EAST CHINA SEA, July 9, 2020—Sino-American relations have been spiraling down into a hostile dialectic for more than a decade. The two sides have grown increasingly uncomfortable with their complex, ever-evolving but seemingly inescapable economic interdependence. China will not relent in its aggressive, mercantilist currency policies, but the Fed and the Treasury, ever in need of Chinese capital to finance America’s debt, have never pushed the issue to the wall. The two sides have displayed their ideological differences as Chinese restrictions on civil rights continue. They have sparred, too, over points of honor and prestige in international forums and, episodically, over the future of Taiwan. But the underlying source of the current deterioration in the bilateral relationship is the competition for influence in the Indo-Pacific commons, that broad swath reaching from the western Pacific Ocean to the eastern coast of Africa, which both sides consider central to their standing in the region and to global perceptions of their power. After nearly a decade’s worth of threat-making, strained diplomatic ties and below-the-radar games of chicken, U.S. and Chinese naval ships now stand prow-to-prow in the East China Sea, minutes from battle over a seemingly meaningless incident.
When a Japanese shipping vessel collided with a Chinese navy ship on July 7, 2020, simmering tensions, as well as militaries that have been trained to react quickly to crises, bubbled over. The Chinese navy arrested the crew of the Japanese civilian ship and demanded that Japanese Maritime Self-Defense cutters leave the accident scene. A passing U.S. Navy destroyer, DDG-99, the aging USS Farragut, intervened to support America’s ally and ensure peaceful resolution of the incident. When the Chinese demanded that the Farragut leave, and trained their guns on the Stars and Stripes, Pacific Command called the White House…
Is Sino-U.S. Competition Inevitable?
No one knows what July 2020 will be like in Washington, or in the South China Sea. But with each passing month, this scenario or one like it becomes more possible, if not necessarily more likely. As rhetorical sniping continues amidst the revelation of new Chinese capabilities and increased assertiveness. Americans remain divided over what this still young pattern means. Their common narrative today begins in the mid-1990s, as China’s military modernization picked up speed. In ten years, their common narrative may begin instead in the years after 2010, when China claimed the South China Sea as a “core interest.” At that time, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asserted that the peaceful resolution of various South China Sea territorial claims between China and Southeast Asian nations was “in the American national interest.” China rejected the U.S. position, insisting that all such matters remain bilateral in character. With Beijing officials continuing to insist that the U.S. Navy is the source of instability in the western Pacific, little in the way of diplomatic resolution, much less mutual understanding, seems so far to be possible. Very likely, then, we stand today at the crux of all future policy judgments with regard to China.
Many Americans believe that U.S. and Chinese security goals in the Indo-Pacific commons are not incompatible. In this view, China and the United States do not pose existential threats to each other, do not contend over territory, and do not have irreconcilable ideological ambitions. China seeks to restore its national honor, build its economy, and exercise a regional and global influence that is normal for a large and culturally capacious country. That need not drive China into contesting the liberal global trading order or its evolved multilateral legal framework; more likely, China will seek what it considers its rightful place within that order. If that is so, U.S. policy can accommodate Chinese ambitions and, as it has through several administrations, express encouragement for growing Chinese prosperity and participation as a responsible stakeholder in Indo-Pacific and world affairs.
This non-zero-sum attitude toward the future of Sino-American relations is plausible, hopeful, and above all anchored in the Enlightenment rationalism that characterizes American thinking on most issues. But is it accurate? Could it be that, even assuming the best of intentions on both sides, we are instead moving toward a tipping point in the Indo-Pacific between China and the United States? An objective observer can just as easily see in the Sino-American relationship of the past several years a subdued yet undeniable competition between two powers that increasingly act as though their national interests lie in opposition to each other. To say that competition is occurring between America and China is not to claim that war is inevitable. But to ignore the reality of competition within what is obviously a broad, mixed and complex relationship is to blind oneself to how states tend to act in the international arena.
