From Hegemony to the Balance of Power: The Rise of China and American Grand Strategy in East Asia

December 2014
International Journal of Korean Unification Studies 23(2)

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This essay looks at America’s approach to order in East Asia. I argue that the United States has pursued a remarkably consistent grand strategy toward East Asia. It is built around American power, interests, and ideals. In this sense, it is not best seen as simply a geopolitical strategy of hegemony or balance of power. Rather, it is infused with distinctive American ideas about order, identity, and community. It is a synthesis of realist and liberal thinking. It has guided America’s relationship with East Asia during the long-era of U.S. hegemonic leadership, and it continues to inform today’s efforts by Washington to remain tied to East Asia and shape the terms of China’s rise. The United States seeks a regional order that is open and organized around widely-shared rules and principles of politics and economics. Chinese power and leadership will grow within the region. The American goal is not to prevent this growth in Chinese power and leadership, but to make sure it is not used to turn the region into a closed, illiberal Chinese sphere of influence. Overall, there are reasons for both the United States and China to restrain their geopolitical rivalry. They will surely struggle and compete, seeking to be the leading state in the region. But American efforts to contain China and China’s efforts to push the United States out of the region will both be self-defeating strategies. The most optimistic vision of a peaceful rise of China and a managed U.S.-Chinese rivalry in Asia is one in which Beijing comes to see that the American-led liberal international order can help facilitate China’s peaceful rise and not stand as an obstacle to it.