By John J. Mearsheimer
August, 3 2010
The balance of power in Asia is expected to change significantly in the next few decades, as China increases its military capabilities. Last year’s Defence white paper made it clear the Australian government is worried China and the US might end up in an “escalating strategic competition” laden with potential for “miscalculation”.
Such fears are well founded, because China’s ascent is likely to spark an intense security competition with the US, one that has profound implications for Australia’s own security position.
As China grows, it will seek to dominate Asia much as the US dominates the western hemisphere. Specifically, China will strive to maximise the power gap between itself and its neighbours, especially India, Japan and Russia, so they cannot threaten it. Just as the US pushed the European great powers out of the western hemisphere in the 19th century, China will try to push the US out of Asia.
China will devise its own version of the Monroe Doctrine; indeed, the beginnings of such a policy are already apparent. Beijing recently informed the Obama administration it does not think the US Navy should interfere in the South China Sea, which China now says is a “core interest”, like Taiwan and Tibet.
The US will naturally try to contest China’s rise. History shows America will go to great lengths to stop another great power from dominating Asia or Europe. Remember the US helped prevent imperial Germany, imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union from achieving regional hegemony. Most of China’s neighbours, including India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Russia, Vietnam and, yes, Australia, will also fear its rise and join with the US to contain China’s power.
Given the resistance China will face, one might wonder whether it is smart to attempt to dominate Asia, and especially to try to drive out the American military. In fact, it makes good strategic sense for China to imitate the US and strive for regional hegemony. Why wouldn’t Beijing want to be significantly stronger than its neighbours, and eventually exclude the mighty US from its backyard?
American policymakers express alarm whenever distant great powers send military forces into the western hemisphere, and the same logic should apply to China. Why would China feel safe with US forces deployed on its doorstep? Would not China’s security be better served by pushing the US military out of Asia?
Most Americans, and probably many Australians, believe the US has peaceful intentions and China has little reason to fear it in the decades ahead. But this is probably not how Chinese leaders see the situation. What conclusions are they likely to draw about future US behaviour by looking at its intentions, capabilities and present behaviour?
Chinese leaders cannot know who will be in charge of American foreign policy in the years ahead, much less what their intentions towards China will be. But they know that all of America’s post-Cold War presidents, including Barack Obama, have stated they are committed to maintaining American primacy. That means Washington is likely to go to considerable lengths to prevent China from becoming too powerful.
The US spends more money on defence than all the other countries in the world combined. Moreover, because the American military is designed to fight all around the globe, it has abundant power projection assets. Much of that capability is either in Asia or can be moved there quickly. China cannot help but see the US has formidable military forces in its neighbourhood designed for offensive operations.
Most Americans think their military is defensive in nature; but that is not the way it looks when you are at the other end of the rifle barrel. Like all prudent strategists, China’s leaders are likely to gauge future American behaviour not by assessing what US politicians say, but by looking at what US military capabilities are designed to do.
What might America’s recent behaviour tell Chinese leaders about future US actions? They would almost certainly conclude the US is a war-like and dangerous country. After all, America has been at war for 14 of the 21 years since the Cold War ended. That is two out of every three years. The Obama administration is apparently contemplating a new war against Iran.
One might argue this is all true, but the US has not threatened China. The problem with this argument is that American leaders from both political parties believe the US has the right and the responsibility to police the entire globe. Furthermore, most Chinese are well aware of how the US took advantage of a weak China by pushing forward the infamous “Open Door” policy in 1899. Chinese officials also know the US and China fought a bloody war in Korea between 1950 and 1953. It is not surprising that The Economist recently reported: “A retired Chinese admiral likened the American navy to a man with a criminal record ‘wandering just outside the gate of a family home’.”
Any prudent Chinese leader would be wise to look for ways to push the US military far away from the Chinese mainland, while making sure that no other Asian country is capable of challenging China. No far-sighted American or Australian leader will allow China to dominate Asia without a fight.
The bottom line is that there is big trouble on the horizon if China continues its rise, and Australia is bound to be intimately involved.
Professor John Mearsheimer, of the University of Chicago, will deliver a public lecture for the Centre for International Security Studies on China’s challenge to US power in Asia at the University of Sydney tomorrow.