It is also to refuse to see the power of small events, like our imagined conflict of July 2020, to trigger perceptual revolutions in the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. The results of the Sino-American struggle for influence may rock the foundations of the post-World War II liberal international order, dividing the world into competing blocs and vitiating agreement on the rules of international conduct.
We must acknowledge, too, that how the Sino-American relationship is viewed is not entirely within U.S. control, or the control of leaders in Beijing. Leaders and publics in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, India, Russia and beyond will perceive matters in their own way, and their collective perceptions may well force Beijing or Washington to take actions they would not have otherwise, as Asian tails wag two great-power dogs. In public and private circles Indo-Pacific, European and other elites already increasingly view current trends as evidence of a competition over whether America will maintain its predominant position as the guarantor of Indo-Pacific regional stability, or whether China will replace America as the most influential, though perhaps not the most powerful or capable, military power in the region.
These elites, and many American and Chinese decision-makers, too, believe that history testifies to the centrality of military power, the very nature of which drives political relations toward zero-sum competition. They believe that military power accrues political influence to itself over the future of trade and development, regional cooperation and, ultimately, issues of sovereignty. They believe, as former Secretary of State Dean Acheson said, that influence is the shadow of power—that, in other words, international reality is a zero-sum game shaped not only by absolute capabilities but the sway over others that comes with strength. They argue the ultimate incompatibility of U.S. and Chinese national security goals even if no obvious test of vital interests can now be discerned. Great powers do not compete because their interests demand it; they rather construe their interests in such a way as to confirm the inevitability of competition.
If this is so, we should not expect that some middle way easily can be found to harmonize Chinese and American interests and policies. Any change in the current security policies of either actor would necessarily impinge on the position of the other and would mark a significant turning point in the Sino-American competition in the eyes of relevant third parties, and therefore in the eyes of the protagonists themselves. It also could deliver a serious blow to the legitimacy of the liberal order that America inherited from Great Britain, expanded, and defended for more than seven decades. This interlinked geometry of perception is why even a minor, entirely unpremeditated trial of strength could have outsized consequences. Whichever side is believed to have surrendered its goals and changed its policy will be seen throughout the region as the loser, and therefore the weaker party. Political rhetoric may seek to minimize the importance of a capitulation, as well as to make it more palatable to domestic audiences, but the strategic impact will be unmistakable.
So which conceptual prism is correct? Is the Sino-American relationship malleable and thus potentially tractable, or does the nature of great power relations doom it to a competitive strategic destiny? Truth be told, no one really knows the inviolate epistemology of international politics. Power-political perceptions may in fact shape reality rather than the other way around. A power structure may be real only to the extent that actors in the system believe it to be. If beliefs should change, only common agreement or brute force successfully employed can erect new common frameworks. After all, there have been man-made revolutions in international politics before. The creation of the Westphalian system was one, as was perhaps the re-institutionalization of global order after World War II. Another may be at hand. That said, one cannot produce conceptual revolutions at will and foist them on the rest of the world.
Philosophy aside, then, and with no claim of inevitability assured, American policy elites need to accept the fact that Sino-American relations bear within them a deeply competitive element. Moreover, our nascent competition resembles other struggles in the past resulting from the clash between rising and status quo powers—subject to the traditional historical combination of political will, military capability, economic strength and chance. Alas, the vulnerability of interstate orders, the wariness of great powers toward one another and the periodic rise of challengers to systemic equilibrium are all still with us. The results of this struggle, as with those in the past, may reshape the global order for decades, if not centuries.
If this be our lot, how should we understand the intersection of American and Chinese power in the early 21st century? The beginning of wisdom here is to recognize that China is no ordinary challenger for regional influence. It is not just another Iran, Venezuela or post-Soviet Russia. China is a regional challenger, of course, but it is also playing a historically unique role as a global economic phenomenon. The overwhelming importance of the Indo-Pacific region as a whole to the global economy means that the outcome of any Sino-U.S. competition will ramify well beyond Asia. The cultural dimension, in which Chinese success calls into question the underlying bases of Western strength and indeed its culture, is vastly harder to quantify and arguably harder to think about coherently. It may also be even more portentous. At stake may be not only America’s global leadership but the Western-based post-World War II liberal international order itself. That is not to say that China will or could take on what has been the American post-World War II role as a liberal steward; it is rather to posit the weakening of support for that order, the rise of regional blocs and increased global competition and insecurity.
