China is not replacing the U.S. — it’s joining an already multipolar global system.
SINGAPORE — For the past year, one of the most fear-inducing topics on defense blogs has been China’s Dongfeng-17 ballistic missile. Capable of carrying nuclear or conventional payloads, it is the first weapon equipped with a hypersonic glide vehicle that enables low-altitude flight rather than descending from the higher apogee that radar systems can more easily detect.
Then there is the Starry Sky-2, a hypersonic aircraft that uses its own shockwaves to accelerate to up to Mach 6 (about 4,600 miles per hour) while maintaining high maneuverability. Chinese strategists hail these technologies — as well as nuclear-armed submarines, space-based lasers and other high-tech weapons — as “levelers” against the U.S. Navy, which has been the dominant military force in the Pacific Rim since World War II. Some experts argue that American bases and other installations are vulnerable against China’s increasingly sophisticated military technology.
This past weekend, defense ministers from both sides of the Pacific gathered in Singapore for the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, with ample posturing across the U.S., China and other nations to claim leadership and relevance for the unfolding century in which Asia represents more than half the world’s population and about a third its gross domestic product. To be clear: Asia has always been the geography that determines whether or not an empire is a global superpower in the first place. Five hundred years ago, tiny European monarchies Portugal and Spain, followed by the Dutch and British, became global powers partly by establishing colonies in Asia and elsewhere and commanding global trade networks. America earned superpower status through its victory in the 1898 Spanish-American War, ousting Spain from its Caribbean and Asian colonies. Simply put: If you’re not an Asian power, you’re merely a regional or local one.
Japan briefly challenged America and Britain’s maritime empires in World War II, after which the U.S. emerged with even greater leverage in the Pacific through alliances with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, Thailand and the Philippines. To this day, America’s prominent naval power and troops stationed in Japan and South Korea give the impression that America is Asia’s preeminent power. But America is not an Asian power at all. It is a Pacific power with interests in Asia — all of which are negotiable.
China’s military increasingly has the capacity to deny the U.S. sustained access to the bases, ports and allies that constitute what remains of America’s once omnipotent posture across the Pacific. At a time when America’s aging carriers, lack of combat training and numerous non-combat incidents have worn down both morale and credibility, merely the uncertainty surrounding the 7th Fleet’s capability is enough to give China the psychological and strategic edge in any direct confrontation over Taiwan or other territory so far from America’s shores.
While the U.S. continues to wave the flag of freedom of the seas by contesting China’s island building in the South China Sea, nobody in the Pentagon wants to see uninhabited atolls trigger large-scale conflict. It was the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu who declared that “to subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” Surely American strategists wish they could achieve his dictum rather than being its victim. They can — but only if they jettison outdated prisms for how Asia’s future is unfolding.
The cardinal myth to discard is the notion that the world is undergoing a power transition from one global hegemon (America) to another (China). This proposition is as dangerous as it is unlikely. Superpower status requires robust economic, diplomatic and military foundations. By those measures, America’s emergence as the main victor in World War II was a historical anomaly. At the end of the war, the U.S. represented nearly 50 percent of the global economy; today its share is around 25 percent. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News that the U.S. has to be prepared “so that we can continue to be the world’s leading power 10, 20, 50 years from now.” But the world he is planning for is already a distant nostalgia.
China also aspires to be the world’s dominant power by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the end of its civil war. Yet China too represents less than 20 percent of global GDP, and its economy is already slowing while its population peaks and debts mount. It has many of the world’s largest banks, industrial firms and technology companies and has made huge strides in industrial automation and artificial intelligence. But America, Europe and other economic powers are demanding reciprocal access to its market and limiting its ability to capture their intellectual property.
The correct way to understand China’s rise, then, is not as replacing the U.S. as the world’s largest economy but rather joining an already multipolar global system in which there are many multi-trillion-dollar economies, including Europe, Japan, India and others. All of them have become wise to China’s ways.
The U.S. has not done itself any favors with the trade war against China, however. During the Cold War, the U.S. transferred military capabilities to European and Asian allies, helping them become more integrated and self-sufficient. While one consequence has been great power stability in both regions, another is that these geopolitical allies have become geoeconomic competitors. Since the trade war escalated last year, European exports have surged around $70 billion, while Japan, South Korea, Australia and Canada have seen their collective exports grow significantly as well.
But precisely because of America’s autarkic geography on the other side of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans from Europe and Asia, it has much more to lose in the long run. The more the U.S. and China negate their trade advantages through reciprocal tariffs, the more Europe and Asia converge through moves like the EU-Japan free trade agreement (with plans for similar arrangements with India and Southeast Asian countries) and China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which many European countries have joined. Europeans fundamentally disagree with the U.S. on how to deal with powers to their east such as Russia, Iran and China. Germany is moving forward with its Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia, Europeans are settling up a parallel payment system to do business with Iran, and their trade with China continues to expand. The U.S. has gone from liberating Eurasia from the Nazis, Soviets and Japanese to being marginalized by the key powers that are building a continental zone of commerce encompassing the vast majority of the world’s population and economy.
