The United States has, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, dominated the international environment as the preeminent hegemon. Recent developments, however, such as a domestic debt crisis, unpopular and costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the rise of new regional powers exerting hegemony, have shown that American unipolarity is giving way to a return to a bipolar environment. On the forefront of the new regional powers rising to challenge American hegemony is China.  China is a massive country with a strong and rapidly-growing economy. Recently, it has begun to develop its military strength and strengthen its international ties, signaling it’s want for a growth of influence in the international world. Thus, The United States has, and will need to continue to in the future, develop a new strategy to deal with the rise of China. With its rise comes a number of questions, such as the nature of the international environment, what is stipulated by the concept of the balance of power, and how the United States can implement strategy to balance with and contain China.

An unbalanced Chinese sphere of influence in Asia, akin to the United States position in the Western Hemisphere, would have far reaching effects. By being able to influence its neighbor’s behaviors through either diplomatically or militarily coercive actions, it would be much more secure at home[1]. By being an economically and militarily dominant power, it would not need to worry about the threat that its neighbors present to its sovereignty, just as the United States does not worry about the military threat presented from Mexico or Canada. With its borders, and control on the regional balance of power, secured, China would be able to look outward towards the global international environment. China’s economic integration into the world market in the past decade has been massive, and its strong economic growth is buoyed upon international trade and commerce. Further growth would spark demand for more resources, materials, and markets. It would thus make much strategic sense for the Chinese to inject itself into regions where resources are abundant, or where new markets could be open and exploited. A prudent Chinese strategist, as Stephen Walt puts it, would “want to have the capacity to safeguard vital sea lanes of communication and affect the political calculations in other key areas”[2].

China’s foray into the international environment is already being clearly seen in Africa, where it has been expanding its economic and political ties with countries across the continent and rapidly growing its influence. In 2009, China surpassed the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner, and has invested heavily in the economies and infrastructures of numerous African nations, with Chinese companies funding infrastructure deals worth more than fifty billion dollars a year[3]. The low prices of Chinese made weaponry and military equipment has caused an increasing number of African countries to shift their source of supply from traditional providers such as Russia to China. This new reliance upon imported Chinese weaponry and military equipment has strengthened the economic and military ties between China and its African customers, who also need training and support from the Chinese to proper maintain and utilize their purchases[4]. The expansion of soft power in Africa can be seen in China’s engagement of a kind of ‘health diplomacy’, where more than 15,000 Chinese doctors have, between 1960 and 2005, been sent to help treat cases in more than 47 African countries. In this period of time, more than 170 million patients have been treated[5]. Africa now hosts three Chinese cultural centers, with one in Egypt, Benin, and Mauritius. This, mixed with the efforts of the Confucius Institute, which has 20 centers distributed in 13 African countries focusing on the promotion of Chinese language and culture, has helped expand the soft image of China and the Chinese people.[6]

China’s push for an expansion of influence in Africa makes much sense, as it is a relatively unexploited market, and controls vast amounts of resources. Africa ranks first or second globally in the abundance of a number of minerals, and many African countries are highly dependent on the export of those minerals. China would gain much economically by developing ties with those countries and becoming an importer of their minerals. The economic ties from such trade would also manage to strengthen the diplomatic bonds between the two trading partners. More importantly, however, is that Africa provides China with 30 percent of its oil needs. In an age of growing oil insecurity, and with Chinese demand for oil becoming larger, China needs to secure itself in regions which could serve its needs in the long-term.    Of course, China’s foray into Africa means that it is decreasing American hegemony in the region, and presents a challenge to American needs[7]. By building its soft power, funding projects, and increasing its diplomatic and economic ties with African nations, China is securing its resource needs in a region which the United States will need to look for in a future of strong economic competition and decreasing resources.

