US Response to Relative Decline

A handout picture released by the US Nav

As of writing, US power is increasing relative to its rivals. However, it is quite likely that American primacy will give way to a multipolar world in a few decades. What should US grand-strategy be when it goes into relative decline? How should the United States respond as China begins to approach the US in military power?

The status quo features a US military presence on the Korean peninsula, and all over insular Indo-Pacific: Taiwan, Japan, Guam, the Philippines, Marshall Islands, Australia, Singapore, and Diego Garcia. As the US goes into relative decline, its ability to successfully deter China in its immediate vicinity (Korea, Taiwan, coastal China) will decline faster than further away from the center of Chinese power (Singapore, Australia, Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean, Atlantic, and the Pacific). This is because China will only close in on the US if it masters advanced weapons systems built around precision guided munitions. US aircraft carriers in China’s vicinity will be exposed to hypersonic cruise missiles launched from Chinese territory where the Chinese control the airspace, and against which US’ theatre missile defences will be ineffective at best. Indeed, all major US military assets in this region will be exposed to Chinese firepower. Basically, the American presence will need to be withdrawn away from China’s vicinity, at least beyond the First Island Chain. This is part of the reason the US is planning to expand the military base at Darwin, Australia.

The American presence on the Korean peninsula will be negotiated when the North Korean  regime collapses and the country is reunited. China is likely to push for closer ties with a unified Korea, and a political resolution of the crisis whereby the US withdraws from the peninsula and China respects the independence and autonomy of Korea. If the North Korean regime collapses soon, the US might be able to keep Korea in its sphere of influence and maintain its military presence. If it collapses when China is strong, a US insistence of the military status quo on the Korean peninsula is likely to lead to a repeat of the Korean War. In either case, the coming conflict over the Korean question is likely to jumpstart a cold war in earnest. The question is not whether but how long is extended deterrence possible on the Korean peninsula?

Similarly, US presence in Taiwan is awfully close to the Chinese mainland. Taiwan will at some point become indefensible. China is likely to seek peaceful reunification, perhaps letting the island survive as an autonomous political entity, as along as US forces leave the island. This transfer of suzerainty is likely to occur after Taiwan begins to fear that the US would be unwilling and/or unable to protect it from China. A peaceful unification with the mainland – that allows Taiwan to maintain much of its autonomy – will begin to seem much more attractive than continued defiance of China with the attendant risk of becoming the site of an Air-Sea battle between the colossi. The US is unlikely to oppose a peaceful resolution. On the other hand, as long as US forces based on the island can deter a Chinese invasion, the US will not allow a forcible reunification.

When Great Britain went into relative decline from 1895, she responded by concentrating her attention to the biggest threat to her survival – Germany. She resolved all her outstanding issues with other great powers. She signed a strategic alliance with France, sought the friendship of the United States, and even started a diplomatic charm offensive aimed at Czarist Russia. She let France take over the protection of the Western Mediterranean, conceded the Western Hemisphere to the United States, and accommodated a rising Japan in Northeast Asia. This strategy brought Great Britain’s commitments in line with her capabilities, and maximized her alliance partners. With the First World War looming over the horizon, she had secured the neutrality or strategic partnership of all other great powers. It is hard to think of a better response to relative decline.

When the US goes into relative decline and a multipolar world emerges, it ought to do the same: bring its commitments in line with capabilities, secure the alliance or neutrality of the other great powers, extricate itself from regions of secondary importance, and concentrate its attention on the biggest challenge to US’ power position. Indeed, the United States will encourage its great power allies – Japan, India, EU, (if either emerges as a great power) and perhaps even Russia – to militarize as it moves to focus on the greatest challenge to US primacy. The US will cede some of the responsibility of protecting the Western Pacific to Japan, share the cost of protecting the Atlantic and the Mediterranean with the EU, while India shares in the responsibility of securing the Indian Ocean.

Japan will emerge as a great power alongside China. Even today, Japan is economically and industrially powerful enough to balance China. As Chinese power grows, Japan will militarize further to deter Chinese aggression. It has already increased its military budget to a quarter of a trillion dollars a year. If tensions continue to grow, it is likely to obtain a nuclear deterrent. In any event, Japan will emerge as a pole in the Asian balance of power. As the great power closest to the rising colossus, it has more reasons to worry about China’s rise than any other great power. The US needs to do nothing special; Japan is guaranteed to be an ally.

The most interesting questions for the global balance of power have to do with the emergence of great powers outside Northeast Asia. Will the EU emerge as a great power with an independent military capability? Will India emerge as a great power? Will Russia ally again with the United States or will it bandwagon with China? If all latent great powers – China, Japan, India, Russia, and the EU – emerge as great powers, we will have a system of six powers. The polarity of the system in the lead up to the First World War was also six: Germany, Britain, France, Russia, Japan, and the US. That does not bode well for world peace.

