Can China Legitimate Its Would-Be Hegemony in Asia?
By now the statistics of China’s rise are well-known. It has the world’s second largest gross domestic product (GDP). It will likely overtake U.S. GDP in the next decade. It is the world’s second largest spender on defense. It aims to build a blue-water navy, including aircraft carriers. It likely already has the missile and drone ability to deny the U.S. Navy the ability to operate inside the “first island chain” (from southern Japan south through Taiwan and the Philippines to the South China Sea) without unacceptable losses. It has the world’s largest population: one in seven persons today is a Chinese national.
As Hugh White has argued, the U.S. has never faced a greater challenger in its history as a world power. The U.S. roughly emerged as a great power in the 1880s. In that time, it has faced four major challengers: German nationalism in WWI, fascism in World War II, communism in the Cold War, and millenarian jihadism in the war on terror. Only the Soviet challenger ever came close to the U.S. in terms of power resources. Hitler and bin Laden were arguably the most terrifying, but Stalinist power was much greater, and even that collapsed. China however exceeds all these in the resources it can muster. It is vastly better governed than the U.S.S.R. was, and far larger economically than Germany, Japan, and various Islamist states and groups. China is catching up, fast.
Chinese hegemony in the western Pacific is not inevitable. For one thing, it has many opponents. But for all sorts of reasons, a full-blown containment line from India east and north to Japan is increasingly unlikely. India is hesitant. Southeast Asia desperately wants to trade with China and be pulled up along with its rise, not balance against it. South Korea is as likely to align with Beijing against Japan as vice versa. That leaves Japan, Taiwan, and the U.S. This might be enough to deter Chinese ambition, but Japan has been struggling for decades, and the U.S. is overextended. White’s prediction that some kind of Sino-U.S. compromise is the best shot to avoid a disastrous Sino-U.S. conflict seems ever more likely. Chinese power in East Asia will likely have to be recognized at some point in the next two decades.
The follow-on question then for China is whether it can legitimate its incipient regional hegemony. Can it demonstrate to other local players that Chinese regional dominance does not simply mean tyranny? It is often suggested that China today seeks an updated tribute system. If so, this is not as bad as it sounds (assuming there is no alternative to Chinese hegemony). The tribute system demanded formal hierarchy but permitted informal near-equality. Specifically, it left the tributaries’ domestic politics alone (even in the closest tributary, Korea), and exerted only mild influence over foreign policy. That sounds an awful lot like what the U.S. already does in Latin America and Europe.
But American hegemony is moderated by a reasonably liberal ideology that gives participant states a say in the larger framework. States like Germany or Japan are not subjects of the United States, they are allies, and their exit option is real. If the U.S. is an “empire,” it is rather soft one. When France withdrew from NATO’s military integration in 1966, and when the Philippines voted the Americans out of their bases in 1992, the U.S. did nothing. When Soviet “allies” tried to exit the Warsaw Pact, they were crushed. In turn then, the Eastern European allies-turned-subjects gave up, slacked on their contribution to “socialist fraternity,” and became aburden for the Soviet Empire rather than an asset...