In addition to Africa, China has begun to move into Latin America and the Western Hemisphere seeking influence. Trade between China and Latin America skyrocketed from 10 billion dollars in 2000 to over 140 billion in 2008. While still below the figures of trade between the United States and Latin America, this is still a significant figure which shows that Chinese interest and involvement in the region is increasing steadily. China is now Latin America’s third largest trading partner after the United States and the European Union, and its clout in the region can be expected to grow still. China’s involvement and engagement in Latin America have so far been sensitive to US perceptions: the United States supported China’s bid to become an observer of the Organization of American States in 2004 and admitted it into the Inter-American Development Bank. The potential for bilateral tensions growing over time, however, is large, especially if the growth of China remains unchecked and the shifting balance of power begins to threaten the United States[8]. This region is of special concern because it is in the United States ‘backyard’. The United States presently has no threats from the Western Hemisphere, and thus can focus freely on projecting its power globally and dealing with security threats overseas. Stephen Walt argues this point in saying that, “once China established a secure sphere of influence, it would be easier for Beijing to forge closer political ties with countries in the Western hemisphere, some of whom have long resented U.S. dominance. It does not take a lot of imagination to see where this leads: for the first time since the 19th century, the United States might have to face the prospect of a rival great power with a significant military presence in the Western hemisphere. When you remember that the Soviet attempt to place nuclear missiles in Cuba brought the two countries closer to war than at any other time during the Cold War, you get an idea of the potential for trouble here.” Should the United States and China enter conflict, and China have partners in the Western Hemisphere, the United States’ position of security would be severely compromised and weaken its position to combat China. Of course, even in times of simple competition between China and the United States would Chinese investment in Latin America present a problem, because the United States would have to shift focus from attempting to balance the power of Asia against China to also investing in competing with it in the West. This would drain resources away from the effort in containing China in Asia[9].

Observing China’s actions across the globe make it apparent that it has begun to project its power globally, and has begun to seek more international influence. Its powerful economic growth and military development signal that it seeks to dominate the East Asian region. The ramifications of China’s rise to power are serious: it is beginning to shift the balance of power away from the United States in terms of global hegemony. Thus, the world is gradually shifting into bipolarity. A hegemon in the international arena is any predominant state. Hegemony can be achieved through the growth of a state’s economy, its expansion of soft power, and the expansion of its hard (military) power[10]. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the United States has emerged as the world’s preeminent hegemon, able to exert influence and project power across the globe. The global balance of power was almost entirely shifted towards the United States.  The balance of power is a concept used to explain the relative strength of hegemons against each other. The idea behind the balance of power is that states will hesitate to start a war with an adversary whose power to fight and win wars is equal to their own. If the balance of power is equal between two competing states, the risk of defeat in a war between the two is high for both sides. When a state, or coalition of states, is more powerful than its adversaries, war is more likely, because it is easier for the more powerful side to win. Having the upper-hand in an uneven balance of power serves as an incentive for a state to attack its rival, because it knows that it will be able to win and thus exert its will upon that rival. The nature of the international ‘system’ is according to how power is balanced internationally.[11] When power is concentrated in one country, the system is referred to as ‘unipolar’. When power is distributed evenly between two states, it is considered ‘bipolar’, and when it is distributed amongst a number of states, it is considered ‘multipolar’. With the various polarities of the international system come theories regarding each, and differing opinions on what type of international system is the most stable.

Supporters of bipolarity argue that, because in a bipolar system if either side begins to gain strength or position, the consequences are immediately evident. This visibility of the shifting of power, bipolar supporters argue, makes it the most stable sort of system over the long-term. The two sides are able to, as Kenneth Waltz argues, “moderate the other’s use of violence and to absorb possibly destabilizing changes that emanate from uses of violence that they do not or cannot control.”[12] In the bipolar system, there is a clear difference in the amount of power held by each pole compared with that held by other state actors, and because of this power disparity each of the two sides is able to focus its activity exclusively on the other. Thus, each can anticipate the others actions, and try to preserve the balance of power in order to preserve itself and the system. Supporters point to the Cold War era as a vindication of the bipolar system: the United States and the Soviet Union never went to war, and the Cold War era was one of the most peaceful (in terms of war causalities and severity) in recorded history. While nuclear deterrence also played a large role in preventing a war between the two sides, the focus and attention each country gave to the other enabled them to both play off of each other in an attempt to stabilize the balance of power and prevent conflict. Because both side therefore knew that it would not be able to gain hegemonic dominance over the other, they engaged in diplomacy or diplomatic maneuvering as opposed to direct military conflict in order to subvert the other. Critics of bipolarity, however, point to the Cold War era as one of mutual suspicion and proxy conflict. The United States fought costly wars in Vietnam and Korea in order to prevent the spread of communism, and in extension the influence of the Soviet sphere. Critics also argue that, even while the bipolar world of the Cold War did not result in conflict, the chance for miscalculation and misinterpretation in any bipolar system is too great to risk: the world came incredibly close to nuclear war when it ‘stared into the abyss’ during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Thus, the world of bipolarity has both its supporters, who claim that two states attempting to maintain and even a balance of power between them will create the most stable international environment, and critics, who say that the chance for miscalculation leading to conflict between those two nations is too great of a risk[13].