In the case of India, the question is whether or not it will emerge on the world scene. It is likely to count in the global balance of power unless it flounders and enters a long period of stagnation – a scenario that cannot be ruled out. If it does emerge, there is no doubt that it will be a US ally and a possible confrontation state in the US-led cold war against China. As China’s neighbour, India has ample reason to fear Chinese hegemony. The site of geopolitical competition will be Northeast India and Burma, just as it was during the Second World War between British power based in India and the empire of the rising sun. India is a natural ally of the offshore balancer.  The United States should provide India access to advanced weapons systems in order to help modernize its military.

The Russian question also depends on whether Russian power waxes or wanes. If Russia is much too weak to balance China, it will likely bandwagon, since even the US will not be able to be of much help in Central Asia and Siberia. Russia is likely to stay neutral/tilt towards China in order to avoid the risk of becoming the principal victim of Chinese aggression if a hegemonic war breaks out. Unlike the Soviet Union facing the Wehrmacht, Russia will not fear outright conquest by its more powerful neighbour due to the presence of nuclear weapons. If Russia is weak it will prefer to cede Central Asia to Chinese hegemony, and accept Chinese influence in Siberia. In the unlikely event that Russia remains strong relative to China, it may ally with the United States and balance China in a bid to maintain its influence in these regions. Even if China becomes the strongest power in the system, it will find it extremely hard to fight all its powerful neighbours – Japan, Russia, and India – along with the US. Russia can thus be induced to ally with the US by the promise of being on the winning side. The US should seek to accommodate Russian interests and try to recruit it for the fight ahead.

The most important question for the global balance of power is whether the EU emerges as an autonomous great power for if the EU were to become a unitary security actor, it would automatically be a superpower. Indeed, it would potentially be the strongest power in the system. The usual baseline assumption that the Atlantic alliance would survive the withdrawal of American presence from Europe is not obvious to the present author. That is, it is unclear whether it is in the EU’s interest to join a US-led alliance and contain China. This is especially true in the first round of conflict over the regional balance in Northeast Asia, since China’s emergence as the dominant power in the region does not threaten the EU. Unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War, China is simply too far away. It makes more sense for the EU to remain neutral in the event of a localized Air-Sea conflict in the East China Sea or a Second Korean War. The EU ought to sit out the first round between China and the US, as it likely will. Wars between great powers are extremely costly. Great powers only fight each other out of fear.

During the Second World War, the United States basically sat out the first few rounds. It remained neutral through the Phoney War, Fall of France in June 1940, and German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Even after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, the US concentrated on the Pacific campaign against Japan (although it financed and supplied munitions and war materials to the Allies actually fighting the Germans after March 1941). It was only in September 1943, that American soldiers set foot in Europe during the Allied invasion of Italy. And it was not until June 6, 1944 – nearly 5 years after the declaration of war by Germany, France, and Great Britain – that American soldiers went into combat against a Germany already greatly weakened by the Soviet Union. In part, this was intra-war deterrence – before the exhaustion of the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front, it would’ve been impossible to carry out a sea borne invasion of Western Europe. Then again, the US decision to land forces in Normandy was motivated as much by the desire to contain the Soviet menace to Europe, as defeating the Third Reich. In any case, by staying out of the main fight for so long, the United States emerged from the Second World War as the dominant military power.

The EU can likewise be expected to drag its feet in the event of a major military confrontation between China and the US. It could hope to emerge as the strongest power in the international system if a war of attrition exhausts both the antagonists. The EU is uniquely well-placed to takeover the governance of the international order due to its centrality to the world economy and highly advantageous geopolitical position. The US should of course try to keep the Atlantic alliance in place. This is the raison d’être behind the push for the US-EU free trade agreement by the Obama administration.

It is unlikely that the EU would ally with China, although it is not out of the realm of possibility. However, if the EU maintains neutrality in a major war between the US and China,  and China prevails, it would have to accept Chinese hegemony in Asia, and acquiesce to kicking out the US from Eurasia. Geopolitically, this outcome would be similar to what would’ve obtained had Germany and Japan prevailed in the Second World War. That is, Haushofer’s world: US safe in the Western Hemisphere, Germany (EU) preponderant over Euro-Africa, Japan (China) preponderant in the Indo-Pacific, with Russia serving as a buffer between the German and Japanese empires.


