The United States and its Asian partners want to maintain a balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, ostensibly to prevent China from becoming a regional hegemon there. They worry that Beijing will gradually persuade its neighbors to distance themselves from the United States, accept Chinese primacy, and defer to Beijing’s wishes on key foreign-policy issues. In 2018, for example, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned that China is “harboring long-term designs to rewrite the existing global order. … The Ming Dynasty appears to be their model, albeit in a more muscular manner, demanding other nations become tribute states, kowtowing to Beijing.” Former U.S. officials such as Rush Doshi and Elbridge Colby and prominent realists writing on U.S. grand strategy—myself included—have made similar arguments, and China’s stated desire to be a “leading global power” and its efforts to alter the status quo in the South China Sea and elsewhere appear to justify these concerns.
The implications of this view are troubling. If China is actively seeking to become a regional hegemon in Asia and the United States is dead set on preventing it, a direct clash between the world’s two most powerful countries will be difficult to avoid.
But are these fears justified? Although China might be better off if it could expel the United States from Asia and become a true regional hegemon, that goal is probably beyond its grasp. A Chinese bid for regional hegemony is likely to fail and do enormous harm to China (and others) in the process. The United States can take a relatively sanguine view of this prospect, therefore, even if it cannot dismiss it completely. Even as they strive to preserve a balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, therefore, the United States and its allies must ensure that their efforts do not convince China’s leaders that they must try for hegemony despite the obvious risks.
Why Regional Hegemony Is Desirable
It is easy to understand why a powerful state might like to be a regional hegemon (i.e., the only great power within its geographic area). If there are no other major powers nearby, a regional hegemon has little reason to fear direct attacks on its home territory. A great power that dominates its surroundings in this way will also be less vulnerable to blockades or other forms of pressure, and it can expect deference from the weaker states in its sphere of influence even if it does not rule them directly. The absence of local dangers also makes it easier for a regional hegemon to project power into other areas of the world if doing so seems necessary or desirable.
The history of the United States illustrates these benefits nicely. The United States is separated from the other great powers by two enormous oceans and insulated from many of their quarrels. This “free security” gave U.S. leaders enormous latitude: They could remain neutral when conflicts erupted elsewhere or fight “wars of choice” far from home if that seemed advisable. When these distant interventions failed—as they did in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan—the United States could eventually withdraw without putting its security at serious risk.
China’s leaders undoubtedly think their country would be more secure if it achieved a hegemonic position in the Indo-Pacific. Beijing would have less to fear if the United States were not closely aligned with many of its neighbors and did not have powerful military forces stationed throughout the region. China would be less vulnerable to blockades in the event of war, a significant concern given the constricted maritime geography of East and Southeast Asia and Beijing’s substantial reliance on foreign trade. With fewer local dangers to worry about, it would also be easier for Beijing to project power elsewhere if it so desired.
These same factors also explain why the United States wants to prevent this situation from arising. Since it became a great power at the dawn of the 20th century, the United States has sought to preserve a rough balance of power in Europe and East Asia and prevent any single power from dominating either region. U.S. leaders were concerned that a European or Asian hegemon might eventually amass equal or greater economic and military power than the United States. No longer concerned with local threats, it could choose to intervene in other areas, as the United States has been able to do. A rival of this sort might even ally with states in the Western Hemisphere and force Washington to focus its attention closer to home. The enduring desire to prevent a regional hegemon in Europe or Asia is why the United States eventually entered the two world wars and why it kept substantial military forces in both regions during the long Cold War.
If regional hegemony were readily achievable, therefore, it might make good strategic sense for China’s leaders to want it and for U.S. leaders to go all out to prevent it. But what if this seemingly attractive goal is, in fact, a mirage: difficult and maybe impossible to achieve? If so, Beijing would be foolish to pursue this objective, and Washington can take a more measured approach to discouraging it.
Why Regional Hegemony Is (Nearly) Impossible to Achieve
Regional hegemony may be desirable in theory, but history suggests that it is an elusive goal. As Jonathan Kirshner points out, several different great powers have launched bids for regional dominance in the modern era and all but one of these attempts ended in disaster. France failed under Louis XIV and Napoleon Bonaparte, Germany was beaten decisively in both world wars, and Japan’s attempt to establish a hegemonic order in Asia ended in total defeat as well. Only the United States managed to pull off becoming the sole great power in its region. In the modern world, in short, the success rate is less than 20 percent.
Furthermore, the failures were not just minor setbacks: They were unmitigated disasters for the countries that made the attempt. Perhaps a million Frenchmen lost their lives in the Napoleonic Wars, and Bonaparte died in exile on a remote island in the South Atlantic. Germany suffered mightily in both world wars and ended up divided into separate states for more than 40 years. Japan was firebombed in World War II, had two cities destroyed by atomic bombs, and its political order was remade by a foreign occupier. Being a regional hegemon might be desirable, but trying to become one almost always makes a state less, rather than more, secure.