The world for the past decade has been dominated by the hegemony of the United States. This sort of hegemonic domination is seen in a system of unipolarity, where one state is the preeminent power. Supporters of a unipolar system, who are referred to as hegemonic stability theorists, claim that dominance by a single hegemon leads to the most stable international system. The historian Paul Kennedy argues that it was the hegemony of Britain in the 19th century and the United States in the immediate post-World War 2 era that led to the greatest stability. Other supporters of the theory, such as Robert Keohane argue that hegemonic states are willing to pay the price of enforcing norms, unilaterally if necessary, to ensure the continuation of the system that benefits them. When the hegemon loses power and declines, they argue, the stability in the system is jeopardized. By having a single dominant power, however, the international system can be played in such a way by that hegemon that no other power could come to the same level of strength, and thus the hegemon would never be challenged. With a position of unrivaled power and influence, that country can then use its powers to influence the world according to its dictates. Theorists point to the example of the ‘benevolent hegemon’ which attempts to spread international peace, stability, and foster economic growth and human development. They argue that the United States served this role during its moment of unipolarity, by promoting human rights, fighting wars in Yugoslavia to prevent genocide, and attempting to slow the spread of nuclear weapons. Critics of unipolarity, however, argue that no country can remain a global hegemon for long without overstretching itself. The costs of intervention and attempting to influence global politics are simply too much for any country to bear. The unipolar hegemon tends to become too ‘confident’ with its capabilities in the international system, feels as though, because it is such a dominant power, it need not recruit the full assistance of allies or other nations, and thus takes unilateral action when attempting to influence politics. This helps to weaken the hegemon’s strength, because it has taken on the full burden and responsibility of its course of action. Critics also argue that, when any single power becomes preeminent in the international arena, other countries attempt to balance against it. Regional powers will become gradually more powerful and attempting to influence geopolitics and the hegemon will not be able to successfully deal with all the challenges to its lead[14]. Indeed, examples of these criticisms can be seen in the actions of the United States over the past decade: a very costly invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, that latter of which was without UN endorsement and only a small contingent of supporting nations, which helped drive the United States into a serious debt issue. Meanwhile, regional powers such as Brazil, India, and China have been growing more powerful and the United States has thus far been unable to balance the power, and check the growing hegemony, of all three.

As evidenced by China’s growth in international influence and power, the United States seems to be leaving its ‘unipolar moment’. China’s foray into Africa shows that it now holds the capabilities to be a power capable of global projection, able to influence the geopolitics of another continent. Globally, as Stephen Walt argues, American influence is beginning to wane. Internationally unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have decreased American soft power[15]. Although the American economy remains the most powerful in the world, its weakened state has brought about a decline in economic clout as well as doubts about the true capabilities and security of the nature of the American capitalist system. The issue with the budget, as well as domestic deadlock, has alienated some who viewed the American model of governance to be emulated, thereby further decreasing the influence of the United States. The budget issue has also brought about talks and action on cutting defense spending, thereby decreasing American power projection and hard power. The United States thus is losing power and influence in a time when other nations, especially China, are gaining both. The prospects for the continuation of American unipolar hegemony seem grim, as the world is moving towards an ‘American-Pacific’ century.  While the United States is in no way going to be overtaken militarily or even economically in the short run, its sole domination of the world stage is going to change into sharing that stage with other actors. Thus, American strategists need to develop a strategy for dealing with this new bipolarity[16].

