The United States and its Asian partners want to maintain a balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, ostensibly to prevent China from becoming a regional hegemon there. They worry that Beijing will gradually persuade its neighbors to distance themselves from the United States, accept Chinese primacy, and defer to Beijing’s wishes on key foreign-policy issues. In 2018, for example, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned that China is “harboring long-term designs to rewrite the existing global order. … The Ming Dynasty appears to be their model, albeit in a more muscular manner, demanding other nations become tribute states, kowtowing to Beijing.” Former U.S. officials such as Rush Doshi and Elbridge Colby and prominent realists writing on U.S. grand strategy—myself included—have made similar arguments, and China’s stated desire to be a “leading global power” and its efforts to alter the status quo in the South China Sea and elsewhere appear to justify these concerns.
The implications of this view are troubling. If China is actively seeking to become a regional hegemon in Asia and the United States is dead set on preventing it, a direct clash between the world’s two most powerful countries will be difficult to avoid.
But are these fears justified? Although China might be better off if it could expel the United States from Asia and become a true regional hegemon, that goal is probably beyond its grasp. A Chinese bid for regional hegemony is likely to fail and do enormous harm to China (and others) in the process. The United States can take a relatively sanguine view of this prospect, therefore, even if it cannot dismiss it completely. Even as they strive to preserve a balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, therefore, the United States and its allies must ensure that their efforts do not convince China’s leaders that they must try for hegemony despite the obvious risks.
Why Regional Hegemony Is Desirable
It is easy to understand why a powerful state might like to be a regional hegemon (i.e., the only great power within its geographic area). If there are no other major powers nearby, a regional hegemon has little reason to fear direct attacks on its home territory. A great power that dominates its surroundings in this way will also be less vulnerable to blockades or other forms of pressure, and it can expect deference from the weaker states in its sphere of influence even if it does not rule them directly. The absence of local dangers also makes it easier for a regional hegemon to project power into other areas of the world if doing so seems necessary or desirable.
Read the full piece in Foreign Policy.