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By Elbridge Colby

The world is entering a renewed period of major power competition. This is essentially a function of the more-equal power balance in the world state system. During and after the Cold War, the United States, which was by far the world’s largest economy, stood at the head of a network of states that by a tremendous distance outweighed any competitors or potential competitors. This is no longer true.

The United States itself retains a strong position in international power terms. Rising states outside that traditional network, however, have consumed a significant fraction of the power share of traditional U.S. allies, particularly Europe and Japan. Thus, the power advantage of this network has diminished. This itself would no doubt cause commotion in international politics.

The rise of the rest, however, is mostly about the rise of China. As Napoleon said, when China rises, the world will shake. And China’s growing power dwarfs that of any other rising state, with the partial exception of India. Further, China is a cohesive, modernizing state that now has an economy as large as or larger than that of the United States and a large share of global power. It is also increasingly operating at the frontiers of human development, including in technology.

Moreover, China is continuing to grow. It is possible that China’s growth will stall or slow to a trickle, in which case this problem may dissipate in intensity. It is prudent, however, for us to assume that China’s growth will continue at a reasonable pace, not least because we have for a variety of reasons at minimum some interest in continued growth in China.

Of great importance, China is not only a very large state, but also it is located in the world’s most economically important and dynamic region—the Indo-Pacific. China’s rise therefore presents the realistic possibility over time of Beijing establishing something like hegemony over this key region. China has a natural and compelling interest in establishing something like suzerainty there, as this would allow it to set the rules of the road and terms of trade in its own region—the world’s richest—and begin to project power into the broader global environment far more effectively. The United States itself established dominance over its own region in the 19th century before beginning to project power beyond in the 20th.

Preventing such hegemony must be and increasingly is the core goal of U.S. strategy. This is because the United States’ fundamental strategic interest is—and has been for a very long time—in denying another even potentially hostile power the ability to dominate one of the key regions of the world. China’s interest in regional suzerainty may be natural, then, but it is not acceptable. This is because the power that would flow from such hegemony would allow Beijing to set the terms of trade and rules of the international road in ways that would almost certainly be inimical to U.S. prosperity and freedoms. China would naturally seek to organize the world’s most powerful region around its own preferences, not those of the United States. Over time, it would disfavor American prosperity, generate greater Chinese influence and leverage, and ultimately allow China to shape not only international life but also, indirectly and quite possibly directly, American life itself. It was for fear of such an outcome that the United States fought the Second World War in the Pacific and has had consistent interests in an open Asia since the early 19th century.

This dynamic would present a very serious challenge even if China were an ideologically friendly or compatible state, since such a state would still have interests in creating a regional system in its favor and prejudicial to American interests. But China is, of course, not an ideologically friendly state. Rather, mainland China is governed by a Marxist-Leninist party state, and under Xi Jinping, it is moving further in that direction rather than away from it. As this China grows stronger, it appears reasonable to assume that it will not feel more compelled than previously to change its political model, since such meteoric growth as China has undergone in the last forty years will very likely be seen as validating rather than undermining the Communist Party. It seems entirely reasonable to expect that such a China will increasingly seek to make the world safe for itself and its government style rather than adapt itself to others’ preferences.

Because of this challenge from China, great power competition is the defining foreign policy matter of our time, and indeed very much also a matter of domestic policy. Other issues are important or threatening, such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. But they pale in significance compared to the possibility of China imposing its preferences and will upon East Asia first and then the world at large. Only China can truly change the world in a sustained and dramatic way against our will.

The solution to China’s rise is a classic one: balancing. The United States must affiliate with other states also fearful of Chinese regional hegemony to block Beijing’s attainment of any such goal. Because of its importance, forming, sustaining, and ensuring the effectiveness of this coalition must be our paramount foreign policy line of effort. China’s logical strategy, on the other hand, is to divide and conquer— to prevent such a coalition from forming or operating effectively.

The challenge, of course, is that China is an enormous country located within the Indo-Pacific that has enormous power of intimidation and suasion as well as titanic resources to dedicate to its strategy. China’s military buildup shows one side of this advantage, the Belt and Road Initiative another.

The United States, however, has other advantages. Our very remove is an advantage; we are more credible in our claims that we ourselves have limited goals. In addition, despite often being irritating, high- handed, and overbearing, Americans have a fundamentally good track record, in Asia especially. Moreover, we are very, very strong and rich, and our future generally should look good, if we take the steps needed on the domestic front to continue to generate the wealth and power necessary to check China. Growth in recent years is an impressive example of what America is capable of. Finally, we almost certainly have a much better political, cultural, and ideological “story” than China; freedom and independence should sell better than a Sinocentric authoritarian order.

