The United States should not seek strategic primacy in Asia

The strategic sands in Asia are steadily shifting in China’s favour.

With the People’s Liberation Army now well on its way to commanding multiple‘unsinkable aircraft carriers’ in the South China Sea’s contested waters, United States protests over Chinese territorial aggrandisement look limp and ineffective.

This follows the serious symbolic blowsuffered by American regional leadership when US allies and partners ignored Washington’s warnings and signed up to Beijing’s US$100 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank earlier this year.

These and other signs of China’s resurgence — from the soaring Chinese defence budget to Beijing’s steadily progressing blue-water navy plans — should prompt Washington to abandon US strategic primacy in Asia as a policy priority.

The view that the US should set out to preserve its position as Asia’s pre-eminent power still has many powerful advocates in Washington.

Obama administration officials, including the president himself, periodically trumpet the virtues of unrivalled American power, while amajor Council of Foreign Relations report on China policy recently argued: “Preserving US primacy in the global system ought to remain the central objective of US grand strategy in the twenty-first century.”

Although macro projections are highly speculative, they strongly suggest the goal of maintaining a decisive US strategic edge over Asia’s rapidly rising great powers will be out of reach in the coming decades.

This relative US strategic decline is driven by China — which could command a defence budget worth more than US$2 trillion in 2050 (China’s path to global military dominance, March 11) — but this is not just a Chinese story.

Plausible projections of military spending as a percentage of GDP show India and Indonesia could have defence budgets worth close to US$1 trillion and US$300 billion, respectively, by mid-century.

If the US maintains its post-Cold War average of 4% of GDP devoted to defence, its military outlays would rise to US$1.7 trillion by mid-century, making it one of the Asia-Pacific’s greatest powers. But safeguarding the US position as Asia’s pre-eminent power will be near-impossible when Washington commands a defence budget worth only 80% of China’s.

Provided the political will, the US could fight this relative strategic decline. During the height of the Cold War, the US sustained defence budgets worth approximately 15% of GDP, and similar levels of military spending as a percentage of GDP in 2050 would see it massively outgun even China.

However, in addition to the fiscal folly of embarking on a military spending war with China, the foreign policy payoffs of maintaining US strategic primacy do not justify the costs.

Chinese foreign policy is not a threat to core US interests in Asia, such as preserving a liberal economic order and protecting the web of US security partnerships.

China became the world’s largest trading nation measured by total exports and imports of goods in 2012, and has more than US$870 billion worth of investments in a diverse range of industries across the globe. China has also risen to become the world’s second largest source of Foreign Direct Investment behind the United States, and received the world’s largest inflows of FDI in 2014.

China’s own economic interests therefore make it highly unlikely that an end of US strategic primacy would threaten Asia’s international system of free markets, free trade, and freedom of navigation.

Notwithstanding periodic denunciations from nationalistic publications like the Global Times, Beijing is also resigned to an enduring US-led network of Asian alliances and is unlikely to seriously challenge US security engagement in the region.

Consider, for example, the relatively muted response to recent US decisions to upgrade its troop presence in Australia in 2011 and the Philippines in 2014. Indeed, even China’s forceful criticisms of the application of the US-Japanese mutual defence treaty to the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands centre primarily on historical grievances against Japan rather than the legitimacy of the close strategic relationship between Washington and Tokyo.

Of course, China’s combative tactics in the East and South China seas, and continued opposition to international law and human rights norms, mean elements of Chinese foreign policy are at cross-purposes to US interests.

However, Beijing has already successfully undermined these aspects of the US-led Asian order during the era of US strategic primacy. Itwill therefore just be business as usual if the period of relative US strategic decline also features further Chinese efforts to seize disputed territory and weaken international law and human rights norms.

US military might will be a key counterbalance to surging Chinese power in the coming decades, and an essential security guarantee for China’s nervous neighbours. But the era of Asia’s military giants is fast making the project of preserving US strategic primacy unrealistic.