As mentioned earlier, a primary focus during times of bipolarity is on the balance of power. By keeping the balance of power between two powers equal, neither power can gain more hegemony than the other, and thus neither can afford to enter conflict with the other. Therefore, the international system becomes stable. In order to balance power with a rival, a nation must seek to increase its relative strength with that rival so that the other country cannot find more benefit than costs when determining whether to go to war. In response, the other country will attempt to increase its relative strength, so that the power ratios between the two nations balance. Of course, relative strength does not necessarily mean just military hard-power. An important part of the balance of power is the formation of alliances and coalitions to serve as a larger-front in a global balance of power. Each side will attempt to find strategic allies whose combined power will match, or surpass, that of their rival. Furthermore, each side will attempt to find allies in strategic locations, such as in regions where oil or other resources for building the economy and military are ample or chokeholds of trade and commerce. By doing so, they can gain the benefits of securing those resources or vital points, gaining more leverage over their opponent, and therefore deterring their opponent from taking military action. Importantly, each side will attempt to find allies within the regions of their opponent. By doing so, they will present a more direct and local geopolitical threat to their opponent, as opposed to a more distant overseas one. This will decrease the security of their opponent, thereby forcing it focus more locally on the direct threat as opposed to overseas towards the power it’s balancing against. This would limit the ability to globally reach and influence overseas geopolitics for the opponent, because they are focused on their own regional geopolitics, and thus decrease the risk that the opponent would engage in conflict. Having allies close to the opponent would also serve as a great deterrence: it is easy to make threats and act coercively when a potential invasion or military threat would be coming from overseas, but it is much more disconcerting when that threat of invasion is from your own backyard.

This sort of alliance building and attempting to balance power was seen clearly during the Cold War era. The United States led an alliance called NATO, which sought to balance power against the Soviet Union-led bloc of nations called the Warsaw Pact. Each country sought allies in strategic locations: the United States formed close ties with Western Europe, which bordered the Soviet Union, as well as with South Korea, Japan, Australia, Turkey, Iran, and Israel. These countries, essentially forming an alliance system that surrounded the Soviet Union, were used in an attempt to contain the growth of the Soviet sphere of influence and present a bloc of nations whose collective power would outmatch that of the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union found allies in Eastern Europe, as well as an important ally in Cuba. By having Cuba within its sphere, the Soviet Union presented a direct threat to the United States in its own ‘backyard’. It was because of these systems of alliances and power balancing that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union calculated that war was a winnable option, and thus neither side determined that war was an appropriate course to take. Because both sides also had allies on each other’s ‘doorsteps’, thereby presenting a more direct security challenge, they both tread more lightly and with a lighter hand when dealing with each other.

This reliance upon utilizing a bloc of allies to facilitate the balancing of power is also referred to as ‘offshore balancing’[17]. This sort of strategy does not require any direct involvement of hard power in the region that a country is interested in: rather, that country employs the use of regional allies to achieve the goal. The reason that these allies would accept such a role is that the goals of both the regional allies and the central power mirror each other. For example, in the case with China and the United States, the United States wants to constrain the growth of China so that it can balance its power. The United States’ allies in the Asia-Pacific region, such as India, Japan, South Korea, and Australia, fear the rise of China because it presents a local, direct threat to their own growing power. Therefore, the United States employs the help of these allies to contain and counter China without having to necessarily send a large force to the Pacific to counter China itself, because the end state meets both the United States and its ally’s goals.

The United States’ focus has thus begun to shift towards China. The United States has already, according to Stephen Walt, moved the bulk of its naval deployments to the Asia-Pacific and Indian Oceans. Recent developments include President Obama declaring that 2,500 Marines would be sent to a new base in Australia, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton going on a diplomatic visit to Myanmar, a move that analysts say clearly intends to encourage the regime there to continue its efforts to reform and wean the government from Chinese influence[18]. These moves signal that the United States is beginning to up its commitment and spread its influence in the region. While 2,500 Marines won’t shift the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region, it indicates that the United States intends to remain a player in the geopolitics of the area, and thus reassure regional allies. The deployment of the bulk of the American fleet sends a strong message to China, which is a growing naval power, that the United States will attempt to counter any belligerent or coercive action from the Chinese navy.  The South China Sea, whose territories are claimed and disputed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines, is a focal point for growing Chinese power in the region. The Sea is the gateway to the Indian Ocean, linking the oil fields of the Middle East with the factories of East Asia. Over 80 percent of China’s oil imports flow through the Strait of Malacca at the South China Sea’s southern end. There is much speculation that large quantities of oil and other untapped resources are available in the South China Sea. The Chinese have thus increased their claims to the region, with a hope to dominate it akin to American dominance in the Caribbean in the early 20th century[19]. If they manage to do so, their hegemony and clout in the Pacific region would be much more secure, because they would control a pivotal trade lane of the Pacific. With this in their control, and the ability to thus cut trade across the entire region, other regional powers would not attempt to threaten China’s hegemony, for they would fear the economic ramifications of this cut in trade. The presence of the American navy will thus buoy its allies by reassuring them that Chinese naval strength will be countered and balanced, and thus Chinese claims to the South China Sea cannot be realized. By engaging Myanmar, if ties are strengthened with the United States it can be used as another ‘buffer’ nation around China in an attempt to contain its growth. The United States has meanwhile been strengthening its ties with other regional allies in order to contain China and constrain its growth. The United States enjoys a strong diplomatic, economic, and military alliance with Japan, South Korea, and Australia. These three nations, whose are all growing regional powers with significant hegemony, all feel threatened by the growth of China and its desire to dominate the Asia-Pacific. The United States has moved to engage the region’s multilateral institutions, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, in order to increase its participation and thus influence in the area[20].  Meanwhile, the United States has been attempting to strengthen economic ties with Asian nations. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it, “Our emphasis on the economic work of APEC is in keeping with our broader commitment to elevate economic statecraft as a pillar of American foreign policy. Increasingly, economic progress depends on strong diplomatic ties, and diplomatic progress depends on strong economic ties.”[21] As seen in Africa with China’s growing economic ties, the United States will do well to increase its influence by continuing to play an important role in the economies of the Asian nations.

Of course, the assumption that balancing power with and offshore balancing against an opponent is the best course of action comes largely from the Realist camp of theorists. A major proponent of offshore balancing, Stephen Walt, classifies himself as a Realist, as do other prominent theorists such as John Mearsheimer, Barry Posen, and Robert Pape[22]. Of course, the tenets of offshore balancing fit into that of the Realist perspective regardless of who supports it. Realists view the world as a struggle for power between competing states. The central focus of any state is to increase its power relative to each other, because doing so maximizes its security. The focus on security is of utmost important: the primary focus of each country is its sovereignty, or ability to be the sole actor who can make decisions regarding what happens within its borders. Since the treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the concept of National Sovereignty has been one of the most dominant in the international system: it assumes that each nation is an equal, that each state has the right to self determination, and that no state can intervene on the affairs of another state. Thus, in order to protect its sovereignty, each state will attempt to increase its power because the only way for another state to influence the politics of that state would to be through military action. The fear of military action is the driving force behind the attempt to balance power. Realists do not believe that any other part of the international arena is important when it comes to determining how states act: the simple reality is that each state seeks the maximization of its power[23].