China poses these challenges at a time when Washington has still to adapt its grand strategy to the post-Cold War era. Part of the problem here is that the American political class no longer recognizes what its grand strategy is, despite the fact that we actually do have one. It is easy enough to describe: We are forward-deployed at the island brackets of Eurasia (in Japan and Britain) and in many places in between (more than eighty such places) in order to prevent any power from dominating either peninsular Europe or East Asia. By being thus deployed, we are using the U.S. Navy and Air Force as our ante to participate in the geopolitics of Eurasia. By so doing, we, as a relatively disinterested actor, suppress security competitions in that vast region. This is good for all nations, save for willful aggressors. Without the U.S. presence and the reassurance it provides, chances are that the world would be a less stable, more dangerous and poorer place for nearly everyone.
The problem is that we don’t know what operating this strategy looks like when it is not Eurocentric. America’s global identity has been anchored to Europe since its colonial days. What U.S. involvement in East Asia there has been came largely in response to 19th-century European imperialism and, later, as an adjunct to a decidedly Eurocentric Cold War. Prior to 1945, it is true, American policymakers saw the country’s destiny at least partly in Asia. The Open Door policy, the acquisition of Hawaii and then of an embryonic Pacific empire after the Spanish-American War all helped focus American attention on the vast Asian realm, but that did not shake America’s traditional view of itself as the offspring of Europe. The early Cold War period reinforced this view, with the division of Germany (and of Berlin) seemingly representing the division of the world between liberalism and communism.
It is fair to say that the American mind has finally caught up with the American body when it comes to Asia. America has been engaged in East Asia for decades. For the past 65 years the permanent forward deployment of tens of thousands of U.S. sailors, airmen, soldiers and marines has ensured Asian regional stability. U.S. military alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan and the Philippines structure a “hub and spoke” arrangement that maintains U.S. commitments throughout the region. Yet the United States is only now starting to engage with the broader Indo-Pacific on its own terms rather than as a side theater in a more important struggle.
Proof of this conceptual lag resides in the fact that we are still unsure of the boundaries and extent of the region, and therefore how to structure our government’s Indo-Pacific policymaking. The Department of Defense has perhaps the most realistic recognition of the Indo-Pacific’s sprawl, placing everything from the western coast of the United States to the middle of the Indian Ocean under the responsibility of Pacific Command. This area comprises more than one hundred million square miles, half the Earth’s surface, and nearly forty nations containing half the world’s population and three of its largest economies (Japan, China and Korea). The massive size of this conceptualization, however, can be paralyzing.
We imagine the Indo-Pacific as a pre-eminently maritime realm, and so it is, with the majority of people and economic power concentrated along the coastlines and in proximity to vital waterways. In a maritime Indo-Pacific, India plays a particularly important role, not only due to its size as the world’s largest democracy, but also because of its strategic position astride the world’s crucial trade routes and between Central and East Asia. Yet it is China’s rapid rise over the past several decades, and the potential maritime challenge it represents, that has framed the debate over trends in the Indo-Pacific and the role of the United States, as well it should.
A strategic challenge is comprised of capability, intent and action. For most of the postwar era, the United States faced no serious maritime threat in the Indo-Pacific region, except for the ballistic missile submarines of the Soviet navy. The preponderance of power favoring America was on vivid display during the 1996 missile crisis over Taiwan, when the Clinton Administration ordered two aircraft carriers into the Taiwan Straits to make a show of force after Beijing lobbed ballistic missiles into the waters off Taiwan during that country’s first free presidential election.
