The US-China competition for influence in the Indo-Pacific region was on full display as officials from both countries – including President Joe Biden and Secretary General Xi Jinping –attend the G20 in Southeast Asia. Having secured a third term, Xi’s desire to achieve “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” will grow. The White House seems to believe China seeks to overthrow the international order and that it would begin with controlling the Indo-Pacific. This is wrong. US policy should recognize that China is naturally constrained from Asian dominance.
Simply put, the Asian continent is too big to be controlled by one country – including China. China’s geographical location prevents effective power projection. It is hemmed on all sides. With mountains and deserts to the west, deserts and tundra to the north, and the ocean to the east, Beijing is unable to capitalize on the Washington style. Hard Force Handbook influence.
What’s more, “water holding power“would prove to be a major obstacle to any Chinese invasion of Asian island states – including US territories, US allies, Japan and the Philippines, and Taiwan. Landing operations are extremely difficult. China has no recent experience of sending massive numbers of troops across large areas of water. The more advanced People’s Liberation Army has no guarantee of success in an amphibious assault.
Not only is geography difficult, but long distances would also require a long time power cords. They would be fragile and could easily collapse on their own or be disturbed. Without a steady flow of supplies, China’s military influence would be at risk.
Excluding geographical factors and the collective hard power of other countries in the region, it would still discourage China from trying to dominate Asia and the Indo-Pacific region. collectively, non-Chinese economies in Asia and Oceania is $20 trillion GDP to $17.7 trillion in China. This is a significant disadvantage for China. Add in the economies of the US, UK, and France – all having territories in the region – and China is there surpassed by over $30 trillion.
Thanks to their economic weight, Asian countries can also spend more on their defense capabilities so that any attempted Chinese invasion turns into a costly quagmire. Already, regional countries surpass China. In 2021, China’s defense budget was just over $293 billion. The rest of the region spent more than $325 billion on defense. They can afford to increase military spending relative to China. Regional states will collectively have a higher ceiling on defense spending, increasing the likelihood that Beijing will always spend less on its military. Add to that the United States, and China’s defense spending is unlikely to reach or exceed continental parity.
Moreover, India, Japan and Russia – countries with a history and goals of great powers – will be willing to fight for their sovereignty. Historically India was as rich as – even richer than—China i just as powerful. Japan was one of the few Chinese tributary states surpass the Chinese power and lead Asia. Russia clings to its imperial past— even if it seems more distant than ever — and to great power status in Central Asia and former Outer Manchuria. Everyone has their own ambitions – for India to have secure its growthfor Japan they remain the western bulwark in the regionand for Russia to prove it state of great power— which would be diminished by Chinese domination. If Beijing wants to intimidate these powers, it cannot expect to do so without significant cost.
It is unlikely that China will break the historic trend and completely dominate its continent. Apart from the United States, no country has ever dominated an entire continent. While America is the most powerful nation in the Western Hemisphere, it cannot completely prevent regional countries from acting in their interests. For example, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina did not join Washington in imposing sanctions on Russia in response to the war in Ukraine. Chinese investment and trade flows to the region despite US leadership. While Washington may crave more power to shape political and economic outcomes in its backyard, the situation in the Western Hemisphere should allay fears of China’s rising power in the Indo-Pacific region and hypothetical control of Asia.
Geography, hard power, and historical-cultural factors prevent China from dominating Asia. If Beijing really wants to subdue the continent, it is unlikely to succeed, and any attempt to do so will incur huge military, economic and political costs. Washington’s policy towards China and the Indo-Pacific region should take into account the limitations of China’s ability to govern Asia and reflect a restrained and prudent strategy. This would be an efficient and effective way to pursue U.S. national interests.
Quinn Marschik is an associate at Defense Priorities and served in the Trump administration as a political adviser to the Assistant Under Secretary for International Affairs at the U.S. Department of Labor.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author.
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