While the rise of ISIS, the “War on Terror,” and the crisis in the Ukraine may have the attention of U.S. policymakers focused on Europe and the Middle East, it is in the Asia-Pacific region that American strategic interests are most at stake. With China rising rapidly on the world stage, it will be increasingly difficult for the United States to act as the dominant regional actor. As suggested by its recent “pivot” to the region, the United States needs to refocus attention on the Asia-Pacific if it wishes to play a constructive, balancing role in the coming decades. However, the circumstances of the region will limit America’s capacity to ‘contain’ China and directly shape the balance of power. This paper explores the dynamics of the Asia-Pacific. Drawing into consideration the numerous possibilities for and limitations on American influence in the region, it lays out a possible policy direction the United States can take in the coming decade – that of ‘cooperative competition’ with China.

 The ‘Asia-Pacific’ is an expansive region, home to major powers such as China, Japan, and Australia and to advanced economies such as Singapore and South Korea. For over the last half century a key characteristic of the Asia-Pacific has been the American presence, a result of the United States’ regional participation in World War II and Cold War strategy of ‘containing’ communism. Having forged close military and economic relationships with Japan, South Korea, and Australia, the United States was arguably the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific through the latter half of the 20th century. This leading role was maintained despite multifaceted and often daunting challenges: the “loss” of China to the Soviet camp and subsequent U.S. alignment with its Maoist government, the costly and protracted wars in Korea and Vietnam, and the United States’ seeming inability to compete economically with Japan in the 1970s and 1980s[1]. America’s historically preserving influence in the region thus suggests durable leadership and offers hope for its continuation through the 21st century.

 Yet the Asia-Pacific today is a region of changing dynamics and balances of power, the likes of which present an enormous challenge to American regional leadership. The United States itself is emerging out of the worst recession in almost a century, protracted and inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is suffering from acute political polarization and gridlock. These factors have eroded American international clout and limited the United States’ ability to make policy for the region. Meanwhile, an increasingly assertive Russia is trying to reestablish itself in Asia. Japan and India are trying to play larger regional roles, and China is on course to be a global superpower second only to the United States by the 2020s[2]. Looking at the region in the ‘Realist’ perspective of international relations, strategic cooperation and balancing between these powers – especially the United States and China – point to future characterized by major-power competition. American policymakers cannot expect the United States to be the unrivaled hegemon in the coming decades.

However, a structural polarity between the United States and China has not emerged. A Cold War-esque system of competing blocs and alliances is no longer a realistic scenario for the region. Rather than aligning with either the United States or China, many countries have opted to form close ties with both[3]. Increasingly, states in the Asia-Pacific seek to maximize their range of strategic options by avoiding commitments that could lead them into conflict. They do not feel a need to seek alignment with a major power in order to protect themselves. Instead, states are forming diverse bilateral and multilateral relationships in order to increase their security and support strategic interests. The unwillingness of states in the region to be put into a ‘sphere of influence’ constrains the United States’ ability to pursue a strategy of ‘direct’ containment and coalition-building against China. Still, China’s growing military capability has increasingly motivated neighbors to draw themselves more closely to the United States[4].

This “hedging” strategy of engagement with both China and the United States is in part a result of complex interdependence developing between growing regional economies. China is the number one or two trading partner of almost every country in East Asia, and six of China’s biggest trade partners are found in the Asia-Pacific[5]. As a major importer of Asian-produced goods, the United States is also deeply connected to the region economically. ‘Liberal’ international theorists see these economic ties and this interdependence as binding countries together, thereby restricting their strategic competition. These economic ties are an important part of the security calculus for many states. Deeply interdependent with both America and China, Asian countries would resist choosing sides in a future conflict[6]. A conflict or trade dispute between the United States and China would greatly impact the economies of countries throughout the region, if not the world. Recognizing this, policymakers in both Beijing and Washington are wary of competition which would jeopardize their economic relationship.

The Asia-Pacific is also marked by increased intra-regional interaction and interdependence and the development of multilateral institutions. Liberal international relations would argue that these organizations, along with other forms of multilateralism, allow states in the region to build norms of cooperation and deepen strategic ties. More than a dozen major intergovernmental organizations can be found in the region, though there currently exists no single pan-regional organization[7]. It should be noted, however, that while the proliferation of intergovernmental organizations is becoming a feature of the regional order, they are at present under-institutionalized, often non-binding, and too diffuse[8]. Still, the growth of Asian multilateralism and interdependence nonetheless offers the United States a chance for deeper integration into, and thus influence in, the region.

As China’s rise is bound to influence and alter regional dynamics, it is crucial for American policymakers to understand China’s perspective and foreign policy goals. A stable regional environment that supports China’s economic growth and regional influence is the preferred outcome for Chinese policymakers. China’s strategic dilemma thus lies in the difficulty of forming a dominant regional role without antagonizing the United States or alienating other regional powers. To achieve this aim, the Chinese disclaim a desire to dominate Asia, announcing instead that they pursue a policy of equality, mutual respect, and non-interference. Yet increasingly, Chinese policymakers are expecting weaker countries to defer to China’s wishes[9]. Meanwhile, China is highly sensitive to and suspicious of America’s power projection, which it views as an attempt to contain China’s economic and political rise. Nonetheless, Chinese policymakers acknowledge that the desire to avoid a military confrontation with the United States will encourage US-Chinese cooperation[10].

