Many observers believe China is building up its military, especially its navy, to break through the first and second island chains and push the United States out of the Asia-Pacific. China’s military expansion in the region is thus seen as a major threat against U.S. interests and security.
But there’s a big problem with the language involved. Phrases like “pushing the United States out of the Asia-Pacific,” “China’s military expansion in Asia,” or “breaking the two island chains” create the image of a physical process, of the Chinese military pressuring U.S. troops and bases in the Asia-Pacific until they can no longer resist and are forced to leave. In reality, both the goal and the process are different—and unless U.S. strategists rectify the way they think about this, they could come to dangerous conclusions.
This isn’t about a physical outcome, but a political one. It doesn’t refer just to U.S. bases in Japan or South Korea. The United States has no permanent bases in the Philippines, but, because of the two countries’ mutual defense treaty, U.S. troops would defend the Philippines in case of attack. China’s goal isn’t just to remove U.S. personnel or equipment from the region, or even to prevent rotational deployments or joint exercises in the Asia-Pacific; it’s to limit or eliminate Washington’s influence over countries in the region, including, ideally, through the termination of their defense treaties and the Taiwan Relations Act, which commits the United States to support Taiwan’s defense.
This doesn’t mean that China is looking to completely extricate the United States from Asian and Pacific countries: It’s OK if they continue trading, or if U.S. companies invest there. But China’s goal is to constrain Washington’s influence to the point that it would no longer try, or would be unable, to convince regional governments to take measures against China such as banning Huawei fifth-generation technology.
It will help Beijing little if U.S. troops leave Japan and South Korea, but their mutual defense treaties remain in force. As long as Washington remains their chief partner, the U.S. government would still be able to convince Tokyo and Seoul to take anti-China measures, such as restricting Chinese tech companies it considers national-security threats—even if the assurance of U.S. troops as a tripwire against aggression were removed.
Yet in both Beijing and Washington, there’s a belief that, if China establishes regional military superiority over the United States, it will be able to push the United States out of the Asia-Pacific region. But transforming that military superiority into political influence is far trickier than it seems.
Imagine that it’s 2025, and China’s military has become stronger and more active, while the United States failed to keep up in the Asia-Pacific. Think tanks and experts warn that the military balance has shifted in China’s favor and, in case of war, it’s likely that it would prevail. Would U.S. allies, from Seoul to Canberra, decide to ditch the United States and align themselves with the rising hegemon, fulfilling demands such as Chinese sovereignty over the archipelago in the South China Sea known as the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands, or censorship of local anti-China voices? Or would they stick to the United States, building up their military capabilities and strengthening other military alliances?
Both U.S. allies and neutral countries in the Asia-Pacific already fear China’s growing power and its geopolitical demands. This is happening while the military balance is still in Washington’s favor. If China becomes more powerful, it will also become more threatening. With the exception of India, all other regional countries are dwarfed by China. If left alone, they would have to acquiesce to any and all demands coming from Beijing, as they would stand zero chance of prevailing in a bilateral military conflict.
The United States, even if weaker than China, would be their only hope in such an adverse geopolitical environment. A more menacing China would also galvanize the U.S.government and public to confront it. Military expansion can’t achieve China’s goals by itself.
Chinese military power could force the United States out of the region in two scenarios: a China so dwarfing the U.S, presence in the region that its might is unassailable, or a decisive military victory. The first scenario needs the United States to weaken so much that regional military planners would no longer believe that it can impose enough costs on China, thus voiding alliances of any deterrent effect. Combined with Chinese economic sanctions or military skirmishes, Asian and Pacific countries might be forced to cut ties with the United States, if it’s clear that they serve no defense purpose. But the odds of a U.S. government ever allowing so vast a gap to emerge are very low.
The other scenario, a war, would necessitate a crystal-clear military victory over the United States, maybe including the invasion and occupation of an ally. A simple tactical win wouldn’t suffice. If China defeats the Japan-U.S. alliance by sinking a few ships and bombing some bases, leading to a diplomatic agreement that gave Beijing control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, would the Japanese government later surrender its defense treaty with the United States and remain at Beijing’s mercy? This would make no strategic sense. More likely, it would strengthen military ties with the United States and maybe develop a nuclear capability to deter any further Chinese threats. Only a devastating defeat in a full-blown conflict that risks nuclear war could achieve such a goal—something China desires as little as anyone else.
And this leads to the main problem with China’s strategy: Its military-first approach might sound good at first, but doesn’t make much sense once you take a deeper look. Unless the United States willingly abandons its competition with China, Beijing will never create the military gap necessary to scare the entire region into submission. It would simply create enough fear to make an U.S. counterbalancing presence even more popular among regional countries.
A political goal needs a political solution. The military is just a small part of a larger geopolitical strategy, one that China seems to be lacking. There are two ways China can achieve its goal of a U.S.-free Asia-Pacific: convince regional countries to abandon the United States, or create the conditions (or simply let things run their natural course) for the United States to leave the region.
The latter would have been difficult to imagine until November 2016. But U.S. President Donald Trump sees almost no value in the United States’ military presence in the Asia-Pacific. If it were up to him alone, without a national-security establishment and Republican politicians to pressure him, he would prefer to remove U.S. troops and end the mutual defense treaties. For the first time in living memory, Trump put isolationism in the White House. All China had to do was let things run their course, maybe nudging them a bit. Trump wanted “trade wins.” China could have gotten in Trump’s good graces by delivering “a huge win,” ensuring that he would bear no ill will toward Beijing and ignore his hard-line advisers, and then waited for Trump to implement his isolationist vision. Unfortunately for them, Chinese leaders miscalculated and left themselves in a trade war that has morphed into a general confrontation with the United States.
The U.S. Democratic primary brings another opportunity: If elected, the transformative economic visions put forward by Sen. Bernie Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren would leave little financial room for a decade-long military and geopolitical global struggle against China—as long as China stayed quiet. If, on the other hand, China’s already negative image continues to deteriorate, both because of internal and external actions, even these Democrats will be forced to continue the ongoing confrontation, once elected. China has the unprecedented opportunity of a presidential election that might pit two politicians wary of a global U.S. military presence. China’s goal should be to nurture U.S. isolationism, and this cannot be done through a strategy of military expansion. It can only be done by making sure China is seen by the U.S. public as friendly and benign.
China also has the other option: convince Asia-Pacific countries to show Washington the door. As we saw earlier, it’s almost impossible for Beijing to achieve this goal through military means, while also avoiding a war against the United States. Yet the goal is reachable. In February, more than half of Okinawa’s voters turned out for a referendum on the relocation of the U.S. Futenma military base, with 72 percent of them opposing the relocation. Of course, Okinawa’s politics around bases are inextricably caught up in its conflicting relationship with mainland Japan. But U.S. basing has caused plenty of problems elsewhere, from the Philippines to South Korea.
Countries usually host foreign bases motivated by a fear of a greater threat to their sovereignty. In the absence of a threat, the irritations caused by foreign troops build up. But almost everything China has done over the past decade has been to intensify that threat, either directly, through its military buildup, or indirectly, through its support for North Korea. China won’t convince Okinawans to push out the U.S. military through increasingly frequent naval and air patrols around the islands they inhabit.
When Trump first began pressuring Japan and South Korea for trade deals, while imposing tariffs on them, and now strong-arming them to pay billions of dollars more for the United States’ military presence on their territory, China should have increased economic ties and promoted itself as a stable, trustworthy partner. Yet China’s military-first mindset led to unofficial economic sanctions against South Korea for Seoul’s decision to host the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system. That led to some South Korean concessions—but also increased public animosity against China. And how did it work in pushing THAAD out of South Korea? Well, what do you know, it’s still there!
The greatest threats to U.S. presence and influence in the Asia-Pacific are anti-Americanism, isolationism, or problems at home, not China’s military expansion. There is no need to perfectly match China’s military buildup. As long as the United States remains committed to defending its allies, they will remain on its side, even if the military balance shifts in China’s favor. It won’t matter if the United States isn’t able to defeat the Chinese military in all circumstances, as long as it maintains the military capability to inflict enough damage on China to deter attacks on its allies. China’s military buildup is as much an opportunity as it is a threat.
Every yuan wasted on military equipment that will only scare regional countries into the United States’ arms is a yuan that China can’t invest in badly needed social services, weakening it on the long term. Washington is too obsessed with the military balance and should instead focus on economic relations with regional countries, common values, and people-to-people ties, to make sure it has the public on its side. As long as most people in the region prefer the United States over China, the United States will retain its position and influence in the Asia-Pacific, regardless of China’s military edge.
On the other side of the Pacific, China must understand that its military-first mindset is undermining its geopolitical goals. China needs to convince regional countries to like it and trust it, instead of fearing it. Only a benign China will drive U.S. troops out of the Asia-Pacific, while its current military expansion is guaranteed to keep them around or risk all-out war. Thus, China must focus on economics and trade with regional countries, instead of pushing them around, intensifying territorial disputes, and stirring up nationalism.
Instead of “pushing out” U.S. troops, China should ask itself how to convince Washington to pull its troops back home. This means refusing to engage in a long-term struggle with the United States and taking necessary steps to improve its image among Americans. The United States will only become stronger if it sees itself as fighting against a global threat to its security and values. The more China tries to push the United States out of the Asia-Pacific, the more resistance it will encounter.