Can the United States Retain its Hegemony in the Asia-Pacific?

by Jeong Lee, a freelance writer. This article was originally published on the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs on February 24th, 2014.

7th Asia Pacific Security Conference, Singapore (Photo by Jeong Lee).

7th Asia Pacific Security Conference, Singapore (Photo by Jeong Lee).

Last Monday, I spoke on South Korea’s air strategy at the 7th Asia-Pacific Security Conference (APSEC) in Singapore, where the participants discussed the future of Sino-American relations and the strategic implications of air power in Asia.

The majority of the panelists in the question-and-answer session seemed to agree that both China and the United States should cooperate amicably. For instance, General Herbert Carlisle, the Commander of the Pacific Air Forces, stated that he was offended by the term “pivot to Asia,” because the United States has always maintained its presence in the Asia-Pacific as a stabilizing force through military-to-military exchanges with its Asian allies, as well as with China. Indeed, China has agreed to participate in the annual Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) Exercise hosted by the US Pacific Fleet this year. China has also participated in the annual Cobra Gold exercises since 2002 and counter-piracy activities with the United States.

Absent in the discussion, however, were the specifics as to how the United States should recalibrate its strategy in the Asia-Pacific. For instance, since the United States must cooperate with China on myriad economic and regional security issues, how will Washington justify Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement that “the United States would defend Japan against attack including over islands claimed by China?” Or how will Washington resolve the ongoing tension in the Korean peninsula when President Obama’s “strategic patience” towards North Korea has all but failed?

Even though China has yet to supplant the United States as a global super power, perceived U.S. decline in the Asia-Pacific has not gone unnoticed. This perception, real or not, has led some to argue that “the Asia-Pacific region has two policemen — the U.S. and China.” Also, it is worth noting that China has been steadily ratcheting up its military capabilities because its survival hinges upon perception at home that it is capable of challenging American hegemony.

General Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, Commander, US Pacific Air Forces (Photo Credit: Mike Morones of the Army Times)

General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, Commander, US Pacific Air Forces (Photo Credit: Mike Morones of the Army Times)

Should the United States continue to believe that it will retain its “undisputed” hegemony in the region? It all depends on what is meant by undisputed hegemony. If we are talking about undisputed hegemony in the sense of hard military and economic power projection, the short answer is no. At a time when the U.S. Armed Forces are facing drastic cuts due to sequestration, and when the nation still struggles with weak economic recovery, it would be foolish for the United States to think it can somehow maintain the status quo. If, however, by “undisputed hegemony” we mean the United States leading by example through projection of its soft power and through the exercise of deft diplomacy, then the United States still has a critical role to play as a peacemaker and champion of liberal democracy.

There are many ways in which the United States can become a stabilizing and peaceful hegemon in the Asia-Pacific. First, it should recognize, as former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen did, that America’s foreign policy must not be “dominated by the military, too dependent upon the generals and admirals.” That is, policymakers must pause to consider the long-term strategic ramifications before they decide to send troops into harm’s way. Second, the United States must adopt neutrality as its primary policy when dealing with disputes among Asian-Pacific countries. The United States will not be able to successfully defuse deep-seated rancor among parties involved when it is quick to take sides, as it has done in has done in territorial disputes between China and the Philippines and between China and Japan. Furthermore, should it abandon impartiality, the United States could find itself mired in a regional conflict of catastrophic magnitude. Third, the United States must abandon the ineffective strategic patience strategy against North Korea and instead be prepared to negotiate with North Korea on equal terms. Last but not least, the United States must continue to promote its soft power in the Asia-Pacific—its traditional strong suit. Indeed, the Pew Research Center’s July 2013 poll found that a median of 63 percent people surveyed around the world expressed a favorable opinion of the United States, compared to 50 percent for China.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton might have been right when she noted back in 2011 that her Asian counterparts “still want America to be an engaged and creative partner.” For this reason, the United States can and should prepare itself for a new role as chief peacemaker in the Asia-Pacific.

About Jeong Lee

Jeong Lee is a freelance writer and an MA candidate in International Security Studies Program at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. His writings on U.S. defense policy issues and inter-Korean affairs have appeared on various online publications.
This entry was posted in China, English, Jeong Lee, Sea Powers, Security Policy.

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