Those days of American impunity are over. Doubtless, the humiliation of the 1996 crisis within sight of its own coastline inspired the Chinese leadership to build up China’s military power.1 It could afford to do so thanks to its brisk economic growth. Very likely the proximate goal of the buildup was to deter any precipitous move toward Taiwanese independence, but the same capabilities, unintentionally or not, propelled China into competition with America. Indeed, the scope and nature of Beijing’s military build-up provided a new rationale for the presence of American forces in Asia in the post-Cold War era in the eyes of third parties.
It is often noted correctly that capabilities are hollow without intentions. Less remarked but just as true, capabilities have been known to sire intentions and remix the relative influence of internal actors. Beijing’s civilian leaders and the People’s Liberation Army appear to have the confidence to begin reshaping the regional environment in line with their preferences. More assured of its capabilities, the Chinese military has at the same time become more confident, expanded its domestic influence and undertaken to deploy its assets in an attempt to mark off national interests and assert both a regional and global security role. The rise of military influence within Chinese policy counsels is, as one State Department official deeply involved in the Sino-U.S. relations told me, the most revealing and worrisome aspect of China’s rise. In this context, the PLA Air Force’s first test flight of its fifth-generation prototype fighter, the J-20, during the January 2011 visit of Secretary of Defense Gates—a visit which had been intended as an attempt to improve military-to-military relations—is especially noteworthy.
China’s new attitudes may also flow from the fact that Beijing’s primary goal at first, preventing Taiwanese independence, has been largely achieved by political and diplomatic means. That has left Beijing with a newly enhanced and still-growing military in search of a purpose. China appears to have found that purpose. It has decided to use its forces to further press its advantage in the Indo-Pacific commons. China has all but explicitly rejected any expectation that it intends to provide a liberal stewardship of regional commons, in stark contrast to how the United States has operated for decades. One could be forgiven for concluding that Beijing has made a conscious choice to compete with the U.S.-led regional order. This has occurred at a time when its closest Asian competitor, Japan, has shrunk its defense budget for more than a decade and when the growth in U.S. defense spending has been overwhelmingly concentrated on army operations in the Middle East, to the detriment of investments in air and sea power in support of America’s grand strategy in the Indo-Pacific.
The competition with America has begun to manifest itself in numerous ways. At the same time that it has gained operational experience by sending small flotillas to conduct anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa and dramatically increased its visibility through ports-of-call visits, the Chinese navy has also probed and challenged U.S. and other naval forces in the Asia-Pacific region. Harassment of U.S. naval surveillance vessels during 2009 followed on a Chinese submarine stalking and surfacing within firing range of the USS Kitty Hawk in 2006. Naval and air exercises in the East and South China Seas have increased in recent years, and Chinese armed patrol vessels have accompanied Chinese fishing vessels and seized other nations’ ships in contested waters in the South China Sea.
These disparate military probes are linked to an increasingly assertive political stance. As already noted, Chinese leaders bluntly warned Obama Administration officials that China would brook no interference with its “indisputable sovereignty” in the South China Sea. Leading Chinese military officials and thinkers have claimed that the U.S. Navy is the major destabilizing force in the Western Pacific at just the time when a new doctrine, “far sea defense”, is explicitly discussing naval power projection far offshore, out into the Philippine Sea and into major Indo-Pacific shipping lanes.
Operationally, in the spring of 2010, the Chinese sent naval flotillas through Japanese territorial waters in the East China Sea, past the so-called “first island chain” centered on Taiwan, and Chinese naval helicopters buzzed Japanese ships sent to observe their movements. That July, Beijing warned both America and South Korea not to conduct joint naval exercises in the Yellow Sea off Korea’s western coast, calling such exercises a potentially “grave provocation” and scheduling naval live-fire exercises in the same area. Washington responded by delaying the exercises for months, thereby following a decade-long pattern of publicly avoiding confrontation with China.
Driving China’s assertiveness seems to be a combined sense of strength, a belief in America’s eventual decline, and a desire to gain preponderant political influence and economic power in the region. In this, its driving force is not ideology but traditional great-power ambitions and, not insignificantly, economic predominance. The South China Sea contains some of the world’s key transportation routes and is the lifeblood of the dozen nations that ring it, from Indonesia and Malaysia to Vietnam, to South Korea and Japan in the north. China’s announcement in July 2010 that it had discovered nearly 200 oil and natural gas fields in those waters is just the type of event that can cause nations seeking economic and territorial advantage to begin drawing lines on a map that lead to greater political tension and instability. By all appearances, China desires to dominate any competition over littoral resources and transportation routes. It has in no way adjusted or modified its claims over resources and territory; rather, as it has grown in strength, its positions have hardened.
Nations around the region know this, and Chinese behavior at the end of 2010—from their reaction to the arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain by Japanese authorities to their use of rare earth metal supplies as a political bludgeon to their hysteria over the Nobel Peace prize being awarded to a Chinese dissident—managed to destroy the meticulously constructed “peaceful rise” charm offensive some half a dozen years in the making. Indo-Pacific countries are now busy bolstering their own militaries in response. So far, with the United States still distracted in the Middle East, Washington is not suppressing this budding security competition, which could easily lead to a rising cycle of political tension and an increased chance of confrontation on the high seas—as happened already de minimis, for example, in August between Chinese and Indonesian patrol boats in fishing grounds off of Indonesia.
And so we come to the practical meaning of a tipping point. For China, the major obstacle to having the freedom to do as it pleases in the Indo-Pacific region is not Indonesia or even Japan; it is America. And given the trends of recent years, the whole region is, in essence, waiting for and half-expecting America to blink. America “blinking” would signal a decision that the risks of opposing China are too high, and that decision, in turn, would entail redefining U.S. interests in the region in a way that signals Chinese ascendancy. There are already anticipations to that effect heard in capitals from Tokyo to Canberra. (For obvious reasons, they are heard most clearly in smaller countries like Singapore.) Any such outcome would constitute a tipping point that could set off a cascade of adjustments and hedging strategies that would sharply diminish U.S. influence in the Indo-Pacific.
In time, a region and a world on the far side of such a tipping point would be one in which smaller nations grow anxious about America’s capacity and willingness to protect their interests, leading to greater uncertainty and insecurity. China will likely never have the sheer military capability of the United States, but it would not need it. The balance of interest often trumps the balance of power. Operating across an ocean, America would need to raise and maintain a vastly different military and diplomatic posture than China, operating near its own shores. If the United States cannot, or chooses not to, strike and hold that posture, uncertainty could lead to opportunism, and opportunism could lead to miscalculation, overreactions and war. It would not be the first time.
The Deepening Cycle
The U.S. response to China’s challenge has been cautious and uneven. Both the George W. Bush and Obama Administrations have approached the issue from a position of risk aversion and with a belief that the broader Sino-American political relationship, one increasingly based on economic considerations, is more important than maintaining the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region. In part, this attitude has derived from a longstanding and undeniable American advantage in military strength, but it has also been a default position given the numerous other demands on U.S. foreign and security policy since 9/11. When confronted with Chinese probing and assertiveness, successive U.S. administrations have avoided publicly antagonizing China and have at times apparently made no response at all, such as after the denial by Chinese authorities of safe-haven requests by U.S. Navy ships caught in bad weather back in 2007, or the abrupt rejection of a holiday port call by the USS Kitty Hawk that same year. U.S. administrations have instead raised Sino-American relations to the highest political level, epitomized by the Strategic and Economic Dialogue that each year brings together the American Secretaries of State and Defense with their Chinese counterparts.
