The One Area Where China Can't Compete
For years now, the news has been filled with stories about the rise of China and its growing military power. China has developed a new stealth fighter (that looks suspiciously like some American models), and it is developing the beginnings of an aircraft carrier fleet. China’s still-growing economy has allowed for double-digit increases in its defense budget nearly every year for two decades, and these increases have provided the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with increasingly better equipment, technical sophistication and training. Perhaps most importantly from the American perspective, the Chinese military has developed long-range standoff missiles that could potentially target American vessels at sea.
All of these factors seem to indicate that the Chinese are rapidly gaining power in the Western Pacific and will soon overtake American preeminence in this region. While each individual advancement in weapons capabilities looks impressive when viewed in isolation, there is one area where China simply cannot compete with the United States: alliances and regional basing structures.
A cursory glance at the American basing alignment in the Asia-Pacific shows the extent of the American advantage. Militarily-speaking, bases in mainland Japan, Okinawa, Guam, Australia, Hawaii, Singapore and South Korea all give the United States the capacity to project force well beyond its own territorial borders. But they are also visible symbols of the way countries in the region view the United States. A permanent – even rotational – American presence on foreign soil is a sign of American commitment to its regional ally. For the host country, it is a demonstration of its trust in the United States to behave responsibly and beneficially towards its own foreign policy.
Few countries in the region are actively pursuing any kind of military cooperation with China. Many countries in the Asia-Pacific already have deep military ties with the U.S. beyond bases, and most are seeking an even closer relationship. The new Pacific Pathways program is a demonstration of growth in the relationships the United States enjoys with traditionally ambivalent countries in the Western Pacific. Even without a permanent or consistent presence in countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia, the willingness of these nations to invite American forces onto their soil displays a kind of limited but salient trust in the United States to act in the agreed-upon and limited way.
From where does this trust emanate? The United States has participated in its fair share of misadventures in this and other regions of the world, so past good behavior clearly is not the source of trust. Alternatively, some might see it as the best of a set of bad options given regional fears of a rising China that has been prone to provocation. However, these actions from China have been relatively small and many past American undertakings have been large and regionally disastrous. History is not the guide here.
While many people lament the current state of affairs in Washington and the American government’s inability to “get things done,” it is actually the very thing that makes the United States a more palatable ally to countries in the Asia-Pacific. A country deciding between cooperation with the United States or China sees a relatively transparent democracy in the United States as a huge advantage over the opaque nature of the Chinese state when trying to form an estimate of the preferences of the regional power.
Every day, the American media provides vivid demonstrations of a Congress that opposes any potential presidential overreach. These signals provide a prospective ally with accurate estimates of the American government’s inability to overstep its bounds in military exercises or foreign basing. Alternatively, these kinds of signals are extremely difficult to receive from Chinese state-controlled media reporting on a government that is keen to purvey unanimity above all else. There is little reassurance that cooperation with the Chinese will prove benign and beneficial, or that the partnering nation will have much warning in the event of shifting Chinese preferences.
Amidst all the fascination over the economic and military growth of the world’s new Great Power, analysts must not forget what Clausewitz taught us: War – in this case, military power and alliances – is the continuation of politics by other means. Much of the foreign policy commentariat sees the American system of government as a roadblock to effective and efficient decision-making, and many see the Chinese system as beneficial in this respect.
However, when it comes to reassuring allies, this is definitively not the case. As long as the United States maintains its system of democratic transparency and governmental checks against political overreach, it maintains a clear advantage over the Chinese in this region. The United States remains a valued regional partner because it can provide credible military, diplomatic and economic reassurances to potential allies. The result is a worldwide network of bases and alliances that gives the United States a strategic advantage, and one that the Chinese will be incapable of challenging anytime soon.