Asia has become an existential wedge issue between America and its historical allies. Whereas in the 1990s, Europeans chafed at American military dominance but accepted their subordinate status within NATO, today they are explicitly building out a European defense capacity. In Asia, Japan, South Korea, Australia and India are keen on American offensive and defensive military equipment but are also firm in not wanting to be party to any bilateral conflict between the U.S. and China. China’s proximate geography, economic diplomacy and military build-up have all but neutralized America’s once sacrosanct alliances.
But that doesn’t mean China is taking over. Over the past 4,000 years, only one empire — the nomadic Mongols of the 13th century — truly dominated Asia (though not for very long). China is both a continental and maritime power, but it has struggled to sustain influence far from its eastern core. Its missiles, submarines, lasers, drones and other stealth weapons have given it a commanding presence in its immediate waters, but they have also awoken significant countermeasures such as greater cooperation between Japan, India, Australia, Vietnam and Indonesia — all proud maritime nations increasingly sharing defense equipment and jointly exercising their navies to assert freedom of the seas. This will give weaker states, such as the Philippines, greater confidence to limit Chinese expansionism beyond the islands China has already taken. Last month, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who until recently was seen as kowtowing to China’s island-building spree, threatened to send his troops on “suicide missions” to destroy Chinese vessels if they harassed the Philippines’ naval outpost of Pag-asa.
The U.S. has undoubtedly played a positive role in stimulating cooperation among the so-called “Quad” powers of maritime Asia (India, Australia, Japan and the U.S.). But this success is more the result of America letting Asian powers lead the effort and because it is very much aligned with the Asian powers’ own interests. It is instructive that the very phrase that now governs American strategy for Asia — a “free and open Indo-Pacific” — has long been favored by Japan and India and only recently borrowed by the Pentagon. This suggests that the best course of action for America is to follow an old adage: to help them help themselves. Or more bluntly: to help China’s neighbors push back on their own, constantly reminding Beijing that while America’s dominance in Asia may be ephemeral, its neighbors are permanent and growing in confidence.
This logic should also apply to how America responds to China’s forays across terrestrial Eurasia. Here America is hamstrung by the fact that it is not a contiguous Asian state and lacks historical appreciation for the rhythms of the silk roads that dominated the Asian trade system for millennia before European colonialism. This is why both the Obama and Trump administrations so badly underestimated China’s Belt and Road Initiative, cherry-picking examples of financial mishaps to denounce it as debt-trap diplomacy even though dozens of countries across Asia, Europe and Africa are enthusiastically participating in it. Instead of missing the forest for the trees, the U.S. should be actively engaged in the infrastructure arms race to modernize dozens of fragile post-colonial and post-Soviet societies, elevating them into the next wave of growth markets into which America can sell Apple phones, Ford cars, Cisco routers and Johnson & Johnson Band-Aids.
Washington should also support an industry coalition of technology champions such as Intel and AT&T to compete with Huawei in deploying 5G infrastructure. Telling countries that need infrastructure loans not to borrow from China isn’t nearly as helpful as offering an alternative by ramping up the activities of the International Development Finance Corporation, for example, or fast-tracking legislation like the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act. As with the Indo-Pacific region, this too will give more countries the confidence to undertake counter-maneuvers to prevent excessive Chinese dominance of Central and Southeast Asia.
All of this suggests an alternative narrative for today’s geopolitical moment. For the first time in history, we live in a truly multi-civilizational and multipolar order. There will be no number-one nation. Americans should not delude themselves into thinking that the world faces a choice between benign American hegemony and authoritarian Chinese diktats. Centuries of colonialism and the Cold War have taught most of the world how to shrewdly transact with competing suitors — America, China, Europe, Japan, Russia, India and others — to get the best deal for themselves. A multipolar and self-governing Eurasia is the historical norm and encouraging that future would greatly reduce the costs to America in blood and treasure. Whether in the name of burden-sharing or avoiding imperial overstretch, this should be an agenda American hawks and doves can agree on.
To accord others the importance they deserve is not a sign of resignation but of humility and maturity. Asia is already the center of the world economy, trade and population as well as the locus of large-scale investments in transport and energy infrastructure, construction of megacities and deployment of the latest technologies from 5G to artificial intelligence. Asia used to make for the West. Now the West makes for Asia. The more self-sufficient Asians become in resources, capital, technology and talent, the more America will need Asia for its markets — rather than the reverse.
This does not make America irrelevant. With its bewildering diversity and unresolved conflicts, Asia is not yet a mature system. With so much at stake in Asian stability, the most crucial role for America is to be a diplomatic fixer, intervening where necessary to offer military, financial or other lifelines to the more than three billion Asians who are not Chinese. America can also do more to help solve Asia’s long-standing disputes over islands and borders by encouraging countries to arrive at permanent settlements rather than militarized stalemates.
A century ago, America’s power in the Pacific was welcomed. Shortly after America’s victory in the Spanish-American War, Teddy Roosevelt earned the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize for mediating an end to the Russo-Japanese war with a treaty signed in Maine. The American century began by combating colonialism and negotiating for peace in Asia. America would be wise to pursue the same mandate during the Asian century as well.
Parag Khanna is author of the new book The Future is Asian: Commerce, Conflict & Culture in the 21st Century, from which this essay is adapted.