Yet the Chinese response to the American outreach throughout the 1990s and 2000s has been to further press its advantages. That, finally, has prompted some U.S. pushback, which is how we ought to view Secretary Clinton’s statement regarding U.S. interests in the South China Sea and subsequent U.S. statements about China abetting North Korean proliferation and bad behavior. At the same time, since taking control in the autumn of 2009, Admiral Robert Willard, the new commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, has responded with realism to such Chinese probing. Not only has he very publicly deployed key U.S. assets like Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines and aircraft carriers around the region, he has also openly mused about the speed of China’s military growth and its destabilizing potential. During Congressional testimony in January 2010, Willard bluntly noted that China was building capabilities designed to “challenge U.S. freedom of action in the region and, if necessary, enforce China’s influence over its neighbors.” Other senior military officials, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen and Admiral Patrick Walsh, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, have since echoed Willard’s comments. Willard’s recent revelation that China has successfully developed an anti-ship ballistic missile that could be able to target U.S. aircraft carriers has only hardened American rhetoric.
This is a welcome change of tone, but neither rhetoric nor short-term gestures will ultimately drive the Sino-American competition. It will rather be driven by the interplay of will, strength and chance over many years. Let us take a quick inventory of where we are.
U.S. will is very much in doubt. America’s leaders have yet to figure out how to deal with a China that is crucial to our economic future yet also acts increasingly as a challenger in the security sphere. Further, their perception of the causes and likely duration of America’s economic slump may turn out to be far more important than our actual capacity to fund our strategy, just as during the Great Depression the United States failed to sustain a Pacific balance that had been meticulously negotiated after World War I by Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes. There is no alternative to costly investment in America’s Indo-Pacific posture. Talk of scuttling U.S. bases in the Pacific or expecting allies to carry vastly more of their own security burdens are understandable yet wrongheaded responses to a situation in which only the United States can credibly keep crises from exploding into wars. Any abdication of American security commitments in Asia will almost certainly result in a hastening of withdrawal, for such would be the logic of accommodation either to Chinese power or demands (no matter how rational it may seem). In turn, that will ensure the very advantages China’s political and military leaders now seek.
If American will is in question, it is partly because projections of our strength are too. The U.S. Navy’s current inventory of 285 ships marks its lowest level since World War I, and the Congressional Research Service projects shortfalls in our most flexible naval assets—cruisers, destroyers and submarines—of 20 percent or more by 2030. The Air Force has ceased production of our best fighter, the F-22 Raptor, and it is retiring hundreds of older fighters without any assurance that the F-35 program will be ready on time, leading to concern that the Joint Strike Fighter purchase will be significantly trimmed. We underinvest in crucial anti-submarine warfare capabilities and need to further bolster our intelligence and surveillance activities as well. With Navy and Air Force budget growth increasingly going to salaries, pensions and maintenance, the bottom line on procurement and operations is bound to shrink. And again, since America has global responsibilities and China only has regional goals, China can get along with far less and still wind up deterring the United States.
As to chance, it is by definition unknowable. Nevertheless, chance is not an orphan; it comes to us hand-in-hand with what we have made of our will and our strength. But chance is a kind of fuse that, once ignited, propels assets and intentions in-waiting into sudden collision. An accident at sea, a sudden rupture in relations between the United States and one of its allies over a range of unpredictable political contingencies, a rogue nuclear regime that terrorizes its neighbors—any one of these circumstances could upset the stability of the region. How America and China react, along with the capabilities they can employ, may determine which country emerges with the legitimacy and authority to set the rules for the Indo-Pacific region in the coming decades.
That is the tipping point in our future, a future in which the Indo-Pacific will emerge as the most important region on earth, and the liberal international order may be irretrievably changed. When it begins to happen, we will have to react with what resources and will we have. Yet after nearly three-quarters of a century patrolling the globe, a decade of bloody warfare in the Middle East and the weakening of our economy, will America be ready and willing to uphold global liberal interests when the time comes? Or, as with the fall of the Roman Empire, will the world witness a slow dissolution of central order and the rise of generations of instability? The Sino-American competition we see today may herald the beginning of that process. It is not America’s choice whether it will be tested again; we may only choose how to respond.
1This buildup has been described in detail and there is no reason to repeat that description here. See James R. Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy (Naval Institute Press, 2010).