The Decline of US Hegemony in Asia
In the recent past, the US Nimitz Carrier Strike Group and Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group carried out high-end dual-carrier exercises in the South China Sea. This comes close on the heels of the US carriers conducting cooperative exercises with the Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean. Many see this as a shift in the theatre of geopolitical confrontation towards the Indo-Pacific region. Accelerated by the current Covid pandemic, China’s aggressive posturing, and the US’s foreign policy under Donald Trump, the US hub and spoke model of bilateral relationships in the Indo-Pacific seems to have been compromised. Although Xi Jinping in an interview stated that the Pacific Ocean is large enough for both China and the US to co-exist, 2020 seems proof that his pragmatism may have just been sugarcoating intended to stall any immediate confrontation.
What does the damage to the US hub and spoke model mean? It could mean that the days of the US being the world’s policeman are ending, and that could see the rise of a dominant China. If there is to be a move away from the bipolar world that China seems determined to create, there needs to be a middle power, built on the structures created by the US in the past 70 years.
It is important to understand how the US came to establish its hegemony in East Asia from the 1920s. Interestingly, unlike the other big powers then, the US built its power centers for economic profit with very little direct colonization; the basis of this was its hub and spoke model of bilateral treaties.
The Hub & Spoke Model
Probably the best definition of the hub and spoke model comes from Victor D. Cha in Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia. He defines this model as “a set of tightly held and exclusive one-to-one bilateral partnerships with countries in the region. Like a bicycle wheel, each of these allies and partners constituted "spokes" connected with the central hub (the United States), but with few connections between the spokes.”
This model has its roots in the post-war period, when the US began to think more strategically of its role in the world. The advent of the Cold War and the US promotion of the Truman Doctrine saw a sudden increase in US interest in Japan. Japan was seen as crucial in the US fight against communism in East Asia. At one end of the policy spectrum on Japan was the neutralization approach, which amounted to a protracted occupation and complete demilitarization and political neutralization of Japan. At the other end was a rearmament approach, which called for the early signing of a peace treaty and encouragement of rebuilding Japanese security capabilities such that it could balance against the emerging communist threat. This actually did not work in favor of US interests which focused on three immediate needs—to prevent Japan from becoming a revisionist power again; to deny it to communist influence; and, not unlike its plans for Korea and Taiwan, to ensure that the United States had absolute control over Japan’s postwar disposition.
(In his memoirs, Douglas MacArthur recounts relaying the initial policy to his staff in late Aug’45: “First, destroy the military power. Punish war criminals. Build the structure of representative government. Modernize the constitution. Hold free elections. Enfranchise women. Release political prisoners. Liberate the farmers. Establish a free labor movement. Encourage a free economy. Abolish police oppression. Develop a free and responsible press. Liberalize education. Decentralize political power. Separate the church from state.”)
Strategic thinkers ultimately determined that the best sort of security institution to achieve these objectives was a bilateral alliance with Japan. “Economic recovery should be made the prime objective of United States policy in Japan for the coming period”, urged George F. Kennan. At the San Francisco Conference in September 1951, the US signed the US-Japan treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. Later, it moved to sign a Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines in August 1951, the US-Republic of Korea Defense Treaty in October 1953, and the US-Republic of China security treaty with China in December 1954. With these treaties, the US was able to construct the hub and spokes system. This system allowed the US to control East Asian foreign policy and economies without having to invest capital, military, etc. at a similar level to the colonialists and imperialists of the previous centuries.
Network power is also sometimes operationalized as bargaining strength. A central "node" (state) with interconnections within a cluster of states and between clusters has bargaining strength granted to it solely by its position. This was where the US sat in Asia, allowing it great leverage in negotiations with and between its Asian partners and allies. Moreover, the states in the network lacked "exit" options or the possibility to "delink." For the period of the Cold War, it was the perpetual threat of communism and in addition to it the economic benefits were plenty to even consider delinking.