China’s actions do play into the Realist school of thought: they have, in the pursuit of increased hegemony, increased their military strength relative to their neighbors. Meanwhile, they are increasing the boldness of their claims, and have been flexing their military muscle in the South China Sea. These actions are in an attempt to display their growing power to their neighbors, therefore displaying that they pose a potential threat to their sovereignty, and thus gaining leverage over them. This pursuit of power is something that is prescribed by Realists. The United States’ reaction also largely falls into Realist lines. Offshore balancing and the balancing of power are all actions taken to limit the relative strength of China. Again, this focus on power falls into the Realist view on what states focus on. Yet other actions taken by the United States to engage China have fallen more into the camp which Liberal theorists would argue are more effective. While realists feel that hard-power is of sole importance in international relations, liberals believe that economics also play a major role in influencing the international arena, and American economic engagement in Asia plays into this idea[24]. The economic ties between the United States and China remain incredibly strong, and this economic deterrent could serve as powerful a force as the balance-of-power and nuclear deterrent. China’s government draws much of its current popularity and legitimacy from its booming economy, and much of Chinas growth in the international environment can be accounted for this economic growth.  Stopping trade between the United States and China would thus have serious ramifications from domestic Chinese politics and international development, and any conflict between the United States and China would cause such a drop-off in trade and commerce. Meanwhile, the United States continues to build economic ties with its allies across the Asia Pacific, and have engaged economic institutions in order to strengthen its clout and influence. Engaging multilateral institutions, such as the APEC forum and ASEAN, also play into the theories of the Liberals. They believe that institutions are a better forum for international cooperation and discourse, and can create a more stable world than bilateral power-struggles[25].

The rise of China and the United States attempts to counter it thus play into a number of theories and ideas. The United States has begun to seek to strengthen its alliance system to counter and contain China via offshore balancing, while China itself has begun to expand its reach across the globe and build up its hard power. The world is gradually entering a bipolar world, with the United States and its coalition of Asia-Pacific region allies squaring off against a China which seeks to dominate the region. The coming century, political analysts now declare, will be an “American Pacific” century.

Works Cited

[1] Walt, Stephen. “The End of the American Era”. era-6037. October 25th, 2011. Retrieved November 5th, 2011

[2] Walt, Stephen. “The End of the American Era”. October 25th, 2011. Retrieved November 5th, 2011

[3]  “Out of Africa”. China Daily. Retrieved November 7th, 2011

[4] “Russian, Chinese weapons compete in Africa”. Retrieved November 7th, 2011

[5] Thompson, Drew. “China’s soft power in Africa: From the “Beijing Consensus” to health diplomacy”. Retrieved November 11th, 2011

[6] “Confucius Institute Bridges Friendship between China and Africa”. Retrieved November 11th, 2011

[7] The Chinese in Africa: Trying to pull together”. The Economist. Retrieved November 14th, 2011

[8] “US-China Relations in a Global Context: Latin America and the Caribbean”. George Washington University. Retrieved November 15th, 2011

[9] Walt, Stephen. “The End of the American Era”. October 25th, 2011. Retrieved November 5th, 2011

[10] Wingst, Karen A, Ivan Arreguin-Toft, “Essentials of International Relations”, W W Norton & Co Inc. 2010. Page 33.

[11] “The International System”. W W Nortion & Co. Retrieved November 20th, 2011

[12] Waltz, Kenneth, “The Stability of a Bipolar World”. Jstor. Retrieved November 20th, 2011

[13] “The International System”. W W Nortion & Co. Retrieved November 20th, 2011

[14] “The International System”. W W Nortion & Co. Retrieved November 20th, 2011

[15] Walt, Stephen. “The End of the American Era”. era-6037. October 25th, 2011. Retrieved November 5th, 2011

[16] Kaplan, Robert D. & Stephen S. “America Primed”. The National Interest. Retrieved November 25th, 2011

[17] Layne, Christoper. “From Preponderance to Offshore Balancing: America’s Future Grand Strategy”. International Security. Vol 22, No 1. Page 88.

[18] Walt, Stephen. “The End of the American Era”. October 25th, 2011. Retrieved November 5th, 2011

[19] Kaplan, Robert D. & Stephen S. “America Primed”. The National Interest. Retrieved November 25th, 2011

[20], 21 Clinton, Hillary. “Americas Pacific Century”. Foreign Policy. Retrieved November 29th, 2011

[22] Walt, Stephen. “A Bandwagon for Offshore Balancing?” Foreign Policy.December 1, 2011. Retrieved December 2, 2011.

[23] Rose, Gideon. “Neoclassical Realism and Theories of Foreign Policy. Cambridge University Press. Retrieved December 1st, 2011

[24] Moravcsik, Andrew. “Liberalism and International Relations Theory”.        Harvard University. Retrieved December 2nd, 2011

[25] Moravcsik, Andrew. “Liberalism and International Relations Theory”.        Harvard University. Retrieved