Many observers believe China is building up its military, especially its navy, to break through the first and second island chains and push the United States out of the Asia-Pacific. China’s military expansion in the region is thus seen as a major threat against U.S. interests and security.
But there’s a big problem with the language involved. Phrases like “pushing the United States out of the Asia-Pacific,” “China’s military expansion in Asia,” or “breaking the two island chains” create the image of a physical process, of the Chinese military pressuring U.S. troops and bases in the Asia-Pacific until they can no longer resist and are forced to leave. In reality, both the goal and the process are different—and unless U.S. strategists rectify the way they think about this, they could come to dangerous conclusions.
This isn’t about a physical outcome, but a political one. It doesn’t refer just to U.S. bases in Japan or South Korea. The United States has no permanent bases in the Philippines, but, because of the two countries’ mutual defense treaty, U.S. troops would defend the Philippines in case of attack. China’s goal isn’t just to remove U.S. personnel or equipment from the region, or even to prevent rotational deployments or joint exercises in the Asia-Pacific; it’s to limit or eliminate Washington’s influence over countries in the region, including, ideally, through the termination of their defense treaties and the Taiwan Relations Act, which commits the United States to support Taiwan’s defense.
This doesn’t mean that China is looking to completely extricate the United States from Asian and Pacific countries: It’s OK if they continue trading, or if U.S. companies invest there. But China’s goal is to constrain Washington’s influence to the point that it would no longer try, or would be unable, to convince regional governments to take measures against China such as banning Huawei fifth-generation technology.
It will help Beijing little if U.S. troops leave Japan and South Korea, but their mutual defense treaties remain in force. As long as Washington remains their chief partner, the U.S. government would still be able to convince Tokyo and Seoul to take anti-China measures, such as restricting Chinese tech companies it considers national-security threats—even if the assurance of U.S. troops as a tripwire against aggression were removed.
Yet in both Beijing and Washington, there’s a belief that, if China establishes regional military superiority over the United States, it will be able to push the United States out of the Asia-Pacific region. But transforming that military superiority into political influence is far trickier than it seems.
This article has been published by Andrei Lungu, President of RISAP, in Foreign Policy. You can read the full article on Foreign Policy’s website.