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 Basically, the American presence will need to be withdrawn away from China’s vicinity, at least beyond the First Island Chain.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.