Such are the dynamics of the Asia-Pacific, which serve as the context for America’s policy in and recent “pivot” to the region. The pivot can be seen as the United States’ strategic rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific, a signal to regional powers that its attention on the Middle East, terrorism, and democratization is over[11]. It is easy to see China’s rise as the causal explanation for the pivot, but it is far from the only one. Piracy, international smuggling, illegal drug trades, nuclear proliferation, climate change, and natural disasters are only a few of the many issues in the Asia-Pacific which extend beyond the nature of the U.S.-China relationship. To frame the United States’ renewed focus on the Asia-Pacific as simply a means to counter China’s rise, then, risks drawing suspicion from Chinese policymakers and limits the possibilities for American engagement in the region. As such, the United States’ has tried to portray the pivot as focusing on the region at large[12]. Indeed, the pivot is really just a continuation of policies that have shaped America’s interaction with the region for nearly a decade – forming deeper ties with established and emerging markets and strengthening its regional diplomatic, military, and multilateral ties.

Moving forward into the next decade, the United States should continue, and redouble, those efforts. American policymakers must recognize that China’s rise is an inevitability, that the United States is heavily constrained in its ability to directly ‘contain’ China, and that conflict with China is highly undesirable for the region. How, then, can the United States maintain a dominant role and favorable balance of power in the region? This paper suggests that the United States should play a leading role in creating an environment of cooperation and multilateralism, in which regional actors are mutually pursuant of issues of common interest. The suspicions and security dilemmas that come with ‘realpolitik’ will be tempered by norms of cooperation and mutual support. In such an environment, unilateral aggression or assertions of hegemony will be met with a regional counterbalance; feeling threatened, states will naturally form ‘coalitions’ to contain the threat. Considering the current dynamics of the region, it would thus be strategically and economically detrimental for rising powers such as China to over-assert their power. With regards to the Chinese-American relationship, such an environment would enable them to channel competition for regional influence and dominance in a constructive manner. Rather than building spheres of influence through military alliances and power-of-balance considerations, they could do so by taking the lead on facing the vast array of issues affecting the region at large. This ‘cooperative competition’ has the potential to reframe the nature of the Chinese-American relationship in the coming century; rather than two great powers strategically competing for hegemonic dominance over the region, these two great powers can share – potentially even support support each others’ – influence by combating regional issues in a multilateral way.

Such a policy is formed by a consideration of the United States’ limitations in the region and it’s current regional policies. The Cold War-era of alliance blocs and post-Cold War-era of unipolar hegemony are over; the world is increasingly multipolar and increasingly interdependent. Though countries may look to the United States to play a leading regional role, they do not want to be drawn into a major power conflict. Ultimately, the greatest potential for American influence may lie in its ability to engage and strengthen ties with intergovernmental organizations, support regional economies, and combating issues of regional interest. It is, after all, through these means that the United States’ has been able to maintain a position of relevance in a changing region. Though the Asia-Pacific’s present intergovernmental and multilateral environment, upon which this policy relies, is fractured and weak, it is growing – the United States thus has a powerful opportunity to shape it in line with its strategic interests in the coming decade. This policy is further formed by a consideration of domestic American politics. Economic and multilateral ties are not as reliant upon congressional funding as, say, a sustained military presence. By focusing on building norms rather than employing hard power, the United States will be more secure in its regional footing should partisan gridlock or funding cuts come out of Washington.

The Asia-Pacific, and in particular the United States’ relationship with China, is poised to become the international focus of the 21st century. It is thus imperative that the United States pursue a strategy that establishes lasting norms of peaceful cooperation – and peaceful competition – in the coming decade. This is an area marked by changing dynamics which limit the United States’ ability to directly contain China’s rise, but which also offer new possibilities for American regional leadership. Whether American policymakers recognize this and take advantage of it will be seen in the coming years.

Works Cited

[1] Sutter, Robert. “The United States in Asia.” In International Relations of Asia, edited by David Shambaugh and Michael Yahuda, 93. Lanham:Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

[2] Shambaugh, David. “International Relations in Asia.” In International Relations of Asia, edited by David Shambaugh and Michael Yahuda, 17-18. Lanham:Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

[3] Ibid, 16.

[4] Cossa, Ralph A. “Security Dynamics in Asia.” In International Relations of Asia, edited by David Shambaugh and Michael Yahuda, 368. Lanham:Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

[5] Kim, Samuel S. “The Evolving Asian System.” In International Relations of Asia, edited by David Shambaugh and Michael Yahuda, 53. Lanham:Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

[6] Shambaugh, David. “International Relations in Asia.” In International Relations of Asia, edited by David Shambaugh and Michael Yahuda, 17-18. Lanham:Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

[7] Ibid, 21.

[8] Ibid, 20.

[9] Roy, Denny. “More Security for Rising China, Less for Others?” AsiaPacific Analysis, no. 106, January 2013.

[10] Xeutong, Yan. “China. Striving for Preventive Cooperation,” Regional Perspectives on the U.S. Rebalance. Asia-Pacific Defense Forum, January 1, 2014.

[11] Schiavenza, Matt. “What Exactly Does it Mean That the U.S. Is Pivoting to Asia?” The Atlantic, August 4, 2014.

[12] Forum Staff. “Regional Perspectives on the U.S. Rebalance.Asia-Pacific Defense Forum, January 1, 2014.