Home   China, United States and the Changing Balance of Power in the Asia Pacific

China, United States and the Changing Balance of Power in the Asia Pacific

Amrita Jash 

US Pacific Fleet During Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) 2010
Source: WikimediaCommons

Since the end of World War II, the power structure in Asia-Pacific has been primarily dominated by the United States. The balance of power in the region has been shaped by the pivotal role played by the American order based on the policy objectives of security, prosperity and freedom, wherein the United States maintained its hegemony by establishing a “hub and spokes” alliance security network, exercising a dominant military presence and playing a major role in the region’s  development. In this sense, despite being an offshore balancer, United States has been a pacifier in the region by acting as a security guarantor, dispute arbiter, and deterrent force and so on. Hence, to maintain its strategic primacy in the Asia-Pacific, United States has constantly rebalanced and adjusted its involvement in the region- thereby, maintaining its status-quo.

With the turn of the twenty-first century, it has become an accepted fact that the centre of gravity of global balance of power has shifted from Europe to the Asia-Pacific, mainly caused by the rise of China. With this significant systemic change in the international order, the longstanding American influence in the Asia-Pacific has been faced with a severe challenge. China replaced Japan to become the world’s second largest economy and quickly followed that with becoming the second largest military spender. China’s growing clout, visible in terms of the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank (AIIB), and “One Belt, One Road” initiative  which challenge the United States long-standing supremacy, has resulted in a new kind of balance of power. Apart from its growing economic convergence with the region, China’s military assertiveness vis-a-vis the territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea has also critically changed the security network of the region. That is, China’s rise caused by rapid economic growth got translated into greater military spending and most importantly, into military modernisation which is primarily characterised by increasing power projection capabilities and an aspiration of a ‘blue water navy’. Therefore, uncertainty over China’s intentions coupled with rapid offensive posture is changing the security environment of the Asia-Pacific causing new security dilemma.

What is noteworthy is that unlike the United States, China’s ambition lies in gaining regional supremacy rather than global supremacy, where it aims to enhance its economic and military power to achieve regional hegemony in Asia-Pacific. With its activities, China is reshaping the strategic environment in the Asia-Pacific and thus compelling states in the region to re-calibrate their ties with China. This has put constraints on the US-Japan alliance, the key lynchpin of the Asia-Pacific security network since World War II, thereby, changing the balance-of-power in the region.

In this context, the shift in the Asia-Pacific balance-of-power is caused by the tension between China as the rising power and United States as the established reigning power. Although at the global level the international system remains largely unipolar, in the Asia-Pacific, the balance of power seems to have created a multipolar order. For the United States, which remains a predominant power in the region, its primacy is increasingly being challenged by China. In this way, China’s assertiveness –economic, diplomatic and military– and its re-emergence as a regional superpower along with the relative decline of United States are shaping the conditions of a new balance of power in the region. Given this, it is clear that China’s growing influence in the region signals a departure from a US-centric security structure and aims at creating a Sino-centric power structure. In response to the rise of China, the United States too has diverted its attention to the Asia-Pacific by responding with its ‘pivot to Asia policy’ for a strategic rebalancing of its interests in the region.  China is not on the verge of becoming a global power yet because of its relative weakness in comparison with the United States in terms of global economic and military prowess. However, the rising clout of China in the Asia-Pacific undoubtedly clarifies China’s strength as a dominant regional power.

There is a power shift in the making as the power gap between China and the United States is gradually decreasing With these changes, the region has become susceptible to instability which is mainly characterised by Sino-US competition and conflict. Simultaneously, there is also a weakening of the United States’ strategic supremacy in the region. The region is witnessing a shift from an old partially hegemonic order to that of an emerging multipolar order. This movement towards a new regional order in the Asia-Pacific is causing new security alignments and re-alignments among countries in the region. The United States’ role in the Asia-Pacific will be determined by its response to China’s rise. Thus, in this context, China’s uncertain behaviour in the region makes it a critical factor in shaping of a new balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region. It can be said with some amount of certainty that the region is moving towards a post-US hegemonic order. However, the existent probability that the new order may become a Sino-centric one may prompt strategic competition in the Asia-Pacific region.

The author is Editor-in Chief at IndraStra Global, and Doctoral Candidate at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views expressed are personal.