In terms of the distribution of power potential alone, the world is tripolar. If China prevails in the next hegemonic war, this deep structure is likely to come to the fore. Again, we are very far from that scenario. The United States is likely to consolidate its primacy for some time to come. Even when the world becomes multipolar, US hegemony will continue due to its command of the global commons. It is only when the US relinquishes control of the Strait of Malacca that the American century will come to a close. This will perhaps not happen in my lifetime. There is still a lot of steam left in this engine.

9 thoughts on “US Response to Relative Decline

  1. Excellent blog you have here bbut I was wondering if you knew of any discussion boards that cover the same topics discussed in this article?
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    interest. If you have any recommendations, please let me know.
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  2. “Haushofer’s World”, indeed, would be delightful to Chinese. Do you think that the mischief in Ukrain has changed the balance of powers toward it?

    If China could secure raw materials, including oil and gas, via Russia/Central Asia/Pakistan-Gulf, via land routes, do you think that the importance of Malacca Strait would be reduced?

      1. Do you think that the war in Ukraine, and China’s land based western strategy, will delay showdown between China and U.S.?

  3. China would like to delay a militarized confrontation until it has grown more powerful than the United States. It could, however, be surprised by political developments in Taiwan, the Korean peninsula, or the maritime zone. But in terms of timing, the advantage is with China since it can precipitate crises at its discretion, as well as choose to escalate or defuse a crisis not of its own making.

    The confrontation with the West in Ukraine has pushed Russia prematurely into Chinese arms. Security cooperation with Russia significantly enhances China’s security. Most importantly, it frees up Chinese power resources for deployment in the maritime zone. It also makes Chinese access to Caspian energy easier to secure. Instead of delaying a showdown, the impact of the conflict in Ukraine is thus to bring the day of reckoning closer.

    That being said, we are still at least a decade away from the end of the unipolar world.

    1. Your statement that “the impact of the conflict in Ukraine is thus to bring the day of reckoning closer”, though counter intuitive, is very interesting indeed.

      On top of Russia’s cooperation with China, it seems that China and India may finally settle their boarder very soon. In fact, the earliest date could be within this month, at the SCO meeting in Russia. Settlement of the boarder between China and India will clear way for full membership of India and Pakistan into SCO, which both have applied for.

      Although SCO is only loosely allied, and claims to be anti-terrorist only. It is one of a few, if not the only one, security alliance that excludes U.S. Correct me if I am wrong, if full membership of India and Pakistan into SCO implies that both are band waging with China, is the day of reckoning even closer now?

  4. David, both Pakistan and even more so India, have no interest in Central Asian security. Neither is useful or interested in joining the SCO, which is effectively a forum for Russo-Chinese cooperation in Central Asia. Pakistan is more likely than India to be interested at all in the forum; if only to curry favour with China.

    India is the real wild card here. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that India could come to an understanding with China. But the baseline scenario for India’s orientation is still a ’tilt’ toward the United States. India fears China much more than the US, although it does fear being smothered by either colossi. India’s alliance strategy is to maximize its freedom of action. It is hard to see Chinese strategists relying on Indian assurances of neutrality in the event of a major Sino-American confrontation. Same goes for India. They simply can’t trust the Chinese. If the Chinese kick the Americans out of Asia, India will be left to deal with a vastly stronger state on its own.

    The Goldman Sachs nightmare scenario, that is, an all-out revisionist coalition of China, India, and Russia (GS threw in Brazil for good measure), is therefore unlikely but cannot be ruled out. It is a major objective of US foreign policy to prevent this nightmare scenario from obtaining; or at least it ought to be.

    I wouldn’t put too much stock by such small-bore diplomacy for three reasons. One, as of writing, China is very far from mounting a serious challenge to US primacy. Two, if and when China closes in, it the balance of power between the polar states (US and China) that will be decisive. Russia, India, and Japan matter in the global balance for cartographic reasons but not all that much. Three, diplomatic agreements can be, and are often, scuttled when the chips are down. Everyone is on their own and they do what they can to find security in a dangerous world.

    Although I talk often about system time, I don’t mean to imply that the two colossi will go to war when China overtakes the United States. Human history is not deterministic. There are always alternatives.

    1. Thank you for your candid and well-thought comment. Most of all, thank you for your time.

      I do understand that
      1) India has next to zero interest in central Asia.
      2) India is naturally inclined to be neutral between U.S. and China.
      3) India ’tilts’ toward the United States, which has been evident in arm sales.
      4) India fears China much more than the US.

      However, this is exactly why I cannot understand why India and China are about to settle boarders, let alone India’s recent application for full membership of SCO. Without mutual trust, I cannot possibly understand why China would back India’s accession into SCO either.

      In essence, recalling your article criticizing American policy thinker and makers’ negligence on the Iraq War, I wonder if there are any other factors that elude mainstream discourse in the West?

