Emerging U.S. strategy builds a geopolitical economy along Chinas periphery

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By Brian M Downing

One can scarcely read anything on world affairs these days without seeing discussion of the decline of the U.S. and the rise of China. In recent weeks, however, President Obama spoke plainly, bluntly, and even disparagingly to China.

At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Obama chided China, urging it to put aside its stance of being a developing country too frail to heed prevailing norms on open markets and floating currencies and to act like a “grown-up economy.”  He later cautioned China on its claims to sovereignty in oil-rich parts of the South China Sea and announced the stationing of a marine brigade in Australia.

The president’s words and actions augur a new geopolitical arrangement in the U.S. and East Asia that recognizes limits on U.S. military might and opens Asian markets to U.S. exports.  China is playing a leading role in coalescing this new order.

Rapid economic growth can be a heady situation given to incautious assertiveness.  The Chinese state, or at least the military and lingering revolutionary parts of it, wish to assert Chinese mastery along its periphery.  As advocates would put it, China must reestablish the regional greatness and unquestioned hegemony that prevailed for millennia save for the  transient experience of the last two centuries of European and American dominance.

China views itself as having been the victim of colonial exploitation and military invasion.  Restoring regional hegemony will prevent any such recurrence, unlikely though it is, and add to China’s prestige at home and abroad.  No world power past or present can look into its history and fail to see similarly heady claims and actions from its statesmen.  But China’s neighbors – S. Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and India – see China as an emerging danger and note a long list of troubling actions.

  • China has not done all it can to bring responsible government to N. Korea.  It dislikes the volatile generals in Pyongyang but nonetheless recognizes their usefulness in tying down the armed forces of S. Korea and some from Japan and the U.S. as well.
  • Disputes over fishing rights and oil deposits have led to menacing acts by Chinese trawlers against Japanese ships and shows of force by the Chinese navy off the shores of the Philippines and Vietnam.
  • Reports persist of Chinese troops encamped along the Pakistani-Indian border.
  • China’s military-oriented industry is developing or deploying ship-killing missiles (cruise and ballistic), aircraft carriers, anti-satellite missiles, and stealth fighters.  There is no outgoing general or president likely to warn of where this may be leading.

Regional concerns and geopolitical economy

A Chinese admiral recently raised eyebrows by remarking to a U.S. counterpart that it would be best if the U.S. navy pulled back to Midway Island, well to the east, and left the waters of East and Southeast Asia in the capacious hands of the Chinese navy.  It puzzled the U.S. admiral and alarmed his peers along China’s periphery.

Many neighbors see China as thinking in 19th-century ways, not in the less aggressive ways that have been coming into place since the end of WWII, if only slowly and incompletely.  S. Korean defenses continue to look north across the DMZ, but Japan has reoriented its defense posture away from a Soviet threat and redirected it to a Chinese one.

Gravely concerned over the Chinese presence in Burma, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, India is boosting defense spending.  It is building aircraft carriers, building its own fighter aircraft, and deploying mountain troops and theater missiles to the long border with China.

The U.S. role in this regional response cannot be called behind the scenes but neither is it as prominent and forceful as it would have once been.  The U.S. is coordinating cooperation among regional powers, perhaps most notably impending maneuvers by Indian and Vietnamese navies, and by Indian and Japanese forces as well.

This is part of a new American geopolitics that is based on budgetary restraints at home and on increased economic and military powers of the region, which are far more capable of self-defense than they were only a decade or two ago.  It is of a piece with U.S. coordinating efforts with Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo against various militant groups in Central Africa.  Similar U.S. efforts are underway in Central Asia to limit Chinese influence there and in the Gulf against Iran.  This lessens U.S. commitment at a critical juncture and even forms a more convincing deterrence.

Perhaps most pointedly, the U.S. is opening up to Myanmar/Burma.  Secretary of State Clinton visited Rangoon last month in an effort to move the country away from military rule supported by China to a more open government supported by regional powers.  China, which has a naval base and oil assets there, cannot be pleased.

Part and parcel of the emerging U.S. strategy is a “geopolitical economy” – a commingling of military strategy and economic policy.  Allies are purchasing American military equipment, which still enjoys an edge over Chinese materiel.   Further, the U.S. is pressing allies, with some success, to open their markets to U.S. goods.  Both will add jobs to the languishing U.S. economy and ease its balance of payment woes.

Aggressive responses along its periphery will only strengthen the resolve of neighboring states to cooperate against China.  It will take many years for softer approaches from Beijing to be interpreted as anything but ploys.

Economic responses abound but carry risks.  China could indeed reduce trade with the periphery, but that would likely harm  manufacturing centers along its coast and elicit  large-scale unrest.  China could brandish its bond holdings in the U.S., which are thought to be over a trillion dollars.  That could lead to more damaging retaliation in the form of imposing barriers to Chinese goods in U.S. markets and shifting U.S. manufacturing from China to Vietnam, Malaysia, and India.

China has responded already with the announcement of renewed military support for N. Korea.  Other responses are surely coming.  China will almost certainly try furiously to keep its influence in Burma.  It is a key part of China’s strategy of surrounding India and extending its naval reach toward the Persian Gulf.  This may come only through allying with the  harsher and less flexible members of the Burmese army – a move that will strengthen the solidifying image of China as resolute friend of dictatorships, indifferent to human rights matters.

Pakistan is today contested by Washington and Beijing, with the former becoming increasingly disillusioned with its putative ally in South Asia.  But China, too, is becoming disillusioned with Pakistan.  It is untrustworthy, unstable, and probably on its way to becoming an international pariah for its support of various terrorist groups.

The most important response will remain opaque to most of the world as the Chinese leadership wrestles with the internal debate that caused so much international concern.

The Chinese state is divided between an old elite based on heroic military-revolutionary myths and a new elite based on uninspiring business and economic models.

Recent moves on the world stage have gone beyond the acquisition of commodities and markets and into the quest for honor and glory.  Whether this is a short-lived debate or the reassertion of irresistible forces concerned with the bourgeoisification of the nation, is uncertain.

Business-oriented parts of China’s leadership will attempt to convince the guardians of national prestige that today there are few areas around the world to establish hegemony over and most weak countries are skillfully forging protective alliances.  The quest for power prestige is best left to a navalist and imperialist past that ultimately led to destructive wars and weakened economies.

Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at

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