The beginning of the end of America’s strategic primacy in Asia is commonly predicted. We are supposed to be entering a China-led Asian Century but, the decline of US influence in Asia will occur far slower—if at all—than it is commonly believed.
Dr Lee explains that America’s share of global GDP will likely decline with the rise of China and India, but relative distribution of hard power resources is not the only determinant of strategic, political and diplomatic influence.
America is the preferred choice as leader of the informal hierarchical security system in Asia—and will become even more so as new powers rise. Despite the fact that America spends more on defence than the next 10 powers combined, it has never been a genuine regional hegemon says Dr Lee. Instead, the US relies on the approval and cooperation of other states in Asia to remain dominant.
‘In fact, American dominance is welcome and legitimised in Asia because it exists to keep the peace. Even authoritarian China has been a beneficiary of the public goods in the form of stability provided by the Americans,’ says Dr Lee.
China will not take the lead in the region while it remains a developing country. Pressing domestic requirements will continue to dog Beijing for some time—restricting its capacity to play any leadership role even if it were trusted by the region.
A hierarchical structure with America at the top remains the firm preference of all major states in Asia including, for the moment, China. This structure means that America will remain dominant for several decades, even if it is in relative decline.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s proposal for an Asia-Pacific Community encompassing all states in the region is flawed and would dilute or even dismantle the existing informal hierarchical structure.