      If I were to make an immature claim, I would assert that the following factors drive India and China’s cooperation.

      Roughly speaking,
      1) Apart from China, U.S. or any other country cannot outsource enough jobs, especially manufacturing jobs, to India, which Modi has been keen to industrialize. U.S., particularly, seeks to re-industrialize itself, reclaiming jobs from offshore to onshore. In contrast, China has already been a net capital exporter for years, transferring low-end jobs to SE Asia as well as South Asia. Her outbound FDI exceeded inbound FDI in 2014. India’s pivot to China may induce FDI and growth similar to what happened to China after China pivoted to U.S. in 1970s. On one hand, such effect may be smaller because Chinese are poorer. On the other hand, such effect may be significant simply because there are so many Chinese. Two socks per person imply 2.6 billion socks.

      2) As you’ve mentioned, China relies on railways and pipelines via central Asia and Pakistan-Iran to secure mineral and hydrocarbon supplies. Both corridors are subjected to Salafist insurgencies that cannot be pacified without a peaceful Pakistan and a peaceful Afghanistan. A strong Iran to ward-off Saudi influence will be even better. And Pakistan cannot be rescued from becoming a failing state without normalizing its relation with India. By including both India and Pakistan into SCO, China and Russia effectively guarantees security for Pakistan, freeing the latter to focus on effective governance and economic growth, which ultimately benefit China.

      3) Judging from the sheer size of China’s manufacture base (1.45x of U.S. with current exchange rate, ~2.00x of U.S. with PPP), limited resources worldwide, and India’s inability to develop itself under favorable diplomatic environment in the last 60 years, Chinese leadership may be convinced that India will never become a peer competitor of China, unlike how China catches up with U.S. Meanwhile, China will always be on better term with Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, and someday Myanmar (not now), to balance against India, just like what U.S. did to Japan and its other allies in east Asia. An India swinging from neutral to pro-China is infinitely better for China than an India swinging from neutral to pro-U.S.

      To summarize, I assert that, a China-India quasi-alliance against U.S. hegemony, which looks striking similar to U.S.-China quasi-alliance against SU in 1970s, is looming on the horizon. And so far we might have been blinded by our ideological bigotry, and our limited grasp of economic reality that has been shifting under our feet.

      1. You may be right about an Indo-Chinese alliance emerging. As I said before, that is certainly not out of the realm of possibility. My position is that it is not the baseline scenario at the moment because China is still very far away from mounting a credible challenge to the US. There are also some flaws in your reasoning.

        1) Of the largest 1,318 global firms that account for 80% of global corporate revenue, half are American, most of the rest are European or Japanese, alongside a few Taiwanese, S. Korean, Chinese (in that order), et cetera. The Chinese government has little control over the allocation of processes in global supply chains. The US government potentially could exercise some regulation, but it won’t. For India to grow its share of global manufacturing (either with domestic champions or subsidiaries of foreign firms), it would have to become a competitive place to manufacture. That cannot happen without radical reform of government and infrastructure, and an outright collapse in unit labor costs. This is a multi-decade project that, if successful, could dramatically swell India’s share of global income and India’s war potential. China cannot help India industrialize. Rather, it a natural competitor in the geoeconomics of global production since they share the same vertical space in the global value chain.

        2) Your plan can’t work because it would be opposed by Beijing, Islamabad, and New Delhi! If Pakistan comes under Chinese protection it would push India into American arms. Moreover, Pakistan is unlikely to find Chinese guarantees enough. And the ISI would certainly not let the Chinese dictate Pakistani policy. In any event, China cannot protect Pakistan against the US without kicking the US out of the Indian Ocean. China will therefore be a highly reluctant protector of Pakistan even if it could be persuaded to extend such guarantees in a bipolar future.

        3) I agree that China would prefer that India bandwagon with it. At the minimum, it would like India neutral. What is not clear is whether India is interested in such a high-risk alliance. For at least as long as the US is preponderant, India is unlikely to form a hostile alliance with the weaker party in a bipolar world; as indeed it shouldn’t.

        The most important thing I would like to impress upon you David, is that ONLY the strongest states matter in the global balance of power. It is not at all clear that India would count at all whatsoever. Indeed, even China’s rise is far from certain. After having grown rapidly, nations some times fall by the way side. All it takes is a lost decade. The single most important question facing the world is how many polar states will there be in 2030? In 2040? In 2050? [A polar state is a state that is at least half as strong as the strongest state in the system.] The answer is obvious: China will likely join the US at the top ranks; India won’t; Russia won’t; Japan won’t; while there is a small probability that the EU may emerge as a unitary security actor, in which case it automatically would.

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