The Problem With Primacy – America’s Dangerous Quest to Dominate the Pacific
Washington can support regional peace or pursue regional primacy, but it cannot do both.
U.S. officials, then, are demanding that Asian states work against their own long-term interests.
Foreign Affairs By Van Jackson, January 16, 2023
n its policies toward Asia, the United States has long sought to reconcile its unsurpassed military, economic, and rule-setting prowess with a desire for stability. Until recently, this was not hard to accomplish. Washington’s international dominance coincided with the post-1979 “Asian peace”—a period of remarkable stability in East Asia and the Pacific—and so the United States had little trouble holding sway over the region without provoking any conflicts. Over time, Washington even came to believe that U.S. supremacy and regional tranquility could not just coexist but were causally related.
As a result, U.S. policymakers made maintaining Asian primacy the foundation of their regional strategy, arguing that without Washington’s leadership, Asia would devolve into warfare.
But as the American author James Baldwin wrote in 1963, “time reveals the foundations on which any kingdom rests, and eats at those foundations, and it destroys doctrines by proving them to be untrue.” Even if U.S. primacy was once a source of regional stability, there is little basis to think it will promote harmony today.
The United States’ global power has diminished over the past generation, making it harder for Washington to direct the world. Other states have a newfound desire and capacity to resist, subvert, lash out against, or seek alternatives to U.S. preferences, including through violence. And the power of these countries is likely to continue to grow. It defies history to expect that dusk will never come for U.S. hegemony, especially as China—the world’s most populous state and Washington’s primary global competitor—draws power from its central place in the international economic system.
Nevertheless, two of the most recent U.S. presidents—Barack Obama and Donald Trump—charged themselves with the task of indefinitely propping up the sun. And President Joe Biden has picked up where both presidents left off. Initially, that meant taking steps to constrain Beijing. Now, it means taking steps to weaken the country.
Obama started the process by launching a high-profile “pivot to Asia” designed to bolster the United States’ regional military presence as a check against China’s rise while interweaving his country’s economy into that of eight states close to China’s borders. Trump, who saw how China’s important economic position afforded it growing global influence, launched a trade war with Beijing. His administration also deepened Washington’s ties to Taiwan. Biden has increased the U.S. military buildup, facilitated a regional military buildup, and attempted to assemble the beginnings of an anti-Chinese containment coalition along with local Asian powers.
These choices run headlong into what the preservation of peace demands. Kneecapping China’s economy, engaging in an endless arms race, aligning with local despotic regimes to encircle Beijing, and alienating smaller countries by demanding that they choose between China and the United States might give Washington more short-term power in Asia. But these are the ingredients of regional fracture and eventual war, not stability. The United States’ Asia policy, then, is at an unacknowledged crossroads. Washington can support regional peace or pursue regional primacy, but it cannot do both.
OUT OF CONTROL
The United States has been working hard to remain on top in Asia for well over a decade. ……………………
The Biden administration remains faithful to this path. In its 2021 strategy, it declared that “leading the world” was in the United States’ “undeniable self-interest.” It went on to say that the country’s interests “compel the deepest connection to the Indo-Pacific” and that the United States’ presence would be “most robust in the Indo-Pacific and Europe.”
The Pentagon has promised that 2023 will be “the most transformative year in US force posture in the region in a generation,” a line likely meant to be reassuring but that comes off as ominous. The Department of Defense is making good on this promise by modernizing its large traditional presence in Northeast Asia while increasing its footprint in the Pacific Islands and Australia—areas that the Chinese military cannot seriously contest.
It is also rolling out a suite of new lethal weapons such as the B-21 nuclear-capable stealth bomber. Unveiled in December with the fanfare of a new iPhone, the B-21 has an eye-watering price tag of $203 billion, which is somehow under the original budget.
…………. The U.S. defense budget went from $700 billion in 2018 to $768 billion in 2020. For 2023, it will eclipse $850 billion. Aid to Ukraine accounts for only a little over $50 billion of that total. The United States is also offering ever more advanced weapons technologies to friends and allies…………………………………………………………….
PRIMACY VERSUS PEACE
For the United States, there are many problems with a strategy based on trying to stop China’s rise. One is that on a basic level, it will not work. There is no reason to believe that spending over a trillion dollars modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal or selling submarines to Australia will cause China to do anything but continue arming itself as quickly as possible……………………….
What maintaining U.S. primacy will instead do is menace the Asian peace. The massive military investments needed to ensure the United States remains the Indo-Pacific’s dominant power require outarming China in areas of its highest capability, close to Chinese shores and far from the U.S. homeland. It is an impossible task.
Consider, for instance, the steps Washington must take to fight a war over Taiwan. China has the natural, massive advantage of being close to the island’s coasts, all of which fall within range of Chinese air defenses. To repel a PLA attack against Taiwan, the United States would need absurd levels of modern weaponry—meaning a blank check for the Pentagon.
………………………………………………….. Beijing, of course, also has a revisionist desire to promote its interests. The Chinese Communist Party is hardly a force for peace. But the reality is that China is now embedded in Asia’s financial and economic system in ways that the United States is not, giving Beijing the kind of political weight in Asia that Washington lacks. In addition to being a major regional financier, China is Asia’s central hub in a manufacturing network that produces finished goods for markets across the world. It is the single largest trading partner for most economies.
It has created numerous institutions that connect the region, most famously the Belt and Road Initiative. Crucially, China belongs to most of the agreements that make up Asia’s economic architecture, such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the Chiang Mai Initiative for intraregional currency swapping, the Asian Bond Markets Initiative, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Plus Three (China, Japan, and South Korea), and the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat. Washington, by contrast, belongs to none of these.
U.S. officials, then, are demanding that Asian states work against their own long-term interests. ………….. As China grows more and more embedded in Asia’s regional architecture, the United States is in a worse material and symbolic position to levy such demands than at any point since the end of the Cold War.
READING THE ROOM
So what should Washington do instead? It could start with a dose of simple pragmatism. Asian governments want stability more than anything, and they know what serves their interests in this respect better than the United States ever could. Centering statecraft on the concerns of Asian societies would require a dramatic shift in how the United States conducts itself in the region, but it would also be the surest way to consolidate—rather than further embrittle—the Asian peace.
If it tuned in, Washington would learn that small states are wary of being forced to take sides in a great-power competition. …………………….. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, for instance, has repeatedly stated it will not choose between China and the United States…………………………………………………………………………. more https://www.foreignaffairs.com/asia/problem-primacy
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