“…for many years, Americans could focus purely on ideals and high aspirations due to the preponderance of our power. This world is now gone.”

To this end, we need to focus on deepening and revivifying our alliance with Japan and greatly expanding and realizing the promise of our partnership with India. These are the two cornerstone states of any coalition designed to check Chinese hegemony. In addition, we must focus more on bucking up and working with the states of Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia is likely to become a more and more important arena of strategic competition between us and the Chinese, since these states are weaker and more susceptible to Chinese intimidation.

At the same time, we must do less everywhere else. The scale and sophistication of the China challenge is so great that we simply must economize. This does not mean ignoring things in other parts of the world. Rather, it means husbanding our military resources and efforts, political capital, and wealth to focus on the primary objective: forming and sustaining an effective coalition to check China’s bid for regional hegemony. This means a diminishment in our military activity in the Middle East and Africa, elevating the China issue to the top of the agenda in discussions around the world, and adapting our trade and economic policies to the realities of strategic competition with the People’s Republic.

Success in this endeavor will bring a stable and advantageous balance of power in the Indo-Pacific in which China will effectively be compelled to behave responsibly. Unlike our past policy, which relied on the better angels of China’s nature, this will look to their interests. On this firmer basis, China will have every incentive to recognize and respect the interests of the United States and other members of this coalition.

Russia presents a special case in the context of great power competition. It is true that Russia has, by global standards, a far smaller economy (indeed smaller than Italy’s) and very modest international appeal as a model of ideology or political-social-economic success. Nonetheless, for a variety of historical and strategic reasons, Russia currently appears to be dead set on pursuing a kind of “spoiler” role in the international system, one with negative potential well beyond its economic ranking. More particularly, Russia has translated its more modest economic basis into a formidable military capability, especially in light of the effective disarmament of the European nations in the wake of the Cold War, and appears more risk tolerant than we are, and certainly more than our European allies.

This is important in particular because the same interest that motivates the United States to focus on the Indo-Pacific and check Chinese aspirations for regional suzerainty also, of course, applies to Europe. The United States continues to have an abiding interest in denying another state hegemony over Europe.

Of course, Russia cannot pretend to such suzerainty. NATO, even without the United States, is an order of magnitude more powerful. But Russia could create disorder and chaos within the European system in a way that would matter to the United States. Not every Russian intervention in European politics or life matters to the United States or Europe. What would be especially consequential, however, would be Russia undermining NATO. This alliance is the mechanism by which the United States and Europe manage European security; if it did not exist, we would almost certainly want to create something like it.

Russia does pose a serious, meaningful military threat to eastern NATO countries. Because of the interconnectedness entailed by the alliance’s security pledge, this means NATO’s viability is on the line in eastern Europe. The United States should therefore focus on shoring up the efficacy and credibility of the NATO posture in the east. This is entirely within the resources of the alliance, especially if Germany meets even a modest standard for what its contributions should be. While shoring up NATO defenses in the east, the United States should seek to align Europe toward checking growing Chinese power. The United States will need to achieve economies of scale with top-tier allies like Europe (and, naturally, Japan) to compete with China in areas such as 5G and a range of other technologically and economically demanding arenas.

Over time, the United States should seek to persuade Moscow that a highly alienated stance toward the West is both unavailing and increasingly opening Russia to subordination and exploitation by China. U.S. policy should be designed over time to realistically shape Moscow’s incentives so that it eventually decides that at least some collaboration with the United States and its partners is preferable to falling into the Chinese orbit. Such an approach may or may not work, but even modest success is preferable to Russia fully aligning with China.

To close, for many years, Americans could focus purely on ideals and high aspirations due to the preponderance of our power. This world is now gone. Things that were taken for granted twenty years ago no longer can be. Instead, we must adopt an approach of principled realism. We must actively strive to shape the world in order to ensure the continued flourishing of American life. Before anything else, this will mean tending to our own power and aligning with those who share our interest in denying China hegemony over Asia. Fundamentally, we will have to think and act in power politics terms in order not to have to live in a power politics world.

"The Future of Conservative Internationalism," which is a collection of essays from the Reagan Institute Strategy Group, convened in Beaver Creek, Colorado, in July 2019.