Bids for hegemony fail for two main reasons. First, as defensive realists have long emphasized, there is a powerful tendency for major powers to balance against threats. When a powerful state is nearby, when its military forces seem tailored to project power against others, and when it seems to have revisionist ambitions, nearby powers typically band together to deter or defeat them. If a would-be hegemon reveals its aims by starting a war, balancing behavior becomes even more pronounced and effective.
The second barrier to regional hegemony is nationalism. As Napoleon discovered when he invaded Spain, as the Soviet Union and United States both learned in Afghanistan, and as Moscow is now being reminded in Ukraine, local populations will make enormous sacrifices to repel invaders. Even nations that have been temporarily vanquished often remain restive and eager to throw off an aspiring hegemon’s yoke. The dissolution of the European colonial empires during the 20th century further illustrates how the spread of nationalist doctrines has strengthened resistance to foreign dominance.
The United States is the one exception to this recurring tendency: It is the only regional hegemon in the modern era. Other would-be hegemons faced coordinated opposition from formidable and well-organized nation-states, but the United States was an ocean away from the other great powers and able to expand across North America without having to fight another major power or overcome a balancing coalition. The Indigenous population tried to resist, but it was weakened by its susceptibility to European diseases and divided into many loosely organized tribes and nations. Although Indigenous opposition to American expansion persisted until the late 19th century, the native tribes faced insurmountable collective-action problems and a dwindling population and were eventually swamped by an irresistible demographic tide. To put it plainly, the United States got lucky.
Could China Become a Regional Hegemon Today?
The conditions that allowed the United States to dominate the Western Hemisphere and exclude other major powers do not exist in Asia today. China may be stronger than any of its neighbors, but several of them are major industrial powers with considerable potential to check Chinese power, and the world’s other major power—the United States—remains committed to helping defend them. India’s population is now larger and significantly younger than China’s and its economy is growing more rapidly. Many of China’s neighbors are already balancing more energetically: Defense budgets are rising sharply, and Australia, India, and Japan are coordinating with each other and with the United States. The greater their fear of Chinese hegemony, the more vigorous such responses will be.
In addition, India already has a nuclear arsenal and Japan or South Korea could acquire a nuclear deterrent if the need arose. Officials in Tokyo and Seoul have previously made it clear that they see this as a viable option should circumstances require, and possessing their own deterrent would further limit China’s ability to intimidate them. If China does not want more of its neighbors to acquire nuclear weapons, therefore, it should limit its ambitions and make such a step unnecessary.
Nor are Asian powers likely to be swayed by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s suggestion that
Lastly, modern surveillance and communications technology makes it much easier for states to identify threatening powers and coordinate defensive responses. A Chinese bid for hegemony in Asia would be impossible to disguise, and states threatened by this attempt could share concerns, pool resources, and formulate a collective response quickly. As the rapid and vigorous Western response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine illustrates, countries facing a common danger can act with surprising swiftness when necessary.
If Regional Hegemony Is Not an Option, What Then?
If China’s prospects for regional hegemony are limited, then what do the United States and China have to fight about? Each is a vast country populated by hundreds of millions of patriotic citizens. They have large and sophisticated economies that no outside power could successfully strangle, powerful conventional military forces, and second-strike nuclear capabilities. An enormous ocean separates them, and neither side could possibly mount a successful invasion of the other. Coexistence is not merely desirable; it is unavoidable.
Yet China’s leaders could still decide to choose the same risky path that other would-be hegemons have followed. If they believed the regional balance of power heavily tilted in their favor, that nearby states could be bullied into neutrality, that one or two triumphs would render subsequent resistance impossible, and that other states in Asia would eventually regard Chinese primacy as legitimate, then the risks of a hegemonic bid (however ill-advised) would rise. In the worst case, Chinese leaders could convince themselves that conditions temporarily favored a bid for regional hegemony while at the same time fearing that the balance of power could turn against them decisively if the opportunity was not seized. This combination of wishful thinking and paranoia is that textbook condition for preventive war; precisely the logic that convinced German and Japanese leaders to launch unsuccessful bids for hegemony during the first half of the 20th century.
The implications for the United States and its Asian partners are clear. On the one hand, they should work to mitigate the various factors that can impede effective balancing and could lead Beijing to erroneously conclude that a bid for hegemony might succeed. At the same time, however, the United States and its allies need to make it crystal clear that they not trying to threaten China’s independence or territorial integrity, undermine the authority of the Chinese Communist Party, or crash the Chinese economy. Reassurance is needed so that China’s leaders do not conclude that they have no choice but to pursue hegemony even if the odds of success are small.
Consistent messaging will be essential. Although recent speeches by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen were clearly intended to reassure Beijing about the scope and purpose of U.S. export controls and other economic measures, efforts to give NATO a strategic role in Asia and the more confrontational closing statement issued after the G-7 summit meeting earlier this month send a different signal, one that cannot help but heighten tensions
On several occasions over the past three centuries, a great power concluded that its security required it to establish a dominant position over its neighbors. All but one of these attempts failed catastrophically. China would be unwise to make the attempt, but the United States and its allies would be equally unwise if their own actions unwittingly convinced Beijing that a risky bid for hegemony was still its best option.
This piece was published in cooperation with the Asian Peace Programme at the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute.