The US is at a strategic crossroads in the Asia Pacific. Rising Chinese military spending, coupled with a declining US defense budget, has begun to shift the balance of power. Faced with this changing strategic landscape, US allies are being forced to choose between two poor options: (1) switching sides and bandwagoning with China, or (2) internal balancing – that is, increasing their own military power to prevent Chinese hegemony while hedging against US decline. Neither option is in the interest of the US, as both would lead to increased regional uncertainty. The US must provide a credible alternative to these two options that reduces regional uncertainty.
It is time for the US to externally balance and build a coalition against China.
Since the late 1990s, China has undertaken a massive effort to modernize its armed forces with little transparency. For over a decade, it has maintained an 11% year-over-year increase in defense spending. This investment has transformed the People’s Liberation Army into a modern military with a limited, but growing, number of platforms capable of projecting power beyond its shores. China’s ramp-up has occurred at a time of fiscal constraint for the US. After the global recession, the US mandated about $1 trillion in defense budget cuts over the next decade under the Budget Control Act, also known as “sequestration”. The US’s two expensive wars in the Middle East have compounded this issue. As a result, the US military today is stretched thin, even as the number of threats increases. Although the US’s $496 billion defense budget dwarfs China’s $132 billion budget, there has been a shift in the balance of military power. For example, China is close to outstripping US naval power in the region. The US fleet contains 284 ships. But, because it is deployed globally, only about half of the fleet is in the Pacific. In comparison, China has about 356 ships, of which 140 are major combatants. Thus, while Chinese spending amounts to about a quarter of the US budget, it faces a US fleet that is similar in size and relatively declining in capability. The US still maintains a distinct qualitative advantage in naval power, but Chinese advancements in asymmetric capabilities are eroding the US navy’s qualitative edge in this domain as well.
The net effect of rising Chinese and declining US defense expenditures has been growing regional uncertainty. The cause of this uncertainty is twofold. First, policymakers in China have left the purpose of its buildup unsaid. The Chinese Communist Party has not defined an official mission for the PLA since 2007, and continues to allude to a strategic opportunity in the region. Second, US allies increasingly doubt US commitments. Although the US has positioned an additional 10% of its naval assets in the Pacific as part of the “rebalance” strategy, US allies believe the response is insufficient. In response to this growing uncertainty, US allies are faced with two strategic alternatives to the status quo. They could switch sides and bandwagon with China. Or, they could internally balance and take more of their security into their own hands. No country has yet pursued the former option, but at least Japan is experimenting with the latter. The US must prevent both outcomes. The first case portends the acceptance of a foreign-dominated Asia Pacific, a strategic risk unknown since 1945. The second case would share the security burden more equitably, but the tradeoff would be disastrous for regional security. First, an imbalanced and uncoordinated military buildup by US allies would further drive regional instability. Second, stronger US allies, able or emboldened to operate independently, could drag the US into an unwanted war. Instead, the US should externally balance to shape the environment in which China’s rise will take place. External balancing will restrain and discourage weaker US allies from internally balancing and acting provocatively, while also providing an alternative to bandwagoning with China. Faced with such a coalition, China would have to continue an increased pace of military expenditures to maintain parity, a difficult resource tradeoff given China’s increasing focus on internal stability and slowing economic growth.
As US policymakers consider strategies to counter China, they should do so with the three potential outcomes of bandwagoning, internal balancing, and external balancing in mind. It is true that pursuing the last option could increase tensions with China. Yet, if the US wants to reassure its allies, maintain its position in the region, and reject Chinese ascendency as a regional fait accompli, then it must externally balance.
Alex is a senior at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
This year, as part of the application process, we asked delegates to submit an op-ed, academic analysis or creative piece on China or US-China relations. The editors at the Duke East Asia Nexus have selected some of the best ones to publish here in hopes of generating intellectual discussion before, during and after the conference. These are very short and not meant to be groundbreaking. Take them as conversation starters!