Many observers believe China is building up its military, especially its navy, to break through the first and second island chains and push the United States out of the Asia-Pacific. China’s military expansion in the region is thus seen as a major threat against U.S. interests and security. Andrei Lungu specially for the Foreign Policy.
But there’s a big problem with the language involved. Phrases like “pushing the United States out of the Asia-Pacific,” “China’s military expansion in Asia,” or “breaking the two island chains” create the image of a physical process, of the Chinese military pressuring U.S. troops and bases in the Asia-Pacific until they can no longer resist and are forced to leave. In reality, both the goal and the process are different—and unless U.S. strategists rectify the way they think about this, they could come to dangerous conclusions.
This isn’t about a physical outcome, but a political one. It doesn’t refer just to U.S. bases in Japan or South Korea. The United States has no permanent bases in the Philippines, but, because of the two countries’ mutual defense treaty, U.S. troops would defend the Philippines in case of attack. China’s goal isn’t just to remove U.S. personnel or equipment from the region, or even to prevent rotational deployments or joint exercises in the Asia-Pacific; it’s to limit or eliminate Washington’s influence over countries in the region, including, ideally, through the termination of their defense treaties and the Taiwan Relations Act, which commits the United States to support Taiwan’s defense.
This doesn’t mean that China is looking to completely extricate the United States from Asian and Pacific countries: It’s OK if they continue trading, or if U.S. companies invest there. But China’s goal is to constrain Washington’s influence to the point that it would no longer try, or would be unable, to convince regional governments to take measures against China such as banning Huawei fifth-generation technology.As long as Washington remains their chief partner, the U.S. government would still be able to convince Tokyo and Seoul to take anti-China measures.
It will help Beijing little if U.S. troops leave Japan and South Korea, but their mutual defense treaties remain in force. As long as Washington remains their chief partner, the U.S. government would still be able to convince Tokyo and Seoul to take anti-China measures, such as restricting Chinese tech companies it considers national-security threats—even if the assurance of U.S. troops as a tripwire against aggression were removed.
Yet in both Beijing and Washington, there’s a belief that, if China establishes regional military superiority over the United States, it will be able to push the United States out of the Asia-Pacific region. But transforming that military superiority into political influence is far trickier than it seems.
Imagine that it’s 2025, and China’s military has become stronger and more active, while the United States failed to keep up in the Asia-Pacific. Think tanks and experts warn that the military balance has shifted in China’s favor and, in case of war, it’s likely that it would prevail. Would U.S. allies, from Seoul to Canberra, decide to ditch the United States and align themselves with the rising hegemon, fulfilling demands such as Chinese sovereignty over the archipelago in the South China Sea known as the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands, or censorship of local anti-China voices? Or would they stick to the United States, building up their military capabilities and strengthening other military alliances?
Both U.S. allies and neutral countries in the Asia-Pacific already fear China’s growing power and its geopolitical demands. This is happening while the military balance is still in Washington’s favor. If China becomes more powerful, it will also become more threatening. With the exception of India, all other regional countries are dwarfed by China. If left alone, they would have to acquiesce to any and all demands coming from Beijing, as they would stand zero chance of prevailing in a bilateral military conflict.
The United States, even if weaker than China, would be their only hope in such an adverse geopolitical environment. A more menacing China would also galvanize the U.S.government and public to confront it. Military expansion can’t achieve China’s goals by itself. Unless the United States willingly abandons its competition with China, Beijing will never create the military gap necessary to scare the entire region into submission.
Chinese military power could force the United States out of the region in two scenarios: a China so dwarfing the U.S, presence in the region that its might is unassailable, or a decisive military victory. The first scenario needs the United States to weaken so much that regional military planners would no longer believe that it can impose enough costs on China, thus voiding alliances of any deterrent effect. Combined with Chinese economic sanctions or military skirmishes, Asian and Pacific countries might be forced to cut ties with the United States, if it’s clear that they serve no defense purpose. But the odds of a U.S. government ever allowing so vast a gap to emerge are very low.
The other scenario, a war, would necessitate a crystal-clear military victory over the United States, maybe including the invasion and occupation of an ally. A simple tactical win wouldn’t suffice. If China defeats the Japan-U.S. alliance by sinking a few ships and bombing some bases, leading to a diplomatic agreement that gave Beijing control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, would the Japanese government later surrender its defense treaty with the United States and remain at Beijing’s mercy? This would make no strategic sense. More likely, it would strengthen military ties with the United States and maybe develop a nuclear capability to deter any further Chinese threats. Only a devastating defeat in a full-blown conflict that risks nuclear war could achieve such a goal—something China desires as little as anyone else.