insecurity, which largely originate from the threat posed by U.S. naval power. This would reduce its incentive to behave assertively and to risk reaction by regional rivals such as Japan and Vietnam. In sum, by reducing the size of U.S. power in the region, a U.S. strategy of isolationism or offshore balancing would increase the likelihood of a stronger, more assertive China five or 10 years from now. In the short run, though, it could ease China’s security concerns, reducing the likelihood of regional conflict.
By contrast, a strategy of selective engagement or extraregional dominance, both of which would call for an active and robust U.S. military presence in the region and would likely entail containing or constraining China economically and strategically, would make it more difficult for China to achieve its domestic economic and political imperatives as well as to emerge as a true peer competitor to the United States. At the same time, such a strategy would raise the risk that tension with China evolves into open conflict, whether directly between the United States and China or between proxies such as North Korea and countries in Southeast and Central Asia.
Given the United States’ basic grand strategic posture since the end of the Cold War (a posture that is, no less, intimately tied to deeply held beliefs across the U.S. political establishment regarding the nature and uses of U.S. power), a strategy more in line with selective engagement or extraregional dominance appears more likely than one of offshore balancing or isolationism, at least for now. Grand strategic postures — especially those that entail substantial preliminary costs, as the current U.S. global military presence does — are often enormous commitments that are difficult for countries to break from and that become even harder to break over time. Even so, though the United States will inevitably seek to constrain China to the extent that China represents a potential regional hegemon, how the United States does so — and thus when and how the interaction plays out — is far from decided.
Perhaps most important, whatever strategy the United States adopts toward China, the effects are bound to be mixed and even contradictory. A less aggressive United States may generate room for a more assertive China (depending, for example, on how Japan acts), or it may have the opposite effect, easing China’s external security concerns at a time when the Chinese government would prefer to focus its energies inward on its multiplying domestic economic and social fissures. A more aggressive U.S. posture could have similarly mixed effects. The bottom line is that considering the basic geopolitical relationship between the United States and China today, a variety of outcomes is equally plausible. Determining which outcome is most likely, and how it is most likely to unfold, requires constant and careful attention not to what policymakers say they want or intend to do, but to how the material and strategic environments in which they operate evolve.