End of Cold War & the contemporary world
Neo-realist theorists had opined that the bipolar world of the Cold War era offered the most stability. However, the sudden and unexpected collapse of USSR shook that world. It meant that the biggest threat to communism had gone -- but it also saw the rise of China as a challenger to US dominance.
The US turned its attention to the Middle East, believing that its major threat was gone with the fall of the USSR. However, China began to establish itself as a major economy. With its acceptance into the World Trade Organization, a slew of markets opened up to China and a cycle of increasing demand -> increased manufacturing -> increasing supply -> increasing Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) -> increasing domestic consumer demand led to further increased production as well as supply. This growth was exponential and with the improved infrastructure and skilled human resource.
The Western world believed that the economic opening up of China would lead to its political opening up as well. However, it seems that China learnt from the USSR’s failure and worked to cement the position of the CCP. By the time the world took notice of China, it was already an economic powerhouse. After the 2008 economic crisis, China assumed a dominant role in world politics.
Riding high on the developmental wave, China became more and more confident in itself. The transition in its language for defining its foreign policy can be considered a way to judge China’s confidence and intention at the same time. It transitioned from “hide your strength and bide your time” to “peaceful rise of China” and now under Xi Jinping, the four comprehensives: “comprehensively building a moderately prosperous society, comprehensively deepen reform, comprehensively implement the rule of law and comprehensively strengthen Party discipline”; In his first speech Xi Jinping also talked about ‘China dream: the great renewal of Chinese nation’.
Backed by its economic success, China has been building its own sphere of influence. Wang Dong, Associate Professor at the School of International Studies and Executive Deputy Director of the Institute on China-U.S. People to People Exchange, Peking University, says China is employing a hedging strategy against the US. Writing in the China Quarterly of International Strategic Studies, he defines this as an “insurance strategy that aims at reducing or minimizing risks arising from the uncertainties in the system, increasing freedom of maneuver, diversifying strategic options, and shaping the preferences of adversaries. It is a portfolio or mixed strategy that consists of both cooperative and competitive strategic instruments ranging from engagement and enmeshment, all the way up to balancing.”
While the US was engaged in costly engagements in Afghanistan and West Asia, China had been quietly extending its sphere of influence. The Chinese leadership never fails to market the concept of a “circle of friends” prospering together in a multipolar world. Many members of the United States’ Alliance System (UAS) have joined China's “Circle of friends”.
China has used the US playbook to its advantage. It began by entering multilateral forums to increase Chinese presence. In situations when it is difficult to make favorable arrangements, it starts to reach out bilaterally with the member states, weakening the multilateral forum and making weaker states in the forum dependent on China. This is exactly what happened in Europe, where China is now a force in the CEE (Central and Eastern European countries). China and the CEE have emerged as a powerful forum that bypasses the European Union while still influencing the European Union’s functioning and decisions.
What lies ahead
In the near future, China may create a bipolar world or, at least, its own East Asian order. If the US wants to maintain even a shadow of its earlier hegemony in the region, it will need to support the creation of a middle power structure. This power structure cannot be predominantly led by the US, which has lost much of its influence in the region. But any alliance that comes up to counter China will need to build on what the US has built so far.
Henry Kissinger once said: “The viability of any international order depends on how eﬀectively it maintains the balance between legitimacy and power. Both are subject to evolution and change. However, when this balance is disturbed, the limiting mechanisms fail, which gives room to unbounded ambitions and unrestrained actions by some of the global actors; a reign of chaos begins, which lasts until a new order is established.”
While the US may not drive the creation of a new order, it can definitely be a part of it by encouraging and ensuring that the UN Security Council accommodates G4 countries, and helping to counter China in multilateral forums.
1 Cha, Victor. 2016. Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia. 123-124
2 Ibid 127-128
3 Tan, See Sang. 2004. Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation: National Interests and Regional Order. M.E. Sharpe. 9.
4 Henry Kissinger, World Order: Reﬂections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History (London: Allen Lane, 2014)
(Abhyoday Sisodia is a student of East Asian Studies, Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi).